Stranger Things: A Reflection 


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Netflix Original Stranger Things came as a pleasant surprise last month. A bold, heartfelt throwback to eighties pop-culture that crafted something inventive and memorable in the process. From its music to characters, it sparked feverous discussion online and proved to be an instant hit. It is, in essence, a love-letter to numerous films, books and cultural artefacts from that decade. But it’s also something much deeper. Stranger Things is a salute all those who watched such pictures; who read those comics and had their lunch money stolen as a result. It is, put simply, one for the nerds.

The series itself spans eight episodes and gravitates around the disappearance of Will Byers; a child living in eighties Indiana. Backdropped by an Area 51-style conspiracy, we see a relatively lacklustre village face an inter-dimensional monster — a Demogorgon to coin the Dungeons & Dragons phrase — terrorising its local community. This is compounded by a Cold War cover-up, namely MK Ultra to ‘Stay one step ahead of the Russians’, drawing a small-town cop into something well beyond his pay-grade. Yet beneath this, lies something far more relatable. Three young friends and a bereaved Mother trying to make sense of it all.

This mix of fantastical, if not ridiculous adventure, with tangible humanity feels familiar. It’s textbook Spielbergian adventure. It has whiffs of horror, action and sci-fi, but it’s largely a tribute to those great Hollywood adventure flicks. Indeed, Stranger Things is a cocktail of famous texts: from throwaway nods to outright pastiche. But it does so explicitly enough to remain charming in the process. Although such references deserve attention — I discuss them in due course — it’s rather the camaraderie between the boys and the escapee ‘Eleven’ that drives the show forward. It binds it with a youthful optimism that celebrates its more nuanced moments. Making Stranger Things a rather complex, but deeply satisfying blend of nostalgia and creative thought.


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In Defence of Event Horizon

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Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror remains, to this day, a divisive picture. Almost unanimously condemned as a crass, clumsy and predictable contribution to the genre; Event Horizon receives little time from serious critics. It is, however, my biggest and guiltiest cinematic pleasure.

In short, the film takes after the Alien (1979), Solaris (1972) and later Sunshine (2008) format of spaceship horror. A crew are sent to investigate a distress beacon from the Event Horizon –– a ship capable of interstellar flight –– that has long since been missing. It has retuned from the edge of our known universe and appears unmanned; tasking the rescue team with damage assessment on an intergalactic scale.


The frights are fairly obviously choreographed. An invisible parasite, not dissimilar to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) now haunts the ship, whilst a paper trail alludes to the fate of those originally aboard. Anderson purposely sidesteps from explaining too much here, leaving the fragmented and jarring fate of this crew relatively unexplored –– only to receive ham-fist conclusions towards the end. For this reason, I believe the general criticism regarding the film’s writing to be rather fair. It is inconsistent and at times feels as if it was written on-set.

But as the crew explore the ship, there is a tangible sense of horror. Laurence Fishburne establishes himself well as the stubborn Captain Miller, at odds with the irrational designer of the Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil). They’re joined by a sortie of apathetic space servicemen who all, in turn, lose their minds aboard the ship. Although none of the characters feel particular inventive: the stern military man and obsessional scientist are hardly new arcs, they drive the narrative adequately enough. The downfall, it seems, is that the focal point is about them: their inner turmoil and subsequent breakdowns.


‘This ship […] knows my fears, it knows my secrets!

It gets inside your head and… it shows you!’


The crew are possessed with little nuance; the mix of cabin fever, repressed trauma and imploding personal chemistry feels too abrasive to be particularly meaningful. The themes it touches upon, however, prove powerful. Where the Horizon has been, what it has brought back and how it is presented. Indeed, my affection towards this film is not for its overarching tale. But rather the fleeting moments that occur inbetween. The artistic direction, the editing and the overall tone that can be extracted –– and celebrated –– despite the murky shell that embezzles it.


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To call this film a ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ is an understatement. It scatters a number of great ideas throughout its ninety minute running time. The film’s aesthetics represent a good example. The use of colour and baroque set design is surprisingly inspired. With an emphasis on drab greys and greens, its colour palette reinforces the gritty, industrial feel that Kubrick and Scott established. The interiors throughout the ship(s) compound this further: with an enclosure that accommodates the mental episodes that soon escalate. But there is something more creative within this backdrop. It exhibits a strange gothic quality. The Event Horizon is part haunted house, part heavy-metal show. The winding corridors are perhaps a given, but the fabled ‘gravity drive’ is truly a design of its own. This spiralling, spike-laden velodrome leads to the unsightly death of one of the crew members. It also becomes the set-piece for Dr. Weir’s final all-work-no-play breakdown. Its presence is deeply menacing: an unconventional device with a fitting appearance. It extenuates the Oppenheimer quality as well, being a transgressive work of science. It all goes to serve what faults this picture: an important but hardly vital piece of set design seems to have incurred more thought than the screenplay surrounding it.

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Another point of contention regards the Horizon’s disappearance. Whilst the film proposes a realistic science fiction aesthetic –– it’s more Silent Running than Star Wars –– the Horizon’s absence beyond the known universe descends into something more spiritual. In the simplest, spoiler-inducing sentence: such a place is hell. Or, indeed, some scientific derivative of it.


