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Game of Thrones: Winterfell – Review and Q&A

Since the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ seventh season in the summer of 2017, I’ve experienced recurring dreams about how the show will end. I swear I’m not saying that to sound cute, but because it genuinely intrigues me on a scientific level. I can’t explain what the dreams mean or why I keep having them, but I think it’s telling that they are all unsatisfactory experiences. In each one I begin watching the final season of the show with this itching sense of desperate anticipation, and I say to myself “Is this really happening? Is it finally here?”

Again, I have to stress that I’m not trying to be funny. Each dream ends with me disappointed at how the show turns out. It never happens the way I expected it to, and maybe that’s because I’ve been speculating on all the possibilities so much. So when I watched the season eight premiere last night, I was in a strangely surreal mood. Now it was finally here for real this time. And yet I still had the irrational feeling that something completely preposterous would happen and I’d wake up in my bed screaming “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!” while my balls leaked rivers of hot sweat over the sheets.

But let’s get to the episode itself, shall we?

Game of Thrones: Season Eight.

The Final Season.

“Winterfell”.

My overall impression of the episode is that it was good, but not electrifying. It didn’t feel as substantial as perhaps it should have, considering the important reunions and revelations. And I think this might be down to the way the pieces were put together, rather than the pieces themselves. I like every scene that happened, and I don’t think any time was wasted. But I did feel like these scenes were rushed and hastily put together. For instance, Jon’s reunion with Arya just felt a little underwhelming. The line about Valyrian steel seemed kind of odd to me, especially seeing as how Arya has her own Valyrian dagger, which she chose not to reveal. It didn’t seem to go anywhere, and Arya not mentioning it felt like the show saying “We ain’t got time for this”. I liked how it ended, with their discussion on loyalty, duty and family. However the whole scene felt rushed and slightly disjointed in comparison to some of the powerful dialogue scenes of previous seasons.

Another scene I thought a little clumsily written was the moment Samwell blurts out that he stole his father’s sword. This seemed like the show was trying to rush to the juicy revelation of his father’s and brother’s deaths instead of arriving at them organically. If it weren’t the final season, I think the writers would have handled that scene differently- perhaps with Jorah or someone saying “Nice sword” and then Samwell sheepishly confessing he stole it from his father, Lord Tarly. But, just as the Arya-Jon reunion was not without merit, so too this scene is saved at the end- in this case by John Bradley’s superb acting. So my criticisms are small ones, and each aspect of the episode I didn’t like seemed to be balanced out by something I did. At this point in the episode I began to feel a real momentum; we’re having to ask questions of our heroes. We see here that events have consequences, that deaths have meaning, and that no decision is easy. I think the next episode will focus on just how complex and fragile the allegiances of the north are, which will then create an effective tension leading into episode three’s Battle of Winterfell.

So that’s what I thought of the episode as a whole: kinda rushed and a little messy, but with a few excellent moments and some great promise for things going forward. But what are the key questions going forward? Here’s my episode Q & A:

 

Will Bronn assassinate Tyrion and/or Jaime?

This might just be a way to send Bronn north and have him join the rest of the characters considered heroes, since he is the last character on Cersei’s side that’s a fan favorite. Given that he risked his life to save Jaime getting incinerated by Drogon last season, I can’t see him murdering him so easily. As much as Bronn is motivated by material riches, the show has already established that he has a heart. I do think we will see a few popular characters do a few unpopular deeds this season though. And if Bronn is to be one of them, I don’t think it will be a straightforward affair. There will be some sort of twist that pushes him over the edge.

 

What’s next for Euron Greyjoy?

Euron is one of the characters I am most confident will die this season. Nothing about him suggests longevity. The fact that Yara has escaped and is heading back to the Iron Islands only makes me more certain that the Northern Armies will lose the Battle of Winterfell, since she mentions it as being a possible haven for Dany. I think the Night King will win, and Dany will take what remains of her army to the Iron Islands. I then think Euron will take his fleet there and get destroyed. The Night King will march on King’s Landing and almost destroy Cersei’s forces, but then Dany and Jon will come to the rescue. That’s my updated prediction for how the season goes down anyway. I can definitely see Euron dying at sea, and I can’t imagine that the Ironborn will be fighting as land units in defense of King’s Landing. That’s not what they are suited for. Euron’s fulfilled his wish of boning the Queen; I think the Iron Islands are more important to him.

 

What was my favorite scene?

In terms of pure spectacle, I loved the scene where the young Lord Umber is pinned to the wall and surrounded by a swirl of severed limbs. The moment he reanimated as a wight might be the biggest jump-scare in the show’s history. I liked it because it gives us a glimpse of the White Walkers’ culture. The Night King and his people aren’t mindless monsters like their undead thralls. The swirl is a recurring motif in the culture of the White Walkers. Having the little kid pinned to the wall, at the center of this design, not only shows that our threat is intelligent, but it also serves as a reminder of the way the White Walkers were created. A similar swirl can be seen surrounding the man that becomes the first White Walker in episode five of season six…

 

What will be the fallout from Jon learning his true heritage?

I think this conflict will dominate the next episode, but also be more or less resolved by the end of it. There might be some lingering tension that resurfaces at the end of the season, but I think the solution has already been foreshadowed. At first Dany will be very upset and neither she nor Jon will know what to do. But then I think that Tyrion and Varys will tell them their idea, and they will realize the solution is staring them right in the face. This whole situation is so obviously set up for them to get married. That way, they don’t have to worry about whose claim to the throne is more valid, and it solidifies the fragile alliances of the north.

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Spyro: Reignited

My memories of playing the original Spyro games are some of the fondest of my childhood. When the news broke that the first three in the series were being remastered for the PS4, I was ecstatic. While the current-gen versions of Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite are gorgeous to behold, their remastering does feel a little premature. But bringing back old 3D platformers from the late 90s feels as fresh and exciting as if the games were new. It seems less like a cynical cash-grab and more of a gesture that’s rooted in passion for gaming. The Spyro games were rebuilt from scratch, and because they’re so old, the contrast between the original trilogy and the remastered one is breathtakingly jarring.

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I was delighted when my brother called me on his lunch break last November to disgruntledly tell me that he’d accidentally purchased two copies of Spyro: Reignited, and had decided to give me the extra copy for free. Tee hee.

