Horizon: Zero Dawn is a Reminder of How Fragile Our Way of Life Can Be

Horizon: Zero Dawn is undeniably beautiful. Its overgrown cityscapes are a cascade of breath-taking green, jade and orange flora, but that’s to say nothing of the other areas you’ll trek through in your journey. From jungles to desert canyons, the game seems to be made up of one spectacular vista after another. Still, this is a morbid brand of gorgeousness nonetheless. The fact remains that we’re walking through the corpse of a society. The world we know is gone.

The world we know is gone in Horizon: Zero Dawn, but how? Concept art by Allan LLoyd

As such, Horizon is a wonderful but depressing bit of escapism. Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or fellow PlayStation exclusive The Last of Us, it stands as a stark reminder of how precarious our current status quo could be. Although we’re unlikely to be overrun with quirky robot wildlife anytime soon, Horizon reminds us of a truth we usually prefer to forget. We’re not invulnerable.

While said robots clearly had something to do with how everything fell apart in this game, we don’t need a tech-driven armageddon of our own to lay us low. Worryingly, our problems are less remarkable yet equally (if not more) devastating. To start with, climate change is one very real threat to our society. We can argue as much as we like about its cause, but escaping the consequences is impossible: as stated by NASA on their website, carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve ever been in 650,000 years. Moreover, our sea levels are rising as Arctic ice continues to shrink in size. Besides the Arctic ecosystem being thrown out of kilter and polar bears having a damn hard time of it thanks to global warming, this might end with disease running rampant and your home underwater. Earth Observatory points out that as ‘tropical temperature zones expand, the reach of some infectious diseases, such as malaria, will change. More intense rains and hurricanes and rising sea levels will lead to more severe flooding and potential loss of property and life’. If something doesn’t change then the globe may look rather different in a hundred years or so, and not for the better.

Secondly, disease is a genuine and utterly terrifying threat that could wipe us out all too quickly. The likes of 1918’s Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people, while the medieval Black Death wiped out roughly 60% of Europe’s population. That’s outright insane: you basically had a half-and-half chance of survival. Those aren’t great odds, and despite having vastly improved medical treatment nowadays we’d be forced to contest with new challenges due to international travel being so easy. In the early days of an epidemic, a carrier who may not yet be showing symptoms would simply hop on a plane and take their illness to a different continent altogether. Your problem has suddenly widened in scope.

We can’t ignore technology a la Horizon or Terminator either, of course. Artificial intelligence is getting smarter by the day and it’s certainly feasible that this could become a problem if machines somehow outsmarted us or messed about with the internet. We rely so heavily on the web that losing it would cripple our society. This is also why events such as solar flares (which are ejections of plasma from the sun that have the ability to knock out our tech when strong enough) are potentially a worry.

None of this is in danger of happening anytime soon, naturally, but Horizon serves as a stark reminder not to take things for granted. Our civilization’s survival is far from guaranteed, and neither is our way of life.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Logan: What Happened to the X-Men?

Days of Future Past was a great send-off for the X-Men, all things considered: although we’d watched them be systematically murdered over its two-hour run-time, the final scene (which showed the team alive and well) ended their story on a satisfying note. After six films of heartache, they’d finally gotten their happy ending. However, Logan shows us that we spoke too soon. The X-Men are gone a mere six years later, mutants are dying out and the gruff but heroic Wolverine is a battered shell of his former self. Even Professor X is a husk of what he once was, stuffed out of sight in an overturned water-tower and babbling incomprehensible Shakespeare. It makes you wonder where everything went wrong.

Discussing that takes us into spoiler territory, so be warned – come back later if you’ve not yet seen the movie. The reveal is handled brilliantly, so I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you here.

No matter what, it’s a far cry from the X-Mansion – concept for Logan by Shae Shatz (via i09

Logan may not give us much to go on, but the scant information it does provide is nothing short of heartbreaking. We learn that several people (upwards of 600, in fact) were injured in an event the film calls the ‘Westchester incident’: as a news anchor points out after the climactic battle in a casino, the effects of this were eerily similar to those seen when Xavier has his seizures. More distressingly, seven mutants were killed in this disaster. Because Westchester is the location of Xavier’s famous school, the implication is clear.

