Friday 31 July 2020

THE DRAGON PRINCE wins an Emmy Award

The Dragon Prince has won the Daytime Emmy Award for Best Animated Series.

The Netflix animated show picked up the award for its third season, which aired last November. Showrunner Aaron Ehasz accepted the award on behalf of the creative team behind the series.

Netflix recently renewed The Dragon Prince for four more seasons to allow the full story of the saga to be told.

The series was always planned to be a seven-season project divided into three arcs, the first spanning the first three seasons and the latter two spanning two seasons each. With the first sequence complete and relatively working well as a stand-alone, and with Netflix infamously keen on cancelling shows after two or three seasons, fans had feared that the full story would not be told. These fears were increased by reports of a hostile working environment on the project last year by two ex-employees (claims that were contradicted by other employees), leading to fears of cancellation. However, Netflix appear satisfied by working conditions at Wonderstorm, allowing the project to continue.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

BABYLON 5 fan re-renders shots in HD using original models

A Babylon 5 fan has been conducting test-renders designed to show off what the show's CGI would look like in HD and  in a proper widescreen presentation.

A scene from Season 2, Episode 9, The Coming of Shadows

The television series Babylon 5 ran from 1993 to 1998 and won acclaim for its serialised storytelling, epic scope and its cutting-edge, computer-generated effects. Although well-received at the time, it’s clear this material has dated in the 25+ years since the show debuted, and fans have been clamouring for a HD remaster of the show for years.

The existing version of the show is problematic in that, although it presents all of the live-action footage in widescreen (Babylon 5 was one of the first TV shows specifically shot for widescreen presentation), the CG was not rendered in the same format due to a miscommunication between the effects team and the show’s producers. As a result, the existing DVD and streaming version of the show alternates between widescreen live-action and cropped CG and composite shots (where CG and live action is mixed), with the camera “zooming in” to the original 4:3 square image to make it appear in widescreen. This means that information is lost from the top and bottom of the screen, and is less than ideal. 

A scene from Season 2, Episode 15, And Now for a Word

Because the CG was natively rendered at 720x486, it also makes it impossible to have a proper HD (1920x1080) version of any CG material from the show without going back and re-rendering every single CG shot from the entire series, which is a lot of material; several episodes had more than 100 effects shots in 44 minutes, which is an absurd amount of material for the time (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had 480 effects shots in three hours, by comparison). Any modern HD remaster would also likely want to have more detailed models and effects.

Babylon 5 fan Tom Smith, who runs the popular B5 Scrolls website, has taken an interesting approach. Although they strictly shouldn’t have done so, many of the CG modellers and animators working on Babylon 5 at CG companies Foundation Imaging and Netter Digital made personal copies of the shots and models they’d worked on for the show (in some cases because they feared they’d be lost, in others for personal showreels). Smith has used these to recreate some of the exact same shots using the exact same models and, in some cases, the exact same scene files (which contain details on how the ships are moving and where the lighting is coming from). Because the models were extremely over-engineered by the standards of the time, they stand up surprisingly well when displayed at more than twice the resolution they were originally rendered for.

Because modern computing hardware is slightly more powerful than in 1994-98, the average desktop PC with a modern graphics card can render these scenes in minutes or even real time, rather than the hours to days of the original series. 

A series of shots from Season 3, Episode 10, Severed Dreams

This suggests a much more modest way of remastering the show is possible. By using the original models and scene files where they still exist, or recreating them where they do not, it should be possible to remaster all of the CG in the original show at a very modest cost compared to the millions or tens of millions it would cost to remaster all the CG at modern, high-quality standards.

Although fans could theoretically re-render every single solo-CG shot of the entire series, Warner Brothers would still need to get involved to provide the original film stock for composite and greenscreen shots. Warner Brothers have so far shown little appetite for remastering Babylon 5, despite repeated fan demand, so this seems unlikely to happen.

Still, it's very entertaining seeing how well these quarter-century CG shots still hold up.

Monday 27 July 2020

Steven Erikson resumes work on delayed MALAZAN novel

Steven Erikson has resumed work on Walk in Shadow, the much-delayed concluding novel in the Kharkanas Trilogy, a prequel to his popular Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Erikson published the first two books in the series - Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light - in 2012 and 2016. In October 2017 he announced an indefinite delay to Walk in Shadow after being advised that sales for the first two books in the series were disappointing. Instead, he began work on The God is Not Willing, the first novel in the Witness Trilogy, a direct sequel to the Malazan Book of the Fallen, picking up five years later and catching up on popular characters (most notably Karsa Orlong, although he won't actually appear in the first book).

He concluded work on The God is Not Willing several months ago but due to delays at the publisher, learned that the book will not be published until late 2021 or early 2022. After debating the issue, Erikson has now committed to finishing Walk in Shadow as soon as possible, for likely publication in 2022 or 2023, before resuming work on the second Witness book.

In his lengthy Facebook post, Erikson debates why the Kharkanas Trilogy has done more poorly than the main Malazan sequence, pondering his choice of prose style (which is even more ornate in Kharkanas and somewhat different to the main series), subject matter (a long-unfolding, gruelling tragedy) and the issue of "Malazan fatigue," noting that he perhaps should have delayed Forge of Darkness by a year or two.

From my position, I suspect Erikson mainly suffered from the four-year gap between the two books. That's really unremarkable by some standards, of course, but considering his previous pace of publishing (although not writing) ten huge novels in eleven years, it was relatively a huge gap in publication. There's also the issue of "completion syndrome," with some readers waiting for a whole series to be finished before starting it. There's also the issue that Fall of Light was published with relatively little fanfare and marketing, and fan reaction to the two books has been mixed.

Still, completing the trilogy will be a major achievement and hopefully Erikson can conclude the story in a way that satisfies his goals and his fans.

Malazan fans won't have to wait quite so long for their next fix, though. Ian Cameron Esslemont's next novel in the same world, The Jhistal, will be published on 17 November this year.

Netflix confirms a WITCHER spin-off series is in development

Netflix has confirmed it is working on a Witcher spin-off television series, in addition to the animated film Nightmare of the White Wolf which is currently in production.

The Witcher: Blood Origin is a six-part, live-action series set 1,500 years before the books and the existing TV series. It will depict the Conjunction of the Spheres, the ancient apocalypse which brought monsters, men and elves to the world of the Witcher in the first place. It also sounds like it may involve major timejumps, as it will also explore the creation of the first witchers some 1,200 years after the Conjunction, 300 years before Geralt's time.

It sounds like writer and producer Declan de Barra will take the lead on the project, with Witcher showrunner Lauren Hissrich serving in an oversight capacity. It is unclear if original Witcher creator Andrzej Sapkowski will be involved.

Meanwhile, Season 2 of The Witcher itself will resume production next month for transmission in mid-to-late 2021.

Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis

August, 2007. A meteorite falls on northern California. A whistleblower goes public with evidence that the US government has been in communication with an alien intelligence and flees to Germany. His daughter, embarrassed by his behaviour, tries to ignore the unwanted cult of celebrity and get on with things. Suddenly a second meteor falls on apparently the exact same sport as the first, a coincidence so remote as to be effectively impossible, and suddenly the implausible feels very real indeed.

Axiom's End is the debut novel by Lindsay Ellis, a popular video essayist and film critic known for her deep dives on the making of film and TV shows. She was nominated for a Hugo for her three-part series on Peter Jackson's deeply troubled Hobbit film project, and also posted an excellent analysis of the problems with Game of Thrones.