I’d like to examine three things in this post:

  1. The quality and depth of the remake efforts
  2. How well the original games stand up after all this time
  3. My own gilded nostalgia

 

Spyro: The Dragon

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The first game in the series is the one I remembered the least. I’ve always associated it with vomit, because the last time I played it I was 9 years old, sitting cross-legged in my pajamas, and I had the sudden feeling that I ought to go to the bathroom. After feeling fine just a few seconds before, by the time I reached the toilet I puked everywhere. The whole thing was pretty traumatic at the time. I felt like I puked my entire body weight into that toilet. My throat was burning hot but my skin was trembling with cold. At one point my dad was like “Good Lord, there’s so much of it, it’s even coming out of his nose!” and it was like my entire insides were trying to escape me until all that remained was a dry and desolate husk.

For some reason I blamed the episode on the first Spyro game and vowed never to play it again as long as I lived. There was just something about the game that seemed to lack the charm of the other two. Anyway, it’s all important information, because I’m now 26 years old and I still haven’t thrown up since.

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The first thing that struck me about the game when I played it again in its remastered form was just how beautiful it was. The levels have so much more detail, depth, and texture. They’re as bright and colorful as a Pixar movie, and the swaying blades of grass, rippling castle flags, and cascading waterfalls are all imbued with this animate, living energy. I spent my first few minutes simply wandering around the hub world admiring the ambient sounds and smooth character animations. Just watching Spyro prancing around in such a fluid and crisp way made the whole experience feel fresh and whimsical.

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It was only when I entered one of the levels that I remembered why my younger self was so quick to dispense with the game. I quickly became bored- and I’d only just started playing the damn thing! There didn’t seem to be any sort of context for what was happening. None of the levels have any sense of narrative or personality. They each evoke some kind of time period, place, or culture from the real world, but they just feel shallow. They feel like movie sets rather than real places, and there is little variation between them beyond murdering every living creature in sight and unfreezing the dragons. As I progressed through the game, I became more and more tempted to give up and start playing Spyro 2. I was that bored. Each level felt like a chore, and I had no motivation to play except to finish it. The final boss fight in particular annoyed me. Gnasty Gnorc was the only thing giving the events of the game the slightest context, but he doesn’t say anything and just runs away from you. There are no checkpoints so when I died I had to go through the rigmarole of the whole thing again. It just felt poorly designed and lacking in the excitement and intensity of a final showdown.

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This might seem unfair given the technology available at the time, but I think it’s important to remember that one game shouldn’t be considered better than another by virtue of it being released earlier. Wolfenstein 3D is undoubtedly a more influential, innovative, and revolutionary shooter than Wolfenstein: The New Order, but no one can straight-facedly claim that it’s the better gaming experience. Spyro 1 established the central gameplay mechanics that would make the series a success, but beyond that, I found it a real slog.

 

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!

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To me, this will always be Gateway to Glimmer, which was the title given to the game’s European and Australian release in 1999. This was the first Spyro game I owned. Back in the day I would go to my friend’s house after Line Dancing on Friday nights and watch him play Spyro 3. I begged my dad to get the game for me. He couldn’t find it at the store, so he bought me Spyro 2 instead. The second game in the series is widely considered the best among fans and critics alike. It’s certainly my favorite in the franchise, and I realized upon playing the remastered version that almost all of my memories from the series came from this game in particular.

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As soon as I started playing Ripto’s Rage I felt immensely satisfied. Right off the bat we have firm context: an experiment in interdimensional travel goes tits-up and a megalomaniacal warlock with a raging hard-on for dragons is inadvertently summoned to the magical realm of Avalar. With the help of his semi-sentient dinosaur thralls, he proceeds to conquer Avalar and impose himself as dictator. The realm’s deposed government-in-exile, respectively a bipedal cheetah, a hyper-intelligent mole, and a sexually-frustrated fawn, decide that the most logical way to retake power is to summon a dragon to their world because Ripto hates them so much. I feel like this is a reckless move, because none of them have ever seen a dragon and the last time they pissed about with wormhole technology they opened up their realm to a cosmic invasion. They should be grateful they didn’t end up summoning fucking Smaug. I’d like to see how far Elora’s sass gets her when Alduin conjures a meteor storm and starts belching Gamma Rays at every living thing in sight.

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Luckily, they end up with Spyro. At first they seem disappointed not have gotten Draco as portrayed by Sean Connery, but as the fate of Avalar becomes increasingly dire, they hinge all their hopes of success on him, and it’s up to Spyro to reverse the coup d’état. The game begins, and at this point the player is invested. When I complained about the lack of narrative in the first game, I wasn’t thinking we needed something along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. It doesn’t need to be that complex- these games are aimed at kids after all. It just needs to have a little conflict and a dash of color in its cheeks. From the outset we have enough motivation to take down Ripto- he’s arrogant, snarky, cruel, and power-hungry. He’s tearing apart the harmony of this magical realm. By comparison, Gnasty Gnorc has about as much depth and personality as a tetherball with a smiley face drawn on it.

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But it’s not just the macro elements that make Ripto’s Rage stand out. Playing the game I got the feeling that every level had been carefully designed. For starters, there’s an intro cinematic that takes place every time you enter a portal. Each level has a conflict of some kind, and it’s up to you to solve it. Right at the beginning of the game you find yourself in a place called Glimmer. The land is populated by a race of sentient jerboas known as the Gemcutters. Not only does it have a native species, but it has a sense of life, commerce and industry too. The Gemcutters of Glimmer are renowned for their mining. However production comes to a halt when a hostile race of giant lizards shows up. At this point the Gemcutters enlist you as a kind of traveling pest control service, and you proceed to systematically exterminate every last one of them. A lot of levels follow this kind of pattern- each one begins with a cutscene that shows how the equilibrium is upended, and it’s up to you to restore the status quo. It never occurs to Spyro to solve the given problem using diplomacy, but I think I’ll save my thoughts on his morality for another post.

