An American Wilds in London, or An Albino in Albion 

The title is still a work in process. 

 

This is a pointless account of our travels to the United Kingdom. 

 

Day One and Two 

 

We opted for heading up to Atlanta on Tuesday evening so we could spend some time with Eric and not have to rush to the airport or risk getting stuck in traffic for an ungodly amount of time. The surprise advantage here was being able to participate in trivia at the Tin Roof and come in at a strong fourth place. This sounds great if we don’t mention that there were only five teams. 

 

Eric was kind enough to offer us a smooth ride to the airport the next afternoon. Things went fairly well with security, but it did make me face exactly how many electronics I was carrying with me just to try and stay connected and have the illusion of feeling productive for the next fortnight, even though everyone was telling me to forget work and relax. 

 

This was the longest and largest flight I had ever taken (almost eight hours there and over eight coming back) and my god was it uncomfortable. The guy in front of me kept leaning back as far as he could, fucking with my entertainment, while someone behind us was snoring so loud I could hear him over the Deadmau5 set and the movies I watched. Aladdin and Stuber both had good parts but were missing something as a whole experience, while Alita: Battle Angel was pretty good, if not a bit awkward. I was cramped and couldn’t sleep. More importantly, I didn’t have enough room to try and rest or write, so I was ready to get off the plane for sure. 

 

Once I hit the airport everything was pretty easy, Heathrow Express to the Tube, but there was a problem with the great British transit system. Okay, maybe two, as trains couldn’t progress past the Baker St. station and there was a fire at King’s Cross, but I’m told this isn’t a common occurrence. We had to walk the last few blocks, rushing to get to a station where we stood for an hour, waiting on a train, since there was nowhere to sit in the station. I saw a sign that said, “we are all Londoners,” and I think today’s travel experience sealed that. 

 

I felt pretty welcomed. 

 

After the last leg of our journey to Lichfield, I was able to meet my father-in-law for the first time, as he picked us up from the train station. I’m going to trip up and call him “sir” eventually, even though he has asked me not to. We were exhausted but hungry, so Aimee convinced me to try some local British cuisine in the form of the Lichfield McDonald’s. She calls it “Maccies” to try and make it sound cooler. It doesn’t. Now to sleep for a day and hope I can find a schedule. 

 

Day Three

 

Here we are at the next day and Aimee and I barely slept for five hours. We were both too excited to wake up for vacation sex I guess. After that though we had no choice but to get up and go to McDonald’s once again (but why…?) for breakfast. She was upset about something having been taken off the menu. 

 

After relaxing a bit I was shown Three Spires shopping center, which is so quaint (the whole town was, maybe the entire trip), and went into quite a few stores. Only one video game shop, CEX, but we saw some neat action figures too.  After that it was time to run into Aimee’s sister-in-law before she went into work and a friend of hers at Cafe Nero for an odd tasting hot chocolate. Frankly, all of the UK chocolate tastes weird, not bad, but weird, except for the Krispy Kreme, which was delicious. 

 

Then it was back to the hotel for what I thought was going to be a quick writing session, but turned into an almost four-hour nap. You’ve never recovered when you first think you have. We had to rush for some family time, which was quite fun, and involved a trip to Tesco, which I’m told, ‘is magical.’ It magically had a lot of chocolate and junk food Aimee bought and yet we still forgot things we needed. After that it was more hanging out and bonding over accents and bad British reality television. Aimee showed me something called Gogglebox that made me laugh. 

 

I can’t tell if I’m tired or not right now, so we are flipping between Babestation and Twitch streams. You know where this led…

 

Day Four

 

I slept like microwaved ass, but that wasn’t going to stop us from getting out there in the afternoon to find some adventure, or, at least walk around and just enjoy being together and not doing much. Things started a bit rough, however, as Aimee tried to go by the “Spud Man” first, or as normal people call it, Fielding’s Potatoes. She was gutted.

 

Then it was a quick walk to the train station and a ride up to Birmingham (I say it correctly) for something I hadn’t seen in a while, a proper mall. I’m told they call them shopping centres, but I promise it was an awesome mall. We walked around for quite a while, looked in on a bunch of stores, even a Waterstones (the new bosses), but Aimee kept trying to get me to take pictures with a bull and we couldn’t find reliable wifi, so it was time to take the train back. 

 

We were pretty hungry by that point and decided to try this whole pub experience. I learned that they don’t have proper waitresses and no one knows what cocktail sauce is (a crime!), which made me sad. I can’t tell if some of the colas here are different or just flat, but I’m thinking this wasn’t the best first pub trip for me. We will have to try it again. 

