Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon

STICKIED POST

After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.




Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

AD 2552. The Pillar of Autumn, a United Nations Space Command capital ship, is fleeing the fall of the human colony world of Reach to the Covenant, a hostile alliance of alien races. The Pillar has tracked Covenant intelligence leading to a remote star system. Upon arrival they find a massive ring, ten thousand kilometres across, with a habitable biosphere. Crippled in combat, the Pillar sets down on the object and it's up to the only specially-trained Spartan soldier on board, the Master Chief, to discern the origins of Halo and why the Covenant hold it in such reverence.

Halo: Combat Evolved was originally released in 2001 as the signature game of the original Microsoft X-Box game console, as well as the first game in the expansive Halo franchise, which has expanded to seven main-series games, three major spin-offs and numerous novels and comic books, as well as an upcoming TV series. It's always been an interesting anomaly that such an enormously popular franchise has expanded from such mixed beginnings.

This Anniversary Edition of Halo was released in 2011 to celebrate the franchise's tenth anniversary and was re-released in 2020 as part of the Halo Master Chief Collection on PC. Remasters of this kind are always controversial, since they sometimes alter and adjust the original game's level design and aesthetic. To be frank, in the case of Halo, I was looking forwards to some changes to the game's design, which have not only aged well, but were pretty poor going even in 2001. Alas, the remaster has stuck extremely close to the original game design, replicating its flaws as well as its strengths.

On the plus side of things, Halo has some very nice environments. The first third or so of the ten-hour game features entertaining outdoors combat on islands, in valleys and on grasslands, sometimes featuring vehicles with multiple crewing points and some pretty solid friendly AI. This is easily the best part of the game and, combined with the game's robustly entertaining multiplayer mode and some very strong multiplayer maps, is where the game's reputation mostly comes from. The graphics for this part of the game have been updated nicely, particularly the vast vistas showing Halo's interior structure rising up in the distance and then up overhead. Combat is reasonably solid and the Covenant enemies are reasonably intelligent and challenging (even if the monkey-like, comedic Grunts are far more irritating than genuinely threatening, but the Elites and Jackals make up for them).

In terms of the campaign mode, this enjoyable part of the game is sadly brief. After the opening levels you have to descend into the bowels of Halo and the game never really recovers after this point. The subterranean levels are mind-bogglingly repetitive on a scale that, over the years, I'd come to believe I had exaggerated in my mind. Replaying the game I discovered that no only had I not exaggerated them, I'd undersold them. You spend hour after hour making your way through identical rooms to flip a switch, then backtrack through these identical open rooms to the area you just unlocked, which consists of another series of rooms identical to the ones you just passed through. When this Groundhog Day section ends you find yourself in a large, temple-like structure having to do the same thing again, this time through much bigger rooms and with approximately four trillion, considerably less intelligent and interesting enemies chasing you: the Flood. The Flood are a not-very-well-disguised (and very much less entertaining) version of the Xen aliens from Half-Life, using small creatures to "zombify" enemies and turn them against one another, and are simply tedious to fight, since they just run at you and never use the more advanced tactics and AI of the Covenant enemies.

It's always been a mystery as to why Bungie made almost two-thirds of the game so repetitive and tedious as to at times feel almost miserable. The original X-Box had severe memory limitations, but that didn't stop them making the opening third or so of the game much more varied and entertaining. I suspect time was to blame and faced with critical deadlines, they just designed two areas and copy-pasted them to make larger areas. This is not unusual in gaming, but it's interesting that Dragon Age II - a later game that had the same problem but made up for it with a reasonable well-executed main storyline with a larger cast of more interesting characters - was criticised for it when Halo seems to have been given a pass for it.

A counter-argument is, of course, that Halo's campaign is really there as practice and warm-up for the multiplayer mode, which remains robustly entertaining (although perhaps a bit pointless; Halo 3, 4 and Reach have stronger multiplayer combat). Halo's story is pretty barebones in this first game and it was really only with Halo 2 that the storyline and characters started being fleshed out in much greater detail, giving rise to the popularity of the franchise.

As it stands, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (**½) is best experienced as a historical curiosity. It's not completely unplayable and the remaster adds a nice sheen to the graphics and some cool new backdrops, but doesn't solve the original game's severe problems with level design. It's certainly not aged half as well as Half-Life, the recent Black Mesa remaster of which is much stronger.

The game is available now on X-Box One and PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, which also includes a remastered version of Halo 2 and graphically-updated versions of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

THE EXPANSE renewed for sixth and final season

Amazon Studios has renewed The Expanse for a sixth and final season, in a highly surprising move.

The Expanse aired for three seasons on SyFy before being cancelled by the network. The show's production company, Alcon, struck a deal with Amazon to pick up the show. The fourth season, which aired in December 2019, was the seventh-most-popular streaming show of 2019 according to some reports, behind Stranger Things, The Boys, The Crown and The Mandalorian, among others.

