Farewell to A Friend—My Whiskey-Scented Candle

My dearest friends of Facebook and other various social media platforms: it is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of my candle. After weeks of battling bottom-of-the-wick, my beloved reading candle (manufactured by Makers of Wax Goods) went out for the last time. Though we made attempts to resuscitate by way of butane lighter, it became clear that this torch had reached the end of its little glass cup filled with wax.

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So, on this sad occasion, I would like to thank this dead candle for its services, its passion, and for being such a swell candle.

Thank you for the light you provided. In an age wherein a source of clairvoyant rays can be summoned by a wall-switch in the common home, a short sequence of taps on any mobile device, or an awkwardly worded voice command to Google or Alexa, your inconsistent dance of yellow glow is rendered useless. But it made me feel cool and connected with those readers and writers of pre-industrial ages, so that’s neat!

Thank you for your “whiskey-scented” aroma, which deterred any who would dare to disturb my study unannounced. Like a personal flatulencepleasing to the beholder while repugnant to the outsider. Though many candles excel in deception, enticing with redolent promises of cookies and yum-yums, none have ever mistaken your scent for a sign of alcoholism; thank you for your poor labeling. 

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Thank you for burning bright even through the day…and for not burning my house down when I forgot to stifle your flame before leaving for work. You are, indeed, a merciful candle.

Thank you for that one time you filled up my room with whiskey-scented smoke. Had you not impregnated my room with airborne combustion emissions, I might have gone on for hours reading Stephen King novels and playing Overwatch without ever rushing outside in a panic. I also may never have heard the lovely chime of my high-frequency smoke alarm. Such gifts!

Thank you for your super-hip wooden cap. I am uncertain of the wood’s authenticity, but it appears to be wood grain, and so it is hip.

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But most of all, thank you for your companionship, your loyalty, and your support. You’ve seen me through many articles, novels, and one indulgent re-read of the Harry Potter books. Never questioning. Never judging. Never ceasing in presence. You let me gaze upon you relentlessly as I contemplated my readings, mulled over disquieting emails, and tried to remember where I left my keys. You’ve been there the whole time, silent, steady, tolerant, and reliably hot to the touch. 

Thank you for being there. Your presence and fragrance will be missed.

The Whiskey-Scented Candle of M. of W. G. is dead. Long live the Sage & Citrus-Scented Yankee Candle, thou heroine of mother’s leftover Christmas candles of yesteryear!

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The Leftovers S3E1&2 Review: The Ridiculous Book of Kevin

I held off on starting my episodic reviews of The Leftovers Season 3 to binge through the entire series up to this point. I had hoped to prepare myself for the inevitable torrent of ‘what the fuck is happening’ moments—a constant in the season premiere.

After re-watching the series, I still don't know what the fuck is going on.

SPOILERS for The Leftovers S3E1 and E2 follow...

Setting up an entire season's worth of questions within the first episode seems to be a repeated tactic from last year to now. Last season's premiere episode treated its audience to an entire town of mysteries, from Evie's strange private reticence to the mysterious guy on the pillar. So many of these peculiarities remained a mystery until the end of the season; some remain a mystery still. This year, instead of clearing up some of those loose ends, The Leftovers Season 3 premiere gave us even more entropy to contend with.

Some of this year's serving of dramatic riddles are unique in that they focus on presenting familiar characters...uncharacteristically. 

On paper, some of the folks of Jarden have fallen into their natural states; Jill is off to college (donning a fitting Nirvana tee), Nora is back with the DSD, Laurie continues her therapy-through-deception practice, and Kevin has resumed his universally transferable role as Chief of Police. It seems three years was more than enough time for the makeshift Garvey family to get over the honeymoon phase of escaping from their past selves to Miracle. As Jill wisely quoted: "Wherever you go, there you are."

What's off are the behaviors of these characters. It would make sense for Kevin to appear happy and contently grumpy; having finally reunited his family, extricated himself of Patti's maddening presence, and found himself reinstated as top cop, there's plenty for Kevin Jr. to be happy about. But it was hard to immediately get over the need for further exploring where the last episode left off. You know, how Kevin actually came back from the dead. Twice. Watching Kevin handle mundane day-to-day policing tasks seemed to suggest a complete mental dismissal of last seasons events. 

The once-broken family man's gracious acceptance of Laurie and John's apparent marriage was also very confusing and hard to swallow. John seems to have gone through a complete transformation from his strict demeanor (epitomized by a more elderly, carefree haircut and overall look). And it's a great look, seeing as his overly controlling character nearly destroyed the Garveys and the entire town of Jarden last year. But it's hard to forgive him of his sinful past, especially seeing as he and Laurie are currently running a scam. As Laurie and Tommy's Wayne bit was for the benefit of those in pain, so is this, I guess—but it's not a great look for John to take up a practice he once saw criminal enough to warrant evicting an old friend by way of burning a house to the ground.

It was safe to assume Ericka had left John after the bombing of the Guilty Remnant, especially since she had once planned on leaving her husband prior to Evie's disappearance (as she admitted to Nora during the DSD questionnaire last season). But again, we saw an unexpected kinship between two unlikely characters here: Nora and Ericka, who once traded rocks through respective windows, seem to be intimate drinking buddies now. What could have transpired in the past three years to bring these two together? Is Nora often stopping by for a pint, or was this the first they'd seen each other for years? And if Ericka remembers burying Evie, how is John convinced she's still alive? Is Nora the puritan from the premiere's cold open? What about the Hurley bird?

There are several mysteries like this still up in the air, and it's frustrating not being privy to details the characters are all pleasantly aware of. Instead of trudging through the nebulous unknown with our heroes (like we did with Kevin throughout the majority of the series), we are instead taken through an annoying tease of an episode for our introduction to the series' conclusion. However, this show has a commendable knack for answering the most pressing questions early on.

We got several of those nagging questions taken care of almost right away with Don't Be Ridiculous. As many suspected, Lily is with Christine, and Nora's recollection of how this transpired makes a lot of sense. Having lost two children herself, it became more than believable for Nora to surrender her adopted child to her biological mother.