‘She’s been to a place you couldn’t possibly imagine. And now it is time to go back. […] Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse’


This inversion of perceived realism may be a cop-out. I’m not entirely sure how well it fits with the film that its first half attempts to set up. I do think, however, that it works remarkably well in isolation. In fact, it’s precisely why I feel to defend it. In essence, the rescue team learn of this through recorded material in the Captain’s Log; a grotesque and harrowing sequence where the original crew are tortured by whatever inter-dimensional zeitgeist took hold of it. Albeit the eye-ripping captain to the violently sexual images around him: this sequence does not hold back. He then pans to the camera and recites verses of Latin –– an ancient language in 2016 –– least not for the film’s in-date of 2047. It’s a memorable and damning scene. We are given hints to a haunted presence in anticipation to this, but nothing with such severity.

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‘I thought it said liberate me, save me. But it’s not me. It’s liberate cute me: save yourself. And it gets worse. […] I think that says ex inferis. Save yourself… from hell.’


This use of ritualistic, satanic discourse works well with its unabashed gore. The ship had been to hell and the dissonance between the cold reality of the Horizon with this perverse, graphic force it brought back is jarring. It also offers enough to shock without exposition. For the lack of a better phrase: this sequence is entirely fucked up. The  textbook ’cause and effect’ horror structure allows it to throw the audience without asking too many, plot-hole inducing, questions.

This is further refined by the editing. Flashbacks from the possessed Dr. Weir throw half-frame snippets of the tortured crew: with maggots, blades and sadomasochism to boot. It’s almost a useful exercise to watch this picture with your finger on the remote. Recently, internet forums have capitalised upon its darker imagery, deeming it ‘uncut’ and ‘unseen’ footage from the potentially better film it could have been. These images, however, are not new. They are merely passed over in a blink of the eye. They’re buried within the same picture that Robrt Ebert considered all ‘style’ and no substance. The same film that garners a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score and that one Washington Post critic remakerd:

‘If you want to have that “Event Horizon” experience without spending the seven bucks, try this instead: Put a bucket on your head. Have a loved one beat on it vigorously with a wrench for 100 minutes.’

Yet it is the very ‘style’ that shines brghtest. These flickering moments of shock –– the quick edits and flashbacks –– coupled with its interesting and eerie artistic design brings a gravitas to any narrative misgivings. It may rely on knuckle-dragging spectacle during its action sequences, but it attains a darkness that few of this genre have reached. It is for this reason I consider moments of satanic imagery, especially in flashback, as rationale to defend this film altogether. It cements the Horizon in a unique and troubling universe.



This approach has deeper cuts. Science fiction antagonists can, rather easily, become caricatures of their former selves. The minute Ellen Ripley jettisoned the Alien from that airlock, its caracas launched into space along with any tension we once felt for it. But a ship that has returned from the bowels of hell, that tip-toes around what it has attained –– which proves to be a Biblical iteration of evil –– is undeniably scary. The presentation of such bolsters it. It gets under your very skin, as this haunted-house comes into its own.

Put simply, Event Horizon merges the fantastical horror and modern science fiction to great avail. The vessel takes on fleshy overtones as it becomes increasingly more alive. Again, the contrast between industrialism and mangled human tissue is both striking visually and thematically. It also succeeds in avoiding the reality of the situation to ignite more fear. Whilst, all the same, incorporating supernaturalism better than the average sci-fi flick. In fact, Event Horizon is in the minority of genuinely throwing me after multiple watches. Not because I care about the characters –– that wears thin rather quickly –– but for precisely this graphic content. It presents the unpresentable, the oldest of all evils, with enough vibrance and aurora to maintain dramatic effect.

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Event Horizon is, quite frankly, a curious picture. And note I’m not ranking it alongside the Blade Runners and Space Odysseys of the world in writing this. But when it descend into its darkest moments, it does so with a ferocity that deserves high merit. The themes it flirts within the process of Dr. Weir’s questionably-written breakdown are little short of tremendous. It’s also a damn entertaining film. I feel critics overlook that as a mind-numbing escapism –– perhaps Anderson’s forte given his later work –– it’s a bloody good movie.

Yet it remains something unique in my eyes. A rough mix of sci-fi and horror that reaches some truly gut-wrenching moments. A lacklustre screenplay, sure, but coupled with fantastic artistic direction.  And as rumours circulate regarding the now lost Director’s Cut –– a darker,  X-rated redux –– I can’t help but wonder what this film could have been. Nevertheless, for what it is, Event Horizon is worthy of your time. The product of a director clearly in an experimental phase. One, perhaps, trying to put his name on the in-traversable sci-fi/horror map. And whilst it is far from perfect, there is some eloquence in the flaws that bestow it.

Indeed, Event Horizon is more than a ‘good-bad movie’. I also wonder if I’m being harsh calling it a guilty pleasure: the very parameters of guilt are set by a cork-sniffing critical reception. I won’t deny it’s shortcomings, but I will celebrate it’s triumphs all the same. Event Horizon has a truly contagious quality to it. One that I happily re-watch from time to time. It’s a enigmatic experience above all else, with a design and tone that sits with you long after the credits roll. Which perhaps leads to the most pertinent conclusion of all about Event Horizon: ‘it gets inside your head’.