Fortunately, it turns out she's pretty handy in the realm of fiction as well. Axiom's End is a story about humanity encountering an alien race, only to find the aliens are almost impossible to communicate with due to the total absence of common frames of reference. Early parts of the book, where the existence of the aliens is unclear, are framed like an X-Files thriller where government agents are keeping tabs on a young woman because of what she thinks is her father's criminal activities. Cora gets first-hand evidence that the aliens are real and that pretty much everyone is in the dark about what's really going on, resulting in a satisfying story shift where she gains more power, knowledge and agency because of her own experiences (a nice inversion on the more traditional story where the protagonist is always playing catch-up with the plot but somehow ends out coming on top).

There's some pretty cool horror scenes early on, and a vein of humour running through the books which stays just on the right side of dated pop culture references (the alternate-past setting helps with that). Cora's conspiracy theorist father - Edward Snowden fused with Fox Mulder - starts off as an all-knowing sage drip-feeding the audience with hints of greater knowledge via excerpts from his blog, until you realise he doesn't really know anything either and is desperately trying to make himself seem more important than he really is (sort of a budget Melisandre in the story) whilst also falling way behind the curve of the story, which becomes increasingly amusing.

The second half of the story feels like it slightly undercuts its own premise. The aliens initially appear almost too different for humans to effectively communicate with them, but ultimately a method of communication does appear which ends up being about as good as Google Translate (i.e. mostly okay with the occasional clunker), which makes the story way more manageable, but some of the unique atmosphere of the story is lost. It is replaced by a more traditional story about people from completely different civilisations trying to overcome apparently insurmountable odds to establish a rapport. This is excellently handled, but it does feel that the story has switched directions from something a bit weirder (think China Mieville's Embassytown or Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life, later filmed as Arrival) to something a little more traditional (maybe Starman with a slightly less attractive and indeed non-humanoid Jeff Bridges).

There are still a lot of interesting plot twists and the weirdness of the aliens is maintained through their technology and weapons; when two of the aliens come into conflict, Ellis successfully portrays the idea of humans interfering as being akin to a gnat trying to stop a jet fighter dogfight. There's also another raft of thematic ideas related to first contact that are intelligently explored, from the existence of the so-called "Great Filter" (the puzzle that if intelligent, technologically-advanced life is possible, as we have shown, why hasn't it already colonised the galaxy?) to the dangers incurred when a more technologically advanced species encounters a less technologically-advanced one.

Axiom's End (****½) may end up being a bit less strange than it initially promises, but it's still a compulsive page-turner with a nice line in both terror and humour. There will be sequels - the book is touted as the first in the Noumena sequence - but the book has a fair amount of closure to it and no immediate cliffhangers. It is available now in the UK and USA.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Human colonists have settled the planet January, a tidally-locked world where it is too cold to survive on the nightside and too hot on the dayside. Instead, the few human settlements are located in a narrow band of twilight, struggling to survive. Xiosphant, the largest human city, is a dictatorship where the rulers justify their cruel tyranny with the excuse that this is a hard world. For a band of young rebels including Bianca and Sophie, this excuse does not ring true and they begin working to change things for the better. Caught and condemned for her "crimes," Sophia is cast out into the darkness to die. Fate has other ideas for her.

The City in the Middle of the Night is a stand-alone novel from Charlie Jane Anders, the author of All the Birds in the Sky. This novel is more overtly science fiction, delving into that thorny problem of how to survive on a tidally-locked planet, that is a world where one side always faces the star and one side faces away, trapped in eternal day and night.

This makes for a vivid setting, where humans can only survive in eternal twilight, although one that is perhaps a tad under-explored in the book. The novel mostly uses the setting as a backdrop to a story about communication, xenophobia and how to survive in a harsh environment without losing your humanity. If it wasn't for the fact that Anders started writing the book in 2013, I'd suspect some impact from city-builder/ice survival simulator Frostpunk, given the similarities in the hard questions of survival versus sociology. Snowpiercer is a more noticeably overt influence (especially since Anders worked on the TV version as well).

The story revolves around revolutionaries. The system is not working for everyone, with the underclass and labourers exploited by a wealthy ruling elite. The underclass plots revolution and this is as interesting as it ever is as a storyline, although there's an odd lack of connectivity between the revolution and the circumstances of the planet they're living on. It's unclear just how the rich are able to get away with not pulling their weight on a planet where literally the fate of the population is hanging in the balance. There's also a faint whiff of mid-1970s episodes of Doctor Who (which frequently revolve around rebels rebelling for the sake of rebelling against bad guys who are bad because they're bad) in some of these sequences, which is certainly fun but it feels like the themes could have been handled in more depth. Later sequences in the book, where the rebels start taking on the trappings of their oppressors as they gain more successes, do start to tilt in this direction but the themes don't really spring to life. I kept being reminded of China Mieville's handling of this idea in Iron Council, which was a lot more successful.

Still, this storyline is one of only two major narrative strands; the other, revolving around Sophie and the strange alliance she strikes up with January's rarely-seen native civilisation, is more successful. Sophie makes for an engaging protagonist thanks to her empathetic ability to communicate with the aliens and see a bigger picture than most other humans. The other major POV character is a much older, more world-weary and cynical survivalist and traveller, Mouth, and it's refreshing to see a more experienced and capable protagonist, albeit one whose cynicism has made her almost as incapable of dealing with new situations as the younger Sophie's inexperience. The writing is enjoyable, although the pacing feels like it could have been a bit peppier, with the story bogging down at several points (most notably when Sophie and Bianca escape to another city and it takes a long time for the storyline to get going again).

The City in the Middle of the Night (****) is readable and enjoyable, with a vivid if underexplored setting. It does feel like the book could have been tightened up a bit, and maybe the central themes of revolution and corruption could have been handled with more originality. As it stands, this is a solid novel but not one that's going to be lighting the world on fire in terms of originality. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Patrick Rothfuss's editor confirms she is yet to read a single word of THE DOORS OF STONE

In somewhat surprising news, Patrick Rothfuss's editor Betsy Wollheim has reported that she is yet to read any material from his next novel, The Doors of Stone, the third and concluding volume in The Kingkiller Chronicle, and notes a lack of communication on the book's progress.

A draft of The Doors of Stone, reportedly from 2013.

Rothfuss shot to fame with the first book in the trilogy, The Name of the Wind, in 2007. With over 10 million sales, The Name of the Wind became one of the biggest-selling debut fantasy novels of the century. The second book, The Wise Man's Fear, did as well on release in 2011. Nine years later, the third book remains unpublished.

The Doors of Stone is probably the second-most-eagerly-awaited fantasy novel of the moment, behind only George R.R. Martin's The Winds of Winter, which it actually exceeds in waiting time (though only by five months). Martin has provided updates on The Winds of Winter, albeit extremely infrequent ones, but has recently reported much more significant progress being made. Rothfuss, on the other hand, has maintained near constant zero radio silence on the status of book in recent years, despite posting a picture of an apparently semi-complete draft in 2013 that was circulating among his beta readers.

Reasons for the delay, as with Martin, have been speculated. Rothfuss has reported bouts of ill health, as well as trauma related to family bereavements. Rothfuss was also closely involved in an attempt to launch a multimedia adaptation of his books, which would have involved both a trilogy of films based directly on the novels and a prequel TV series revolving around the parents of his protagonist, Kvothe. However, the TV show was cancelled mid-development at Showtime, apparently due to massive cost overruns on their Halo television series, and a new network has not yet picked up the series. The movies also fell out of active development when director Sam Raimi, who had expressed interest, decided to move forward with a different project. Both projects now appear to be on the backburner at Lionsgate (unsurprisingly, the pandemic has not helped this situation).