The fifth and now-penultimate season will start airing on 16 December this year. Season 6 will start shooting in January for a late 2021 or early 2022 debut.

The news will come as a shock to fans of the series. The novel series the TV show is based on consists of nine volumes, with Book 5 adapting the fifth volume, Nemesis Games, and the sixth likely to adapt Babylon's Ashes. The final three books - Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath and Leviathan Falls - will presumably not be adapted at all.

Alcon and Amazon's statements make it sound like the cancellation is pretty final, with no chance of moving to another network or streamer (to be fair, it's unclear if anyone else would be interested).

What will happen with the un-adapted books is unclear. There is a significant time jump between Babylon's Ashes and Persepolis Rising, leading to the possibility of the story being rounded off in TV movies or maybe a sequel mini-series at a later date, perhaps giving some time for the actors to age up a bit. Another possibility - compressing events of Books 6-9 into the final season - seems extremely unlikely given how much story and how many characters they'd have to go through.

Some previews for Season 5 suggest that the protomolecule/gate-builders storyline, which is pretty much benched in the fifth and sixth books, will continue to be a major subplot in the TV show, suggesting that perhaps that storyline will be brought up and moved to a conclusion in Season 6, so as not to leave any loose ends dangling.

Amazon and Alcon have also confirmed that castmember Cas Anvar, who plays Alex Kamal, will not return for the final season. Over the summer, sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Anvar for his behaviour at a series of conventions several years before The Expanse began. The remaining cast and crew will return. It is not yet clear if the role of Alex will be recast or the character dropped between seasons.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Hugo Awards add a video game category for 2021

For the first time, a Hugo Award for Best Video Game will be awarded at WorldCon 2021 (DisCon III), to be held in Washington D.C.


Organising committees have the ability to authorise a discretionary category at the Hugo Awards without going through the normal, multi-year process for adding a new permanent category to the awards. A video game category has been debated several times before but has never gained enough groundswell of support to be added full-time. It looks like DisCon will be using this opportunity to trial the idea to see how many people vote for it and support the notion going forwards.

Many, if not most, video games fall into the science fiction or fantasy. Seven years ago, I made a post about video games that engage with their SFF themes in a bit more detail (it's probably about time I did a follow-up). With video games having been commercially available for forty-five years, and having been more popular than either the film or music mediums for more than twenty years, it is probably past time this move was made. I suspect far more people voting in the Hugos have played an eligible video game in any given year than have read a semiprozine or read a novelette, for example.

Assuming normal rules of eligibility, the following video games would be among those eligible for the award in 2021:
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (assuming it hits its 10 December release date)
  • The Last of Us, Part II
  • Hades
  • Final Fantasy VII Remake
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Half-Life: Alyx
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  • Kentucky Route Zero (both the final part of the game and the game as a whole)
  • Doom Eternal
  • Cloudpunk
  • XCOM: Chimera Squad
  • Gears Tactics
  • A Total War Saga: Troy
  • Wasteland 3
  • Iron Harvest
  • Marvel's Avengers
  • Genshin Impact
  • Star Wars: Squadrons
  • Watch_Dogs: Legion
  • Assassin's Creed: Valhalla
  • Destiny 2: Beyond Light
  • World of WarCraft: Shadowlands
  • Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
  • Immortals Fenyx Rising
  • Spider-Man: Miles Morales
It is unclear if a game would count if it was re-released or remastered. For example, Final Fantasy VII Remake would count under the award's own rule of being a "significant modification" of the original game, not to mention the fact that it is also an alternate-universe retelling of the original game (i.e. the events of the original game and the remake actually coexist within the storytelling universe as different entities). However, it is unclear if FFVII Remake would be eligible for just 2021 or 2022 as well, since the PC version and possibly X-Box and PlayStation 5 versions of the game will not be released until next year. In addition, it is unclear if, say, Horizon Zero Dawn would be eligible: the game was originally released on PlayStation 4 in 2017, but on PC in 2020 and a potential PlayStation 5-specific version in 2021. It's also unclear if this year's relatively mild graphical remaster of Spider-Man (originally released in 2018) would make it eligible again.

These rules I suspect will be clarified relatively shortly.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

HBO greenlights LAST OF US TV series

HBO has greenlit a live-action TV series based on the Last of Us video game series.


HBO announced they had put the project into development back in March, with Chernobyl writer-showrunner Craig Mazin developing the series alongside Neil Druckmann, the senior writer on the game series. Mazin will run the new show whilst Druckmann will advise, produce and write, his duties at Naughty Dog Studios permitting.

