Thursday 31 March 2022
Wednesday 30 March 2022
In August, HBO launches House of the Dragon. It's a prequel spin-off to the most successful TV show in the cable network's history and also a key moment for the network to see if the franchise has legs beyond the original series.
Game of Thrones - based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire - ran for eight seasons and 73 episodes, shot over a period of almost nine years. When it launched it was seen as a huge gamble for the cable giant, which had cut its teeth on prestigious dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood. An out-and-out fantasy show, featuring dragons, magic and face-shifting assassins, was seen as an outlier. It wasn't entirely unprecedented - the gloriously trashy vampire drama True Blood had been a big hit since 2008 - but Thrones had a bigger budget and was a more challenging show to attract a mass audience.
As it turned out, HBO need not have been worried. The show broke records for HBO viewership, for DVD and Blu-Ray sales, for merchandising and for piracy. The books sold roughly 10 million copies a year every year the show was on air. It became the biggest water-cooler drama series since Lost, and arguably nothing has quite replaced it in the cultural conversation since it ended. It made stars of its castmembers and completely rewrote the rules on the level of production value viewers can now expect from their TV shows. It's arguably mainly down to Thrones that were are now seeing TV show budgets rising to over $15 million per episode, a figure unthinkable when it started (when Thrones's early episodes only cost $6 million per episode, and the average network US episode still cost $3 million or less).
And then it ended. And people had thoughts on how it ended. Lots of them.
Shows with controversial endings are nothing new. People still debate the merits (or the lack thereof) of the ending of shows like St. Elsewhere, The Prisoner, Lost and Battlestar Galactica many years and sometimes decades after they aired. But the visceral hatred of Game of Thrones's ending in some quarters was something else. It's now three years after the show ended, and the vehement dislike of the ending shows little sign of abating (at least online). The showrunner-writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been widely criticised for rushing the end to the series in a perceived haste to move on to other projects for Disney and Netflix, whilst George R.R. Martin has been criticised for not delivering the final two novels to the book series in time for them to be adapted properly.
Whether these criticisms are fair or not is immaterial to how widespread they are, and the passion of viewers on the subject has created a key problem for HBO.
Whilst the final season of the show was in production, HBO embarked on an ambitious project to create a Game of Thrones "expanded universe," effectively mining Martin's work to create numerous TV shows (both live-action and animated) in the same setting. Numerous creative talents were brought on board to develop multiple projects simultaneously; at one point HBO were simultaneously juggling six pitches set in widely-varying timeframes in the history of Westeros and Essos (since then they have started developing several more projects). A pilot based on one idea, the origin story of the White Walkers, was greenlit and was in pre-production a year before the final episode of the mothership even aired.
After Thrones's controversial ending, HBO recalibrated. They decided not to proceed to series with The Longest Night (as the spin-off was reportedly going to be called, or at least that was Martin's preferred title) despite having spent almost $30 million on the pilot and reshoots, and instead commissioned a new idea from producer Ryan Condal: House of the Dragon. This new series would tell the story of the Dance of the Dragons, a bloody civil war in House Targaryen which took place almost 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones and explained how and why most of the house's dragons were wiped out.
The pivot was interesting, as it seemed HBO was following the popular narrative that viewers had responded badly to the ending of the White Walker storyline in Game of Thrones but approved of the dragons and the more grounded story of civil war in Westeros, against a backdrop of complex feudal machinations. The new series, they believe, will play to Game of Thrones's strengths whilst omitting what could be seen as its largest weaknesses. They've also cleverly kept many of the other spin-off possibilities in development without directly committing to any of them: if House of the Dragon bombs, then HBO might well give up on developing the universe any further and move on to fresher pastures. No pressure, then.
Still, HBO might have reasons for confidence. Since Game of Thrones aired, many other shows have come along to lift its crown as the top fantasy series and have fallen short. Shadow and Bone was good but low-key, The Witcher managed to annoy fans of both the books and video games despite plaudits for Henry Cavill in the title role, and The Wheel of Time's large deviations from the source material almost from the off made it a hard sell to book fans (show-first viewers were much more receptive). If you want (mostly) quality, live-action fantasy, then HBO has good form.
House of the Dragon also has the leg-up in promo material. The short teaser and various promo shots have attracted some commentary based on costumes and character appearances, but nothing like the howling mobs generated by its near-competitor, Amazon's Lord of the Rings spin-off The Rings of Power. The Rings of Power has already dropped a trailer that has attracted heavy criticism for its over-use of fake-looking CGI, the presence of characters and races in places they never were in the books, and its massive compression of thousands of years of detailed history into a single generation (to avoid time skips). House of the Dragon's early reception, at least so far (and before a trailer), has been more positive. It helps that HBO has been restrained in its hype-building, and House of the Dragon will also launch almost two weeks before The Rings of Power.
On top of that, thanks to the pandemic, HBO has seen huge numbers of people who missed the Game of Thrones bus first time around catching up via HBO Max in the USA (and streaming services like NowTV in the UK), and HBO seems very happy with how the show has done in streamings. Online commentators like to say that nobody has watched or talked about Game of Thrones since its ending, but that doesn't seem to be quite the case.
House of the Dragon has a top cast, solid writers, Thrones's best director as co-showrunner, completed source material (Martin's "fake history" book Fire and Blood) and HBO's impeccable production values. There is no reason for the show not to be good and not be a hit. If it is, then I suspect HBO will be mining the Game of Thrones toybox for more ideas for many years to come. If it isn't, then HBO might decide its dalliance with epic fantasy is over, and move on to other ideas and genres, which would be a shame.