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An Ode to ODST: A Retrospective


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Halo is perhaps the first gaming franchise I ever truly clicked with. I picked up Combat Evolved in around 2003 and I regularly cite its sequel as my favourite video game ever made. Whilst I never profess to being a ‘gamer’ — I care little for the ‘master race’ and competitive playing — even Halo 2’s turbulent production and ending does not deter my affection for it. Nothing rivals the jubilation of a nine year old getting his copy a day early, nor the genuine awe its narrative, gameplay and soundtrack brought to the table.

Nostalgia aside, I have replayed the Bungie titles a number of times. A welcoming familiarity surrounds them, like returning to a favourite book. Indeed, my affinity has always been towards the lore and expanded fiction: the novels and stories that enriched its more knuckle dragging, Nukem-inspired segments. This year I purchased an Xbox One, largely for its exclusive titles, and to revisit the games of my childhood. Whilst my interest in the franchise has certainly declined in recent years — I followed the first decade or so of the canon — it’s been a cathartic experience. The prospect of the remastered Master Chief Collection resonated with the nostalgia junky in me; not only to beat challenging moments of old favourites but also to see how well these games hold up. The most revealing title, however, proved to be the most overlooked of all. The 2009 expansion, Halo 3: ODST.


Released on the Xbox 360 seven years ago, this ‘spin-off’ of sorts garnered the robust —frankly excellent — gameplay and engine of Halo 3 and poised it towards new territory. Replacing the iconic, Master Chief with a silent Orbital Drop Shock Trooper; ODST flipped the given tempo tremendously. And it did so remarkably well.

The gameplay offers a departure from the one-man-army that has come to define the series. As an ODST, one is inherently more vulnerable and susceptible to damage. You’re no longer a shielded Spartan, nor are you seven-foot-tall, either. Brutes appear naturally more formidable, with even the once-laughable Grunts and Jackals posing a more serious threat. This changes the given dynamic, forcing the player to rethink any habitual  trigger-happiness. This is, to some extent, all the more skilful. Whilst the sandbox elements see smaller Brute packs that those seen in Halo 3; the overall campaign hardly reduces the quantity of enemies. Ergo, the player, known only as ‘The Rookie’, are left to their own devices. AI characters, whilst scarce, help direct fire in that classic Halo sense — they’re useless in a firefight — meaning ‘The Rookie’ faces no less adversaries than his green counterpart. As a result, the single player gameplay becomes rather challenging. It’s slower and more systematic but deeply, if not more, satisfying. It has also aged remarkably well. The dichotomy between stealthy silenced weapons with bombastic vehicle segments manages to appease the principle elements of the game — whilst injecting a rare overture to the franchise.


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The structure of ODST is equally refreshing. Halo is loosely recognised by its linearity. Levels flourish like chapters of a book, with only combat choices offering moments of structural diversion. ODST changes this: an open sandbox on the streets of New Mombassa links its levels together. ‘The Rookie’ finds clues to where his displaced squad have landed and flashback missions explain how that came to be. The player investigates the streets at their own pace, avoiding Covenant forces in due course, and piecing together the almost epistolary narrative. It works exceedingly well: with overtones of Film Noir and detective novellas coming into play. So much so, the level design effectively doubles back on itself: ‘The Rookie’ explores the very same landmarks his comrades fought alongside, in both the day-time flashback and this shadow laden sandbox.


This also leads onto a more pertinent feature of the game: its artistic direction. With whiffs of Blade Runner and Out of the Past, this futuristic noir feels incredibly matured. It is a world that, whilst inherently small, breaths with a natural livelyness.  Halo, as franchise, is famously colourful. Albeit the beaches of the Cartographer, the grass of its eponymous second level or purples of covenant ships and weaponry. ODST sidesteps from all of this. Although those elements are still there — notably in flashback levels — the overarching design is much darker, burned out and resolute. The shadows and deserted towns are isolated and eerie. Even its metropolis backdrop with metallic metro stations and abandoned ATM machines ground it in a mundane reliability. It all serves to compliment its down-tempo gameplay wonderfully.

ODST‘s soundtrack takes this sentiment further. In a similar departure from awe and spectacle, Marty O’Donnells epic suites are replaced with a moodier, jazzier score. It flirts with the electronic moments — electric bass, distorted guitar and so forth — that seem reminiscent of  Halo 2, but it really crafts something of its own. These more avant-garde moments abandon any ‘Hollywood’ tendency to perpetuate this dectective theme that runs throughout the whole game. It’s also a testament to Bungie’s excellent world building. In the same vein that the scale of design, music and gameplay that defined the Master Chief’s exploits; ODST carves its own empire within that very same world. From the largest set piece to the tiniest orchestral motif: it has an identity and heart.


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As for its developing story, ODST is simple but effective. It follows a drop team as they are separated by a slip-space rupture in their opening launch. It slots in nicely with the middle section of Halo 2’s timeline; with the opening cut scene literally cross-cutting between a canonised event in the 2004 title. This sort of interconnectivity works well; the game needn’t establish a whole world or conflict but rather elaborate on the untold stories that surround it. The game incorporates recognisable vehicles, enemies and other semantic elements to great avail.  We even see a familiar face in the closing Epilogue. But it purposely steps away from the mean, green protagonist and his more conventional traits, to form its own identity. It is this capacity to remain familiar whilst grossly different that makes ODST so mesmerising. It also introduces the Engineers, a long standing characters within the wider lore, with great charm. By revealing this lovable and complex species, it grants the relatively short campaign a much larger pay-off .