The game and TV series are both set in a post-apocalyptic world where a toxic fungus has infected millions of people and turned them into violent monsters. The storyline follows Joel, a middle-aged survivor, who finds himself protecting a young girl named Ellie.

The original Last of Us (2013) was a huge hit. Developed by Naughty Dog Studios, who also developed the Uncharted series (a film version of which is currently shooting), the game sold over 13 million copies. The Last of Us, Part II was released in June this year and has already sold over 4 million copies to date. The sequel seemed to end the storyline fairly definitively, but Naughty Dog are reportedly considering a third game (which maybe a prequel or spin-off rather than a straight sequel) due to the success of the first two games.

Video game adaptations were once seen as a fool's errand in both television and film circles, but a growing number of successful transitions have made HBO - never shy to take on a challenge - keener to try out the idea. Showtime are also deep in production on a TV series based on the Halo series of video games.

The Last of Us will likely enter production in 2021 for a 2022 premiere.

Cloudpunk

Rania has moved from the countryside to the sprawling city of Nivalis and has taken a job working for Cloudpunk, a not-quite-legal delivery company. As her first night begins, she is directed to deliver packages and goods. She meets some unusual people and gradually discovers the secret of the ancient city's failing computer systems, and is put in the uncomfortable position of having to make choices that will impact on people all over the city. It's going to be a long night.


Cloudpunk is an indie game created by the Berlin-based studio Ion Lands. It's a highly impressive piece of work with a distinct visual style that is constantly engaging and attractive, although the depth of the gameplay is perhaps not quite as compelling.

The game is set in an open world city, which is the true star of the game. Nivalis sprawls for many kilometres, divided into discrete zones, and flying your hovercar around the city never gets old. You can loop through immense streams of traffic like Coruscant in the Star Wars movies, or abandon the sky roads and make your own way along, over and under the city. The city is divided into roads and neighbourhoods which you can visit and explore on foot. Setting down at a car park (you can't just land anywhere), you disembark and can explore in either a first-person or third-person perspective.

The game's aesthetic is somewhat blocky - the game is built using voxels rather than standard polygons - and up-close in the foot sections it looks a bit like someone's fused Blade Runner with Minecraft. This highly stylised aesthetic is not something I'm usually a fan of, but Cloudpunk makes it work well and I came to enjoy exploring the low-fi back alleys of the city. The streets are packed with people, although there's only a few you can interact with (represented by faces on your map). These random people met by chance can open up new storylines or even missions, so it's worthwhile talking to everyone you can. There's also loot and collectibles lying around, such as used batteries, punchcards and old magazines. These can be sold for cash, used to repair broken equipment (such as elevators, opening up new areas) or can be given to specific collectors in return for story advancement or achievements.

There are a few things to spend money on, such as repairs (you'll spend your first few minutes likely flying into walls, a lot, before you get a handle on the game's somewhat stiff flight controls) and fuel, as well as a small number of upgrades for your hovercar and your apartment.

These side-activities are fine, but for the most part ignorable. The game's main storyline is its key appeal and this is quite compelling. Over the course of one arduous night - played out in approximate realtime, since even a completionist run of the game will only take you around ten hours - Rania learns something of the history of the city, gets embroiled in a film noir story involving a hardbitten private detective searching for a missing girl, inadvertently attracts the attention of the cops, indulges in some light corporate espionage and fraud and helps an android recover her missing memory files, which have been scattered all over town. Along the way, Rania makes some friends: a snobbish married android couple, a robot detective who only speaks in third-person gumshoe narration and a deranged butler are only a few of the characters she picks up in her cab. Her main points of contact are her call handler at work, who directs her from behind the scenes, and her sentient AI companion, Camus, who used to be in a synthetic dog body but is now plugged into her car, resulting in an existential crisis.

This is all good fun, though perhaps a little grating (Camus's schtick - a car-dog! - is fun for about an hour and then starts getting repetitive) in the long run. The writing is fine, but the voice acting is highly variable. Rania and Control, who fortunately have the bulk of the dialogue, are decent, as is the detective, but a lot of the rest are forgettable to amateurish.

The core gameplay loop is reasonably enjoyable. Control contacts you with a mission, which usually involves picking something up and taking it somewhere else. This involves exploring a new area on foot and the game's natural pace of advancement means you can do several things simultaneously, such as tracking down loot and collectables in the same neighbourhood where a mission is unfolding. This approach avoids repetition by both giving you better upgrades, so driving between locations becomes easier and faster as the game unfolds, and also varying events in the story, such as some later missions being timed, or taking you off the grid to old or sealed-off parts of the city. Some missions also have multiple outcomes, with Rania being able to make a choice that will determine what happens later on. For example, I befriended an ageing speed racer who wanted to keep racing, despite it becoming dangerous. Rania has the ability to sabotage his next race and encourage him to retire, or help him keep driving. The former saves his life but makes him angry and resentful; the latter sees him die, but doing something he loved and this encourages his friends to later help Rania out of a tight jam. There's probably not enough of these choices to make a full replay of the game worthwhile to see the other outcomes, but maybe enough to make you check out a YouTube playthrough.