 

We ended the night with another nice walk and the second round of Tesco. I was hoping to relax but now there is a show that exposes British people to viral YouTube videos. I am learning that my wife used to watch a bunch of shit. I have learned that Catchphrase is much better than Rude Tube. Thankfully, the idea of more movies came up soon after and we watched Child’s Play (2019) and Us. Both good. 

Day Five

 

A new day began with a lovely walk through the local park to look at a statue of the captain who crashed the Titanic. It was nice to take a slow stroll and enjoy the scenery before heading into Morrison’s (think Kroger). We met up with Aimee’s dad in the cafe there and talked for a while. It was a relaxing Sunday for sure. 

 

Her father offered to give me the nickel tour of Lichfield, cruising around the different parts of town and filling me in with some geographical information while telling Aimee what all had changed. My first bit of a casual car tour. 

 

We ended up going to my father-in-law’s place so Aimee could rummage through some of her old things, figuring out what we could take back with us. There were some great books, awesome action figures, and an embarrassing amount of Spice Girls VHS tapes and assorted merchandise. Even knowing it would be there, I was still taken aback. 

 

Aimee showed me around her old neighborhood, a proper British high school and pointing out all of the places she used to sneak off to smoke and cause trouble. It was fun, but hunger had set in, so it was time for Chinese at Ruby and gorging on an impossible amount of food. Overall, another good day, and I feel like it was valuable time with her dad. Now, time to relax with some IT Chapter 2 and more importantly, some Chopping Mall. Trying to convince Aimee that it is, in fact, very good. 

Day Six

 

Today started a bit earlier to make sure Aimee could get her Spud Man jacket potato. I’m sure that is supposed to be trademarked in her mind. We acquired this after meeting her best friend of twenty-plus years at “Maccies.” Walking around after eating, coffee and some idle chatter made for a good time. Why does no one from her past have embarrassing stories about her?

 

Then it was off to revisit her brother for a bit to fit in some more hanging out with the extended family and be exposed to some classic television, like Minder (which apparently means bodyguard). Other than learning about the different tasting chocolate, the fact that there are no refills in this country, and that takeaway places here don’t give you plastic forks with your meal, the rest of the family tried to fill me in on other things I may have missed out on while offering some polite ribbing about me being American. It’s getting weird here. 

 

There was a little confusion as to where we were getting picked up, but thankfully Shelly came to the rescue. We raced over to sister #1(she has a lot of siblings) to have food with her family–proper fish and chips from the chippie, but I had a saveloy instead. Afterwards was some good conversation and something called Only Fools and Horses, which I only got to see a few parts of, but it looks to have promise. 

 

We ended the night strong and it was fun all around. My tiredness kicked in though and after a brief nap, we gambled and watch the movie Priest and episodes of Titus

 

Now, we pack and prepare for a travel day tomorrow. Scotland here we come! 

Days Seven and Eight

 

The place we are staying in with Aimee’s mom is exactly what you would expect of a small Sottish farmhouse. We are sleeping upstairs in the tiny office, right next to the wood room, with a window that pours sunlight in on me as I type this. The sun is a bit of a surprise today considering the rain and clouds that filled the sky when we got in. The light (okay, right after I started typing this the clouds moved in, but I’m going with it) makes the mountains and green hills look quite lush and it is simply beautiful in each direction I look, out here in the middle of nowhere Scotland. 

 

Yesterday began with us checking out of the hotel in Lichfield and taking a long walk with heavy luggage to the train station. I still love trains, and after two, we made it to the Birmingham airport to check in and grab some Whetherspoons. Sure it was in an airport, but I’m counting it as my first proper pub. We had just enough time to enjoy that before boarding the plane, which Aimee was not feeling. This was a smaller craft (50-60 people) with two propellers that didn’t handle the turbulence quite as well. I’m not the biggest fan of flying myself and this was an interesting experience, but watching her gripping tightly to my arm as some sort of comfort post was a bit funny. 

Scotland welcomed us with rain and gloom as we met up with Aimee’s mom and stepdad, who are both quirky and pleasant. We took the long drive to a place near Calendar and made a brief stop at a small Tesco. In the car they warned us about Cow-mageddon. Living on a farm in the hills, there are tons of sheep and cows (though they say ‘coos’ because…), highland cows, which moo quite loudly. The sounds are ramped up currently because this is the time of year where they separate the mothers from the calves, but not far away enough where they can’t call to each other. Thus, their cries can be heard while I’m in the house with headphones on listening to a podcast, but I can still hear them clearly. Thankfully, it wasn’t too bad while trying to sleep last night. 