Whilst the main characters aren’t fully fleshed out: Buck gets a little bit too much attention in lieu of a downplayed protagonist, it works with the material it has. I would argue that Micky, Romeo and Dutch appear more interesting, if not funnier figures to explore, but its eight hour campaign can only do so much. (n.b for this reason it is recommended to play Legendary Solo; not only got the ‘full experience’ but also a healthier  timespan). Their dialogue and quips reveal a humanity that is often amiss between the Master Chief and his counterparts; furthering the title’s ability to enrich an already standing universe.


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The story’s continuity with its aforementioned design, gameplay and score is also worthy of note. The narrative has a certain piecemeal quality to it; but the missions themselves reiterate those darker, exhausted undertones within the genealogy of its pacing. The majority of levels are about survival, escape, evading capture or glassing. Where the Master Chief is very much an agent of change: he would kill a Prophet, steal the Index, rescue Cortana and save the world. In ODST, we are very much on the back-foot, struggling to regroup and survive. The majority of the game alludes to team members being killed; making this less about triumph and more about sacrifice. The flashbacks lend itself to this weighted feeling and bolster its noir-ish quality without feeling clumsy or tact on. The execution — the delivery of all these components of design and composition — is remarkably strong. Even the easter-egg hunt audio logs, that for many represent merely an Gamerscore Achievement, reveals the civilian tale as to why the Mombassa streets have been evacuated. There is a coherency in the very arteries of the game. It wants to tell a story and breathes with a spirit  that is, at times, not even expected. It something all the more rare in titles today, least not those considered mere add-ons to much larger titles.


Above else, replaying Halo 3: ODST reminded me what I love about this franchise. Whilst I enjoyed 343’s foray into the series as a sleek, sci-fi shooter: it desperately lacks the creative fibre of the Bungie titles. It’s not my place nor desire to debate the merits of either studio, but ODST certainly serves to remind us how rich the Bungie-Halo universe had become by 2009. The expanded fiction complimented the games and the games did so vice versa. It had not become bloated nor confused about its direction. Given the turbulent production cycle for Halo 2 and 3; this is a testament to the studio’s innovation to prolong the franchise with such finesse. It is as if the fighting spirit of ‘The Rookie’ and his comrades extends well beyond the fictitious New Mombassa and into the development team themselves.

In its simplest form, Halo 3: ODST is an inditement of the world building prowess of Bungie in their prime. It also proves there are better stories aside from the standard, now exhausted, formula. Where Reach capitalised upon alternative characters in a feature-length title; it feels more crucial than ever to explore other avenues beyond Master Chief and his tiring tirade. I feel a Contact Harvest adaptation or ODST sequel would revitalise the series greater than the — frankly tedious — Promethean nonsense of recent titles. But perhaps the mature, experimental nature of ODST is a product of its time. Of a franchise both big and brave enough to take a risk. From a studio still hungry to prove themselves with a title that remains, to this day, a highpoint of the series.


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Paris in Pixels: A Retrospective

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‘Paris in the fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me –– of cafes, of music, of love… and death.’


The opening scrawl of Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars (1996) sets a rather curious precedence. A delicate depiction of France that whilst forbidding, lack the theatrics expected of a video game. But it is precisely its non-conformity –– the middle ground between a written text –– that characterises the charming and unique adventure that follows. A rich blend of intricate narrative, memorable figures, gorgeous visuals and quite literally genre-defining gameplay: Shadow of the Templars birthed a franchise that earns a special place in my heart.


Of course, the multiplicity of said franchise is rather expansive. Broken Sword emanates from British developer Revolution Games –– and co-founder Charles Cecil –– who enjoyed some acclaim with Beneath a Steel Sky in 1994. The games, typically, focused on historical conspiracies within a 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ format and remain, to this day, Europe’s biggest selling adventure series. Spawning four sequels, Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997), The Sleeping Dragon (2003), The Angel of Death (2005) and The Serpent’s Curse (2014) –– with its third and fourth instalments briefly embracing a 3D engine –– the franchise is typically lauded alongside the popular LucasArts SCUMM titles.

But coinciding with the release of Duke Nukem 3D and Core Design‘s original Tomb Raider, Broken Sword began life amidst very different approaches to this medium. Its emphasis on hand drawn set-pieces, slow gameplay and dry humour make it not only incongruous within the video game trajectory at the time but even more so today. The relative subsidence of  Point-and-Click adventures seems to cement this. Posing the question: what is its appeal and longevity?


Broken Sword, as a series, is something incredibly special. It’s much more than one or three award-winning titles and more than a product of its time. It’s also more than a mere robust point-and-click game. (Thought it is commendable) There is a far richer quality that surrounds its role as visual, jovial entertainment. This article is not a love letter to its first game nor the nostalgia it inspires today; but rather a look at the various threads the franchise has spun over the last twenty or so years. In short, Broken Sword has a certain approach: a humour, an intellect; an idiosyncratic choice of location, design and pacing that deserves attention, if not praise, that it often fails to attract.