After about nine hours the game does start to wear a little thin, but it's around that time the main story starts wrapping up. After a reasonably good ending, you're still able to explore the open world and pick up any remaining loot and track down a last few people with interesting things to say, but the game wraps up well. I do think any sequel will require more gameplay ideas to keep things fresh, though. In the meantime the developers are promising adding new stories, missions, characters and features (such as street racing) which should make revisiting the game a few months down the line interesting.

As it stands, Cloudpunk (****) is a fun, tight and focused adventure game in a beautifully-realised cyberpunk city with some fun characters. The gameplay perhaps doesn't vary too much, but it doesn't outstay it's welcome and it's refreshing to play a game which doesn't rely on violence or action set pieces to get the player's attention. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Character Chronicle: Ahsoka Tano

Ahsoka Tano is – arguably – the most popular Star Wars character to have never appeared in a live action iteration of the franchise, with only a few possible rivals (chiefly Grand Admiral Thrawn). With rumours of her impending arrival in The Mandalorian, though, I thought it might be instructive to revisit the history of the character for those unfamiliar with the various animated series.

Self-evidently, spoilers for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels follow.


Ahsoka Tano is a member of the Togruta species, a humanoid race hailing from the planet Shili. They are mostly humanoid with varying skin shades, and a highly distinguishable head crest known as a lekku, similar to those of Twi’leks. The lekku aids in communication. Ahsoka is the second Togruta to appear in the franchise, after Jedi Master Shaak Ti appeared briefly in Attack of the Clones and was killed in Revenge of the Sith

Born in 36 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), Ahsoka displayed Force proficiency almost from birth and was identified at the age of three by Jedi Master Plo Koon, who took her to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, where she underwent vigorous training. In 22 BBY, at the age of 14, she was assigned as padawan to Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, shortly after the Battle of Geonosis marked the beginning of the Clone Wars between the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems (the Separatists). Grand Master Yoda assigned Ahsoka to Anakin in the belief that it would temper his recklessness and encourage maturity, whilst Ahsoka would do well to learn from one of the most skilled Jedi warriors in the order.

Ahsoka would serve alongside Anakin and, often, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi throughout the three years of the Clone Wars. Anakin was initially resentful of her presence, having expressed to Yoda a desire not to have a padawan, believing they would distract him and hold him back. However, Ahsoka soon proved her worth during the Battle of Christophsis, saving Anakin’s life and helping ensure victory over the Separatist forces.

As well as fighting alongside fellow Jedi, Ahsoka served alongside and sometimes commanded the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, a unit of Clone Troopers under the command of CT-7567, colloquially known as “Rex.” Rex and Ahsoka struck up an easy friendship and alliance, respecting one another’s skills in battle and saving one another’s lives many times.

Ahsoka served in many battles and on many fronts during the war, but developed a rapport with the planet Mandalore. She first visited the planet to support Duchess Satine’s rule from an internal coup led by another member of the government. She also acted as a mentor and inspiration to the Duchess’s heir, her nephew Korkie Kryze. Ahsoka had several more engagements with the Mandalorians, first fighting the militant group known as Death Watch which wished to return Mandalore to a culture of violence but later alongside them when they became the only hope of defeating the Separatist hold on the planet. During these battles Ahsoka became an ally of Bo-Katan Kryze, Duchess Satine’s sister, after an initially hostile relationship. With Ahsoka’s help, Bo-Katan rallied the Mandalorians and defeated both Separatist plots and an attempt by former Sith Darth Maul to conquer the planet, although Satine was killed in the process. Maul was defeated and Bo-Katan became Regent of Mandalore for her nephew, Korkie. Bo-Katan also became the wielder of the famed Darksaber, a weapon of impressive power.

After her first mission to Mandalore, Ahsoka visited the planet Mortis alongside Obi-Wan and Anakin, a world which would have a profound affect on her destiny. On this planet, which was strongly touched by the Force, Ahsoka had a vision of her future self, who warned her that Anakin was touched by the Dark Side and his corruption would destroy her if she remained at his side. Ahsoka was dubious of this warning, believing it might be a hallucination or itself a manifestation of the Dark Side, and resolved to remain Anakin’s true and loyal friend. During these events Ahsoka was infected with the Dark Side and apparently killed, but she was saved by Anakin at great cost.