This could very well be Nora's only soft spot at this point in her life. After the Departure, the fall of Mapleton, and the loss of Lily, it seems Nora has lost any lasting sense of compassion by now. Her shrewdness seems to pervade every human interaction she finds herself in, making her even less likable than before.

Personally, I find Nora to be entertaining, but despicable. Her cattiness serves as some of the show's most imperative comic relief, but it has come to reach an all-time low with her heartless besmirching of Pillar Guy—she even buts into harmless prayer circles just to shoot people down! Nora's disdain for religion was once reasonably defensive, but she now seems to seek out confrontation with venomous, obsessive vindication. 

It's also hard to continue pitying her after she abandoned Kevin last season. I'm a big fan of Junior, so seeing Nora take full advantage of her non-committal relationship status and run from Kevin at the first sign of trouble—well, I'll just say I haven't forgiven her yet. 

Nora isn't the only one guilty of avoiding commitment. As of The Book of Kevin, our hero seems to be conflicted about his belief in whether or not what happened to him was ‘real.’ When speaking to Dean and Laurie about his metaphysical antics, he seems to be convincing himself that none of it was real and that he is "better now." However, after Tommy shoots Dean, Kevin recounts his assassination of Patti in the hotel as if they were real events. This week, Kevin still seems unsure of how much he disbelieves his own divinity, hesitating to let Nora take Matt's book with her—perhaps fearing that she will destroy, misplace, or otherwise mishandle the only written testimony of his pseudo-biblical endeavors. It's nice to know that the once curmudgeonly skeptical New York cop is coming closer to accepting the unknowns of this world, but it also feels like a betrayal for us (the audience), having seen him last in one of the most surreal, other-worldly adventures of modern television. 

And I hate to brake it to you, Kevo, but "better" doesn't look like wrapping a plastic bag around your head.

So yeah—let's talk about that scene. First off, props to Justin Theroux for producing a frightfully convincing scene. From the look of it, there doesn't seem to be any ‘trick’ happening here; Theroux really had that sucker strapped to his head. It may look easy, but it takes guts to pull off a stunt like that.

This scene is pretty loaded, considering Kevin's arguable divinity. Is he trying to go back to the hotel, or is this just a coping mechanism? By episode 2, Kevin seems to clear up any question of whether or not he's suicidal (thankfully, he isn't). But even the initial scene seems to allude to the supernatural while also suggesting there's no imperative danger here. While Kevin is setting up his little stunt, he doesn't seem to be distraught, and he prepares with familiar authority. No doubt, this isn't his first rodeo. The music also suggests that everything is, indeed, "groovy," (the song is Feeling Groovy by Simon and Garfunkel), but it might also be a hint. Simon and Garfunkel first made their scored appearance in the Season 2 finale, when Kevin had to karaoke his way out of the hotel. The song he sang was none other than Simon and Garfunkel's Homeward Bound. Perhaps Feeling Groovy is a callback to the hotel, hinting that Kevin is indeed trying to get back to the purgatory-like building.

There's far more to dig into with these past two episodes, but I'll reserve some of my other thoughts until more is revealed in the coming weeks. So no, I'm not going to speculate on what the cold open means, nor the strange (apparent) flash-forward with old Nora. For now, I'll let the mystery be (anyone else miss that song?). However, I will say that I'm concerned that some of these mysteries—those presented by three years of undocumented events—may remain unexplored. Written off as events that transpired and need no further explanations. There have been some serious transformations in these folks from last season to now, and the stories behind these transformations beg to be divulged.

How This Zelda: Breath of the Wild Player Paraglided Accross Hyrule

At the top of Ridgeland Tower in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there's a NPC named Branli that rewards players for taking part in a Paragliding challenge; glide as far away as you can from the top of the tower in one go. My best distance is just over 600 meters. YouTube user Yukino’s record is over 7’000. 

Yukino achieved this staggering distance by making clever use of the game’s elemental systems; she would set off bomb arrows midflight to create patches of fire along Link’s flight path, using the upward draft of hot air to gain altitude and extend his glide.

Oh, by the way, hot air rises in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Did you know that? I sure didn’t.

Having discovered this astounding exploit, Yuniko set a course from Ridgeland Tower (located in Hyrule Ridge, just northwest of Central Hyrule) all the way to Eventide Island (which resides in the southeasternmost corner of the map), deciding this was the farthest point on the map from the mini-game’s starting point. 

Before taking flight, Yuniko prepared her course by clearing out most of the enemies in the immediate vicinity of her path. She also stocked up on stamina potions, falcon bows, and an impressive stock of 367 bomb arrows. (According to Yuniko, the majority of these arrows were purchased from the vendor at the Mounted Archery Camp.) Once her course was ready, Yuniko took to Ridgeland Tower, waited for the rain to pass, and initiated takeoff.

The first 2,000+ meters went off without a hitch; with plenty of grasslands to ignite, Yuniko maintained a steady rhythm of bombarding the ground beneath her and maintaining Link’s stamina meter—which depletes both over time while gliding and, more drastically, when shooting arrows in midair—with an elixir every few hundred meters, refilling her impressive 3 rings of stamina. 

This rinse-and-repeat process of igniting grass and chugging elixirs goes on mostly uninterrupted for the duration of the twenty minute video, though the entire stunt is nearly thwarted around 3,000 meters by a couple of rogue Octorok, which come frightfully close to grounding Yuniko. Fortunately, our hero catches her updraft just in time to evade both of these unexpected projectiles.

Occasionally, Link’s bomb arrows fail to ignite the grass below him. Noticing the defect, and closing in too close to the ground for a bomb arrow, Yuniko would quickly whip out some fire arrows just before hitting earth and litter the ground with flames, launching Link back on his trajectory.

The whole endeavor culminates in an uphill ‘climb’ up the Cape Cales peninsula, which outlooks the southeast ocean and, Yuniko’s finish line, Eventide Island. The upward slope proves a bit more challenging, as the grass is less likely to catch fire. Nevertheless, Yukino makes it to the edge of the cliff, sets off one last bomb arrow, and leaves the rest to fate as she makes her final descent over the bay, towards Eventide Island.