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The format of having us dip in and out of these self-contained stories works really well, and you find yourself motivated by the desire to check out the next cool environment and funky cast of characters that awaits you. The effort and attention afforded these levels is not just aesthetic however- it translates to gameplay too. As compared to the previous game in the series, there’s more variety on display. Each level has various optional challenges and side quests, calling upon you to swim, fly, ice-skate, chase, stealth, and puzzle-solve your way to success. You do everything from ride high-speed mining-carts around carelessly-laid boxes of TNT to herding cutesy bovine-elephant hybrids into a pen.

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The game is structured very well, and its three boss battles are excellent. They’re equal parts challenging and fun, as you utilize various creative power-ups via fast-paced gameplay to take down Ripto and his mates. Each encounter feels dramatic and significant, a feat achieved by the game’s teasing the bosses at earlier points in the narrative, building up to them with various steps and hoops in your way, and some appropriately climactic showdown music.

 

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

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This game’s an interesting one. A lot of our favorite characters return from Spyro 2, and the same sense of charm and personality is present in the game’s many cutscenes. But the game as a whole just smacks of trying too hard to emulate the success of its predecessor. It’s still fun, but it doesn’t feel all that original. Everything that worked well in Ripto’s Rage is carried over and ramped up to the point that it comes across as contrived. For instance, the characters of Spyro 2 added a real sense of humor and soul to the game that was missing in the first installment. The third entry in the series therefore massively expands this cast of characters and even lets you play as some of them. This isn’t an inherently bad idea, but it just isn’t executed that well. Sgt. Bird is a pain in the ass to maneuver, Bentley’s fat ass takes up the whole screen, and the monkey with the ray gun comes across as painfully bland- in both game design and personality. I thought Sheila’s jumping mechanics were fairly original and interesting, but none of her sections stood out as particularly exciting. You can even control Sparx in a series of Gauntlet-style dungeon-crawler missions, which I found utterly inane. None of it feels necessary. It seems like they’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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Another thing that worked well in Spyro 2 was its optional puzzles and mini games. Once again, the developers decided that this was an easy and fool-proof strategy for critical success and gave Year of the Dragon mini games up the ass. Some of them work, but a lot of them feel lazy and pointless. The skateboarding can be fun and the thief-chasing is as good as ever, but the overabundance (and varying quality) of these mini games just makes Year of the Dragon seem flabby and decadent. I’d rather they focused on just a few recurring mini games and gave them greater depth and more enjoyable controls.

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The main plot? It’s fine. I like the idea of this mysterious kingdom on the other side of the planet, whose natives have to reach the dragon world by burrowing into the earth and tunneling through until they pop out the other side. It’s kinda like The China Syndrome meets Alice in Wonderland meets Gears of War. Anyway, the ruler of this antipodean kingdom is a female tyrannosaurus with a rather threatening array of magical powers known only as the Sorceress. Quick aside- I find the image of a dinosaur wearing makeup and lipstick really unsettling. Anyway, the Sorceress sends her minions to the dragon world to steal all their eggs while they’re sleeping. It’s a pretty good plot device, meaning that Spyro is the only one who can travel to this strange new world to retrieve them since the tunnels are too small for the other dragons. It’s also interesting that the Sorceress has an army of bipedal rhinos at her command, which makes all the levels and hub worlds feel connected. This time you’re the outsider, and you’re up against the entire military apparatus of this kingdom. The Rhynocs are present throughout the various levels, acting as garrisons to oversee the many races they’ve subjugated and the many lands they’ve annexed. The bureaucracy is tantamount to the Roman Empire in a lot of ways. Of course, Spyro comes in and massacres them like the bloodthirsty revolutionary he is. Freedom fighter or terrorist? I honestly don’t know anymore. The fact he never even attempts to solve anything other than through violence started to alienate me. Sure, the Sorceress is a tyrannical despot and all that, but presumably the Rhynoc sentries are just doing their jobs, trying to get by in a cruel world, and can’t be held accountable for the atrocities of the wider system they’re a part of. Right? It’s hard to root for Spyro when he’s flat out goring Rhynocs that are surrendering to him.

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Overall, the third game is good but it tries too hard to emulate its predecessor and comes up short in that regard. The boss fights have none of the build-up and context of Spyro 2’s encounters, and each one feels like a shallow imitator of that game’s arena-with-power-ups model. The bosses themselves are introduced right before the fights, and their designs lack the simple yet effective tones of Crush and Gulp. I liked that there was a secondary villain in Bianca; her inclusion reminded me of Alora from Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Sadly though, you don’t get to bloodily rip her limbs off, which was a disappointment for me because I’d been thinking of nothing else ever since that time she boasted I’d never find the dragon eggs she’d hidden right as I could see one in the background over her shoulder.

My Top 10 Movies of the Year – 2018

It’s Christmas Eve! Which, for TumbleweedWrites, means it’s time for my annual Top 10 Movies of the Year. It’s been an excellent year for cinema, and I’ve spent a great deal of time narrowing down all the films I’ve seen into a definitive Top 10. I’ve been to the cinema more times in 2018 than any other year, so these 10 that I’ve picked really are the crème de la crème. As per usual, this post is best accompanied with a mince pie, tall glass of milk, and some kind of roaring hearthfire.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

As I said, I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. There are a couple of movies that didn’t quite crack the top 10, but are still interesting enough that I want to give them a shout-out. Namely: Outlaw King and Unsane. I was hesitant about watching Outlaw King because I assumed it would be a glossy hack-n-slash flick that was more interested in over-the-top battle scenes than exploring a historical era. I love Gladiator and Troy, but I’m worried that a lot of movies set in Ancient and Medieval time periods are more concerned with spiky balls on the ends of chains than they are character development, sociopolitical insight, and historical accuracy. I’m proud to say I was wrong about Outlaw King. It strikes a healthy balance between artistic license and respect for history. Overall it’s a well-acted and nuanced film that skillfully avoids cliché to focus on telling one of the most interesting stories from Scottish history.

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Unsane, on the other hand, is a movie I had no preconceptions of. I watched it during a plane ride from London to New Orleans and I actually really enjoyed it. It’s a very disturbing picture- in both its themes and its cinematography. There’s something about its tight camera angles and muted color scheme that makes me uncomfortable. Claire Foy does an excellent job in her portrayal of a stalking victim that gets locked up in an asylum for unknown reasons.