 

There is also a lovely dog, a Basset hound named Ben Murphy, is quite large and attention starved, who decided to try and sleep between Aimee and I on an already small bed. It was fun. Now, we are starting today a bit more refreshed, though Aimee isn’t feeling too well, we are going to relax and hang out with the family today after I catch up on a small bit of writing. 

 

P.S. We had good chicken sandwiches, watched South Park, and played Switch games at some points throughout the day. 

 

Day Nine

 

Today was a fun mix, spurred by the necessity of getting the car to a shop for an issue. After some travel arrangements and adjustments we headed over to meet the last members of the family, Sister #2 and the Scot, I needed to see in person at their cool business warehouse. We went to an odd store called Lidle, then to ‘theirs’ for some steak pies and chips (fries). That was good, their dog, Porthos, is crazy energetic and it was cool discussing movies and music. 

 

Afterwards was board game night! My friends will know I usually run the opposite direction when I hear these words, but I knew I needed to be super social Stephen. I’m glad we did though, after meeting up with some other local Scottish board gamers we tried something called Secret Hitler. It’s fun, like a more involved version of Werewolf with democracy and… well, Hitler! 

 

“I’m here to socialize with my in-laws and figure out who Hitler is,” quote of the night. 

 

After those festivities it was time for the drive back and some tough realizations about David Tennant and Nicholas Cage. Once home it was drinks, sandwiches, and a good helping of multiplayer Switch games with the family. All in all, a great night that ended with some editing. Europeaners may not be good at Smash Bros

 

Days Ten and Eleven

 

Yesterday was quite chill. A walk around outside to look at the local scape. We are surrounded by mountains on all sides, full green hills, loud animals, and a loch just past the driveway. It’s genuinely beautiful and so different from my usual day-to-day. After that was more hanging out, stuffed shells for dinner, and some co-op Super Mario World

 

Today was much more involved, getting ready and taking a drive into Stirling and a train from there to Glasgow. That train ride was something else. The cars were packed so we stood at the end of a car in the space where it connected to the next with several other people. There was a group of ‘lads’ (early 20s, Scottish frat boys maybe) who each had large amounts of alcohol in their hands they were drinking. The lads were lively and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. The accents were quite thick. 

 

One guy went into the bathroom next to us to smoke a cigarette–naughty–and after he left it flooded and the water spilled out near us. Then someone threw up in the bathroom across from us, all while everyone was going crazy. It was entertaining if nothing else. 

 

London and Glasgow both remind me of New York in a lot of ways, but more pedestrian friendly. Different type of personality–same attitude. We went into several comic and gaming shops while there, just browsing. I found some amazing figures but they were all too expensive. We had authentic Scottish burritos and Krispy Kreme for lunch. It was a small Krispy Kreme store shaped like a box of doughnuts. I was in love!

 

We met Aimee’s sister later and had a lovely ride back to the cottage with some minimal sightseeing. Dinner was proper shepards pie, with lamb and everything. The drinking started shortly after though, to which there was a good bit, and we shared odd music videos on YouTube. This somehow turned into karaoke’ and a slew of lovely performances. Everyone did quite well and I’m sorry for subjecting the family to my tone-deaf singing (Aimee insisted). 

 

Day Twelve 

 

Today was another relaxing one, which was good. I could tell I had been drinking last night and Aimee has spread her plague to the entire house, which she wouldn’t stop apologizing for. I wrote for a short bit and then we went into town to shop a bit at Tesco and pick up some proper “fash and chaps” (as the Scots enunciate and write it out). Pretty magical, to be honest. Combo that with some hot chocolate and I was content for sure. After food we decided to watch El Camino, which was unnecessary but good, and enjoy watching others play Super Mario Odyssey and World of Warcraft

 

Day Thirteen

 

Not feeling too bad but I can definitely tell either the illness or lack of sleep is taking its toll. We have a plan to go get some great pub food, however, one that is in a hotel–The Waverly. I had an amazing hamburger with bacon and spicy mustard on it while Aimee had some excellent tomato soup and lasagna. Wait, why do Europeaners put carrots in their lasagna, what is this? The dessert was also called pudding, but apparently here, every dessert is pudding. No, really. It was sponge cake with custard, but they called it sticky toffee pudding. There are also dishes called pudding that aren’t desserts and I am so confused now. 

 

Pudding is J-E-LLO, guys. Did I also mention that the UK cans their hotdogs? Sacrilege. 

After that it was time for more video games and hanging out, some laundry to prepare for the next leg of our voyage, and then some late night food. This was when I tried haggis, black/blood pudding (not a dessert, liars), and these square things called lorne. Honestly, the haggis may have been the best part. Call me surprised. I guess anything cooked inside a stomach gets a bad reputation.  