At the last second, just before Link is about to plant his feet, Yukino sets off a rune bomb, adding an extra 10 meters to her final score of 7,615.8 meters.

Yukino is now trying to beat her current record, but it will be interesting to see how other players approach this mini-game using these tactics. Perhaps we’ll see an attempt to glide over Death Mountain? (Unlikely, as there generally isn’t quite enough grass to set ablaze on volcanoes.)
 

Gaming Trend's Top 10 Games of 2016 Video

I recently made a video showcasing Gaming Trend's GotY list! All video and audio editing was done by me — except for the Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 segments, which were edited by my colleagues Mike Pearce (@GrrumpyGamer) and Josh Devlin (@jdevlin24t) respectively. (I also wrote the little intro tune, which can be heard throughout the first minute of the video.) Please see the video description for all credits and disclaimers.

Hope you enjoy it!

Why Stephen's Sausage Roll still haunts me

I've recently reached the second island in Stephen's Sausage Roll. That's one of four completed. I've been playing the game for nine months.

In case you haven't heard of it, Stephen's Sausage Roll is a deceptively unassuming puzzle game wherein you must roll oversized sausages over red-hot grill tiles to cook them. Each sausage functions as a rollable 2x1 block, and each block has a bottom and top side which needs cooking. Roll or slide a sausage onto a grill tile once and one side will be cooked. If the same side makes contact with a grill tile again, it will burn. Cook every side of every sausage and you've solved the puzzle. 

Ironically, this endeavor is often obstructed by your single tool: the pitchfork. This damnable, unwieldy grilling utensil tends to be the last obstacle of Stephen's Sausage Roll's most infuriating puzzles. The game's polygonal protagonist (perhaps creator Stephen Lavelle himself?) can either walk forward and backward or make 90 degree turns, thus swinging his freakishly large, medieval looking sausage-stabber all around him, carelessly knocking his precious sausages into the surrounding waters. This instrument is your only tool and your only enemy.

Much like last year's highly acclaimed puzzle adventure The Witness, Stephen's Sausage Roll presents its puzzles in a non-linear fashion, allowing its players to approach them in any order they choose (though, at the start, you are limited to the first of four worlds). No direction is outlined, no instruction is offered, and save for a quick rundown of the basic controls, the game is void of any tutorials. To learn the game's systems, you need to experiment; check out some of the puzzles; check out all of the puzzles; cook, burn, sink, and stab some sausages; and let your mind mull over the puzzles you've left unsolved. 

This is what I've been doing for the past nine months.

Unlike The Witness, I never feel very compelled to make progress in Stephen's Sausage Roll. Jonathan Blow's sophomore title is a masterfully designed world of epiphanic moments waiting to happen, enticing the player with an atmospheric mystique I seldom find in contemporary videogames. There was no conventional narrative to be uncovered (or at least none that I could ascertain). Instead, a narrative is built around the player's discovery of the island's numerous connecting parts. Even minute details like how the machinery in The Witness behaves — the way doors open and how each laser machine slowly boots up — give the game a mysterious, almost alien quality, further intriguing me and keeping me invested in the delightful unknown.

Stephen's Sausage Roll has none of this; no story payoffs to unlock, no apparent mysteries to uncover — no ulterior incentives for solving puzzles besides the reward of solving puzzles. Seeing as I happen to love puzzle games, this came as a nonissue when I first came across the game. But with nothing luring me back to the sausage-searing fray, I found it hard to stay focused on finishing the game before meandering off to Alienation, Ratchet & Clank, and later, Uncharted 4.

Nothing to pull me back in...except the ghosts of unsolved puzzles and uncooked sausages.

The true hook of a game like Stephen's Sausage Roll is its purity; it's just a collection of extremely well-designed puzzles. (Oh, and fucking hard puzzles at that! Several highly respected game designers have regarded SSR as one of the best puzzle games ever designed.) And those puzzles will always be there, easily accessible and ready to solve. I may go back to Dishonored 2 for another New Game Plus run; I might consider starting the masochistic adventure that is Dark Souls III (after compulsively snatching it up during a Steam sale); and I will most definitely play dozens upon dozens of hours of Overwatch; but the fact that there is an abundance of really, really fucking difficult puzzles waiting to be solved will continue to plague me with unremitting pangs of guilt.

What makes Stephen's Sausage Roll impossible to quit is knowing that I can beat it. Each sausage puzzle encounter is met with the routine of me scrutinizing the puzzle, deeming it impossible, then coming back to it three more times before inevitably stumbling on a solution.

Like most puzzle games, SSR’s players can benefit from spending time away from a puzzle. In The Witness, instead of bashing your head against the wall, one could simply walk away from the puzzle and explore more of the island — and you were normally rewarded with the discovery of new beautiful areas and new puzzles to learn from. SSR's puzzles are (I believe) meant to be mulled over in a similar fashion. But there are no beautiful environments to escape to. There are other puzzles to ponder, but they are all so freaking hard! Instead, I find myself picking up a puzzle, staring at it for a few minutes, making a valiant effort to crack the code, then venturing off to browse my Steam library for a brief two-week distraction.

That was 2016 in videogames for me; an extensive list of 20-80 hour distractions from Stephen's Sausage Roll. There are four worlds of puzzles to solve, and as I said before, I've just completed the first world. Here's to another three years of distractions!

 

Returning from the hiatus

Yes, we're still here. No, episode 28 was not the latest episode.

First, here's a list of the most recent episodes. As always, these can be enjoyed on iTunes Podcasts, Pocketcasts — wherever finer podcasts are found.

Ep 29: No Man's Sky, Hearthstone, and a very old MMO - http://www.screenwatchers.net/gamescast/2016/8/13/ep-29-no-mans-sky-hearthstone-and-a-very-old-mmo

Ep 30: No Man's Lie, Journey, and NX Dev Kits - http://www.screenwatchers.net/gamescast/2016/9/15/ep-30-no-mans-lie-journey-and-nx-dev-kits

Ep 31: Mario on iPhone, PS4 Pro, and Nintendo 3DS - http://www.screenwatchers.net/gamescast/2016/9/24/ep-31-mario-on-iphone-ps4-pro-and-nintendo-3ds

As many amateur podcasts do, we seem to have gone on an extended hiatus. So, to get on to the disclaimers and excuses: as many of you know, I was hired as the news editor of GamingTrend.com a few months ago and have since been kept very busy creating content for that site, including the GT Reboot, the site's news and previews podcast (a more recent development). Needless to say, this all forced the ScreenWatchers podcast into an indefinite standstill.