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#10 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The western genre is one of my favorites in all of cinema, so naturally I get excited whenever I hear of a new one coming out. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t my ideal type of western, but it’s a refreshing twist on the formula. In general, my favorite westerns are ones with these epic, sweeping narratives- ones where there’s a real sense of struggle. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs– being an anthology of unrelated vignettes- isn’t that. But the format works for the Coen Brothers’ quirky style and offbeat sense of humor. Not all of the stories are equal in my opinion, and which one you take to probably comes down to your personal tastes. I enjoyed “The Gal Who Got Rattled” best of all. Somehow it has the scope and feel of a feature length film. My least favorite was “All Gold Canyon”. As a whole, the film is an interesting and unique take on one of my favorite genres, but the stories within are a mixed bag.

 

#9 Loveless

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Loveless is a film that’s as much about a mood as it is its characters. On the one hand it’s a story of a boy that goes missing during his parents’ vitriolic divorce- and yet its focus doesn’t remain on them exclusively. The movie seems more interested in conveying a wider sense of malaise in contemporary Russian life. The film achieves this with its gorgeous cinematography, lighting, and gray color scheme. There’s just something bleak and existential about it. It’s about modernity, it’s about people that can’t communicate, it’s about the alienation of individuals in Putin’s political climate- it’s about all of this rather than the boy that goes missing. This is intentional I think- the child’s well-being isn’t given the attention it deserves in both the world of the film and in its themes.

 

#8 Hostiles

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Unlike The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Hostiles is very much in the style of the westerns near and dear to my heart. It’s dark, gritty, and bleak, with a heavy emphasis on realism. Christian Bale and Wes Studi are reliably excellent in their respective roles, and I found myself quite invested in their characters. Bale plays a grizzled cavalry officer whose hatred of Indians is born out of the gory history he shares with Studi’s character- a Cheyenne war chief. He reluctantly agrees to return the imprisoned chief to Montana so he can die peacefully in his homeland. Naturally, this creates for some rather effective tension. Their journey across the country forces them to confront their differences and their preconceptions, and there are some truly riveting action scenes in there too. I particularly liked the nuanced ending, which the film builds towards with a careful and well-executed pace.

 

#7 Phantom Thread

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Although not quite as exciting as There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis’ understated and steadily-paced final movie is the perfect send-off for the greatest actor of his generation. The sense of presence he brings to his roles is so powerful that he can take your breath away with just a look. Even when he’s not playing a psychotic oil tycoon, he just has this aura that’s arresting. This movie illustrates the range of his talent so well, in that the character he plays is a complex, narcissistic, compulsive genius whose strict sense of order and obsession with routine is completely turned on its head by a feisty woman that’s determined to love him.

 

#6 I, Tonya

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I really liked this movie! From a stylistic point of view it reminded me of Scorsese somewhat. Its eclectic mixture of humor and tragedy is conveyed in a really interesting way with mockumentary interviews, fourth wall breaks, and this fleeting narrative style. It’s a movie that I think can only really work if it’s a masterpiece. Without a clever director, skilled cinematographer, and stellar performers, I think this idea would fall flat. I, Tonya gets everything right, and is executed so well that the comedy and the tragedy are equally effective without impeding on one another. The fat guy that wants everyone to think he’s a secret agent is side-splittingly funny, and you kinda end up liking him even though what he does is pretty despicable.

 

#5 Bad Times at the El Royale

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I went to see this movie for my birthday with my kid brother and it was a gas. This stylish thriller channels The Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction in a slick, 60s-counterculture atmosphere. The movie is just damn good fun and even though it’s fairly long, it’s engaging and exciting from beginning to end. I’m a big fan of stories with multiple, overlapping story threads, and the setting of a roadside hotel that’s half in California and half in Nevada is really interesting. The line that marks the state boundary is also a clever motif for the film’s themes of morality, and the gray area that runs through that dichotomy.

 

#4 Disobedience

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I went to see Disobedience at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, which is my local go-to for arthouse movies. This beautiful motion picture tells the story of an illicit affair between two women in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London. It’s a really nuanced and complex character-driven drama with some truly outstanding performances from its three main actors. The claustrophobic cinematography highlights the struggle of Rachel McAdam’s character as a gay woman and a devout Jew. This film is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming and deals with its challenging subject matter with a mature and sophisticated sensitivity. There are no heroes and villains here- the primary characters all come across as exceedingly authentic.

 

#3 1945

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When I heard that the Watershed was showing a Hungarian picture I leapt at the chance. I watched the film with my parents in the cinema’s smallest room with about 20 other people. 1945 is set in- you guessed it- 1945, in the months after Hungary was liberated by the Soviets in WW2. The plot is simple but so effective. There are no main characters at such, but the action begins with the arrival of two Jews in a rural town. The townsfolk become suspicious of their intent, and as they slowly walk from the train station to the center of the village, the entire town unravels.

 

#2 You Were Never Really Here

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I was certain- both before it came out and after I watched it- that this would end up as my Film of the Year. It promised to be a masterpiece and it is. Lynne Ramsey is turning into one of my favorite modern filmmakers. In terms of how it puts its pieces together, this is probably the most interesting entry on this list. Ramsey leaves a lot unsaid, utilizing fleeting images and a surreal, dreamlike use of cinematography to tell a minimalist narrative. There are echoes of Taxi Driver, as Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled military vet who works as a kind of vigilante-hitman, taking the law into his own hands and earning a living clubbing in douchebags with a ball-peen hammer. As I said, this is a title worthy of top spot, and would certainly be taking home that honor if it weren’t for…

 

#1 Roma

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I can’t not give the TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award to Alfonso Cuaron’s colossal, larger-than-life, career-defining magnum opus, Roma. Based on his experiences growing up in the bourgeois neighborhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico City, this film tells the story of a live-in maid to a dysfunctional, middle-class family in the early 1970s. It’s hard to think of a component of storytelling that Cuaron doesn’t absolutely nail in this epic drama. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s quirky, it’s atmospheric, and above all it’s just real. It’s not just the story of the au pair, but of the director’s own childhood, as Cleo’s story intersects with various historical events and random encounters too weird not to have come from Cuaron’s personal memories. If there’s any film that’s come out this year that you need to see before you die- it’s this one. Absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 1 (No Spoilers)

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for the release of a game as I was for Red Dead Redemption 2. I played the first one in the summer of 2012, several years after its release. I remember being absolutely blown away by its graphics. It was probably the most immersive open world I’d experienced in gaming. The vast empty spaces of the New Austin desert were so important to that sense of immersion, making the game world feel bigger than it was. More than any game I’d played up until that point, it felt truly lived-in. To me, the appeal of the game was as a Wild West simulator. Riding through a landscape so bleak and desolate added to this impression of a fading way of life, which is what the series is all about- the death of the Old West.