The war continued to rage and Ahsoka continued to serve on the front lines. In the battle for Onderon, she worked alongside Steela and Saw Gerrera in establishing a viable resistance force and helping guide it to victory. However, Ahsoka was unable to save Steela’s life during a battle and she was killed. Saw blamed Ahsoka for his sister’s death and this was one of several incidents that made Saw bitter and increasingly ruthless in his war against the Separatists and, later, the Empire.

In 20 BBY, as the end of the war approached, Ahsoka’s position in the Jedi Order was endangered when she was framed for a bombing in the Jedi Temple that killed six Jedi. The attack had been orchestrated by Ahsoka’s erstwhile friend, Barriss Offee, who believed the Jedi had become militant and authoritarian during the conflict. Offee then planted evidence framing Ahsoka. Ahsoka was imprisoned by the Jedi Order, despite her longstanding record of service. Shocked at her treatment, Ahsoka freed herself and attempted to clear her name, working alongside her former nemesis Asajj Ventress to this end. Ahsoka was captured again and put on trial, but Anakin was successful in identifying and exposing Offee as the real culprit.

Despite her exoneration, Ahsoka was badly shaken by how easily everyone had believed that she could be a traitor. The Council suggested that this had been a final trial to prove her worthiness to become a Jedi and offered her the title of Jedi Knight and a formal place in the order. To their shock, Ahsoka rejected the offer. Their lack of faith in her had led to her faith in the Jedi Order being similarly eroded. She quit the Order and departed Coruscant. Yoda may have intervened to ask her to stay, but during one confused vision of a possible future he had seen Ahsoka dying in the halls of the Jedi Temple, possibly a reason why he let her go so easily. Ahsoka’s absence increased Anakin’s feelings of isolation and resentment during the closing months of the war.

Ahsoka became embroiled in various escapades during the closing part of the war before being recruited by Bo-Katan to help free Mandalore from Darth Maul. This operation was completed successfully and Maul taken into custody. Ahsoka escorted Maul back to Coruscant on a Star Destroyer with a detachment of Clone Troopers commanded by her old friend Rex. However, she was struck by a powerful vision of Chancellor Palpatine battling Jedi Master Mace Windu, and witnessing Windu’s death at Anakin’s hands moments later. Ahsoka tried to confide in Rex about her vision, but at that moment Palpatine activated his famed “Order 66,” a command driven by a biological inhibitor chip in the brain of every clone. This forced the Clone Troopers to turn on and kill the Jedi. Ahsoka, forewarned by Rex as he managed to briefly fight the command, was able to evade the initial attack. She freed Darth Maul as a diversion and was able to take Rex prisoner in combat. Through a combination of the Force and surgery, she identified and removed Rex’s inhibitor chip. Unfortunately, Rex was able to confirm that almost every single Clone in the entire Republic had such a chip and had turned against the Jedi in their millions.

Working together, Rex and Ahsoka crashed the Star Destroyer into a remote moon. They survived by escaping in a Y-wing, but most of the crew were killed. Horrified at the death and destruction that had been unleashed, Ahsoka abandoned her lightsabres at the crash site. Some months later, they were discovered by Darth Vader, as Anakin Skywalker was now known, and he assumed she had perished as a result.

Ahsoka spent the next eight years in hiding on the Outer Rim, moving from world to world. However, witnessing the brutality of the newly-proclaimed Galactic Empire led her into contact with various resistance cells and eventually Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, who was planning (alongside Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila) to fight against the Empire. Ahsoka was reluctant to return to front-line combat, so Senator Organa decided to employ her as his chief intelligence agent. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of groups had sprung up across the galaxy in opposition to the Empire, fighting isolated, secluded campaigns on backwater planets with little hope of victory. Ahsoka decided to contact these groups and start spreading resources between them, using the code-name “Fulcrum.” Although it was Organa and Mothma’s diplomacy that sowed the seeds of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, it was Ahsoka Tano’s hard work that made it a reality.

Another seven years passed and Ahsoka became particularly intrigued by the hard work of the crew of the starship Ghost, who were fighting the Imperial occupation on the planet Lothal. Ahsoka provided intelligence and support to the Ghost crew for more than a year before meeting them in person. Ahsoka believed that Hera Syndulla, the group’s leader, had the potential to be a much greater leader and her recommendations saw Hera rise high in the Rebel Alliance’s ranks, eventually (much later) gaining the rank of General. Ahsoka also helped former padawan Kanan Jarrus and his own protégé Ezra Bridger learn more in the ways of the Force.


Ahsoka’s work with Kanan and Ezra led them to an ancient temple the planet Malachor, but also attracted the attention of Darth Vader. Vader and Ahsoka engaged in combat. Ahsoka had come to believe that Vader might really be Anakin, but Vader claimed that he had killed Anakin. During a ferocious duel, Ahsoka destroyed part of Vader’s helmet, exposing enough of his face to make her realise he really was Anakin. The two continued to fight as the temple collapsed. Later, only Vader emerged alive, leading the Rebels to believe that Ahsoka had perished. However, Vader himself was not sure what had happened. Ahsoka had badly damaged the floor of the temple and when he struck a killing blow, the floor collapsed. He could find absolutely no trace of Ahsoka afterwards, and had no choice but to believe she had perished, but could not be sure.