A lot has happened since the podcast went dark: the NX was revealed to be Nintendo Switch, Red Ded Redemption 2 was confirmed, The Last Guardian was delayed AGAIN, and Donald J. Trump became our President-Elect. So many of these headlining stories mark seminal events that we at ScreenWatchers had been anticipating since the show's inauguration, scrutinizing every leak and every whisper on a weekly basis. With specific regard to the NX narrative, not a single substantiated pixel went unexplored on our silly little show — that is, up until the very moment of it's reveal! It was a momentous occasion for us when the Switch finally reared it's puppy-like edifice, one which we shared through constant streams of text messages and repostings, followed by a week of fervor so very much missed in my discussions of Nintendo. And it's a shame we failed to share the experience with you.

 

I cannot make any promises — especially during the holiday seasons. I only wish to let you all know that, while there are not many of you, you haven't been forgotten. If it returns, the show may take on a new form and will perhaps lessen in frequency. 

At the very least, I will promise more posts and updates. Perhaps to just panhandle my work, perhaps to announce the show's return. Stay tuned to find out!

Happy Holidays!

The Watchability of Overwatch

David Kerner

Having ploughed through many hours of Overwatch during the beta and now at launch, I can confidently say it is an incredibly fun and exciting arena shooter. Blizzard managed to make each of the twenty-one heroes both unique and playable. I was worried it would be little more than a polished Team Fortress 2 and while the similarities are clear, there is certainly more depth. This article is not a review of its playability (buy the game), but of its watchability.

The explosive rise of eSports over the past few years, which is intrinsically linked to the concurrent evolution of streaming services such as Twitch, has become an increasingly important way for game developers to acquire new players and sustain interest. Additionally, the general (and continuing) shift of base gamer demographics away from primarily male consumers has expanded potential growth. Overwatch is designed as a casual first-person shooter that already has significant sales and active players. Having seen a few professional matches, I am unconvinced of its potential for competitive league play, or heavy viewership on streaming services.

A single thread ties together the top four most popular games on Twitch: legibility. A casual player or even a non-player of each game can generally understand what is going on at any given point. Though League of Legends and (to a lesser extent) Dota 2 are both MOBAs with massive character rosters and item combinations, the benefits of a top down playfield is immense. Viewers can for the most part see every major battle as it happens, and with skillful commentary appreciate tactical nuance. I have only played LoL a bit (Vel-Koz for life!) yet even my basic understanding lets me enjoy viewing tournament play greatly.

Hearthstone is a sweet collectible card game mostly stripped of complicated rules and interactions that can prevent prospective players from trying other card games such as Magic the Gathering. Every card basically does what it says, and the almost complete lack of interaction between players on their turns makes things easy to follow. You play a card, it resolves, you attack an opponent, it happens.

You will notice that none of the three prior games I mentioned are first-person shooters, which brings me to Counter Strike: Global Offensive. Why is CS:GO the top FPS in both viewership and player base, even against top tier franchises such as Halo and Call of Duty? There are of course plenty of reasons, but I will focus on the gulf of difference in viewing potential. Whereas watching competitive Halo or CoD feels like a hectic firefight with no strategy, CS:GO feels like chess. Permadeath between rounds, predictably of weapons, slow player movement, and map design coalesce for an eminently enjoyable viewer experience. Permadeath is key, as in tournament play the camera can add tension by focusing on an ever smaller cast of characters. With the excellent and continually improving caster/spectatemode, a viewer can quickly understand where players are and what they are doing. Slowness of movement and no sprinting or boost jumps means players’ movements can be more predictable. CS:GO map design favors distinct choke points that force teams to generally focus on certain areas. This allows set-piece strategies and traps which are lacking in Halo or CoD. All in all CS:GO is the gold standard of competitive FPS; can Overwatch compete?

Overwatch lacks every single component I mentioned above, and I fail to see what spectate mode Blizzard can craft which can display all the relevant information in a cohesive manner. I have no doubt a pro scene will develop, but the inability to show viewers events that are happening across wide open maps between constantly respawning heroes seems insurmountable. Many heroes can fly, jump huge distances, or literally blink around. Some heroes can spawn turrets, others have ultimates which wipe the whole enemy team. Dota 2 and LoL negate similar complications by being top down and are therefore far easier to follow. The pro matches I saw were confusing with near non-existent spectator tools. I hope against hope I am wrong in this conclusion, as the diversity Overwatch allows in playstyle and team composition will surely be fascinating at a professional level.

Pokemon GO developer implores players to "remain indoors"

Following several reports of Pokemon GO related accidents, a spokesperson from the app developer has warned users to refrain from searching for Pokemon outdoors.

Speaking at a press conference held this morning, James Willow (a practitioner of Pokemon pedagogy) said “While it may be tempting to walk around your neighborhood on a Pokemon adventure, we believe you all will find the experience to be equally enjoyable from the safety of your home.” He went on to remind everyone that the app’s official warning, which appears in the loading screen, clearly illustrates the dangers which await those who venture outdoors.

Willow also suggests that players avoid using the app while driving. Though he acknowledged that hunting for wild Pokemon on the road helps speed up the rate of captures and egg-hatches, Willow stated that playing games while behind the wheel is decidedly “less safe than texting while driving.”

Following the press conference, many irate fans took to twitter with criticisms. Twitter user @Raichuacheck complained, saying “i got nuthin but f***ing Doduo in my backyard! Better b gettin a pach for this sh*t!” Some have even theorized that this is a ploy to boost sales in microtransactions. “Hope they don’t think ima bout to spend that [money emoticon] on lures and insense,” said Twitter user @JohnCenaZapdos

Several hours after the press conference, the Pokemon Company responded to several comments on how Pokemon Gyms would be influenced, stating that they are “considering closing down all Pokemon Gyms” until they have figured out a solution. We have reached out to the Pokemon Company for a statement on whether or not the real-world establishments attached to these gyms (e.g. schools, churches, McDonalds, etc) would be in any way affected by these closures.