Rothfuss has also been involved in charity work, blogging, video game commentary, spin-off material and contributing writing to other projects, causing comparisons to be drawn with Martin's similar engagement in secondary projects, which some commentators have speculated is the main cause of delays on the books. Without having access to an author's schedule, it is of course impossible to say if this is really the case, only that the perception of it being the case becomes unavoidable if the author in question is refusing to provide concrete updates on their book progress whilst discussing other, unrelated work in multiple public communications. Questions of ethics and obligations on the part of authors to their readers have circulated on this subject for decades, ever since the delays to Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions (originally due to be published in 1974, Ellison was allegedly still occasionally promising to publish it at the time of his death in 2018) stretched into the decades, and have been debated ad nauseam online enough to avoid going over them again here, suffice to say that the tolerance for such activities will vary dramatically by reader.

"This article is right: authors don't owe their readership books, but what about the publishers who paid them? Book publishing is not as lucrative as many other professions, and publishers rely on their strongest sellers to keep their companies (especially small companies like DAW) afloat. When authors don't produce, it basically f***s their publishers...When I delayed the publication of book two, Pat was very open with his fans--they knew what was happening. I've never seen a word of book three."

Wollheim's statement is surprising, however. Martin has noted being in communication with his editors on numerous occasions, flying to New York to provide in-person updates and apologise for the book's lateness, and periodically submitting completed batches of chapters for them to work on whilst he continues to write new material. In the case of The Kingkiller Chronicle, Wollheim reports not having read a single word of The Doors of Stone in the nine years since The Wise Man's Fear was published, which is mind-boggling. If Rothfuss had a semi-complete draft in 2013 that he was circulating to friends and early readers, the question arises why he didn't also share this draft with his publishers. Furthermore, if the book's non-appearance since 2013 indicates considerable problems with this draft (as would appear inevitable), it would also appear to be common sense to share that draft with his publishers to see if they agree. It's not uncommon for authors to believe their latest novel is poor and a disaster and threaten to delete it and having to be talked off the ledge by their editors, since they've been working so closely on the material that they've lost all objectivity.

Normally, of course, authors only share completed manuscripts (at least in first draft) with their editor, but when the author in question is a decade behind schedule and one of the biggest-selling authors in the publishers' stable, that normally changes to having much more regular feedback.

Although she notes the impact a long-missing manuscript can have on the margins of a small publisher like DAW, Wollheim notes no ill feeling towards Rothfuss and she continues to be proud of him and the work they've done in the first two volumes:

"If I get a draft of book three by surprise some time, I will be extraordinarily happy...joyous, actually, and will read it immediately with gusto. I love Pat's writing. I will instantly feel forgiving and lucky. Lucky to be his editor and publisher."

More news, as normal, as I get it.

Saturday 25 July 2020

THE DRAGON PRINCE renewed for four more seasons

Netflix has renewed its animated fantasy series The Dragon Prince for four more seasons, taking the show to a total of seven.

The series was always planned to be a seven-season project divided into three arcs, the first spanning the first three seasons and the latter two spanning two seasons each. With the first sequence complete and relatively working well as a stand-alone, and with Netflix infamously keen on cancelling shows after two or three seasons, fans had feared that the full story would not be told. These fears were increased by reports of a hostile working environment on the project last year by two ex-employees (claims that were contradicted by other employees), leading to fears of cancellation.

That is now clearly not the case and The Dragon Prince will return for a fourth season, subtitled "Earth" (after "Moon," "Sky" and "Sun"), as well as three more after that point. Season 4's release date is unknown.

The Dragon Prince universe is expanding, with an art book due for release next month and a tabletop roleplaying game called Tales of Xadia planned for release in 2021.

Thursday 23 July 2020

First trailer for HIS DARK MATERIALS Season 2 released

The BBC and HBO have released the first trailer for Season 2 of His Dark Materials.

The second season of His Dark Materials was filmed back-to-back with the first, so was completed well ahead of the coronavirus pandemic (although the outbreak did limit some planned pickup shots).

Season 2 of the series is based on the middle book of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, and sees Will Parry (Amir Wilson) and Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) joining forces when they find themselves both trapped in a strange world. New actors for the second season include industry veteran Terence Stamp (Superman II, The Limey, The Phantom Menace, Valkyrie) and Andrew Scott (Fleabag, Sherlock).

Season 2 of His Dark Materials will air on the BBC in the UK and HBO in the USA this autumn. Work on adapting the third and final book, The Amber Spyglass, has begun, although as of a few months ago the producers were still trying to decide if they were going to cram the large volume into one season or expand it out to two.

Philip Pullman, author of the novel series, is currently working on the concluding volume of the Book of Dust prequel/sequel trilogy.

Obsidian announce new fantasy CRPG, AVOWED

Obsidian Entertainment have announced their first big game since they were bought by Microsoft last year.

Avowed is a first-person, 3D CRPG set in the world of Eora, the setting which previously appeared in their two Pillars of Eternity games. Some commentators have noted that it appears that Avowed may be Obsidian's Elder Scrolls in the same way that The Outer Worlds was their Fallout. Avowed will be released on X-Box Series X and PC.

Avowed is some way off, but in the meantime The Outer Worlds is getting a full expansion, Peril on Gorgon, which will be released pleasingly imminently in September.

Obsidian are having a fecund period at the moment. They are also working on Grounded, an open-world survival game influenced by Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and also have a historical CRPG in the earliest stages of development from New Vegas lead developer Josh Sawyer.

The Grand WINDS OF WINTER Update Post

It's been a long time since we last did this, since hard data has been scarce these last few years, but given recent movement it seemed a viable time to do a general update on the state of The Winds of Winter.

People keep posting this cover but it's worth reiterating that it isn't the official cover for the book. It was created in 2012 by fan FeroxDeoVacuusVinco, and is so good that it even convinced GRRM into thinking it was real cover concept from his publishers. 


The Winds of Winter is the sixth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is currently planned to be the penultimate volume of the series, to be followed by a concluding volume called A Dream of Spring. Some commentators have speculated that, due to the large array of storylines and character arcs that need resolving, an expansion to eight or nine books (either directly or by one or both of these volumes being split in two) is possible.

According to Martin, he expects The Winds of Winter to come in at around the same length as A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, at around 1,520 manuscript pages, 420,000 words and between 70 and 90 chapters. Based on previous volumes, the book cannot be much longer, as at that point the book would need to be split in half for publication due to limitations in printing. However, the dramatic increase in popularity of the books, due to the Game of Thrones TV series, has resulted in over 80 million additional sales and a substantial increase in profit since 2011. The publishers would likely stretch this limitation considerably for The Winds of Winter, maybe up to over 500,000 words. Another possibility is that whilst Martin is writing material for The Winds of Winter, he has disregarded the page limitation and if that means the book will have to be published in two volumes even in hardcover, so be it. Ebooks are not subject to the same limitation, of course, but with the ebook share of the market falling to 17-18% in recent years, clearly the physical limitation concerns will still be paramount.