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Paris in Fall: Inventory screenshot from opening scene in Shadow of the Templars (1996)


In this grossest of generalisations, Broken Sword follows the escapades of American lawyer George Stobbart and French journalist, love interest and all round purveyor of sass, Nico Collard. The two cross paths in a number of fated incidents that bind them forever. In the Shadow of the Templars, a near-death experience finds them on the trail of the Knights Templar; a fundamentalist cult that sees the pair travel from Parisian catacombs to Syrian markets. The sequel bares a similar scale: with the pair caught in a Peruvian conspiracy for Aztec treasure and traverse the world as a result. Later iterations rekindle these undertones, exploring everything from dragons to Gnostic spiritualism.  Without descending into plot details, the emphasis on exotic, hollywood locations with hidden doorways and temples-of-doom are a cornerstone of this franchise. Protecting the world from well-hidden weapons and cults features heavily, too. But all the same, these moments are always juxtaposed with everyday locations: cafes, hotels and construction sites. There is a humility that surrounds its more spectacular segments. It is, in essence, the series’ charm: how its protagonists become ‘accidental heroes’.


Unlocking the extraordinary within the ordinary is the crux here. It ties together both its narrative and visual components. Its gameplay follows the traditional ‘Point-and-Click’ format of using inventory items to solve problems; with a leaning towards an every day sensibility. Whether it be the pencil through a keyhole or similar pocket-lint trickery, there is something very honest, if not Macgyver-esque about it all. Dialogue shapes this further, with NPCs often alluding to solutions and ways to move the  game forward. At time this can be more omniscient: how can I distract a police officer? Before descending into something far sillier. The officer clearly needs the toilet; perhaps the nearby fountains will get him to move? Such humour is always appropriately placed and never at the expense of story. Where the Monkey Island titles obviously strived for a more fantastical, outlandish tone, the Broken Sword games remain more reserved. They balance humour like any great text, to mediate the darker moments, without becoming farcical. It is, above else, an undeniably British approach.

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Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon (2003) –– George and Nico become intwined with Arthurian legend in the franchises’ flawed but generally excellent foray into 3D gameplay.


In fact, the stories deserves greater attention. The mix of historical fiction, conspiracy and aforementioned normality is distilled rather well. The Neo-Knights Templar are reminiscent of an illuminati, freemason type group, but never feel too ridiculous for the subtext. As a historian, I find much of it rather digestible. That’s not to say fault-lines around the globe are harnessing the power of dragons; a power that will be exacerbated by a cult for world domination, but the build up is rather solid. The first title gives a wonderful, timeless insight into the execution of the Knight Templar by order of the Crown in 1314. The secrecy of their organisation is fitting and allows the player to journey across beautiful European and Asian locations as a result. By the third title, this pseudo-history is all the more acceptable. Revolution consistently embed their stories in a history that explores what is factually unproven but entirely possible all the same. In The Sleeping Dragon, which follows an Arthurian legend to Glastonbury, Revolution boast their British charm even further. It’s hard to imagine many developers venturing beyond Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in their internationally touted image of Britain. But here we see conversations about the BBC, the ‘rowdy’ music festival and the folklore that swaps the Somerset town. It all goes to serve the character of this franchise. Something that is exotic and exhilarating whilst retaining a personal, familiar feeling.

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Manuscript in Shadow of the Templars offers exposition through ‘Point-and-Click’ format


Its approach to the past is important on a cultural scale, too. Broken Sword is not an Indiana Jones nor Tomb Raider adventure. The mysteries of old are not used as playground for idle action. The game entails signifiant dialogue –– excellently written dialogue at that –– which makes the overall experience somewhere between an interactive story and a narrative heavy adventure. The flagrant lack of guns and violence is most pertinent. This is not part of a child-friendly age rating, although I do not doubt that factors, but rather a gun-ho adventure simply wouldn’t work with the tone and direction. Henchman and antagonists often wield handguns, offering immediate death for George and Nico in gameplay. But there is little impetus for either party to stoop to their level. In situations where Lara Croft would simply shoot her way out; George and Nico use stealth, common sense and whatever objects surround them to avoid capture. Firearms represent an end-game for the pair, making such encounters deeply refreshing.


Arguably, this could be a reflection of its regional heritage. Without wanting to over intellectualise the point, note that British culture is less facilitating towards firearms and therefore less fitting with the ‘everyday life’ that frames these games. For George to take a shotgun to a cafe would simply not make sense. As a result, Broken Sword has a more tangible violence. We knock out henchmen and avoid gunshots, but we do not reciprocate their means. Primarily, because it wouldn’t be logical: these characters are not violent people. But more notably, it would lower the tension and momentum that the titles build. We need to fear for these haphazard heroes and align with their cause. Otherwise, the mountains of dialogue would become laborious.

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Opening cinematic from Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997)


In other words, the dialogue that builds the character effectively compliments the gameplay. Indeed the strength of these titles can be credited to its well rounded cast and execution of such. George and Nico are defined figures who drive the qualities of the game. Stobbart is a stubborn, cocky protagonist but one deeply relatable. He is flawed, funny and his wise-cracks are not as sharp as he hopes. With Collard, we see a maturer flare, whose constant put downs make for a wonderful dynamic between the two. In later titles, the player bounces between these two characters, but what is important is that they remain recognisable throughout. They may not be immortalised in popular culture as previously noted tomb-raiders, but their depth outshines them all. It is also curious to note the criticism that the rather forgettable fourth instalment received for focusing on a new female counterpart. But all that said, the continuity between titles is well conceived. Gangster ‘Flap’, Museum curator André Lobineau and Police Sergeant Moue all make regular appearances in different titles. The games also have a penchant for easter eggs and internal jokes; poking fun at throwaway moments in early titles. More forgettable NPCs, from neighbours to the tourists George meets in Syria –– appropriately enjoying another vacation in its tropical sequel –– are scattered throughout the subsequent releases. Even the ghastly Goat puzzle in the first game makes for self-referential point about George’s irrational fear of the animal, nearly twenty years later. New characters are typically warm and interesting, but this continuity makes for a better experience. It threads the titles together whilst building a canonical universe of its own. Fan service or otherwise; this all contributes to the rich and unique Broken Sword world.