 

Now we are watching a review of Hellraiser III after packing and chilling. Time for bed soon. Tomorrow it is back to London for a day.

 

Day Fourteen

 

It’s the last leg of our journey. First it was a brisk drive to the Glasgow airport. The short flight this time was much smoother and I had a delicious ham and cheese sandwich with brown sauce. Once we got to London, though, it was a long trek through the terminals and waiting on trains again. It wasn’t as bad this time, but after the long walk to the hotel we decided not to journey out too far to find that cheeky Nandos. Instead we ate in the hotel restaurant. It was an excellent (and a bit pricey) meal that still felt quite British and proper to end our trip on. 

 

After that it was back to the room for some editing, Jaws, and way too deep discussions about The Fifth Element.  

Day Fifteen

 

What a final day of travel. We started before noon and arrived home quite close to midnight (baring in mind some timezone shenanigans). We were late taking off, had to wait after landing (though we did have a lovely talk with the stewardess and I learned what ‘broody’ meant–babies) and it took forever to get our bags. After that though it was a long wait to get out of the parking deck (still not sure why) and the long drive home, with a stop at Krystal’s for good measure. On the plane I watched Hellboy (2019), Detective Pikachu, surprisingly the best thing out of this set, and Men In Black International. Now I’m just trying to get my ear to pop and looking forward to sleep. 

 

As I sit and ponder the last two weeks, I am so glad we took this journey. Meeting family was good and fun, I just hate we can’t do it more. I enjoyed going to another country and seeing something so different, but no flight should last that long without a full bed to chill on. Pack lighter next time. I heard the word Brexit so much over the two weeks and people there seem to be more aware of the politics, but that could be just because it is so ‘in your face.’ The weather was colder than I wanted but not too bad most days. Accents are cool and I’m going to be yelling FASH AND CHAPS for a month. 

 

End of an adventure, beginning of some great memories. 

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Small details make a huge difference in Borderlands 3

The effort being put into accessibility options for AAA games in 2019 has been inspiring.

Many bigger companies seem to have realized they will sell more units of these big blockbuster titles if they are more accommodating to everyone who wants to play. Where once there was a desert for disabled players who wanted even the smallest bits of assistance, now there is a flourishing oasis of games that go out of their way to help.

And that includes the recent mega-hit Borderlands 3.

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Mind of Mario

A large serene edifice can be seen from far and wide across the kingdom. Its gray slabs, brown windows, and red-shingled roof are surrounded by a majestic moat and sprinkling of lush trees. It is her visage immortalized in stained glass that is representational to the passing subjects of their Princess’ power. The wooden double doors that act as the main entrance seem almost humble considering the rest of the structure. The interior of the main hall is like nothing to be found anywhere else, with multiple lavish stairways and walls covered in a mural of a past, more idyllic, outside setting full of green bushes, blue skies, and clouds with little dots for eyes.

This is where the adventure begins.

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Gears 5 blew me away with features most people never think about

Pop! Another head explodes after being hit by a round from my pistol, and I feel like this gun and I have never been so close. And to think, I was going to skip Gears 5.

But that would have been a mistake. Gears 5 doesn’t just include one of the best campaigns or multiplayer packages of 2019, but it throws accessibility options at the player, making it possible for just about anyone to play, and play well. Just like the strength of the PC portGears 5 offers a master class in how to welcome as big a community as possible into your game.

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My Partner’s Twitch Stream Transformed Our Sex Life

In 2015, I took a simple assignment: play a PC game called Rocket League and whip up some words about it for a freelance writing job. I wound up aggressively flirting with a cool British girl over my headset as we raced around the pitch blowing each other up. That meeting quickly turned into a long-distance relationship.

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Final Fantasy VIII Remaster: Touched Upon, but Not Finished

 

Within the circles I travel there are a lot of opinions on Final Fantasy games, and Final Fantasy VIII is treated as a whipping post by many. For me, like many others, my first taste of the series came from Final Fantasy III (3/6) on the Super Nintendo, a game that changed the way I thought about RPGs. With that in mind, I was incredibly excited for Final Fantasy VII with its dark futuristic look and mesmerizing commercials. I was, unfortunately, not hooked by the game itself and wondered if my previous FF experience had simply been a fluke. However, when FF8 came out I was looking for something different to play and wanted to give the series another chance. I picked the new title up knowing much less about it than I had FF7, and much like Square’s gamble, mine paid off as well.