Completed Material

(note that I have been covering this on here, and am grateful for the coverage and research provided by Brynden "Hypeslayer" BFish at r/asoiaf)

It appears that Martin has either completed or almost completed a minimum of 39 chapters based solely on his public utterances; the true number is certainly significantly higher. These comprise:
  • Prologue: POV character unknown, although Ser Forley Prester seems to be the leading candidate, since GRRM has confirmed that Jeyne Westerling (Robb Stark's widow) appears in this chapter but is not necessarily the viewpoint character.
  • Arya Stark: 4 chapters
  • Tyrion Lannister: 3 chapters
  • Barristan Selmy: 3 chapters
  • Arianne Martell: 3 chapters
  • Melisandre: 2 chapters
  • Theon Greyjoy: 2 chapters
  • Aeron Greyjoy: 2 chapters
  • Areo Hotah: 2 chapters
  • Cersei Lannister: 2 chapters
  • Asha Greyjoy: 2 chapters
  • Jon Connington: 2 chapters
  • Sansa Stark: 1 chapter
  • Victarion Greyjoy: 1 chapter
  • Bran Stark: 1 chapter
  • Daenerys Targaryen: 1 chapter
  • Davos Seaworth: 1 chapter
  • 6 additional chapters completed in June and July 2020

POV Characters

It should be noted that the above list comprises all of the surviving POV characters from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons with four exceptions: Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth and Samwell Tarly. Given Jon, Jaime and Brienne's cliffhanger fates in the previous book, it is unlikely that Martin will confirm new chapters from their POVs (although I suspect Jaime and Brienne will have POVs; Jon not having POVs after his presumably inevitable resurrection would be an interesting stylistic choice if GRRM should choose to pursue it). Sam is an interesting one as from a narrative perspective, it is possible to likely that he will have a fairly major story arc in The Winds of Winter. Martin not mentioning any additional Sam material at all is probably happenstance.

Martin has said previously that, for the first time ever, there will be no new POVs in The Winds of Winter (bar the prologue and epilogue, if applicable) and so far this appears to be the case.

To be fair, if I'd written two million words of complex fantasy on a white-on-black word processor, I'd also want to murder every single character.

Released Material

Martin has publicly released the following material from The Winds of Winter in the form of sample chapters:
  • "Mercy" - an Arya Stark chapter
  • Arianne I
  • Arianne II
  • Theon I
  • Alayne I - a Sansa Stark chapter
  • Barristan I - in the paperback version of A Dance with Dragons
  • Tyrion II - in the World of Ice and Fire app
These chapters have been read at conventions and signings:
  • Tyrion I
  • Barristan II
  • "The Forsaken" - an Aeron Greyjoy chapter
  • Victarion I

Writing History

Martin delivered A Dance with Dragons, the previous volume in the series, to his publishers in May 2011; it was published in July that year. Several chapters completed for the book were held back for The Winds of Winter in the editing process, totally around 200 manuscript pages. His editor Anne Groell reported receiving an additional 168 manuscript pages in 2013, for a total of ~368 manuscript pages, although George had many more chapters in at least some partial form of completion at this time.

Relatively limited progress was made during this two-year period due to GRRM's commitments elsewhere. This included revising the maps for The Lands of Ice and Fire (2012), which required GRRM to completely re-conceive and redraw his maps of Essos, and also his scriptwriting duties on Game of Thrones, which required approximately one month of work in each year of 2010-13. He also agreed to write 3,000 words of material for The World of Ice and Fire (2014) in 2012, but this ballooned out of control and he ended up writing almost 300,000 words of material in three months. This material was heavily compressed by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson for the published book. The unedited material was later recycled and added to with new material to form Fire and Blood (2018). Martin also continued his work on co-editing the Wild Cards series with Melinda Snodgrass (as he had done since 1986) and co-editing four anthologies with Gardner Dozois during this period.

For these reasons, work in earnest on The Winds of Winter did not recommence until 2012, then accelerating through 2013 and 2014. Despite the early setbacks, progress in this period seems to have been reasonable (at least by Martin's standards from A Dance with Dragons), with his publishers reporting having the book on the shelves in 2015 or 2016 was possible, and at least two of Martin's overseas translators being advised by his that they were expecting the book in this time frame. Martin also refocused his work on the book in this time, suspending his co-editing work with Dozois in 2014 and also confirming he would not be writing any more Game of Thrones episodes after the fourth season. This seemed to make completion in 2015 for 2016 publication possible (approximating the time period spent waiting for both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons).

In a January 2016 update on the book, Martin reinforced this, noting that in 2015 he believed he was close enough to deliver the book for relatively speedy publication. However, he also noted in this update that he was still some months from completion. This period of high optimism seems to have petered out, with Martin noting that he had been trying to stay ahead of the TV show (which passed the events of A Dance with Dragons in 2015 and concluded entirely in 2019) but ultimately this pressure had been counter-productive. He also noted in March 2014 that he had not done anything like his normal rewriting and re-editing on the book, which given the substantial rewrites the last few books in the series have gone through, should have been a red flag.

Thus, although confirmation will have to wait until the book is done and Martin hopefully provides a detailed post-mortem of the process, it sounds like work on the book proceeded well and completion appeared possible in 2014-15, until he started rewriting and editing the book and ran into significant problems that required much more extensive restructuring and rewriting (on the order of, if not greater than, the "Meereenese Knot" was caused a lot of the problems with A Dance with Dragons).

Estimating Completion

The obvious answer to this question is how long is a piece of string? In his updates Martin has ruled out completion this year, but indicates that getting the book on shelves in (presumably late) 2021 may be possible. Although we've been here before and faced disappointment (with the 2016 update), it's also worth noting that GRRM's recent updates have been much more upbeat than at any time since work on The Winds of Winter began. They resemble the "light at the end of the tunnel" updates he began providing on A Dance with Dragons in late 2009, although the book was still twenty months away from hitting shelves. For that reason, granting Martin's usual tendency towards optimism, a publication date of early-to-mid 2022 for The Winds of Winter may be more realistic and likely.

At which point, of course, we get to enjoy another wait all over again.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Maria Doyle Kennedy's role on THE WHEEL OF TIME revealed

It was announced last year that Maria Doyle Kennedy (Orphan Black, Outlander, The Tudors) would be appearing in Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series, leading to frenzied speculation about which high-profile role she'd be playing. Elaida? Siuan? Verin? One of the Forsaken?

Today it was confirmed that her role will be surprisingly low-key: Kennedy will be playing Ila, one of the Tuatha'an or Travelling People. Narinder Samra will be playing her husband Raen and Daryl McCormack as their son, Aram. Aram is a somewhat important character in the wider Wheel of Time mythos, but Ila has only relatively fleeting appearances in The Eye of the World, The Shadow Rising and A Memory of Light.

For an actress of Kennedy's stature such a small amount of screentime may be surprising, but she will obviously be exceptional in the role. It does raise the question of who will be playing Elaida and Siuan, since almost all of the roles from the actors present at the read-throughs have now been confirmed.

More news as we get it.

Donald Glover to return as Lando Calrissian in STAR WARS TV series

Multiple reports surfaced today that Disney is in talks with Donald Glover for him to reprise his role as the young Lando Calrissian in a new Star Wars TV series, and may have already reached an agreement. Glover previously played the role in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Solo had a poor reception at the box office, becoming the first Star Wars film to fail to turn a profit in its initial theatrical run. Media and streaming sales were needed for it to turn green, and it's unclear if that's happened as yet. However, the film had a stronger critical reception, with most reviewers agreeing it was a fun - if not strictly necessary - addition to the mythos. The warmest plaudits were reserved for Glover, taking over the role handled by Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (one he later resumed in The Rise of Skywalker).

The current rumours seem to be revolving around a Glover-starring mini-series set between Solo and A New Hope, a fertile time period which is also going to be explored in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi mini-series and potentially The Bad Batch, a Clone Wars spin-off show about former clone troopers surviving during the rise of the Empire. Such a series would also allow Disney+ to revisit dangling plot threads from Solo without committing to a full movie sequel. Other rumours - which sound a lot more speculative - are even suggesting a two-pronged story featuring Williams as the older Lando following up on some of the plot threads from Rise of Skywalker, with extensive flashbacks to his younger self.