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‘The Goat Puzzle’


As for the relevance of this world today? A number of points seem pertinent. Primarily, the first two games saw resurgence a few years ago thanks to an App Store remaster. Smartphones make ‘Point-and-Click’ games rather more ‘touch and click’, but such a launch gave a new generation an opportunity to play these titles. It did so to great avail, although I personally did not care for the ‘Director’s Cut’ additions. (Revolution decided to pull a George Lucas and add new chapters to their remaster) Regardless, the sentiment was well received. More recently, and all the more excitingly, the fifth title to the franchise has seen a unanimous return to form. Released from a crowd-funded campaign, Revolution were free to make both the title they and the fans wanted. The overall result was a two-part title –– a pragmatic result of its unique production –– but a ‘sword’ game that saw the beautiful hand-drawn aesthetics, effortless humour and familiar faces embark on a new era. Boasting 1080p renders and more meticulous animation, this return to 2D ‘Point-and-Click’ proves an unyielding quality to these games. The Serpent’s Curse is the most enjoyable instalment for many years. It’s also available across all next-gen consoles and formats, making a remarkable revival for a supposedly dying genre.


There is also some underlying poignance to this newer release. The title of this article nods to the curious artistic design of Broken Sword. The games were always torn between gorgeous hand drawings and the choppy, pixelated technology of the mid-late nineties. But it’s seemingly come full circle. It once commanded the middle-ground between text and gaming; now does so with unashamed confidence. It is no longer held back by trying to fit in with its rivals. Broken Sword has both a style and substance of its own: the product of two decades of engineering.

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Deja vu: A familiar scene in Broken Sword V: The Serpent’s Curse (2013-14)


Above all else, the Broken Sword games are defined on their own terms. They have heart, wit and a truly personal approach to story telling. It has memorable character and remains the most British series I’ve played whilst forgoing a British protagonist. It also represents an effort to keep strong, to strive further for the perfect adventure game even in a world which fell for its pistol-wielding adversaries. When citing influential titles of 1996, few would look upon Broken Sword in the Call of Duty world. But is precisely that legacy that inspired this piece. For those who invested into this franchise, who stood by its curious middle-period and wanted more than mere remasters have found themselves rewarded beyond all doubt.

The Broken Sword games represent an integral part of my childhood; a growing desire to pursue history academically and an affection towards narrative-heavy gaming. But they also offer something far more profound. They are empirical proof that the flashiest, most expensive or trendy titles do not always attain longevity. That the more adventurous stories, the riskiest and more curious can be the most inspiring. That titles can hold intrigue well beyond exploring what passed as digital entertainment twenty years ago. It has been a precarious journey for this franchise, but its resolve and triumph is unquestionable. And I cannot wait to see where it goes next.


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Spectre Review — [TL;DR, Minor Spoilers]

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Sam Mendes’ second-helping to the Bond franchise has been long awaited. His last effort, Skyfall (2012) bolstered the franchise back onto the path that Casino Royale (2006) so brilliantly laid out. It balanced homage to the ‘classics’ whilst remaining fresh and relevant — a perfect tribute to a fifty year old franchise.

But its successor is little short of a disappointment. Daniel Craig — whom is appearing increasingly jaded with his role — performs in one of the most lacklustre Bond films in years. Spectre intensifies the action, the scale and the tempo; at the cost of meaningful story. To some extent, it undoes all of the interesting development his films have made — relegating Bond back to an era of exhausting stereotype.

Of course, many will ask — what do you expect from a Bond film? As a whimsical action film, Spectre is marvellous. The production value is high and Bond has never looked this good. But for those hoping for something sharper will find that beneath the spectacle lies a clunky script and a regurgitated plot. It’s not an inherently bad film, but the faults are so easily avoided, it makes for a frustrating watch. What follows is a long-form piece breaking down my thoughts regarding Spectre — with a minor spoiler alert for those pedantic about such things. (Not that anything in this film will surprise you…)


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Why Definitely Maybe Matters

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1994 produced two of my favourite albums: Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible. These dark, introverted records remain cornerstones in what I consider one of the best decades of music. However, there’s one record from 1994 that is receiving much attention lately,  Oasis’ seminal-debut, Definitely Maybe.

Now I’ll admit – I’ve never been an Oasis fan. My allegiance has always been with Blur and I’ve always viewed the Gallagher Brothers with an ounce of contempt. I think they’re egotists – who spurt out more nonsensical guff that the average politician. That said, I can’t deny they wrote some good songs. Really good songs. And whilst I’ve been looking back at their discography; it’s difficult not to rate their first two records as highlights of the era.