 

Game of Thrones Season 6 Finale crowd-pleases to a fault

Joe DeClara

SPOILERS for Game of Thrones Season 6 Finale below

Everything seems to have perfectly fallen into place; Cersei has the throne, Jon has the North, Arya had her vengeance, and Dany has dragons, ships, and an army. We also finally received confirmation for one of the oldest and most popular rumors for the series of A Song of Ice and Fire. And I have to say, despite the fact that I've been hoping for all of these victories, I found some of them underwhelming.

Game of Thrones faced a significantly novel conundrum this season; The Winds of Winter was to be the pivot point of many story arches and conflicts, finally rewarding our heroes with victories after perennial misfortune and defeat. This turning point was to be the culmination of George R.R. Martin’s epic; the victorious rise of hope and justice from the ashes of despondency and futility. Instead, what we saw was the result of television writers taking the bullet points of Martin’s unreleased penultimate novel and throwing it together in two final episodes and one badass battle scene.

I happen to love a lot of what happened in these past two episodes; the destruction of the Sept showcased some of the best directing in the series, and the battle scene at Winterfell was nothing short of a masterpiece of action television. But many of the in-between scenes revealed a lack of inspiration, humanity and, in some cases, consistency. As we progress further and further into the unknown (or unwritten) of Martin’s story, the abundance of detail we’ve come to expect from every scene (courtesy of the books) seems to dissipate.

The decimation of the Sept was easily the most exciting segment of this season’s finale, and the music played an integral role in building that excitement. The consistently recurring ostinato piano theme cued an expectant curiosity, wondering what ploy was unfolding. Finally, as Maester Pycelle realizes his betrayers and Lancel falls, the previously stagnant cello becomes agitated. Queen Margaery smells something afoot and urges the trial attendees to flee, but all too late. The Sept burns, and all Cersei’s opposers with it.

It was a profoundly effective scene. The dawning realization of Cersei’s plan seemed to dawn on me only moments ahead of Margaery, who knew the Queen Mother better than anyone else at the Sept. And while the buildup to this realization was well executed, the climax was just as impressive. Watching so many people become engulfed in wildfire was shocking, and seeing Cersei’s content smirk was equally disturbing.

The confession scene that followed was a bit annoying at first, but proved imperative to the episode immediately after. Though an amazing performance from Lena Headey, I was growing tired of the show’s recent obsession with excessive vindication (a recurring theme in this episode alone). But showing Cersei’s most sadistic nature here underlines her failure as a mother. Sick and self-indulgent, she calls Gregor Clegane away from her son to exact her revenge on the Shame Septa, leaving Tommen alone and without consolation. The king’s suicide was one of the only parts of the episode that succeeded in surprising me, but considering how alone he must have felt looking out on the ashes of his people, his new-found faith, and his wife, it’s no wonder he took his own life.

And Cersei seemed to take it pretty well. Like us Game of Thrones fans, someone had already told her their shockingly accurate predictions and kinda ruined the surprise for her. Looking down on the remains of her weak-minded son, she resignedly orders that he be discarded with the rest of the religious fanatics. At this point, Cersei has become completely desensitized to losing her loved ones. The deaths of Joffrey and Tywin had cut her so deep that she upended the city to bring Tyrion to justice. Myrcella’s poisoning had wounded Cersei but also left her more resigned to her children’s fate. Losing Tommen, her last living child, seemed to faze her only momentarily before brushing it off. Now, with no one to stand in her way, extricated of any remaining humanity, the throne is her’s. Cersei of the house Lannister, first of her name.

But Cersei’s was not the only coronation this week. After suffering three whole seasons of Bolton tyranny and slaughter, we have a new King in the North; and turns out, his name isn’t Stark, and it probably shouldn’t be Snow either. After thousands of reddit threads and theory pieces and years of speculation, we finally have confirmation that Jon was the son of not Eddard Stark, but rather Ned’s sister, Lyanna Stark. And though it wasn’t stated outright, we have more than enough reason to believe we know who the father was (link). Provided the latter half of this popular prediction is true, Jon might have just as much claim (if not more) to the Iron Throne as Dany.

It was one of the biggest reveals in the show’s history, and it fell completely flat. To be fair, I can’t say the fault lies with the show. George R.R. Martin put many hints in place pointing to this secret, hints that only the most astute readers would catch. But once enough people caught on and started talking about it, the R+L=J theory quickly became common knowledge. Though there was some anticipation for finding out whether the theory was true or not, the intended effect might have been lost to many viewers.

Nevertheless, we have a new clash of kings (and queens). Jon has claimed the North, Cersei has claimed Westeros, and Dany sails towards both of them. But we seem to also have another contender; Baelish spoke most bluntly to Sansa, voicing his highest ambitions: to sit on the Iron Throne with Sansa at his side. Therefore, it may seem natural to see Baelish looking sullen in the background while all the Stark’s bannermen hailed Jon as their new king. But we don’t know if this doesn’t work in both Jon and Littlefinger’s favor. One wants the throne, the other wants the North. Alliances have formed under similar circumstances before, so it seemed odd for Sansa to look so conflicted in that last shot with her at Jon’s side.

What seemed more likely was for Jon and Sansa to have issues concerning the last battle. Jon had ignored Sansa’s advice, and Sansa had contacted Baelish behind Jon’s back. Clearly, the Stark children were having some mistrust issues after years of being apart. But this seemed to be easily resolved with a stroll on the castle walls and a kiss on the head. If there’s to be some conflict between Jon, Sansa and Baelish next season, it would make sense for that conflict to be more apparent and less forgettable.