Glover himself is keeping busy, as he is currently developing the third and fourth seasons of his own show for FX, Atlanta, during lockdown.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Cancelled GAME OF THRONES spinoff details leaked

Some details about the cancelled Game of Thrones spinoff show The Longest Night* have been revealed thanks to Redanian Intelligence (rapidly establishing itself as the new go-to place for fantasy show news and rumours) and YouTuber Lucifer Means Lightbringer, who spoke to an extra involved in the production of the pilot (although please note the latter claims have not been additionally verified).

The Longest Night was the first Game of Thrones spin-offs to be commissioned. A pilot episode, entitled Bloodmoon, was shot last summer and was presented to HBO executives in the autumn of 2019. After several weeks debating the merits of the show versus several other Game of Thrones projects they had under discussion, HBO decided not to proceed with The Longest Night and cancelled it, instead ordering directly to series a second project called House of the Dragon, which we learned this week was looking to cast key characters from the civil war known as the Dance of Dragons.

This leaves the question of what The Longest Night was going to be about still hanging. We know that it was going to be set during the Long Night, the generation-lasting period of darkness and ice during which time the White Walkers (known as the Others in the books) invaded Westeros and unleashed a period of ice and terror that was halted by the War for the Dawn, when the Last Hero defeated the White Walkers and drove them back into the North. The Wall was raised to bar their return. According to traditional history in the books, this period takes place about eight thousand years before the events of the novel series, although in interviews and in some passages in the books, George R.R. Martin has suggested this date is erroneous and the true figure is between four and five thousand years earlier.

Whilst stirring stuff, it's a bit light on the specifics, which the leaks have shed some more light on.

We already knew that Naomi Watts was playing a noble lady, but it's now been revealed that her character had a daughter, played by Amy McPherson. The Children of the Forest were also going to play a major role, with Leaf (who appeared in Game of Thrones itself) returning, this time played by Doyin Ajiboye. Leaf would have been a series regular. Two other Children would have been recurring characters: Cloud (Seyi Andes-Pelumi) and Lake (Felicia Mukasa).

Twins Leah and Mhairi Gayer would have played in-show twins Caera and Vera. Gabriella Morales was a stand-in for a princess, whilst other characters included Ianthe (Rosy McEwan), Reynard (Sean Rigby), Robben (Richard McCabe), Maiev (Dixie Egerickx), Sorcha (Georgina Campbell) and Flavia (Georgina Beedle). There was also an "enclave boy" (Zephan Hanson Amissah), "dungeon keep" (Ewan Bailey).

Other confirmed castmembers from the project included John Simm, Josh Whitehouse, Naomi Ackle, Denise Gough, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sheila Atim, Ivanno Jeremiah, Georgie Henley, Alex Sharp and Tony Regbo. S.J. Clarkson directed the pilot, which was written by Jane Goldman and co-produced by Clarkson, Goldman and George R.R. Martin, who was also a consultant. Among the crew was Alex Reynolds, a choreographer and "movement designer for the undead".

Based on the leaks, it sounds like the show would have indeed opened in the ancient Bronze Age of Westeros, when instead of seven large kingdoms there were dozens of petty-kingdoms, and would have revolved around a marriage alliance between the Starks of Winterfell and the Casterlys of Casterly Rock. A "blood moon" would have taken place - a type of eclipse - and then there would have been a meteor shower heralding the onset of the Long Night itself.

This is interesting stuff. My original thought was that the show would revisit the creation of the Night King by Leaf (as depicted in the fifth episode of Season 6) and maybe build up the Night King's character and explain who he was beforehand. However, from the sound of it the show as just going to jump straight into the Long Night kicking off. This may also have resolved a potential timeline discrepancy. Although the show confirmed (at least in the TV-only continuity) that the Children created the White Walkers as weapons to use against the invading First Men, it didn't address the fact that the original war ended peacefully with the forging of the Pact and the White Walkers didn't figure at all in that war; instead, several thousand years were to pass before the White Walkers abruptly showed up out of nowhere to initiate the Long Night. In the traditional history the Pact was signed around ten thousand years before the events of A Game of Thrones, two thousand years before the Long Night began; the "new history" hinted at in A Dance of Dragons potentially retcons these dates to six and five thousand years, with a millennium of peace falling between.

My guess has always been that the White Walkers were created as a last-ditch weapon of mass destruction during the original war when the Children's first two plans to destroy the First Men - shattering the Arm of Dorne and the Neck of Westeros - both failed. However, these displays of power did give pause to the First Men and ultimately led to the signing of the Pact. As a result, the White Walkers were not needed and were banished to the Lands of Always Winter, perhaps to be held in reserve should the First Men break the pact. It's possible that the Bloodmoon and the meteor impact are chance astronomical events which inadvertently awoke and released the White Walkers, or the Walkers were released by a vindictive Child of the Forest, or perhaps the Children felt that the First Men had broken the Pact in some unspecified manner.

It's also possible that the meteor impact may be related to the mythical destruction of the planet's second moon, which released dragons into the world. This is less likely, as reportedly the show was not going to involve dragons at all, although this of course could have been misdirection.

The idea of having the Casterlys featured is intriguing, as we know that the Casterlys were an ancient and revered house who controlled the region around Casterly Rock for centuries or millennia before they were deceived by the petty-king Lann the Clever, who tricked them into abandoning the fortress. He took it over himself, founding House Lannister. These events happened in the Age of Heroes, around the time of the Long Night, so would have been ripe to be depicted in the show. Pure speculation on my part, but John Simm plays roguish agents of chaos quite well (he played the Master in Doctor Who) and must be a leading candidate for such a role. It might be that Naomi Watts was playing the Queen Stark of the time and Amy McPherson her daughter, the princess who was to marry the "last Casterly."

A Stark-Casterly alliance at this time does feel a bit more questionable, though. It'd be the equivalent of an ancient tribe in the north of England marrying into a semi-powerful royal family halfway across Europe in some period before the rise of Rome; possible but unlikely. Still, if we assume the Starks and Casterlys were the most powerful dynasties of their regions, even if they weren't the full rulers of the North or the Westerlands yet, it may be more plausible. Having the Lannisters turn up and disinherit the Casterlys would also be a good way of establishing the traditional Lannister-Stark enmity.

We'll probably never see the Longest Night pilot episode, which is a shame. The reasons for the show being cancelled seem to be down to a combination of several factors: a lukewarm reception to both the original pilot and a re-edited version; the departure of the HBO execs who had commissioned the pilot and their replacement with newcomers who wanted to make their own decisions; and the highly negative reception to the resolution of the White Walker storyline on Game of Thrones itself. Spending four to eight seasons on a show revolving around a threat whose resolution had been clearly depicted already may have been ultimately seen as dramatically unsatisfying. House of the Dragon was regarded as a better option due to its focus on political intrigue and dragon warfare, elements that were at least more positively received on Thrones proper.

* The show was never formally called The Longest Night, but this was apparently George R.R. Martin's preferred title (he also referred to it as The Long Night, but this may have been less likely because of the GoT episode of the same name) and since it doesn't matter now, what the hell? Bloodmoon was the code-name used for the project to stop people realising it was Game of Thrones-related, but I suspect it was also the working title for the actual episode itself.

Monday 20 July 2020

Casting begins for Netflix's SANDMAN TV series

Neil Gaiman has provided an update on pre-production for the TV version of his seminal graphic novel series, Sandman.

Casting is underway for the project with a view to start production as soon as possible given the ongoing pandemic.

Gaiman poured cold water on some popular fan casts, particularly hope that Michael Sheen (who starred in the adaptation of Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens) will reprise his role as Lucifer from the recent Audible version of the comic book. Gaiman did note that was the possibility that some other cast members from the Audible version could appear in the TV series.