In reality, Ahsoka had been rescued through a most bizarre manner. Two years further down the line, Ezra had located a mysterious dimension accessible through the Force, the World Between Worlds, which stood outside of time and space. At great risk, Ezra had opened a portal to the moment of Ahsoka and Vader’s duel and rescued her, pulling her into this place between dimensions. Ahsoka realised the tremendous danger this realm represented, with the ability to undo events and upset the flow of time and destiny. Ahsoka helped Ezra return to his own time and convinced him not to try to undo the death of his mentor Kanan.

Ahsoka’s activities after this time are unclear; she may have remained within the World Between Worlds for a time or returned to her own time and laid low to avoid attracting the attention of Vader. It appears that Ahsoka initially believed she had cheated fate and death and was unwilling to do anything to change events. As a result, she did not take part in the Galactic Civil War and kept her head down during the events of that conflict. However, five years after the Battle of Yavin, two after the Battle of Endor, she returned to Lothal and made contact with Sabine Wren, one of the other Ghost crewmembers. Ezra Bridger had disappeared in battle with Grand Admiral Thrawn, his command Star Destroyer vanishing into the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy. She and Sabine agreed to join forces to travel into the Unknown Regions in search of them. 

  • 36 BBY: Born on Shili.
  • 33 BBY: Found by Jedi Master Plo Kloon and taken to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Begins training.
  • 22 BBY: Assigned as padawan to Anakin Skywalker at the outbreak of the Clone Wars. Also serves as a commanding officer over the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, meeting CT-7567 “Rex” and becoming his close friend and ally (The Clone Wars).
  • 20 BBY: Framed for murder and treason, banished from the Jedi Order and forced to go on the run. She clears her name and is exonerated, but feels betrayed by the Jedi Order and refuses to return. As a private citizen, she fights alongside Bo-Katan Kryze in the liberation of Mandalore. Shortly after the battle, she is betrayed by Rex during the execution of Order 66. She saves Rex from his inhibitor trip and they escape. Anakin, now Darth Vader, believes her dead in a Star Destroyer crash (The Clone Wars).
  • 12 BBY: After eight years in hiding on the Outer Rim, Ahsoka joins Senator Bail Organa’s nascent Alliance to Restore the Republic. She becomes an intelligence specialist coordinating the activities of dozens of autonomous cells, codenamed “Fulcrum.”
  • 5 BBY: Ahsoka begins working with the Lothal rebels, principally the crew of the Ghost (Rebels).
  • 3 BBY: Ahsoka battles Darth Vader on Malachor, confirming he is her former master, Anakin Skywalker. Ahsoka vanishes during the battle, Vader believing her dead. In reality, she is rescued by Ezra Bridger from two years in the future, using the time-warping power of the “World Between Worlds.” Fearing her survival has changed history, Ahsoka lies low for a long time (Rebels).
  • 3 ABY: Destruction of the Second Death Star at the Battle of Endor and death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi).
  • 5 ABY: Ahsoka and Sabine Wren join forces to search for the missing Ezra Bridger in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy (Rebels).
  • 9 ABY: Adopted Mandalorian Child of the Watch Din Djarin encounters Bo-Katan Kryze during his search for the Jedi. Bo-Katan directs him to find Ahsoka Tano, whom she believes is currently located on the planet Corvus (The Mandalorian).


Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Why Alan Dean Foster is important to STAR WARS

Earlier this week, it emerged that Disney has been withholding payments to Alan Dean Foster for his work on the Star Wars and Alien franchises. Foster has written multiple, well-received novels and novelizations for both franchises over a period of more than forty years. Payments for Star Wars were suspected in 2015 (three years after Disney took over Lucasfilm) and for Alien in 2019 (when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox). The SFWA took up Foster's case and publicised it.


Foster had an influential role in helping market the original Star Wars movie. The film was in pre-production and building up a head of steam, with rumours spreading of elaborate and experimental special effects work and an ambitious shoot planned for the US, UK and the Tunisian desert. Judy-Lynn del Rey, working at Ballantine Books, heard about the project and believed Ballantine would do well to pick up the novelisation rights. Having published Alan Dean Foster's novel Icerigger a couple of years earlier, she believed he'd be a good fit. By coincidence, Charles Lippincott, the marketing manager for the film, was looking for a deal for the novelisation and the two plans converged.