After the kind of success FF7 had, the next title was going to have to stand out in some way. Not only did the new adventure approach with different systems but it looked to alter its focus. The story throws in a ton of wild elements and everything collides for what was a perfect storm for me as a teenager. I jokingly say that FF8 is the best in the series and will lightly moan upon that hill (not quite ready to die there yet), but I do think it is one of the most unique entries and ties with FF3 as my favorite. In a series of exceptionally well-made games, it’s harder to narrow down an exact answer when asked: which is best, leaving it to a matter of opinion. What I do know though is that there are very few games with the FF name that I wouldn’t support being ported to a new console generation and given the remaster treatment.

With that said, I’ve been enjoying revisiting FF8 in its remastered form. It’s like seeing an old friend again and being reminded of all of their qualities, for better or worse. As with real-world friends, they’ve put on a bit of weight or cut off their long hair, meaning it is them but something has changed. For the FF8 remaster it comes in the package of some nice new textures and models, but almost no work put into backgrounds or characters in the distance. It’s like the game got a good nose job but some less than desirable Botox. It’s presentable—still possessing some astonishing cutscenes that blew everyone away at the time and some of the best summoning sequences—but the age is certainly showing. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking not much had been done other than making it fit modern setups and adding some new cheats that have become standard for these remasters.

I’m still looking forward to the FF7 remake, but now I’m even more torn. On the one hand, I’m excited that my favorite entry is on current consoles. It was given a touchup and I can play it in such a form that is still so close to the original, but then disappointment creeps in. That’s when the other hand shows, the dominant limb that slaps with an awkward truth. It represents the idea that I wish now more than ever that FF8 could be getting the full remake treatment instead of its predecessor, which I don’t have the same attachment to. We almost need FF7 first though to repeat history (hopefully). FF7 will come out and wow people again and they will want more, setting up for a sequel that will need to be different and do more to keep the audience hooked.

There is a ton in FF8 to play with if a full remake were to happen. People have their problems with the story and I know those complaints are valid in some ways, but a little tweaking and we could have a new creation with a great plot as well as shiny new graphics and a non-turn based combat system. I like the old turn based style, but everyone else (for the most part) seems to have left that in the dust. FF8’s narrative excels with its themes. It stars teenage soldiers who don’t have their memories, only to find out they had been manipulated and experimented upon into human weapons with mystical Guardian Forces bound to them and the power comes with a price. The game is dark, even if it starts off clean and futuristic military-style, like a grittier Star Trek, and then throws in a ton of politics, war, and collapsing time. FF8 mixes its themes and makes everything play together well (mostly), ramping up the intrigue while still feeling complex enough to fit in with some of the other titles.

We also got a strong focus on the relationship in FF8. Even though there is a love story in almost every entry, FF8 smacks the viewers with it upfront, splashed behind the title. I like the romance between Squall and Rinoa a ton, but Quistis is the true dreamy one—so hot for teacher. Most of the characters are given a little more room to breathe and I find myself attached to them (minus Irvine, he screwed up). My younger self related to the characters so much and I still see qualities in their interactions that draw me into their plight. A good number of people aren’t down with Squall, either for being too aloof, angst-filled, or his lack of emotion for the first two discs, but he’s not the reason to pay attention. In a way Squall (renamed to whatever the player pleases) is the blank slate for others to project themselves onto and get caught up in his situation.

There are plenty of other reasons to play the game. The visuals are dated but I want a complete remake to still take cues from the original, especially in color and presentation. I would be so excited to see scenes like the intro, the two gardens fighting, and Diablos’ summon in completely updated graphics. I’m a fan of the junction system also, a unique take on how to manipulate stats and make magic feel more important. I refuse to call myself an apologist for that mechanic, because other than the absence of a better tutorial for it, everything is fine. The soundtrack is also incredible, my favorite in the series, but I am speaking as someone who used Roses and Wine as a track for his wedding.

For anyone who has played through FF8 again recently or owns the Steam version, this may not be a great buy. However, for those who haven’t experienced the game in a while or is a hardcore fan like myself, it has been so nice to see it released again with the adjustments. My hope is that having FF8 available in this form will draw in some new fans, reignite a few old flames, and bring some others to realize why we need Final Fantasy VIII to be remade, not just remastered. There’s still more potential to unlock from this classic.

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Predator: Concrete Jungle – The Weakest Prey

With the first gameplay trailer of Predator: Hunting Grounds, a new game centered on the extraterrestrial trophy hunter, shown off at Gamescom, it seems appropriate for me to talk about one of the creature’s only other notable solo games where they don’t have to share the playable character limelight with those pesky Aliens. I didn’t plan the timing, but I’ll take it. I have wanted to review Predator: Concrete Jungle for a while now. This was a title I was able to play a few minutes of in college when it came out, but just never made it back around to until now.

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