Gaiman confirmed that the series will be set in the present day rather than the late 1980s, meaning that Dream is imprisoned for 104 years at the start of the series rather than 73 years. The first season will last for 10 episodes and will cover the first two graphic novels (of ten in total), Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House.

Sandman will likely be shooting for a late 2021 or early 2022 debut.

George R.R. Martin provides surprise updates on THE WINDS OF WINTER

Author George R.R. Martin has provided uncharacteristic updates on the state of The Winds of Winter, the sixth and (currently) penultimate volume in his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.

Martin has been largely silent over the writing of the book, having provided very little in the way of concrete updates on the volume since he began work on it in 2012. Martin had previously provided detailed updates, including regular completed page counts, for both A Feast for Crows (2005) and A Dance with Dragons (2011) but later regretted this, particularly with editing issues on Dragons that involved sometimes "uncompleting" chapters to rewrite them in light of major structural changes. As such, he came to believe that providing word counts was counterproductive, leading people to dramatically underestimate how much time it would take to finish the book (even himself). Early in the writing of The Winds of Winter, he expressed a preference for delivering no updates at all and instead just announcing "it's done!" out of nowhere.

That seems to have remained his preference, but from time to time he cracked and gave a general update on the state of the book. It appears that the book was somewhat close to completion in late 2015 and early 2016, but clearly it was not delivered. The reasons for this are unclear, and I suspect we will have to wait for a detailed post-mortem after release (as George provided for A Dance with Dragons) to find out what transpired. The most likely possibility is that George had not done much rewriting or editing of the book by that point in favour of pressing on with new material (which seems to have been more the approach that helped with the relatively fast writing of the first three books in the series) and the subsequent rewrites exposed larger problems in the narrative that required more extensive changes. George also advised last year that he'd been urged to split the book (like A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons) but had refused, suggesting he had enough material to release "a book" at that time but not necessarily the book he wanted. He has also cited at times overwhelming pressure from fans and publishers to get the book out before the conclusion of the Game of Thrones TV show (2011-19), which was counterproductive.

In the two new updates, Martin notes completing six chapters in the last month (not writing six chapters from scratch; it is probable these chapters have been in the planning and writing stages for years) and even noting what characters he has been spending time with: Cersei Lannister, Asha Greyjoy, Tyrion Lannister, Ser Barristan Selmy, Areo Hotah, Arya Stark. Some fans have tried to extrapolate this to mean these characters survive well into The Winds of Winter, but given Martin's nonlinear writing process (sometimes writing chapters from late in the book's timeline before writing those set earlier), this is not necessarily the case. Martin has noted that the book is "huge," and will likely match (if not exceed) A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons in size (both books exceeded 1,500 manuscript pages and 420,000 words, with more than 70 chapters in ADWD and more than 80 in ASoS).

Martin's recent updates are reminiscent of the more upbeat and optimistic posts he started posting in late 2009 as the light at the end of the tunnel for A Dance with Dragons became apparent, but it was still some eighteen months before the book was released. Martin cautions that his optimistic tone should be not be taken as a sign that the book will be finished imminently, but the current progress is the most encouraging news in some time.

Amazon announces new WHEEL OF TIME castmembers

Amazon Prime Video has continued releasing new casting information for their Wheel of Time TV series.

The new actors announced in the last few weeks comprise the following:

  • Christopher Sciueref as Abell Cauthon
  • Juliet Howland as Natti Cauthon
  • Mandi Symonds as Daise Congar
  • Lolita Chakrabarti as Marin al'Vere
  • Michael Tuahine as Bran al'Vere
  • David Sterne as Cenn Buie
  • Abdul Salis as Eamon Valda
  • Stuart Graham as Geofram Bornhald
  • Jennifer Preston as Mistress Grinwell
  • Pasha Bocarie as Master Grinwell
  • Izuka Hoyle as Dana
  • Darren Clarke as Basel Gill

The previously announced cast are as follows:

  • Rosamund Pike as Moiraine
  • Josha Stradowski as Rand al'Thor
  • Madeleine Madden as Egwene al'Vere
  • Marcus Rutherford as Perrin Aybara
  • Zoe Robbins as Nynaeve al'Meara
  • Barney Harris as Mat Cauthon
  • Daniel Henney as al'Lan Mandragoran
  • Michael McElhatton as Tam al'Thor
  • Alvaro Morte as Logain Ablar
  • Hammed Animashaun as Loial
  • Alexandre Willaume as Thom Merrilin
  • Johann Myers as Padan Fain
  • Jennifer Cheon Garcia as Leane Sharif
  • Priyanka Bose as Alanna Mosvani
  • Emmanuel Imani as Ihvon
  • Taylor Napier as Maksim
  • Kate Fleetwood as Liandrin Guirale
  • Daryl McCormack, Naana Agyei-Ampadu and Maria Doyle Kennedy in undisclosed roles

Production of the eight-episode first season of The Wheel of Time was six weeks from completion when it was shut down back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Filming is now expected to resume in the Czech Republic in August or September, hopefully to allow the show to hit its mooted early 2021 release date.

GAME OF THRONES spinoff confirms Dance of Dragons setting

HBO's House of the Dragon, a prequel spin-off from Game of Thrones, has started its casting process, sending out information to casting agencies for the actors they are looking for. These confirm that the TV series will be based (at least initially) on the Dance of Dragons, a brutal civil war between two competing branches of the Targaryen family.

The casting sides are for the two matriarchal figures who initiate the war: Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, the oldest daughter and child of King Viserys I Targaryen, and Dowager Queen Alicent Hightower, the second wife and widow of the king. When Viserys dies, Rhaenyra claims the Iron Throne, a role she was groomed for by her father for life, whilst Alicent instead supports the claim of her son Aegon II Targaryen. The Seven Kingdoms are split down the middle, declaring for the "blacks" (Rhaenyra's party) or "greens" (Alicent's party). The war is particularly horrifying and brutal because both wings of the family still have their dragons, leading to dragon-on-dragon warfare in the skies over Westeros, the burning of entire towns and so forth.

The story will be adapted from the narrative of the Dance as explored in George R.R. Martin's book Fire and Blood. It also sounds like the story will expand on the preamble to the war, including the misadventures of Prince Daemon Targaryen (Rhaenyra's uncle and lover).

Reportedly early work for the show is being done under the codename "Red Gun," as the previous spinoff project The Longest Night was done under the codename "Bloodmoon" before it was cancelled. Although I suspect this might now be changed given it's leaked and House of the Dragon has been given a greenlight and full season commitment by HBO.

House of the Dragon will be executive produced by George R.R. Martin, Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal, with no involvement from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The show will start shooting in 2021 on location in the UK and Spain, and will air on HBO in 2022.

Saturday 18 July 2020

Wertzone Classics: Freespace 2

AD 2367. Thirty-two years have passed since the Terran-Vasudan Alliance defeated the invading Shivan fleet, destroying its flagship, the Lucifer whilst it was in subspace en route to the Sol system. The destruction of the Lucifer in the jump node collapsed all FTL links between Sol and other systems, leaving Earth cut off from the rest of the galaxy. Whilst scientists have worked to find a way of reestablishing the link, the Terrans and Vasudans have worked together with recovered Shivan technology to dramatically improve their weapons and capabilities.

However, a new civil war has erupted: Admiral Bosch has formed the Neo-Terran Front and established a new state, encouraging Polaris, Regulus and Sirius to secede from the Alliance. As the Alliance military struggles to recover the three systems and end the war, it also discovers an immense alien megastructure in the Gamma Draconis system, through which an even greater threat is waiting...