This resulted in Foster being invited to a meeting with Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic's headquarters. For his part, Foster was familiar with Lucas's previous films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti. He and Lucas hit it off and Foster agreed to the writing gig. He was sent the latest version of the film's script and some of Ralph McQuarrie's concept art (some of which later appeared in the novel and on the cover) and set to work.

When it came time to release the novel, it was decided to credit the book to Lucas: the novel was heavily based on the script, using some dialogue verbatim and Foster believed his job was more like a building contractor working on a Frank Lloyd Wright house than an original creator. Despite this, it was widely known that Foster was the writer and George Lucas acknowledged this in his introduction to a later edition of the book.


The book was published as a paperback original in December 1976 by Ballantine. This was a full six months before the film was released. By the time the film was released in May 1977, the novelisation had sold a startling 3.5 million copies.

As a result, the book had done a lot of heavy lifting in getting people excited for the film. Readers scoffed at the idea that the elaborate battle sequences in the book could be realised for the film, but were keen to see for themselves. Helped by Charles Lippincott's other marketing ideas, such as the memorable poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt and a Marvel Comics adaptation (beginning three months before the release of the movie), the novel helped drive the hype for the film to huge levels. This was rewarded when the film was released and quickly became the biggest and most successful movie in history to that time.

Foster's involvement continued when he wrote the first original Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. One idea originated by Lucas is that if the original film was successful but not a huge hit, they could use the novel as a the basis for a cheap sequel. As a result, Foster was asked to reduce elements in the book such as space battles, new creatures and even the role of Han Solo and Chewbacca, since Harrison Ford had not yet signed on for a sequel, but otherwise Foster was allowed to create his own world, characters and story. Published in March 1978 by Del Rey Books (Judy-Lynn del Rey and her husband Lester having set up a new imprint, still going strong today), the book was another huge seller. It has since been retconned as the first work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and was reissued in the 1990s with some minor revisions to remove elements that clashed with later-established canon. It was also later adapted as a comic.


The success of these projects saw Foster contracted by 20th Century Fox to similarly adapt their big, upcoming SF movie. This became the novelisation of Alien, published in 1979. Whilst other writers handled the novelisations of the Star Wars sequels, Fox asked Foster back for more projects, resulting in the novelisations of Aliens in 1986 and Alien³ in 1992.

The role of novelisations has become - arguably - somewhat more redundant over the decades, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, they played a key role. Before films were widely available to buy or rent on video, a novelisation was often the only way for a fan to experience the story again. Novelisations were also frequently published months ahead of the film, helping build up hype and awareness of the film in a pre-Internet era. Novelisations were also able to get across information from the script that may not have been mentioned in the film. Infamous scenes cut from the films, such as Han Solo meeting Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley; Ripley discovering Captain Dallas being turned into a xenomorph egg; and the smartgun scene from Aliens, all first appeared in the novels decades before they turned up in the "special editions" and director's cuts of the films themselves.

In this manner, Alan Dean Foster played a key role in spreading awareness of two of the biggest SF movie franchises of all time. His novels also gave people a way of enjoying the story again and again, and gave vital background information on the story and world that was not available in the films themselves. He has more than earned his pay from the big mouse corporation.

As well as his work on the big franchises, Foster has a large number of novels in his own worlds, particularly the epic fantasy Spellsinger sequence and the SF Humanx Commonwealth series. He has also published many stand-alone novels, most recently Relic (2018).

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

SFWA takes aim at Disney for non-payment of book royalties to Alan Dean Foster and other writers

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the closest thing the US SFF field has to a union, has put Disney on notice for failing to maintain royalty payments to authors such as Alan Dean Foster.

"Famed science fiction and fantasy writer Alan Dean Foster, writer of multiple book series, numerous novelizations of film scripts and more than 20 novels, will hold a joint press conference with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America on Wednesday, November 18 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern/1:00 p.m. Central/ 11:00 a.m. Pacific. Foster and SFWA will discuss the non-payment by Disney of several contracts for works including multiple Star Wars and Aliens novelizations.

Foster was originally contracted to write the Alien novelizations by Titan Books, and the Star Wars novelizations by Lucasfilm. Both companies regularly paid his royalties. When The Walt Disney Company acquired the rights to these novelizations in 2015, the payments stopped although the books continue to be sold. Disney continues to get money for the books. Alan Dean Foster, and possibly other authors with similar contracts, have not been paid.

Foster and SFWA will discuss the fact the contracts are contracts and that Disney must pay this author and any author to whom they owe royalty checks."
Foster, infamously, ghost-wrote the novelization of the original Star Wars movie in 1976 (coming out several months ahead of the film) and then wrote the first original novel in the franchise, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, in 1978. He later wrote the novel The Approaching Storm and the novelization of The Force Awakens. Foster also wrote the novelisations of the first three Alien movies and the more recent Alien: Covenant, as well as the novelisation of Alien Nation, all for Lucasfilm or Fox, both since acquired by Disney.