I distinctly remember my dad coming in the room as I was driving a stagecoach from MacFarlane’s Ranch to the plateau that overlooks the desert basin.

“Wow,” he remarked. “You’re actually like…in the Wild West. Like it’s real.”

I knew before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 that all these vivid details would be even more effectual than the previous installment. I was hyped to experience what promised to be the most immersive world in gaming history. All the information teased prior to release indicated that Rockstar had become obsessed with tiny details- the most famous of course being the shrinking horse testicles in cold weather environments. I liked that the developer had this artistic vision they were sticking to, that they wanted to go further than any other developer had, and that they prioritized this vision above player convenience.

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And it’s this bold commitment to immersion that will inevitably divide some gamers. For someone like me, the game’s lofty artistic ambitions make it an almost perfect fit. But not all gamers are the same. I’m primarily interested in things like story, artistic design, world-building, and other aesthetic crap. As far as my profile as a gamer goes, the gameplay need only be serviceable. And that’s why it’s difficult to give this game and its components a definitive rating. For example, the fact that fast travel isn’t really a thing doesn’t bother me very much, but it will irk some. It all depends on your tolerance for the aesthetic experiences Rockstar wants you to indulge in.

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The many features that make this game so realistic- such as the long animations involved in skinning dead animals, the fact you can’t run when inside the gang’s camp, and the need to maintain the health of your horse- will certainly put off players. It all depends on what you’re looking for in a game, and that’s why I can’t review those aspects so much- I can only give my personal opinion on them. At first it took a little getting used to realizing that once I got off my horse, I had to remember to remove the specific guns I wanted from my saddle. But in the end, it didn’t ruin my experience. Most story missions will automatically equip the two guns necessary for that particular mission. These little details can’t really be reviewed because it’s mostly a matter of your individual tolerance as a player.

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The missions themselves, however, are a much more interesting subject for review. If you’ve played any Rockstar game, you’ve played this. The gameplay is in stark contrast to the world in which it is set. The world is a stunning example of cutting-edge graphics technology. Everything from the lighting, the ambient sounds, the dynamic weather system, the complex AI of NPCs, the meticulously detailed animations, and so forth, contributes to an atmosphere that is downright spellbinding. The rendering of the world and everything in it is a staggering accomplishment, and it will set the standard for years to come. But as cutting-edge and groundbreaking as the world is, the gameplay itself feels very old. Don’t get me wrong, it’s serviceable, it works, and I had a lot of fun with it. But there’s no sense of advancement in this area of the game. The combat plays exactly the same as a game you might find on the PS2 or the original Xbox. It incorporates everything from GTA, LA: Noire, and the previous Red Dead for better or worse.

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The combat is heavily cover-based. It’s designed around the basic idea that you go from one area of cover to the next, picking off enemies with the auto-aim mechanic as they pop up from their own cover positions, all the while trying to prevent yourself from getting flanked. That’s all you need to know really. Every ground-based firefight will follow this same pattern. And you know exactly what to do in every scenario- the enemy AI has only one goal in mind and that’s to flank you so that you’re flushed out into the open. Cover is everything. And that’s fine for a story-driven game- but it doesn’t have the organic sense of excitement and reward that comes with bringing down the robot dinosaurs in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or jumping off a high-speed sky-rail and eye-gouging white supremacists in Bioshock: Infinite. I’m not saying that the combat of Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t fun- I’m just saying that it doesn’t innovate.

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There are of course, shootouts on horseback and I didn’t like that very much at all. As I said, the combat is very simple and based around this idea of staying in cover. But you can’t do that while riding your horse. So if you’re riding around the bayou and find yourself gang-raped by a posse of bounty hunters, you’ve really got no choice but to haul ass until you’re far enough away that you’ve either lost them, or are able to line them up and pick them off one at a time. Combat on horseback tends to be a lot more fun in missions, because the context of the situation gives it that exhilarating feeling you want from a horse-chase in the Wild West. The missions are also extremely linear and scripted, which means that the enemies appear in convenient positions for you to shoot them, as opposed to ambushing you from multiple angles.

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This leads into another point though, which is the inherent problem of all Rockstar games- and that is the “open world paradox”. While it makes the horseback combat easier, I doubt you were enthralled by my remarks about the missions as being “linear” and “scripted”. The paradox of Rockstar games is that although they take place in open worlds, the missions within are very formulaic. The reason for this is that Rockstar wants to infuse each mission with a cinematic quality. It wants to dazzle you. And it does. It succeeds at what it wants to do, but does it deliver what gamers want? Are the token shootouts the only thing that separates Red Dead Redemption 2 from being a movie? There’s no room within missions to solve a given problem with any creativity. But if that kind of freedom is what you as a gamer want, you’re probably better suited for something like Bloodborne or Doom. And I don’t mean that in a sassy way- what I’m saying is that if you’re looking for organic, open-ended gameplay challenges, you won’t find it here.

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So we have this disconnect between the narrative and the sandbox, which makes Red Dead Redemption 2 feel like two different experiences walled off from one another. Neither half informs the other. The main story consists of a sequence of set pieces which are scripted but nonetheless absorbing and fun. The sandbox, on the other hand, is both beautiful and decadent. What I mean by a word like decadent is that it’s impressive to behold, but exists largely to be admired. It’s not the Elder Scrolls sandbox where you can travel in any direction and stumble across a hidden kingdom of mole-people or a town of lumberjacks with a naughty little secret. And neither is it the Witcher 3 sandbox, where the world is filled with rich, standalone side quests that are as detailed and engaging as the main story itself. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 has a little side content in the form of its Stranger encounters, but they’re each very short and really only exist to enhance the sense of immersion. The actual gameplay involved in the Stranger encounters is tantamount to a tutorial- herding wild horses or shooting a bottle off of a guy’s head for a laugh. So what can you do in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 other than admire it? The organic, repeatable sandbox elements involve being able to play poker in a saloon, go fishing on a lake, hunt wild game through the mountains, rustle cattle across a prairie, and so forth. You can rob banks, stagecoaches, and trains. All of these prove more challenging endeavors than the missions of the main story. But there is no real reward in accomplishing them- each activity exists for its own sake. To me, the open world sandbox half of the game is best described as a Wild West simulator. It all comes back to immersion. It allows you to simulate life as a cowboy, and you can do everything from starting brawls in a saloon to milking cows in a barn.