The fact that Professor X’s illness left most of his students in danger is devastating, especially considering how many of them were children. Indeed, while most assume the mortalities were classic X-Men – and director James Mangold alludes to as much – it’s possible that some of those victims were children in the first place. It would certainly add more incentive for Wolverine to keep the truth from his ailing mentor. For a teacher whose pupils’ safety is their highest priority, this is more damaging than any supervillain could hope to be.

Either way, it’s a deeply tragic turn of events. The X-Men thought they’d escaped the end of days but it found them nonetheless. The horror of not knowing exactly what happened makes things infinitely worse, meanwhile: we’re left hanging when it comes to our favourite characters. Are the likes of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm still alive? We’ve got no idea. As Logan’s writer points out, those deaths may not even have been of characters we knew.

That said, we can do some reading between the lines here. Jean is almost certainly a casualty. As one of the most powerful mutants out there, I can’t imagine she’d drop off the radar. Her demise would also emotionally destroy Wolverine all over again, adding to the cynicism that oozes out of his every pore in this movie. He went through hell and back to change the X-Men’s past, so things still going wrong would utterly break him. It’s a similar argument where Storm and Beast are concerned. They’re much too influential not to leave a footprint on Logan’s world, yet there’s little sign of mutants beyond Wolverine’s friends or the children they’re trying to save.

The only hero I can see making it out alive is Kitty Pryde, mostly thanks to her ability to phase through matter. Could she be hurt if intangible? Who knows. I suppose the likes of Cyclops could have survived and faded into obscurity too because of his penchant for angst, but I say that mostly because I’d love to see a story that adapts recent comics where he’s a Magneto-like extremist.

I don’t suppose it matters. Life sucks anyway if you’re a mutant by the time we hit Logan, regardless of whether you were present for the Westchester incident or not. Disturbingly, the mutant race went out with a whimper rather than a bang this time: thanks to foodstuffs that attack mutant-genes in carriers, no more can be born. In a dark twist, the DNA of older mutants is also co-opted as for experiments like Laura. Judging by our protagonist’s desperation to reach the Canadian border, we should probably assume that it’s one of the few countries with any protection left for Wolverine’s kind. Things are truly grim.

That’s a recurring theme of the ­X-Men franchise since Days of Future Past – the more things change, the more they stay the same. We see this clearly in Logan. While the timeline’s been altered, the events of prior films seem to have happened in one way or another in spite of the change. Professor X references the Statue of Liberty from the original movie, Wolverine still has his X-Men Origins dog-tags and he’s held onto the samurai sword from The Wolverine. One of the only alterations is the revelation that Wolverine had a drug-problem, a virgin career in cage-fighting and a position as an assassin when he was found by Xavier in this new reality. It’s reminiscent of the Ultimate comics version of the character, a series where he was employed by Magneto to kill Professor X.

We’ll probably never see how things shook out, of course – it’s much more powerful it’s left to our imaginations. The upside, though? We’ll just have to watch it again and see if there’s anything we missed. What a shame.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Halo Wars 2: If We Fought Aliens For Real, We’d Be Stuffed

Halo Wars 2 is the kind of game that stands out on consoles: rather than handing players a weapon and thrusting them headfirst into combat, it takes a step back and observes the action from afar. That’s unusual in and of itself. Real-time strategies like this (including Command and Conquer or Age of Empires) are a rarity anywhere other than the PC. Equally, its focus on the nitty-gritty of battlefield tactics is a departure for Halo. Microsoft’s biggest exclusive usually focuses on one man’s struggle, but this concerns itself with an army.

That approach brings to mind the nightmare it’d be to fight aliens in ‘real life’. As obvious as it sounds, anything from another world is going to be wildly unfamiliar: their culture, armaments, vehicles and tactics would feel unrecognisable in the most terrifying way. Consequently, neither side would know what they’re up against or how to respond. You can’t prepare for the unknown, so the result would probably be a blood-bath. While it had its share of flaws, Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds handled this well.

The Covenant have been tearing humanity apart for years – concept art for Halo Wars 2

We often assume that extra-terrestrials will conform to our rules. Halo’s Covenant still use guns and tanks, for instance. Yet to do so is naïve. Even if they were humanoid as some experts suggest – thanks to a scientific theory called ‘convergent evolution’, wherein life develops similar traits because it’s just sensible – we’d still be out of our depth. There’s little to no common-ground if your enemy comes from another planet, especially when their cultural touchstones are entirely removed from our own. Who’s to say they’d even use ballistics or the equivalent of jet fighters? We might find our ability to respond rendered moot.