Of course, Oasis followed a pretty chaotic trajectory. Many would agree that the band burned out after What’s The Story Morning Glory? – with Be Here Now often cited as one of the biggest disappointments of the 1990’s. In fact, that bloated and indulgent record is exactly why I’ve disliked the band in the past. A concoction of drugs, noise and the NME giving it a proverbial hand job under the table. But cynicism aside; Definitely Maybe was, and still is, an important record. It was the dawn of Britpop, New Labour, a new era – all in the run up to the millennium. Its impact was unprecedented – and its songs were even greater. This year marks it 20th anniversary (and bizarrely, 50 years since the British Invasion) so I’ve decided to revisit it anew to breakdown exactly why Definitely Maybe matters.


1. It was cool.

tumblr_mw41ieKabd1t16vyso1_1280There’s something wonderfully punk about Definitely Maybe. Not only in its guitars and aesthetic – but in the way it didn’t give a shit about the existing norms. Similar to how the Sex Pistols countered the indulgence of prog-rock; there’s nothing pretentious about Definitely Maybe. (That’s more than can be said about the Gallagher Brothers, though)

Consider how Noel talks about Supersonic:

‘I went in the back and wrote ‘Supersonic’ in about a half hour, recorded it the rest of the night. And that’s the rough mix, and
it was never remixed, either. A magical night, brilliant.’

It took half an hour to crack out one of the most iconic songs of the 1990s. Sure, the lyrics are meaningless and Gin and Tonic/Supersonic is hardly the most poetic rhyming couplet. But Definitely Maybe matters because it wasn’t caught up in the bullshit of trying to be cool, and that’s exactly why it remains so endearing.


2. It was counter-culture.

Nnoel-gallagher-20060301-112086oel Gallagher claims he wrote Live Forever whilst working on a building site, in what he considered a response to U.S Grunge.

‘Seems to me that here was a guy who had everything, and was miserable about it,” said Noel. “And we had fuck-all, and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin’ thing ever.’

Live Forever may be a slightly crass title to challenge Nirvana’s I Hate Myself and I Want To Die – but it represents an important counterculture against U.S music. Noel’s lyrics were unmistakably British, and inspired an identity that was so absent in 1990’s music from across the pond.

Take Digsty’s Diner for example:

‘If you could come to mine for tea // I’ll give you strawberries and cream’

Woefully simple – but impeccably English. These lyrics encouraged a new sense British cultural identity – that coincided with the Cool Britannia and New Labour movements.

l2eg2v2j.c4zLikewise, the records’ stylistic elements harked back to a ‘golden era’ of Britain. Guitars, bass and drums – it’s unsurprising critics drew links to 60’s bands like The Who and The Kinks. Given that the late 1980s was ripe with electronic music (house, techno etc) – Definitely Maybe was a refreshing sound, regardless of how dated its style really was.

The record’s producer Owen Morris even considered it an attack on that 80’s music.

“I wanted to make the sound as heavy as possible, as I was frustrated with machines and dance music and wanted loud guitars, and luckily enough so did they”

Of course, John Squire and Ian Brown’s work half a decade before laid the foundation for this movement; but a war on ‘machines’ is exactly what Britpop embodied sonically. Ensuring that Rock and Roll would never die.


3. It meant a lot… to a lot of people.

Definitely Maybe matters because it connected with so many Brits. Those who were alienated by American rock and monotonous electronica wanted to hear music that resonated with them. Suddenly, the influx of ‘British lyrics’ about Manchurian life and daily observations was compelling.  Definitely Maybe propelled the Britpop machine into affluence and in doing so revitalised British cultural identity.

Likewise, the records’ critical reception was unanimously positive. But an album can be much more than just a few good songs – and some of the best didn’t please the critics. Granted – my understanding of how Definitely Maybe affected people is somewhat dubious, as the record itself is before my time. Nevertheless, you only need to look at the comments NME’s ‘Albums that changed your life’ to gauge its impact:

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‘This album was a game changer!’ – and it bloody well was.


4. It had some fantastic tunes

There’s no denying that Definitely Maybe has some tunes. Hell – the whole record could’ve been released as singles. If I were to compile a greatest hits of Oasis – no doubt most of the songs would come from their first two efforts.

Supersonic? Rock N Roll Star? Slide Away? Columbia?

Ultimately, Definitely Maybe is an important part of British Music History. Whilst I hate the romanticism that Oasis were consistently good (the denial that their whole career really bottles down to only two records) – there’s no avoiding the impact Definitely Maybe had to British culture. It paved the way for a musical movement and embodies a wonderful sense of national identify. Nevertheless, amidst the celebration of its anniversary, and its subsequent reissue – there are the inevitable talks of a reunion. Whether of not we’ll see remains to be seen. However, Definitely Maybe can stand on its own. I’m not an Oasis fan, and not particularly fussed about seeing them live.  But I love this album, and so do a lot of people. Records are like great novels that stand the test of time, and can outshine any wrongdoing of their author. And for that reason – I’m willing to turn a blind eye to Be Here Now and Heathen Chemistry. Definitely Maybe has aged gracefully… and I can’t wait to see how she looks in another 20 years.


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Music Abundance and the Fate of the Album

In an attempt to put recent discussions I’ve had into writing, I thought I’d kick this blog off with an article on the dubious fate of album. Music is an incredibly important part of my life and the ever changing face of how we consume it affects us all. With the influx of digital music and the inevitable change it has bought to our listening habits, I’m interested to look into whether the album has any real relevance today.


Primarily, it’s the album as an artistic entity that I am looking at. It’s worth noting that physicality (or rather, the lack of) never killed it before, so to simply point the finger at the iPod is shortsighted. Albeit in vinyl, cassette or CD – music has always adapted to the shifts in technology. That said, who exactly listens to a full album today? Who has the time?