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My last criticism of the game is one of believability. Although the game is visually realistic- for instance if you fall over in the mud, only the part of you that hits the ground will be muddy- the events and behaviors therein don’t necessarily evoke the same verisimilitude. For example, the outlaw gang you’re a part of is comprised of a couple dozen people, each of them superbly characterized and well-rounded. However, every other gang in the game is composed of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of generic redshirts, most notably the O’Driscolls- who are meant to be a mirror image of the Van der Linde Gang despite being at least ten times the size of their rivals. I guess it’s kind of like it was in GTA, where you’d end up in a shootout with about 50 gangbangers in an abandoned warehouse, and you’d think “If this actually happened, it would be the biggest massacre in US history” and yet the world doesn’t react to this shocking episode of casual violence. But this didn’t bother me so much in GTA because the Grand Theft Auto series isn’t really meant to be taken seriously. The Red Dead franchise is. GTA might be Rockstar’s mainstream moneymaker, but it’s the Red Dead series that stands tall as the pinnacle of the developer’s artistic genius, and its greatest achievement. And it is a tough criticism for me to make, because without these shootouts, Red Dead Redemption 2 would pretty much just be an interactive movie. It breaks my immersion when I see a small cattle town so faithfully reconstructed with historical authenticity suddenly muster up a defense of 50 deputies that all appear at a moment’s notice behind every covered position and strategic balcony to shoot me from every angle. But even though it’s unbelievable, it’s still damn good fun.

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As I said earlier, the combat is simple and feels like it’s from a game made 15 years ago. But it is still thoroughly enjoyable. The weapons feel great and the Dead-Eye system is a hoot. And given how excellent the story is, the simplicity of the combat in conjunction with the context of the narrative (and the fantastic musical score) makes shootouts feel heroic and badass. The story and the characters are so well-written that I’m going to give them their own separate post in a few days’ time. I’ll also be covering many spoilers, so make sure you complete the epilogue before you read it.

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To conclude, I have to think about where Red Dead Redemption 2 stands in my top 10 games of all time. That alone should tell you that I adore this title. The main story I can confidently say is the finest I’ve ever experienced in a game. The characters are so nuanced and their inner journeys are so engrossing. Perhaps best of all is the dialogue. Not only does it sound authentic, but what they say is interesting and original. For me, the story, characters, and themes are superior to that of The Witcher 3. However, The Witcher 3 remains above Red Dead Redemption 2 in my power rankings because it excels in all aspects of its content, which the latter does not. The Witcher 3 has fantastic combat, gameplay variety, side content, and replay value. At the moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 looks the odds-on favorite to scoop most of 2018’s Game of the Year awards. It’s seen almost universal praise from critics. And I do think this praise is deserved. Even though it falls short of perfection, I am enjoying the success it is receiving. I do think it deserves the title of 2018’s Game of the Year because nothing else comes close to its emotional impact or the scope of its vision. It’s a game that concentrates and excels very heavily in one area, and as such isn’t for everyone. But I want to see more developers take this approach. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels like a game that was created according to an artist’s vision, rather than pandering to some focus-group-tested, mass-market-appeal anodyne spunk-bucket. It puts to shame cynical AAA yearly-releases whose content is designed around consumer exploitation and income projections, and shows us that quality games are by no means a thing of the past. Ultimately, the nature of the market ensures that real quality will always be in demand- whereas shoddy business practices can only remain economically viable for so long.

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.

How Detroit: Become Human Put an End to my Gaming Slump

I was hesitant about the idea that Detroit: Become Human would be the title that broke my gaming slump. I’m also hesitant to spend full price on any AAA game these days- especially something I’m not familiar with. The rhetoric from my most trusted reviewers (“wildcard” Youtubers Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, & Angry Joe) was that David Cage games were pretentious orgies of QTE’s, resembling laughably-bad interactive movies rather than actual games. And the opinions of reviewers I tend to regard with suspicion (IGN & Gamespot) were that Cage’s body of work represented not only his staggering genius, but an entirely unique and innovative approach to storytelling. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle, I thought. Or perhaps it all depends on the kind of gamer you are. I knew right off the bat that I’d be sympathetic to Cage’s mission statement, since I always give a greater importance to story than to gameplay.

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I kept an eye on the promotional footage of Detroit up until its release and I was very impressed by its visuals. The game came out and I waited for the reviews. I just needed to hear that the story was decent. Androids were in vogue with me at the time, and it may just have been my joyful experiences of Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld season 2 that sealed the deal. I needed a rich world to get lost in. At the time I had no real outlet for escapism in my life. And I hadn’t played a game I really enjoyed since Horizon: Zero Dawn was released over a year ago.

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It seems strange that one could have a gaming “slump”, but I honestly can’t think of any other word for it. In 2016 I was staying up all hours of the night pursuing the platinum trophy for Fallout 4. My PS4 was the material embodiment of my laziness. I spent so much time running around the Commonwealth chopping off the heads of Gunners and Super Mutants with my electrified Chinese Officer’s Sword “Brunhilde” that the irradiated wasteland felt more real to me than my actual life. But fast-forward a year to mid-2017 and I’m unable to play anything for more than 20 minutes. I was bored of gaming, if you can believe it. I tried Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it was probably the worst gaming experience of my life. I’ve never felt so let down by a game. I then tried Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that left me somewhat lukewarm. I wondered if I was truly falling out of love with video games or if I simply couldn’t find the right one to play.

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I took a chance on Detroit: Become Human and my overall verdict is a pretty positive one. Is it a game so close to my heart that I end up taking it more seriously than my career prospects and personal hygiene? No. Unlike The Witcher 3 and Bioshock: Infinite, I won’t take it personally if you don’t like it. But did Detroit: Become Human restore my interest in gaming? Yes.