That sense of skating on thin ice is where Halo shines. It’s why Halo: Reach in particular was so effective: taking place early in the story and a short time after humanity makes first contact, the Covenant are a total enigma. We can’t even understand them at this point, never mind beat them. As a result, the heroes face a losing battle right from the start.

Halo 3: ODST had a similar vibe with its ground-level grunts muddling on as best they can against superior forces. The brilliant live-action trailer (which singlehandedly convinced me to buy the game, no less) showcases just what an uphill fight it’d be.

From a commander’s standpoint – as with Halo Wars 2 – this is a horrific situation to find yourself in. What do you do against an enemy who can’t be predicted? It’s a case of forgetting everything you know and working on instinct. That’s far from ideal when lives, not to mention your way of life itself, hang in the balance.

Because of this, I really wouldn’t envy those in charge during the Halo Wars spin-off. If the key to war is understanding your enemy, good luck to them with a foe who is literally from another damn world. We’d be stuffed.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.


For Honor – What Is It We Love About Combat?

Great though video games may be, it’s awkward when someone accuses them of a borderline-fetishist interest in violence. That’s probably because it’s true. High scores are often dictated by the number of headshots you can pull off, whilst combat itself is one of the most common activities you’ll find within the medium. I’m not suggesting this causes the social issues you’ll read about in many tabloid newspapers (their scare-mongering can be painfully uneducated, frankly), but it does make me wonder why we gravitate so strongly toward fighting in media. It’s definitely a conversation worth having.

In the world of For Honor, combat's all there is - concept art by Ubisoft
In the world of For Honor, combat’s all there is – concept art by Ubisoft

This was brought to mind by For Honor, Ubisoft’s quasi-historical action-game released last month. Set in a fantastical kingdom populated with Vikings, medieval knights and Samurai, it focuses on the rigours of melee combat. In fact, the setting feels secondary to that adrenaline-rush you get from crossing blades with an opponent. It revels in the chaos of war.

Yet this I can understand: there’s an element of chivalry, skill and prestige associated with hand-to-hand combat. Mastering the sword takes years of practice, a truth I can verify due to of my own clumsy bumbling in a medieval swordplay class. I suppose it’s an ego-boost too, a desire to be dashingly heroic like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow.

Not that this cool-factor is restricted to Dark Age weaponry. The same could be said of modern action movies where the hero must foil an evil plot or seek revenge. Although I’ve not yet seen it, I’d imagine John Wick 2 is a good example. We admire the lead’s talent, athleticism and casual nonchalance whilst putting the world to rights: they always know what to say or do. It’s wish-fulfilment in its rawest form, a representation of the hero we yearn to be.

This escapism also helps genres such as fantasy endure. The Lord of the Rings features a war against demonic forces, for example: the protagonist is their world’s only hope, an empowering scenario that (in the case of games, at least) makes us feel special. Moreover, there’s little grey-area to speak of here. We can blow off steam without worrying about the morality of doing so. Orcs and White Walkers don’t encourage much sympathy, after all.

Violence in the likes of horror is harder to justify, of course. Perhaps it operates in the same ball-park as crime fiction: besides upping the stakes, earning our revulsion is a good way of making your villain more intimidating. Additionally, it forces us to worry about consequences within the plot. Game of Thrones does this superbly. The unexpected – and often hideous – death of its characters leaves us on edge. Nothing is sacred, no-one is safe and anything could happen. The show is much more gripping as a result.

That’s the opinion amongst some professionals, anyway. Researchers from universities across the world (via Psychcentral) suggest that audiences might be “drawn to violent content because they anticipate other benefits, such as thrill and suspense”. As noted by Anne Bartsch from the University of Augsburg, it’s possible that “depictions of violence that are perceived as meaningful, moving and thought-provoking can foster empathy with victims, admiration for acts of courage and moral beauty in the face of violence, or self-reflection with regard to violent impulses”.

As such, it’s nice to know that our interest in violence (and violent video games) isn’t because we’re terrible people deep down. Well, for the most part – I’m quietly fond of the Star Wars prequels, so maybe I should retract that statement…

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Is it Time for the DCEU to Reboot?