Freespace 2 was released in 1999 as the sequel to Conflict Freespace: The Great War and its expansion, The Silent ThreatFreespace had been a late but successful entry to the space combat simulator genre, selling and reviewing well and with its laser-like focus on gameplay winning over gamers tired of other series in the genre becoming far more obsessed with story and FMV cutscenes. Freespace 2 was rushed out of the door when publishers Interplay started having major financial problems and was released three months early without any publicity whatsoever. The game also had the misfortune to come out during the Great Space Combat Crash of 1999, when the entire genre effectively ceased to exist. Even the latest game in the perennially popular X-Wing series, X-Wing: Alliance, fared badly that year and very few new games in the genre have subsequently been released (StarLancer was a notable exception in 2001). Space games since this time - including the recent mini-resurgence spearheaded by Elite: Dangerous and No Man's Sky - have focused on trading or exploration over narrative and combat.

There is another explanation for why the genre crashed (beyond other ideas like the declining popularity of joysticks as game controllers): after Freespace 2 the genre had nowhere else to go. Freespace 2 was such a masterpiece that it rendered all other space combat games completely pointless.

Freespace 2 at first glance is identical to its predecessor. It controls exactly the same way, even down to the keybindings and functions being almost exactly the same, and the structure is similar. The game is similarly divided into campaigns, which is each subdivided into missions, for 35 missions in total. Each mission opens with a briefing about your objectives, with you able to jump straight into the action with a pre-prepared ship or you can select your ship and weapons loadout yourself.

The big changes become more obvious once the game starts. Capital ships now tend to be bigger and they are equipped with massive beam weapons, huge stream of continuous energy which can literally cut lesser vessels in half. It was overwhelmingly impressive in 1999 and, now upgraded with much better models and effects, it remains so in 2020. Capital ships are also defended by massive flak barrages, which are again hugely impressive (and, I suspect, a key reason why the relaunched Battlestar Galactica employed the same technology in its CG space scenes). There's also been a rebalancing of weapons, shields and armour across the new roster of fighters, making them more entertaining to fly. Controls are also more finely tuned than previously.

The big shift is in tone. Early missions revolve around a civil war between the Alliance and the Neo-Terran Front, but this becomes complicated by the discovery of a massive alien superstructure, which can generate jump nodes leading to a remote nebula. This gives rise to a huge number of missions set inside the nebula, with the player having to fight off enemies they can barely see. The nebula is a fun setting for missions, forcing the player to adapt to the changing circumstances.

These elements introduce a genuine SF sensawunda to the game which was wholly missing from the original title. The pacing then ramps up as events in the nebula trigger a renewed contact with the Shivans...and the discovery that the Shivan fleet from the first game was, at best, a minor scout force compared to what is really out there. The resulting alien onslaught feels like what the Reaper invasion from the much later Mass Effect 3 should have been, a relentless tide of superior alien vessels inexorably advancing for motives that can barely be comprehended. Unlike Mass Effect 3, which wimped out and provided an altogether corny (and overly-familiar) explanation for the Reapers' motivations, Freespace 2 never robs the Shivans of their mythic power through rote exposition. Instead, it provides ways for the player to fight and slow them down without ever really understanding what's going on.

The result is one of the best SF narratives gaming has ever seen, a fighting against the dying of the light until the final mission (which comes literally out of nowhere) puts a rather abrupt capstone on things. Freespace 2 moulds the traditional, cliched military SF narrative with more of a hard SF sensibility (and even a Cthulhu-esque sense of utterly powerless horror) and it's something that the genre has never really done before or sense.

Along the way the game delivers numerous twists and turns, such as sending you undercover into a NTF squadron and having to potentially commit war crimes to keep your cover intact or on a long-range, near-suicide run lone wolf scouting mission deep into Shivan space, which make things more interesting. The first game's tactical command approach also returns with the success of later missions being often down to how you command entire wings of fighters mid-battle. A relatively smooth learning curve, a highly adjustable difficulty rate and very impressive AI make all this a lot easier than it sounds.

Freespace 2 (*****) is, simply put, one of the greatest video games ever made, featuring exceptional space combat with a hard-boiled and ruthless attitude to storytelling and character that is quite remarkable.

Playing the Game: Playing games that are 21 years old can be a bit of an uphill experience, especially for a franchise that's never had an official remaster. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem; back in 2002 Volition released the source code for all three games in the series and that's allowed a very passionate modding community to continuously update them with new graphics, sound effects and voiceovers. The easiest way to play them is to get a copy of Freespace 2 from GoGdownload and install the Knossos launcher, and, once that's done and found your copy of the installed game, you can then select which mods to use. The ones you really want to install are Freespace Port (which adds the original campaign), Freespace Port MedivaVPs (which updates all the graphics and sounds), Silent Threat: Reborn (which adds the latest version of the expansion campaign) and MediaVPs (which updates the Freespace 2 campaign with all the latest models and effects). Then you're good to go. Just remember to hit "play" on MediaVPs, not the actual Freespace 2 campaign, otherwise everything reverts to its 1999 version.

As a bonus, there are also dozens of fan-made mods for the game, including ones for well-known franchises like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as a fan-made new game in the Wing Commander franchise. There are also numerous mods which expand on the Freespace and Freespace 2 storyline.

Black Sails: Season 1

1715, the West Indies. The feared pirate Captain Flint captures a cargo ship and recruits one of its surviving crewmembers, John Silver, as a cook. The way of life for the pirates, operating out of the port of Nassau, is threatened by British imperial ambitions in the region and the growing power of the American colonies to the north. Flint hits on an ambitious plan to enrich himself and his crew forever, and to give the governess of Nassau, Eleanor Guthrie, the means by which to give the island and the city its freedom. But his plan is dangerous and reckless, and many on both the island and his own crew plot to stop him from endangering them all.

Black Sails is a four-season show airing on the Starz network in the USA from 2014 to 2017. It was part of the post-Game of Thrones new wave of "Golden Age of Television" dramas, readily identifiable by a veritable overload of sex in the first season, although the show does calm down and starts exploring the characters and storylines in more detail and becomes a much more compelling character drama.

Season 1 sets up the basic premise: the series is based on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. The port of Nassau stands as a base of operations for multiple pirate crews, most notably the Walrus under Captain Flint and the Ranger under Captain Charles Vane. The pirates' way of life is profitable but fragile; Nassau was a British colony that's descended into lawlessness and the pirates fear the return of the British in force. Eleanor Guthrie rules Nassau as governess, but her authority is fragile and reliant on the cooperation of the crews, something that has been less certain since she broke off a relationship with Captain Vane. Captain Flint proposes a grand endeavour, the capture of the largest Spanish treasure galleon afloat with enough money to make every crewmember in the attempt rich and to help secure Nassau's future independence. However, Flint's methods of maintaining secrecy (including killing those whom he believes are security risks) alienates several key members of his crew, who plot a mutiny, whilst Eleanor's authority is tested by both her father (who helps sell the pirates ill-gotten gains in the American colonies, where fewer questions are asked) and various interlopers.

The first season tells a multitude of stories simultaneously: Flint's efforts to seize the Spanish galleon and keep his command (and head); John Silver ingratiating himself with the crew of the Walrus; William "Billy Bones" Manderly fighting a battle between his personal loyalty to Flint and his responsibility to the Walrus crew; Vane's attempts to win back Eleanor and build himself a power base; Eleanor's attempts to maintain order and her authority in Nassau; Jack Rackham's attempts to secure himself and his lover a future on the island when their initial fortunes turn sour; the fortunes of a prostitute named Max as she attempts to win herself greater power and authority; and the attempts by former slave turned freeman Mr. Scott to protect his employer Eleanor, sometimes from her own worst instincts. There's a lot going on in the first season of Black Sails and this works to the show's benefit.The writing is good enough to balance the different storylines and characters out and allows the stories to all move forwards at a fair old clip. Even in this Era of Binge, Black Sails is more bingeable than most shows, delivering a plethora of splendid character stories, larger geo-political concerns and occasional soap opera-ish elements that makes it a compelling drama.