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There are a number of things this game executes very well. The musical score is excellent; each of the three playable characters has their own soundtrack, and each piece of music has a distinctive tone reflective of that character’s narrative. As I’m writing this review I’m listening to the moody cyberpunk-noir music composed by Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s storyline.

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The visuals for this game are also excellent- and on a number of levels. The artistic design depicts a Detroit that is both grittily-familiar and slickly-futuristic, and the raw imaginative power of the concept art is rendered beautifully in the game’s state of the art graphics. Every location feels unique and interesting- and more than that- like a place that is lived in. This is achieved by little details about the way everyday things function being given special attention. For instance, the blank-faced androids crowded in at the back of the buses, the way the signal on their foreheads changes color based on their stress level, the maintenance drones vacuuming the office carpets, the monorails, the articles on android basketball, and the CyberLife emporiums that look like a cross between an Apple Store and a 19th century slave auction. Perhaps my favorite locale was the urban farm you have to chase a deviant android through during “The Nest” chapter.

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In addition to the stunning environments, the facial animations in the game are as good as any you will see today. I haven’t been this impressed by a game’s use of motion-capture acting since L.A Noire back in 2011.

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So what do we know so far? We’ve established that the game is a success on a technical and artistic level. But what of the gameplay? Most of the game consists of making dialogue choices TellTale-style and executing a sequence of Quick-Time Events. The story is entertaining, but not without its flaws. It brushes up on some complex themes- such as the nature of consciousness, whether or not a loving relationship can be established between a human and a robot, and the rising economic inequality brought about by mass unemployment- without really going deeper into those issues. The game misses the chance to say something original and profound as it seems more interested in pursuing a clumsy civil rights allegory. The story is definitely exciting, but it also has a tendency towards contrived melodrama. I enjoyed the creepy vignette where the player character has to escape a house of synthetic horrors, but found myself laughing at scenes where the humans started acting inexplicably cruel towards random androids for the sake of melodrama.

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For me, the biggest drawback of the game is its implementation of motion controls. I didn’t mind them so much in Until Dawn, where you had to keep the controller as still as possible or face getting discovered by Native American demons intent on repurposing your jawbone as a coat-hook. That to me replicated quite well the tension of having to hold your breath, and therefore enhanced immersion. However the motion controls in Detroit are wholly unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the experience and their inclusion actually detracts from the sense of immersion. They suddenly pop up in the game’s action sequences and are finicky as all hell. So if the controller doesn’t register you moving it down in exactly the way it wants you to, your favorite character gets shot in the forehead. That’s what happened to me at least. A character’s death carries no emotional weight when it occurs not because of the player’s choice, but because the player wasn’t quick and accurate enough. And I became even less enthusiastic when the game rolled out another model of the android for me to play instead, because all of the character development I had taken a part in was wiped clean.

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In conclusion, I think I can only recommend this game based on what you’re looking for. The pace is slow to begin with, and the chapter in which you spend most of your time washing dishes and cleaning up vomit will definitely put off some gamers. They’re probably necessary components of the narrative’s atmosphere and pacing, but I can’t blame you if you switch off the Playstation and start watching Blade Runner 2049 instead. You’ll find a far superior story there too. But for what it’s worth, Detroit: Become Human does have some exciting moments- enough that I enjoyed the game and wanted to play it when I wasn’t doing so. If what you’re looking for is fun gameplay, then perhaps this game isn’t for you. I would recommend this game to those that simply enjoy science fiction stories, and have at least some tolerance for QTE’s. As for me, this game ultimately broke the dry spell I had endured for over a year, and ended up being interesting and immersive enough that it occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t playing it.

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My Thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

This post is about a month late, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Hopefully it means that most of y’all have gotten around to seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story and can therefore appreciate what in tarnation I’m rambling on about. If you haven’t yet checked out the latest Star Wars flick because you’re some kind of flawlessly-extroverted sexual Tyrannosaurus too busy hosting wet t-shirt contests to give the time of day to space westerns, then I suggest taking off the star-shaped sunglasses and getting an Uber to one of Panama City’s movie theaters. You might even enjoy it! Then, come back to this site, disable your Ad-Blocker if you haven’t already, and continue with the post, because I will be covering major spoilers.

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I liked Solo. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film- but I liked it. I’ve heard it described as a “fun” movie and I’d certainly concur with that. It’s lighthearted and a little swashbuckling in tone, which to be honest is what I would expect from a film that styles itself as a space western. It’s got a couple drawbacks- which I will discuss later- but nothing so diabolical that it completely ruins the experience (like The Last Jedi for example). It’s not the movie I asked for, but I do think it’s a worthy addition to the franchise, and even something I’d like to see more of.

When I say I didn’t ask for it, what I mean is that I was hoping for Disney’s budget to be allocated to exploring events, characters and places farther removed from the main saga than an origin story of one of its most iconic heroes. However- it was exactly the type of story that I wanted. Everyone loves Star Wars in a different way, and for me the aspect of the franchise that I love the most is simply the world itself. That’s the defining characteristic of my profile as a fan. More than anything else I’m attracted to the vastness of its universe and the potential it has to tell any story you want. The proof of its potential is in what I consider to be the greatest Star Wars story ever written- Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. The game is a perfect example of what you can do with the Star Wars template, and it’s the reference I use for illustrating that there is room in the franchise for telling stories that are nuanced, original, and dark. So even though I wasn’t initially excited about the prospect of a Han Solo movie, I found myself warming to the idea when the details of how this story was going to be told emerged in the initial marketing.

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Solo is crime movie. It’s a heist movie. It’s a wild-west movie set in outer space. It explores different worlds and different characters than what we see in the main saga. I’ve long wanted a film with Disney’s budget that focuses on the criminal underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. And the benefit of that hefty budget is seen straight away in the movie’s excellent set and costume design. I love that both this film and Rogue One capture the clunky 70’s-inspired aesthetic of the original trilogy in a way that is beautiful and fresh. That’s the first thing I noticed about this film- how beautiful it is. I’m glad they are committing to that crude and clunky sci-fi art style as opposed to something slick yet bland.