The only thing that seems to be coming out of DC’s film department right now is disappointment. It’s a real blow. Clumsily dubbed the ‘DC Extended Universe’, this is a franchise that’s careening downhill whilst engulfed in the fire of bad reviews. On top of the critically-panned Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, two directors have left The Flash in ironically quick succession. Additionally, The Batman has struggled to pin down a director after Ben Affleck – who also stars in the titular role – stepped down from behind the camera last month. There are even reports that he’s close to hanging up the cowl itself. When paired with rumours of trouble surrounding Wonder Woman (even if that’s since been refuted), it’s hard not to think a reset is desperately needed.

Concept art from the abandoned George Miller Justice League film - via SlashFilm
Concept art from the abandoned (and seemingly much cheerier) George Miller Justice League film – via SlashFilm

Tempting though it is, I’d be gutted if Warner Bros. threw in the towel. The last two instalments were less than stellar, but seeing Man of Steel consigned to the scrap-heap along with them breaks my heart. Despite having problems of its own, the film’s depiction of Krypton is nothing short of breath-taking. Moreover, I maintain that the first two-thirds of that film were spot-on. After a sympathetic journey to find his purpose in life, a now-humanised Superman becomes the hero we know and love once he’s donned his costume. He laughs, smiles and, above all else, does what’s right. But then it all goes pear-shaped with disaster-porn battles and a climax that understandably turned off fans. I’d argue that it only veered off the rails when Clark had his trippy, on-the-nose dream-sequence with Zod.

Similarly, its sequel had plenty of good ideas to work with. No, really. They simply weren’t executed well (though that’s a discussion for another day) thanks to its director and writers who’ve had a stranglehold on things thus far. To scrap the series without giving someone else a crack of the whip would therefore feel wasteful. Considering how the lauded comic scribe Geoff Johns has just taken charge, things may start looking up at last. We should at least see what he does first.

Nevertheless, I wonder what the result would be if they were to call things quits. Perhaps a soft reboot (a la X-Men: First Class) might be the best course of action. Future films could zero in on Wonder Woman’s past, Batman’s career pre-Superman in the 1990s or side-step entirely with new and unknown characters. The already in-production Shazam would be a great place to start, for instance. Introducing a young boy who’s given the power to transform into an adult superhero, it’d inject a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s in high demand after so much gloom.

If DC followed this path, there’d really be no need to reference prior films at all. Each of the above can happily stand alone.

Failing that, they could even hand off to a new generation like Marvel is rumoured to do after Avengers: Infinity War’s sequel. Maybe the recently-announced Nightwing film – following the original Robin as he strikes out on his own – could be the first step on that road.

All the same, my preference would be for a completely fresh break set in the past. One ace DC has up its sleeve is a long and illustrious past stretching back into the WWII era: the Justice League weren’t the first team to protect our world. Known instead as the Justice Society, this group included Wonder Woman and an elder generation of the Flash and Green Lantern. There’s your ‘in’ for an audience arriving with fresh eyes.

Better still, it featured characters we’ve never seen in cinema before. That includes the mystical Doctor Fate, Sandman (who’s reminiscent of Watchmen’s Rorschach), the original Atom and happy-go-lucky Stargirl.

By focusing on this band of ‘Mystery Men’ and women (as they were known back then), you reverse the mistakes DC has made up until now. To begin with, returning to the Golden Age of comics where heroes do good because they’re upstanding people is something we’re missing in today’s dark, naval-gazing equivalent. Secondly, it’s not obviously a reboot so we’d avoid audience fatigue. As far as they’re concerned, this could fit into the universe they’ve come to know already. If they respond well, you’d then build back up to the present-day cast.

Whether DC has it in them to be so bold is another matter, of course. Changing tack would mean abandoning the many projects already in production. With Aquaman, Flash and The Batman already gearing up, that’d be a wasted investment Warner Bros. may not want to contemplate. However, If Wonder Woman and this autumn’s Justice League hit another critical brick wall it’ll probably be time to call things quits regardless.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

LEGO Batman Shows Us Where DC Movies Should Go Next

We’re always saying that superhero movies have become too dark. Although I don’t disagree, this gripe is exasperating when geek-culture at large is berated for ruining what we’re told is a children’s genre (and aren’t we ashamed of ourselves?). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the source of much grumbling in 2016, for instance. I’d imagine this year’s Justice League will have a similar effect, so it’s not a topic that’s going anywhere fast.