The cast is exceptional, especially Toby Stephens as the determined but perhaps overly-paranoid Captain Flint and Luke Arnold as the young and callow "Long" John Silver (whom we know is destined for infamy, but at this point is an overconfident and callow youth). Also superb as Tom Hopper as Billy Bones, Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max and Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie, with Zach McGowan putting in an appropriately steely performance as Charles Vane and Hakeem Kae-Kazim providing substantial gravitas as Mr. Scott. There isn't a weak link in the cast.

In terms of the history, the show isn't trying to be a docudrama but it does illustrate and complicate some of the cliches about the Golden Age of Piracy. It shows captains ruling their crews mostly through agreement, with votes being held on key decisions. The depiction of pirate captains as tyrants is illogical (since crews would simply kill a tyrannical captain or leave the ship the next time they hit port) and the show does a great job of showing the tricky balancing act captains had in maintaining their authority. There's also a good depiction of how a complex balance of power exists between Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and their colonies in the New World, with the pirates caught in the middle and only existing because these powers have not been able to divert enough resources to stamp them out altogether. The show delves into a number of other themes, like the role of women in pirate society (including the depiction of real historical figures like Anne Bonny) and the transatlantic slave trade (with the last couple of episodes of the first season going into the issue in some detail).

Black Sails does have a few weaknesses in its first season. There's a few under-explored character beats which makes understanding the motivations of key characters a bit more difficult than it should be, particularly of Flint (extensive flashbacks in Season 2 do resolve these issues, however). Budgetary considerations means a lot more action happens on land then perhaps you'd expect in a pirate drama, although when the shot does start flying and the cutlasses clashing, no expense is spared. The CGI used for major sea battles can be a bit variable (players of Empire: Total War may experience some flashbacks) but for the most part is very impressive. Some may also find the prevalence of female nudity a bit tiresome, but as the show retreats from its initial "Game of Thrones meets Master and Commander" setup (favouring the latter more than the former, admirably) and forges its own identity, that also becomes less of a problem.

Season 1 of Black Sails (****½) hits a few minor problems on its way out of drydock, but otherwise is an excellent, enjoyable and addictive drama. It is available to watch in the UK via Amazon Prime and in the USA via Starz.

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Wertzone Classics: Conflict Freespace: The Great War & The Silent Threat

AD 2335. The Galactic Terran Alliance (GTA) has been fighting a war against the Vasudan Empire for fourteen years. The war has taken its toll on both sides, but peace initiatives have not gained ground and both sides seem to be locked in a stalemate. Without warning, both sides are attacked by alien vessels belonging to a hitherto unknown species, quickly dubbed the "Shivans." The Shivans employ superior technology and seem to have no interest in gaining strategic or tactical advantages or seizing control of systems, only destroying everything in their path. With the Shivan fleet pressing in on the Vasudan homeworld and Earth, the humans and Vasudans reluctantly join forces to face the mutual threat.

Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War | Know Your Meme

The space combat video game genre enjoyed its heyday in the 1990s. Inspired by the original space simulator game, Elite (1984) and spearheaded by Wing Commander (1990), numerous games in the genre were released over the next decade. Arguably the best-received in terms of acclaim and sales was Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994). A late challenger was Conflict Freespace: The Great War (Descent Freespace in the United States for various copyright reasons), released in 1998 by Volition, who, as Parallax, had created the Descent series of combat games.

Freespace chose an inauspicious moment to enter the genre, as its popularity had arguably just peaked and the developers had no experience in the field, but it proved a good move. At the time the game came out, many of its rivals (such as the X-wing series) had seemingly abandoned single-player narratives in favour of chasing a multiplayer audience, whilst the Wing Commander series has grown obsessed with elaborate cut scenes and full motion video starring Hollywood stars over actual gameplay. Freespace struck a chord with its visceral action, impressive game engine, fine sense of pacing and stripped-back presentation. Freespace has no lengthy animated sequences or cheesy videos packed with military cliches, instead presenting its story simply and matter-of-factly, and insisting on getting players into the action as soon as possible.

The game consists of 29 missions, each of which starts with a briefing. After the briefing your ship and weapons loadout are auto-selected, allowing you to join the action immediately. Veteran players can choose their craft and weapons to better suit their play style. During the game you can command fast, versatile (but fragile) scouts, hardier bombers and jack-of-all-trades fighters. The game is notable both for its unusually finely-tuned difficulty setting (with five rather than three settings, including a "very easy" mode that effectively allows you to sit back and just watch things unfold as your wingmen do everything for you) and for its unusually strong AI, particularly that of your wingmen whom you can give very specific orders to (such as automatically fending off enemies targeting your fighter or targeting specific subsystems on an enemy capital ship). Part of the game's enduring appeal is this more strategic element, sometimes allowing you to stand off and observe a battle from afar and order your fighters on how to proceed.

Freespace 1 The Great War - Freespace 2018 - YouTube

Much more fun, of course, is the up-close and personal dogfighting. Freespace has a robust flight model and, with modern versions of the game, excellently updated graphics which makes close-in space combat often joyous to behold. Matching speeds with enemies, executing an afterburner burn to break a missile lock and dropping velocity to keep an enemy in your sights is all well-handled and instinctive. It was great in 1998 and remains great in 2020.

The story unfolds over a lengthy campaign. The story isn't the most dynamic ever in the genre, but does a good job of keeping you engaged throughout. There's a nice XCOM-ish feel to early missions as the Terrans and Vasudans have to scavenge Shivan technology to match their superior shields and sensors, and later on the battles becoming increasingly large and desperate. It's not the most compelling SF narrative ever written, but does it job very well. Particularly interesting is the lack of exposition with regard to the Shivans, who remain a terrifying enigma right up to the end.

The original game is great, although it does have some technical drawbacks, particularly the lack of fully-voiced dialogue; more than once important plot information unfolds through on-screen text dialogue, which is easy to completely miss mid-battle.

After completing the main campaign, you can proceed on with the game's expansion, The Silent Threat. The modern version of the expansion includes 18 missions (all voiced this time), generally somewhat harder than in the original game, and with a much murkier and more original storyline. I must admit to enjoying this more than the original game, as it moves away from standard SF cliches a bit more.

Conflict: Freespace (****) and The Silent Threat (****½) are both joys to play in 2020, having, thanks to the dedicated and active modding community, aged and matured like a fine wine (see below). Even more importantly, they set the scene for Freespace 2, one of the best video games ever made.

Playing the Game: Playing games that are 22 years old can be a bit of an uphill experience, especially for a franchise that's never had an official remaster. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem; back in 2002 Volition released the source code for all three games in the series and that's allowed a very passionate modding community to continuously update them with new graphics, sound effects and voiceovers. The easiest way to play them is to get a copy of Freespace 2 from GoG, download and install the Knossos launcher, and, once that's done and found your copy of the installed game, you can then select which mods to use. The ones you really want to install are Freespace Port (which adds the original campaign), Freespace Port MedivaVPs (which updates all the graphics and sounds), Silent Threat: Reborn (which adds the latest version of the expansion campaign) and MediaVPs (which updates the Freespace 2 campaign with all the latest material). Then you're good to go.

As a bonus, there are also dozens of fan-made mods for the game, including ones for well-known franchises like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as a fan-made new game in the Wing Commander franchise. There are also numerous mods which expand on the Freespace and Freespace 2 storyline.