If anything, it’s the art of listening to the album that I feel has changed. It seems we’ve become so accustom to picking specific songs, shuffling and streaming through our favourite tracks, that the structured format of the record has been lost. In fact, the idea of listening to an album in isolation, from start to finish, seems somewhat alien. No doubt Smartphones have made public transport more bearable, but seeing music as merely an accompaniment to our daily lives demonstrates a clear change in attitudes today.


Interestingly enough, Noel Gallagher commented on how these attitudes have changed in a recent interview about Arcade Fire’s Reflektor:

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“Anybody that comes back with a double album, to me, needs to pry themselves out of their own asshole. This is not the ’70s, okay? Go and ask Billy Corgan about a double album. Who has the fucking time, in 2013, to sit through 45 minutes of a single album? How arrogant are these people to think that you’ve got an hour and a half to listen to a fucking record?”1

In true Gallagher fashion, the LP is ripped to pieces. That said, it does open up an interesting angle for this debate. The Double-LP represents a slightly pretentious era of music, but certainly demonstrates how much time was once devoted to the listening to music. Does this fit in with our on-demand approach to music today? I can’t help but think that 75 minutes of The Who’s Tommy would be lost on the average iPhone or Spotify playlist. Cynicism aside, it’s a great lost to see these ambitiously crafted albums die out. In fact, Some of my favourite albums of all time, (London Calling, The Fragile, The White Album, Melancholily & ISS’), are double albums. Gallagher may disregard the relevance of the double LP today, but there is no denying that some of the most influential albums of all time were presented in this format.

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Likewise, what about the concept album? Ziggy Stardust or The Wall – albums that really come into their own when listened to as a continuous narrative. Has this art form died for the sake of specific songs? I’ve always liked to raise the discussion about Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt here – a song that whilst depressing in isolation feels like a peaceful ending in the context of its album. (The Downward Spiral, 1994). Once more – I look towards how we listen to music today and ask if all this construction is lost. Artists devote a huge amount of time to meticulously order track listings, hell, they even cut incongruous tracks from records all together. But perhaps this is entirely redundant – as continuity and fluidity is irrelevant when listening to specific tracks.

ASH-FLATCOVERBizarrely, some efforts have been made to counter this. Kaiser Chiefs released a (frankly underwhelming) record in 2011 where fans could ‘create their own’ track listing from track samplers on their website. Similarly, ASH released their ambitious A-Z Series, a digital subscription service that provided fortnightly singles via download. Of course, maybe this could be the evolution that the album needs, a sort of blend of artistic construction and digital flexibility. That said, neither were truly successful and it’s worth nothing that both                                                          bands have returned to making conventional albums.


Moreover, I should probably take a moment to stop romanticising the album. Modern listening habits reflect a wealth of advantages that were alien in the era of the double LP. We no longer have to buy a record (that’s assuming music is still payed for) only to find a handful of enjoyable songs. Likewise, making playlists allows us to make our own personal greatest hits, a sort of tailor-fitting that no record will ever provide. In fact, the sheer convince of digital media is unparalleled. I can can access an unlimited amount of songs on my phone with an internet connection – you sure as hell couldn’t do that with a walkman in the 80’s. Similarly, Spotify and YouTube offer a platform for discovering music that would normally go unheard. The ‘try before you buy’ ethos of streaming services gives us access to more music than ever before. However, I can’t help but feel this is is the harmartia, or tragic flaw for the album all together – accessibility will eventually kill it.

Ultimately, this is this is the argument I have building towards. I recently debated my own thesis of ‘entertainment abundance’ in light of how we consume film and TV. Netflix provides more shows on-demand than any physical form of media, to the point where we have no idea what to watch. How this happens is actually quite remarkable and I feel it spawns from the fact we’ve never had so much choice before. Whilst listening and viewing habits are totally individual, to be overwhelmed with options inevitably leads to a less engaged relationship with records or films. The idea of passive and active engagement is useful here as it seems music is seen as less of a major source entertainment and rather a subsidiary to something else. (i.e. listening via an iPhone on the bus, rather than in the dark listening/crying to The Smiths etc)

And that’s really the point I’m really trying to make. Through such an open access to music we haven fallen trap to superficiality in our listening habits. Maybe we need to go back to listening to albums again. Sitting down with a tea or gin, listening from start to finish and enduring all those painfully shit filler tracks. Because that is *listening* to music is it not? Warts and all? Browsing through specific tracks whilst undoubtably convenient, ultimately undermines the artists’ creation.


Above else, what I’m calling Musical Abundance , you may well consider the greatest thing to happen to music. This increase in accessibility will continue and no doubt the relevance of the album will slip away. Ultimately, this piece has been intended to reassess how modern habits have changed, for good and for bad. Of course, I’m not denying the marvels of recent media forms, and I admit I enjoy handpicking songs as much as a fluid concept album.London Calling - Sound System [Disc 1]

But I’d still try to encourage that we give the album another chance. I like to see music as much as a narrative as any book or film and a way of conveying an artists thoughts and feelings concisely. Whether or not you agree with this view is perfectly understandable, and I intended this to be contradictive article for the sake of provoking thought. Nevertheless, I for one am going to sit down and listen to London Calling… and you’re more than welcome to follow suit.