With that in mind, The LEGO Batman Movie is an ideal tonic. Funny, heartfelt and unfailingly bizarre, it’s a love-letter to comics and every era of the Dark Knight (even those we’d rather forget). As an example, the neon thugs of Batman and Robin make an appearance while Bane speaks with an accent that is unmistakeably ripped from The Dark Knight Rises. Billy-Dee Williams even gets to play Two Face at last after missing the chance in Tim Burton’s Batman. It’s simply wonderful.

Madness is the emergency exit - concept art from the DK Making of the Movie book
Madness is the emergency exit – concept art from the DK Making of the Movie book

Accordingly, I wonder if this isn’t the solution to complaints about age-appropriateness. Rather than re-tooling films like Wonder Woman or Aquaman so they’re suitable for kids, why not create another DC universe alongside it that’s built from the ground up to be family-friendly? LEGO Batman demonstrates that there’s enough room to accommodate both approaches.

It may overcomplicate things, but I’m loathe to ring-fence these characters for one audience or another. Despite being designed with children in mind, it’d be wilful ignorance to deny how popular they are amongst adults. This is a genre that’s grown far beyond its original demographic, and classic stories like The Dark Knight Returns only accentuate the point.  As such, it makes more sense to keep these approaches separate than compromise the vision of either one.

The question then becomes how to go about it, of course. Continuing with the LEGO series is one (very good) option. We’ve seen that those at the helm know exactly what makes DC special, and the Justice League have already made an appearance in LEGO Batman to boot. It wouldn’t take much to pivot into a team-up film or Superman movie, especially when the latter was voiced by Channing Tatum last time.

Another option would be starting fresh with an animated universe akin to Marvel’s Big Hero 6. The perfect jumping-on point would be a Superman story. After Man of Steel ruffled feathers, I can’t think of anything better than going back-to-basics with a boy-scout who doesn’t need to contend with a grounded universe. Want Krypto the super-dog? Cool, you’ve got it. If we can create a world where it’s OK to have often-ridiculous superheroes wearing their pants on the outside, why not? A lighter, kid-friendly film opens doors that just aren’t accessible elsewhere.

With luck, this would right the ship without throwing our baby out with the bathwater: there’s still something worth salvaging from the DC cinematic universe, flaws aside. To me, this is the best way of getting the best of both worlds without hobbling either. Everyone wins.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard – Which Kind of Zombie is Scarier?

Resident Evil is a franchise with something that borders on split-personality disorder. You’ve got the movies on one side, classic games on another, modern survival horror in-between and bombastic action romps for good measure. This is oddly appropriate. The living dead that make up its rogue’s gallery come in all shapes and sizes as well, veering wildly from shambling corpses to the zombie fun-runners who populate movies like World War Z. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard sees another version join their ranks – unstoppable and thoroughly disgusting cannibals. I can’t work out which is scarier.

Even some of the covers for the most recent game are creepy - artwork from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Even some covers for the most recent game are creepy – artwork from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

If you’d asked me a few years ago (particularly when The Walking Dead had just launched on TV) I’d have gone for the traditional undead. Their complete lack of an ‘off-switch’ may be the worst thing about them. Although their rotting flesh makes them classic nightmare-fuel, the fact that they won’t get tired is worse. They’ll keep ambling after their next meal until they get it or they’re put out of their misery. They don’t feel pain either, so nothing short of a killing blow to the head will do. I’d imagine that’s harder to pull off than you’d think, particularly if they have you surrounded and you’re panicking. Which you would be, realistically.

There’s not a shred of morality left in your standard-issue zombie, either. They aren’t fussed about what’s fair and no amount of pleading will stop them.

It doesn’t help that the idea of being eaten alive is so horrific. Having your intestines pulled out like stuffing is an awful thought and things only get worse from there. I had trouble shaking the image of a survivor’s face being munched off during season two of The Walking Dead, for instance. There’s something primal and appalling about seeing a person, fictional or not, become fast food.

However, the upside is that they wouldn’t be much of a long-term threat. Despite having strength in numbers, they’ve also got the processing power of a 90s-era Tamagotchi. Then there’s the small matter of them decomposing over time. Hold out long-enough and I suppose they’ll fall to bits of their own accord.