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The film opens on Han’s homeworld of Corellia- a planet that I have long wanted to see adapted for the big screen- and it looks incredible. The artistic design really brings life to the planet and its people, with a thick, industrial atmosphere. Han and Qi’ra are young lovers with big dreams. They live in an orphan community in thrall to a local crime lord, making a living stealing scrap parts from the city’s massive Imperial ship-building warehouses. One day they find a rare and valuable material that they hope to bribe their way off-world with. Han makes it out, but not before the whole thing goes tits-up and his missus is captured by the neighborhood bully and his pet Staffordshire Terrier. They’re separated for several years Cathy & Heathcliff style, until a chance reunion on a gangster’s luxury barge in which Qi’ra reveals that in order to escape she’s had to do terrible things at the behest of said gangster. Yada yada yada, and the two of them find themselves in a situation in which they have to pull off the heist to end all heists or face getting shanked by Paul Bettany’s vibroblade. It’s a pretty good plot and the action sequences in particular are fantastic. The train heist was probably my favorite. However there were a few issues I had with the story.

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The first problem is right at the beginning. One of the golden rules of writing dialogue is not to have the characters of your story act as mouthpieces for the plot, in which they end up saying aloud things they already know for the sole benefit of the viewer. It’s the sort of thing you get a lot in soap operas, where the characters are constantly puking information into your lap. For the most part, Solo adheres to this golden rule, but in the opening scene it gets violated like your Nan at a thrash metal concert. It’s a tough one, because the plot sort of writes itself into this hole by the nature of having the opening so fast-paced. I get that they don’t want to spend too much time going into Han’s childhood, but these are the kind of holes a good writer is expected to navigate. However, this was the only instance of this kind of thing that I noticed in the film’s dialogue.

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The second problem, for me, is in how Han and Chewie form their relationship. I wanted them to go more in-depth with the concept of a Wookiee Life Debt, which is a huge part of Star Wars lore. I expected it to manifest in a scene in which Han chooses to save Chewie’s family or something, but it never happens. Given that this film is the origin story of Han Solo, the establishment of his friendship with Chewbacca is something of paramount importance, and I just feel like this could have been done better. The film lacks any one strong and defining moment that we can point to as the birth of their bromance. For the most part they just seem fond of each other, and I don’t recall a particular scene where this fondness evolves into something more profound, that you know will last a lifetime.

The third problem I have is with Han’s character arc. For me, the heart of this film must absolutely be the transformation of a young, optimistic and naïve Han into the cynical, distrustful, self-centered rogue we see in A New Hope. Otherwise, this movie is essentially pointless. There would be no purpose to a Han Solo origin story without this specific arc. And it’s not that this inward journey isn’t there- I just feel as if it could have been done a little bit better. I know the movie wants to maintain its lighthearted tone, but the Han at the end of the film is not as jaded as I would have liked him to be. If you re-watch A New Hope, you realize just how much of a cold mercenary Han Solo is. For me, he’s still a little too hopeful by the end. I’m not saying he displays no growth, because clearly getting betrayed by Beckett and abandoned by Qi’ra changes him. I just wanted that growth to be more apparent.

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Where this movie succeeds, aside from its creative action scenes and stunning visuals, is in its performances. Woody Harrelson is perfectly-cast as the grizzled mentor type with dry wit and suspect moral values, but for me the standout performance was Paul Bettany as the film’s primary villain. He’s a different kind of villain to the kind we’re used to- which for the most part are variants of evil warlock figures. Dryden Vos is a more familiar antagonist for moviegoers, because he’s a purely human villain with human motivations. He doesn’t wield the mysterious space magic of Palpatine or have the samurai skills of Darth Vader, and yet he’s so menacing. His unnerving stage presence comes entirely from his unstable, psychotic persona, which Bettany does an awesome job of portraying. I was genuinely nervous every time our heroes were in a room with him.

No review of Solo would be complete, however, without a mention of the movie’s twist at the end. So it turns out that Dryden Vos in fact was serving as a kind of lieutenant for Darth Maul, who apparently survived getting sliced in half in order to reinvent himself as a cyborg Pablo Escobar. Within the context of the movie the twist doesn’t bother me that much, and it’s cool to think that Emelia Clarke might be seen again as some kind of Dark Jedi, but I’m not really a fan of Darth Maul surviving. Even within the realm of science fantasy there’s got to be a certain level of believability, and beyond that, as a narrative device I think resurrecting someone is weak. I loved Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace because he was so mysterious. But whenever you get a badass that doesn’t talk much- like Boba Fett for example- you can bet your ass someone will contrive a way for them to inexplicably survive in order to milk the fanboys for a quick and easy cash-grab. It cheapens Maul as a character, and it annoys me that he’s probably out there right now in other Star Wars media, dancing around with his iconic double-bladed lightsaber like some kind of circus monkey that should have long ago been put to sleep. This is the guy that got beat by a padawan Obi-Wan (an important part of his character growth), so there’s no way in hell he’d last ten seconds going toe-to-toe with Vader, Dooku, Windu, or an older Kenobi. I also thought it was particularly cringe-worthy that Darth Maul felt the need to activate his lightsaber during his hologram exchange with Qi’ra. She knows who he is, so that little display he did was just another wink toward the audience, and another example of the fact that this Maul is not really Maul at all- he’s Disney’s trick pony they’ve trotted onto the stage to ring a few more pennies from the masses. However, I’m not opposed to the idea of Dryden Vos serving a Sith Lord, and given that Maul has already been reintroduced in other media, it didn’t spoil my experience of the movie.

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In conclusion, Solo is definitely worth your time. I think it struggled financially because it wasn’t marketed very well. In my opinion, it should have been released in the fall of 2018, which would have distanced it from The Last Jedi and given Disney enough time to build some proper hype for the movie. I would be interested in a sort of loose sequel centering on the adventures of Lando Calrissian. I’m also curious to see what becomes of Qi’ra’s character. I hope that Disney continues to make standalone Star Wars movies and that they venture further from their comfort zone. Where would I rank Solo? Better than The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi by far, but not quite hitting the heights of Rogue One and the Empire Strikes Back. I’d put it on par with the prequel trilogy- highly watchable but not without its flaws.