Much of this episode suffers from this inexplicable need to wrap things up in a pretty bow. Daenerys and Arya’s season plots specifically were given unnecessary and nonsensical endings. Arya’s moment of revenge against the Freys was certainly something many had been hoping and rooting for since the Red Wedding, but to spring it up literally out of nowhere like this seemed like a lazy attempt at crowd pleasing. How did Arya get to The Twins? How did she manage to get one of those masks? I had assumed those were only permitted to the Faceless Men, which she definitively abandoned two weeks ago. Does Jaqen H’ghar know she snatched one of those on her way out of the House of Black and White? Also, no doubt Arya’s an expert assassin at this point, but are we to believe that she was able to kill all the Frey’s, carve them up, bake them in a pie and serve it to old man Walder all without being detected? If so, I would have loved to see all of that happen. But no doubt the show writers thought that might take too long, and what a shame it would be to have to leave all that until next season!

Daenarys, on the other hand, had more than enough build-up. Her goal has been pretty straightforward since the start of the show; get ships, get an army, get dragons. And it all finally happened! After watching her fight to gain enough power to take on Westeros for six seasons, I’d say the burning of Slaver’s Bay was a pretty sweet payoff. And now it’s off to the Seven Kingdoms.

But what of Meereen? Oh, no worries - Dany’s leaving that murderous hell of a city in the hands of Daario Naharis and the Second Sons. What’s so unfathomably stupid about this plan is so obvious, I have a hard time believing the writers didn’t take notice. Before Dany had command over her dragons and an entire Dothraki army, she had 8,000 unsullied forces and the Second Sons - 2,000 sellswords. Though impressive, this did not prove to be a strong enough force to prevent several attacks from the golden-masked masters. In fact, Dany would have died last season if it hadn’t been for Drogon’s magnificent entrance in the fighting pits. Now, Dany expects 2,000 sellswords will be more than enough to handle Meereen, a city which potentially could still be at war with the rest of Eastos for its anti-slavery nonsense.

So off she went, 2,000 men and one lover less. But not to worry; she still has her 8,000 unsullied, tens of thousands of Dothraki warriors, one thousand ships, three dragons, and the company of Grey Worm, Tyrion, and Veras - which was even more asinine than anything else this episode. Mere minutes before the closing shot of the Targaryan fleet, we saw Veras in Dorne negotiating an alliance with the Tyrells and the Martells. After Arya’s one-week track to the Frey’s doorstep, I suppose it would be picky of me to criticize the show for skipping over Veras taking a boat back to Meereen. But why would he do so? Seems to me he could’ve saved himself a trip by just waiting for team-Stormborn to show up on the shores of Westeros and rendezvous there. But of course, it makes for a better closing shot to have them all on the boat together, so why not?

These little inconsistencies and plot holes seem to be in stark contrast to the rest of the series, which benefitted from George R.R. Martin’s illustrative scenes and cohesive narrative. A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones both thrive on taking time to explore every minor detail of each character’s journeys. This new focus on hitting all the bullet points and wrapping everything up nicely comes at the cost of robustness and coherence. In regards to the Season 6 finale, I thought the conclusion in King’s Landing was an example of excellent directing which did justice to Cersei’s character arch while setting up for an exciting Season 7. The rest of the episode, however, mostly suffered from spoiled reveals or messy wrap-ups. More importantly, this uncharacteristic looseness could be an unfortunate sign for what’s to come for the Martin-less Game of Thrones.

Response: Overwatch has 10 million reasons devs should think about diversity

This post is a response to an opinion piece written by Susana Polo.

I'll start off by saying yes; devs should be thinking about diversity.

And they are - more than ever, in fact. With high-profile games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, Dishonored 2 and the aforementioned Overwatch all showcasing strong, clever, badass women, it's safe to say that 2016 stands as another year of improvement in celebrating the woman protagonist. It's still a frustrating snail's pace we're taking, and we're still seeing a gross preponderance of men brandished on the box art of this year's games, but it's progress.

This movement (a bit weak for a movement, but given the medium's history...) is very much a response to social media’s focus on feminism, anti-racism, LGBT rights, and other civil rights issues that have been gaining resonance this decade. While politicians and civilians squabble over marriage laws and bathroom privileges, (not to disparage either concern) movie producers, website editors and game developers can enjoy life way ahead of the curve. The media is all ears, and so is Blizzard.

So for the games of 2012-2020, diversity is IN. But Team Fortress 2 - a game franchise which debuted in the late '90s....not surprising there wasn't more sensitivity concerning gender equality, orientation or identity. Back then, the target demographic for most (if not all) games was young-to-mid-20s male consumers. Not because there weren't female players, or even because there wasn't millions of female players, but because the media dictated videogames as a male-dominant culture. Boys like Mortal Kombat and DOOM, girls like Barbie and bedazzled jackets, and everyone likes Full House at 8 p.m.

I don't know your ex-coworker from a few years ago, but it sounds like he was just trying to find his way toward winning the conversation. However, he isn't wrong. There's certainly a demand for female characters in Team Fortress 2 today, but I'll bet no one batted an eyelash back in 2007; Team Fortress tradition demanded male characters, I'm sure (don't play myself). But what stood out to me was his last statement, which seemed to baffle you the most:

But then people would inevitably complain about the roles they put them in being "stereotypical," was his rebuttal.

You can be sure as shit that back in the '90s, or even in '07, any female characters would've been given a scantily clad support class or sniper class at best. Even Overwatch, which has been heralded over and over as graciously diverse and refreshingly progressive, sports blatantly sexualized women with breast-accentuating armor and skin-tight yoga pants. Imagine what Team Fortress 2 might have looked like! Those hypothetical character models would've been heavily criticized today.

So I say again, yes; developers should be keeping a close eye on games like The Last of Us, Life is Strange, and Tomb Raider. I believe Overwatch is an excellent example of a developer reaping the benefits of this astute observation. And I’m glad that its diverse roster of characters has allowed you to enjoy the game more than other class-based shooters. But judging an older game based on its choice of demographic  hardly seems fair. Developers and producers of the ‘90s and 2000s designed their games based on what was marketable. Blizzard made a smart contemporary move with Overwatch, much like they did with Starcraft back in 1998. Perhaps, twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on Overwatch and condemning it for Widowmaker’s exposed chest - or Hanzo’s, for that matter.