The cannibal family in Resident Evil 7, though? They’re a very different kind of threat. Alongside monstrous strength and endurance, the Bakers are people like us. They should know better. In principle, anyway; why they don’t takes us into spoiler territory. That cognisance is infinitely more terrifying than hordes of the undead. Someone choosing to commit atrocities shows a disregard for human wellbeing that’s not simply chilling – it’s regrettably plausible. You could reason with them, but they still wouldn’t give a monkey’s. That’s true evil.

They make you suffer for fun, basically. While older models of zombie are pragmatic in their need to eat your brain, these nutcases hurt their victims because it gives them a perverse satisfaction. Your limbs are a rare delicacy, too. Why bother with standard carbs and veg when you can chow down on a person’s fleshy bits? That choice is what makes them frightening.

This brings us to our final strain of zombie, albeit in a round-about way: infected individuals. Smarter than their old-school cousins, they’re like the Bakers in that they remain alive. These unlucky souls were saddled with a disease that turned them feral, a waking nightmare that occurs in The Last of Us or 24 Hours Later. In some stories (namely the former) they’re self-aware yet unable to stop themselves nonetheless. I can’t think of anything worse.

Fast, strong and possessed of an animal cunning that – in Resident Evil at least – lets them concoct plans, these monsters use weaponry against us as well. Battling enemies who rely on their teeth is one thing, but baddies who prefer hatchets and chainsaws? That’s a very unwelcome change. It’s essentially an average zombie with none of the weaknesses.

This is why they’re scarier to me than any of the above. They’ll eat your brains en-masse, but that’s due to them outsmarting us first. It makes me glad they’re works of pure fiction. We’d be properly screwed if not. I don’t enjoy the notion of a super-powered zombie who’d score higher on an IQ test than me.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

We’d Probably Go Mental if Digimon was Real

Remember when Pokémon took over the world? The public lost its mind in the early 2000s. It became a black hole for our pocket-money, too; my classmate even paid a ten-year-old me to draw them Pokémon cards.

Its popularity led to knock-offs, of course. Digimon – frequently pegged as a cash-in – was among these pretenders to the throne. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Although it was a by-the-numbers rip-off at first glance, closer inspection reveals a smarter franchise than you’d expect. I guess that must still hold true; the latest entry (Digimon World: Next Order) came out on PS4 and Xbox One a few weeks ago.

A world where anything is possible - art for Digimon World: Next Order
A world where anything is possible – art for Digimon World: Next Order

On reflection it’s easy to see why the series has lasted so long, though. The premise is wonderfully evergreen; travelling to another world where you can start over is the ultimate escapist fantasy. It’s catnip for the imagination. Nobody knows you in Digimon’s universe so you’re free to become whoever you’d like, as with The Matrix or Narnia. Furthermore, this is a chance to remake yourself away from the humdrum slog of reality – you can leave behind expectations or opinions of your character that’ve developed over a lifetime. It’s an alluring prospect, especially when you throw in the appeal of a companion who cares for you unconditionally.

However, this raises a similar question to the one explored in Westworld via the Man in Black. What happens when you can do whatever you’d like and there’s nothing to stop you? We all like to imagine that we’d hold onto our moral compass under the threat of temptation, but the reality is somewhat trickier. When you’re made to feel powerful and there’s no limit on what you can do, your sense of right and wrong could easily be warped – especially when said world is digital and not strictly ‘real’. You’d have to possess a will of steel not to take some liberties here and there.

I suppose it’s similar to child stars who went off the rails. After being thrust into the limelight where nothing is off limits, your grasp of reality is unlikely to stay grounded. With sycophants surrounding you and few who’ll say ‘no’, it’s little wonder some lose their heads.

Not that Digimon should explore this; it’s a family-friendly series and there’s no reason it should become anything different. That said, there’s probably a good story somewhere in this idea…

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Sherlock Shows Where You Should – and Shouldn’t – Shake Things Up

Just as I was starting to worry it’d lost its way, Sherlock rights the ship in wonderfully quirky fashion. After filling time with a fun yet throwaway special and glum series premiere, season four’s second episode cranked up the humour for a much warmer story. Better still, the end-game has finally crawled out of the wood-work; its twist is intriguing enough to inject life back into the series. In addition, the reveal is another sign that shaking up a classic doesn’t simply work – it can push the story to new heights.

The more things change, the more they stay the same - art for the Sherlock comic book by Titan Comics.
The more things change, the more they stay the same – art for the Sherlock comic book by Titan Comics.