It sounds like the SFWA will be making it clear that they expect Disney to fulfil their contractual requirements going forwards.


UPDATE

The press conference has been held via Facebook and can be seen in full here.

Mary Robinette Kowal, president of the SFWA, introduces the grievance. Alan Dean Foster then outlines in full the situation: Disney halted royalty payments on his earlier Star Wars books in 2015 and on his Alien books after Disney took over Fox in March 2019. They ignored all attempts at communication, including legal representation, until the SFWA got involved. Disney then advanced an extraordinary argument: that they had purchased the rights but not the obligations of the contract. In other words, they were entitled to continue to sell books by Alan Dean Foster for their own profit but not pay him royalties on those books.

This argument is extraordinary gibberish, and on first glance would not survive more than a passing glance by any legal entity in the United States or elsewhere. However, of course, Disney are able to afford some extremely good lawyers to try to argue this point, perhaps believing they can simply out-spend any individual in court. Whilst that may be true, the SFWA is quite a large and well-supported body, which puts the situation in a rather different light.

There have also been reports that other bodies, such as NBC-Universal, have been trying to push similar ideas about transferring the rights of a contract but not the obligations. So far such claims have not withstood scrutiny in court, and it's unlikely this will either. However, the attempt is disturbing. If Disney's argument was to stand, then writers would be subject to the termination of contract without warning, simply by publishers moving the books to another subsidiary and then back again.

Foster and his wife are both facing significant medical expenses and the non-payment of royalties has adversely affected them.

Other Star Wars novelists and their estates (such as the family of A.C. Crispin, a Star Wars novelist who also wrote the novelisation of Alien Resurrection) are also now querying their royalty payments to make sure that the problem is not more widespread.

Warner Brothers releases a somewhat-exaggerated BABYLON 5 "remaster"

Warner Brothers has begun releasing what they are - with some exaggeration - calling "Babylon 5 Remastered" via streaming services Amazon Prime and iTunes.

In truth, this is not really the original show remastered but more "reverted," that is, returned to its original format in which it was broadcast in the 1990s and subsequently released on VHS. The show was subsequently re-edited in widescreen in 2004 for release on DVD and later streaming services, but this involved digitally cropping and zooming the various CG and composite effects shots, resulting in noticeable and frequent drops in visual quality as the show moved between live-action-only and effects material. This "remaster" does nothing more than revert to the original, non-widescreen broadcast version of the show, run through a colour filter. The result is nothing like a remaster, but is superior to the widescreen version of the show at the cost of losing the widescreen image.

The problem was originally caused by a mismatch in the original production of the show. The series was shot on 32mm film in 16:9 widescreen, but was mastered on 4:3 video for home release. The plan was to create a widescreen version of the show to future-proof it for later generations, and a non-widescreen version for contemporary viewers. Unfortunately, a miscommunication and Warner Brothers' refusal to buy the effects team a $5,000 widescreen reference monitor meant that the CGI and other vfx footage was only rendered and shot in 4:3 in the first place. When Warner Brothers wanted to create a widescreen version, they found that the live-action footage existed in widescreen but the CG and composites did not. Their only solution was to zoom into the effects images until it filled the widescreen image, at the expense of losing material from the top and bottom of the screen. This created various problems, most notably increased pixilation and "fuzziness" of the effects images and details being lost from the CG footage.

There were two solutions to this problem: either revert to the original 4:3 masters or re-render all of the CG and effects footage in native widescreen and HD. This latter approach would be mind-bogglingly expensive. A similar project in 2012-15 for Star Trek: The Next Generation cost well over $20 million and that was for a show where most of the effects were created in-camera, so were easier to recreate. The ST:TNG remaster project also bombed on home media release and never turned a profit. Babylon 5 had much, much more CGI and far more vfx shots than ST:TNG (even considering that TNG was 68 episodes longer than B5). Warner Brothers have shown little to no appetite for a project of this scale and complexity for a show that, with the best will in the world, is far more obscure than ST:TNG. One fan recently re-rendered some shots using the original CG models and scene files in widescreen and HD, but it took over 100 hours with home equipment to do just a few minutes of footage, demonstrating how expensive and time-consuming it would be to do the entire series.

As a result Warner Brothers have gone for the low-hanging fruit of reverting to the 4:3 original footage and applying some colour saturation filters. To be fair this has resulted in an image that is noticeably sharper and warmer than the widescreen DVD conversion, and of course it means the CG is now back to its original format and all the better for it. Calling it a "remaster" is definitely an exaggeration, though.

"Babylon 5 Remastered" is currently being released piecemeal on streaming services. Warner Brothers have not yet announced any kind of home media release, but considering this isn't a proper HD remaster, I'd be surprised to see one.