Gamer Expectancy: Undertale and Gone Home

Joey DeClara

SPOILER Warning for GONE HOME and UNDERTALE

Complementary reading music

Shooter season seems to have come early this year. We’ve come to expect all the heavy hitters like Halo, Destiny and Fallout 4 to come in around the fall, right before everyone clears out of the jungle for the elephant that is Call of Duty. This year, however, we’ve seen at least five huge shooters all in the past three months; DOOM made its way back onto the scene, Quantum Break turned some heads, critics raved about Uncharted 4, players raged over The Division, and nobody can get enough of that Overwatch.

And all I want to do is finish Undertale.

Ok, being a little obnoxious; Toby Fox’s odd little RPG allegedly takes a meager 6-7 hours to beat, so the game is hardly consuming every minute of my free time. It’s also, by this culture’s standards, a very old game at eight months ancient. With so many of the aforementioned new games currently in circulation, my timing could not be more offensive for digging into my backlog. But after playing through Ratchet & Clank, Quantum Break and Uncharted 4 (only after wasting fifteen hours of my life to the godforsaken waste pile that is The Division), the shooter saturation had taken its toll.

After all that, an unassuming retro adventure like Undertale is - and I hate giving in to this cliche - a breath of fresh air. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the game’s magical soundtrack and authentic pixel art (never get enough pixelated indies). It’s old-school RPG format and mechanics have also been oddly theraputic after all the trigger-happy mayhem of 2016.

Of course, there’s much more to Undertale than this kick of therapeutic nostalgia. The game has been revered since its release, sporting a number of accolades and “best of 2015” nominations. As Kallie Plagge says in her review, it’s hard to express what’s great about Undertale without spoiling the experience. So, some spoilers ahead.

Games have been around a long time. It’s easy to compare the medium to things like movies or music and say that videogames are still in their infancy. This may be true, but games have still been around long enough to have developed a deep vocabulary which has embedded itself inside the minds of all gamers. We know how the skill tree works, we know the difference between a real door and a fake one, and we all know that “Press Start” was bullshit for years. Undertale plays with these expectations brilliantly; especially those associated with ye old JRPG.

One witty example can be found in the bartering system - or lack thereof. Upon first walking into a shop, I found the usual potions and stat-buffs (or the closest equivalents) for me to purchase. As to be expected, the shop UI had a buy, sell and exit tab. But upon selecting sell, the clerk balked at me for trying to pawn off some crap he didn’t need when he had a shop full of stuff he needed to sell. This is hilarious because it throws you off and makes a fool of you while simultaneously pokes fun at the absurdity of the “sell” fiction. Imagine how silly you would look if you walked into a RadioShack and offered to sell them bandages.

The prime example of this play on genre-associated expectations comes with the game’s combat. Though you may fight in Undertale, leveling up actually hinders your capabilities. The arcade-like gameplay incentivizes you to refrain from gaining experience, and this pushes you to explore alternatives to violence. I didn’t realize this problem until I had already reached LV 5; an achievement gained at the expense of several slain monsters. Once I became aware of this dilemma, I immediately regretted my harshness. The game sets you up to shoot first so that you may later realize your mistakes and feel a simulation of remorse. Cold.

Though a miraculously surprising and ingenious game, Undertale's play on gamer expectancy is not entirely unique. In the same way Undertale messes with the tropes of JRPGs, Fullbright’s Gone Home carefully tiptoes around those of first-person horror games.

The entire experience of Gone Home hinges on its purported horror influences. The moment you step into the house, you are greeted with the ominous creaks and thumps of an empty and possibly haunted house. An answering machine blips with a woman’s distressed message, thunder intermittently breaks the solace, and the breadcrumb trail of a ghost hunt all but confirms your worst fears. The game’s beginning is carefully set up to put the player on edge, hitting on just the right amount of horror tropes to get your heart pumping.

After building this tension, every room becomes a challenge; switching on a light, turning a new corner, opening a closet door - the simple act of progressing from room to room takes not only rudimentary combinations of button presses, but also courage in facing the unknown. A few times, our fears seem to be realized during our hunt for clues; the splatter of blood in the bathroom, the seance table set in a hidden room, and a foreboding sign of warning on the attic door all seemed to confirm my suspicions of the game’s horror influence. But by further investigating, we find that the splatter is merely hair dye, the warning sign was a ruse, and the seance table - well, it’s a seance table, but ghosts aren’t real, so whatever.

Long story short, there is not an instant in the game which threatens the player. Void of life (paranormal or actual) or danger, the house is simply a box full of notes, drawers, cassette tapes, and a carefully placed crucifix. But the fear experienced was still very real - more real, possibly, than that of any other gaming experience. By setting us up to expect that awful “jump scare” we so dread (yet crave, apparently), our anticipation grows and is never fulfilled, allowing for every single room to be that big scare we’re waiting for. I especially remember coming across the attic door because I was so frightened by its presentation, I actually said aloud “Nope. Fuck that.”

The game’s brilliance lies not in the coding of a completely static house, but in the way it is tailored to a very specific reaction summoned by playing with gamer expectancy. We are given a small taste of First-Person Horror in the beginning so that we may become intensely focused on every detail presented to us. Full Bright effectively tricks us into paying attention to the fine details, much like Haydn does in his Surprise Symphony (Symphony no. 94 in C major mvt. II). If you were listening to the track provided at the beginning of this blog, you will have no doubt noticed the surprising bang at the start of the piece. This was done to get the listener to pay attention so that they may be more prepared when the "surprise" comes back. It never comes back.

Toying with an audience’s expectations takes a very deep understanding of the art form and, indeed, its audience. It is a masterful tactic which too often goes unnoticed and is criminally underutilized. Games built completely around this element, like Undertale and Gone Home, should be (and often are) applauded and accoladed as models of masterful game design. But games which play more subtly with gamer expectancy, like The Last of Us, Portal, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and LIMBO, make for terrific examples of how to incorporate this deep understanding of the medium in marketable modern games. More on that another time, perhaps.

 

Dishonored: The Greatest of Flawed Games

Joe DeClara

The sequel to Arkane Studios’ sleeper hit Dishonored has been officially set for release this November, and the excitement is palpable here at ScreenWatchers. With Mass Effect and Zelda: Wii U officially vacating this year’s roster and whispers of other games like Horizon: Zero Dawn joining them my enthusiasm for this holiday season was beginning to dwindle. But these delays were a blessing in disguise, making way for what might very well be my most anticipated game this console generation.