You wouldn’t think so in 2008. The BBC drama was always playing with fire by modernising Holmes. The contemporary setting smelt of a gimmick, justified or not. However, Sherlock made it work brilliantly. Creator Mark Gatiss once said that the franchise translated seamlessly into today’s world; as he pointed out during a BBC press-release, “Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer of genius and it’s worth trumpeting that point… It’s not said often enough. His short stories, particularly, are thrilling, funny, lurid, silly, strange, wonderful pieces of exciting adventure which lend themselves incredibly well to a modern setting.”

I wholeheartedly agree. I take issue when the narrative bends its heroes out of shape, though. Beware: there are spoilers for Sherlock coming up.

The trend started when Holmes shot Magnusson point-blank. It was a surprise that never sat well with me. Sherlock is, at his core, a thinker. Holmes’ MO is to outwit his way to victory, not fall back on murder if things get tricky. It was fascinating to see how he responds in an impossible situation, yes, but it also felt like a step too far. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

To make matters worse, season four grabbed the baton and ran with it when Watson considered having an affair. Not only did this make me go off him a little, it didn’t seem in character either. Despite being an excellent cross-examination of John (he’s striving to be the man people already think he is), that doesn’t count for much if I end up disliking him anyway.

It’s a classic way of alienating your audience. Spider-Man 3 fell into this trap when Peter made one bad move after another, and Man of Steel pulled a similar heel-turn in its final act. The cleverness of it all is irrelevant; we feel betrayed.

That said, it’s a small complaint when you consider how fantastic everything else has been from beginning to end. The production values, editing, performances and script remain beyond compare. Furthermore, Sherlock’s some of the best television from the BBC in a long time. I’m incredibly glad to have it back.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Assassin’s Creed is Best Kept in the Past… Literally

Of all the franchises that sprang up alongside the Xbox 360 and PS3, few have had so many ups and downs as Assassin’s Creed. That series has charted the full spectrum from astounding to a technical disaster and back again. The original left plenty of room for improvement, its sequel impressed on almost every front, the French-set Unity was hobbled by bugs and Black Flag charted a brave, unique trip out to sea. It even has a Hollywood movie to its name just ten years after the series launched.

The one area that’s consistently gotten better is its present-day story, however. Or the lack of it, more appropriately.

The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot - concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft
The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot – concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft

Revolving around a war between the shady Templars and their Assassin enemies, it’s a battle for the soul of mankind that’s raged on since the dawn of time. The fight continues here in the present, and this modern clash is a framing device around which every game hinges. Whilst it was an enjoyable way of anchoring the narrative between different time periods, the conflict became muddled by an often-daft plot involving mind-control and aliens. It also dragged the spotlight away from what Assassin’s Creed does best – letting players dive headfirst into a slice of painstakingly recreated history.

That’s changed in recent years, though. Assassin’s Creed IV plucked us out of the confusion in exchange for a streamlined tale that focused on the past, and everything which followed did so too. I’d be interested to see if the film sticks to that trend.

The series is arguably stronger for it. Black Flag zeroed in on the evocative mythology of the setting, opting for a swashbuckling fantasy instead of precursor races and the apocalypse. It says a lot that this was one of the most engaging entries for a long while.

I’m not sure the sci-fi angle is actually necessary beyond the Animus (this allows users to access their ‘genetic’ memories, essentially reliving an ancestor’s life). Indeed, I’d be happy with games that simply unearth times gone by. I don’t think I’m alone. I haven’t heard many praising the futuristic gubbins of Assassin’s Creed. Anecdotally at least, the consensus would be that it’s not an entirely welcome distraction.

I only wish the developers – of which there are now an absurd amount – had reached this conclusion sooner. The first installment would really have benefited from this. Rather than becoming bogged down with conspiracies and an artifact that was basically a cheat code, it missed an opportunity to explore the setting that inspired the game further. As an example, the Assassin’s order was based on a real sect of fanatics (known as Nizari Ismailis) who indoctrinated and murdered their way into the history books. I’d advise looking them up. They’re fascinating, if a little scary.

That said, we’ve come a long way from businesses trying to take our free will and aliens who were here before humanity. Assassin’s Creed has a wonderful selling point as it is without that, and I’m glad those behind it are doubling down on what makes the series great in the first place. I love the conspiracies that are its bread and butter, but taking a step back and casting us as players of the Animus technology is a more elegant tact that leaves all eyes on its biggest strength.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.