We first saw Dishonored 2 in the form of a concept trailer last year at Bethesda’s pre-E3 conference. Though it was exciting to see the return of Corvo, the Outsider, and Emily Kaldwin, along with some new gadgets and abilities, my excitement for this game mostly derives from the love I have for its predecessor.

I will be first to admit it; Dishonored is a flawed game. The game features insanely fun mechanics and abilities in a variety of well designed open-ended levels; but its story pans out predictably from middle to end, its graphical fidelity is sub-par compared to contemporaries, the silent protagonist once again comes off as boringly obedient and stupid, and every stealth game crux from easily manipulated AI to “must’ve been the wind” is present and accounted for. But some of the other popular criticisms actually lend to what makes this game so fascinating.

A more critical review of Arkane Studios' stealth-action game.

Many have criticized the game’s mechanical bias for violence, despite its advertised focus on agency. And it’s true; though you can get through the entire game without as much as scratching an NPC, Corvo’s arsenal of deadly weapons and demonic abilities eclipses his little pouch of sleep darts throughout the entire campaign. Every time I opened up my weapon wheel, the pallet of grenades, crossbows, exploding bullets, devouring rat swarms and springrazor traps proved too enticing for me to ignore. And let’s be real, Arkane - you put a sword in my right hand with no option to swap it out, and you have the unmitigated gall to tell me I’m not supposed to kill everything that moves? Not a likely disposition for the modern gamer to take the high road.

And that was exactly the point; Dishonored is meant to be played violently...at first. Everything is set up for you; a blind witch offering you powerups in exchange for murder, a supergenius offering you tons of fun toys for murdering, and a scatological playground littered with guards and other evident jerks begging for a well-deserved murderfest. But most importantly, right on the back of the box are the words which fuel your murderous rage: “revenge solves everything.”

All of this heavy-handed incitement starts at the plot’s launchpad; the assassination of the Lady Empress. Though Arkane Studios claimed Dishonored was  “as violent as [the player] chooses,” this mandatory scene earns the game’s M rating all on its own. The shock from helplessly watching Daud slay the empress in such brutal (and moderately male-dominant) fashion swiftly justifies any manner of violence required to exact revenge. Follow that up with some false incrimination and torture, and those grisly rat-summoning powers start looking mighty righteous.

Again, the devs are very aware of this. They know that as these villains try to extort a guilty plea from Corvo, all you’re thinking about is how to best carve out their innards. And they do not disappoint; throughout the next five missions, every sad sap who ever crossed you is offered up for butchering in spectacular fashion. Slice them, gas them, feed them to the hounds - all is fair in bringing justice to these perfidious usurpers.

But what about the guards? Surely, these non-playable characters are little more than glorified bullies, graciously doing your adversaries’ bidding. And that Bottle St. Gang? A bunch of crooks, clearly worth no more than the air they breath; the world is better off without them. Plus those evangelicals, the Overseers, who clearly work for High Overseer Campbell. And the plague victims - well, they’re suffering anyway....

And on and on it goes. As the player, our mind has been trained to immediately dismiss our enemies as soulless goons who must be brought to a quick death (and let’s be real; this is the norm). Arkane Studios uses this to their advantage and even arranges scenarios wherein the player’s instinctive assumptions might be justified. Many of the guards in Dunwall can be found performing inhumane acts, like throwing rats into electric fences or cracking jokes while dumping bodies into the sea. With most of the city dead and only the scum left alive, it’s easy to dismiss Dunwall’s inhabitants as little more than fodder for your new toys and tricks.

Unfortunately, you are sorely mistaken. For every body-dumper and rat-tormentor, there are innocents. Besides the more obvious victims like citizens, maids and prostitutes (again, a very male-dominant game), players may also happen upon guards and other hostile characters whose conversations reveal details about their families, their insecurities - one guard even discusses his plans of marriage with one of the maids. Of course, one may discover these signs of humanity only provided they don’t instantly slaughter everything that moves upon entering a room. However, even if your fell rage cannot be stifled, you may still catch a guard cursing your criminal acts; “the man you killed was a friend of mine,” and “you’ve made someone a widow, damn you,” are two that stuck with me on my first playthrough.

Throughout the game, these signs of your cruelty become increasingly apparent, though not always through direct repercussions. Some are subtle; certain scripted events will play out differently depending on your chaos level (how many people you’ve killed), some of which having no apparent connection with your storyline. (embed video of overseer)

Other signs are more noticeable and even have an effect on the gameplay. Most notably, the rats swarming the streets of Dunwall become more abundant with the more corpses you leave in your wake. Rats may only be a minor challenge to work around, but their increased presence adds to the dismal ambience of Dishonored.

All of this culminates in a final mission wherein Corvo must both bring justice to his betrayers and rescue the late empress’s daughter. Suddenly, all of your misdeeds stare you back in the face through the eyes of an innocent child. Arkane’s big fat finger wagging disapprovingly. The credits role. Thank you for playing Dishonored, you murderous git.

I can only speak for myself, but at this moment in my first playthrough of the game I was deeply conflicted with how I had left this world. I had come into a city that was all but ruined and had somehow managed to damage it further. Blinded by rage and a thirst for vengeance, I had repaid my misfortunes sevenfold, destroying the land which I once protected. I was a monster.

So I played the game again. And with that second playthrough, the true beauty of Dishonored revealed itself to me. I killed no one...or at least, no one that deserved it. The rats dissipated, the skies cleared, and all my non-playable companions addressed me with less trepidation and more reverence. All was right and dandy in my plague-ridden town.

But it wasn’t easy. As always, every time I pulled up that weapon wheel, those toys and tricks seemed to sing like sirens, enticing me to regress. Though the game is certainly difficult when attempting a zero-chaos run, the true challenge of Dishonored lies in maintaining the discipline needed to ward off our player instincts and choosing not to kill. With this in mind, I'm almost worried for the sequel, fearful that it may only succeed in chasing the dragon that was my first journey in Dunwall. We'll find out in November!