We'll start get an inkling of which way it's going to go when House of the Dragon launches on 21 August.
Saturday 26 March 2022
Friday 25 March 2022
Thursday 24 March 2022
Rome, c. 60 BC. The death of the patron of a prominent Roman family sees his heir take ship for Asia Minor, where they join the military campaign of Lucius Licinius Lucullus against Mithridates VI of Pontus. They learn the art of war, commanding both a legion and an elite group of speculatores, Roman troops and infiltrators assigned to deep penetration missions behind enemy lines to assassinate enemies, sabotage supply lines and gather intelligence. The quest for justice will take a long time, with decades unfolding and Rome waging war in Gaul and Egypt to secure its borders. The new legate will have important decisions to make which will change the history of Rome...and the world.
Expeditions: Rome is the third game in the loose-knit Expeditions series (after 2013's Conquistador and 2017's Viking), which mixes elements from roleplaying, tactical combat and strategy games into an interesting whole. The game sees you create your own character and then assemble a team of companion characters, in this instance called "praetorians." Praetorians come in two flavours: named, voiced characters who play a major role in the story, generating their own side-quests and having unique dialogue; and recruitable, optional characters who play no role in the story but fill out your ranks during some missions. Praetorians can also be assigned to different jobs in camp, such as working in the baths (improving morale), the blacksmith or replenishing your weapons. Some Praetorians can also be assigned as "Centurions," leading your legion in battle.
The game most consists of missions where you have to visit a location, engage in dialogue and often (though not always) combat. Combat unfolds in a manner very similar to the XCOM series, with turn-based fighting where your characters can move, take an action or use an item. As you win battles, you level characters up and can unlock additional abilities, such as heavier attacks, the ability to move through enemy spaces without triggering attacks of opportunity, or adding more damage types to attacks, like poison or bleeding. You can also adjust equipment throughout the game, either using new weaponry and armour looted from the enemy, building your own or upgrading old favourites to keep them viable right to the endgame. Characters can also engage in other skills such as healing, buffing allies or debuffing enemies.
Battles unfold like games of tightly-controlled chess. Positioning is hugely important, and a seemingly unwinnable fight can be brought under control with only modest changes in tactics and equipment. Knowing when to advance to bring your heavy infantry and when to hold back and pepper the enemy with arrows to draw them out can be crucial. At the game continues, the use of equipment becomes paramount: bandages can heal injured warriors, Greek fire can literally blow up parts of the map and pilums (Roman infantry spears) can allow melee characters a ranged attack before closing in.
Between RPG missions you can retreat to your legion camp to heal up, upgrade weapons and armour and plan your next moves. The second part of the game, which opens up after reaching Asia Minor, sees you conquering an entire region in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Total War. You take a settlement, where you can upgrade the facilities by taking over facilities in that region (quarries, mines, farms, lumber yards etc). When ready, you can send your legion to conquer another province. When your legion engages in battle, you only have loose control, and can assign different strategies to your troops and hope for the best. Ensuring your legion's manpower is maxed out and you keep upgrading your strategies between battles is a fairly reliable way to ensuring victory in each battle. You also have to defend against enemy counter-strikes. Once you've taken a settlement, you usually have to send your troops on a special mission to secure the province. Intriguingly, this is seen as "busywork" which your all-star A-team can't be bothered to deal with, so you have to assemble a rumble squad from your B-listers. This is the game's clever way of forcing you to have a good reserve of praetorians with varied skills rather than just relying on the same six dudes throughout the whole game. Your B-listers can also be killed permanently, making using them somewhat more hazardous then throwing your main gang into the fray each time.
The result is a compelling mix of strategy, tactics and RPG elements, including a focus on rhetoric (you are Romans, after all) to resolve some problems with politics, Greek-trained logic and diplomacy, not to mention good old-fashioned bribery. This is a pleasingly varied game that balances lots of different influences and ideas into a very solid whole.
The plot is solid but your companion characters are an enjoyable lot to spend time with. There's uncannily skilled bowman-assassin Calida, stoic legionary Caeso, fiery gladiator Bestia, venerable philosopher-fighter Syneros and Scythian warrior Deianeira, in addition your custom-created avatar character. Each companion has a different philosophy and viewpoint, often divided between favouring action, patience, stealth or diplomacy, and their insights into the crisis of the moment can be useful. Their combat skills are also excellent: Calida became my go-to companion for leading the B-team praetorians on side-missions, her formidable stealth skills and long-range death-dealing making her perfect for controlling the battlefield. Syneros's ability to use a heavy pike or staff to inflict damage across multiple spaces is also formidable.
The game takes a refreshingly relaxed attitude to history. Very early in the game you befriend and become a key ally of a famous Roman soldier. However, he dies in unexpected (and ahistorical) circumstances, leading to you filling his shows. It's then up to you how much history follows its original trajectory or if you can nudge it onto a better - or worse - course. There's also some very nice use of proper Latin pronunciation and interesting asides on Roman ranks, customs, laws and weapons. The game also throws a lot more curveballs at you if you play a female character, as Roman law, custom and society was very patriarchal.
The game does have a few problems, and the first is a distinct lack of explaining its finer systems. For example, I lucked onto a review early on that recommended putting a praetorian with the "Social" perk into the legion's bathhouse and keeping him there for the entire game, as this results in a slow but constant uptick in morale. Nothing in the game itself really tells you this, and it's probably the best way of building up morale for your troops (vital to minimise casualties in battle). Similarly, the game initially lowballs the importance of tactical items likes javelins, knives and Greek fire, despite having both loads of them and a Praetorian at camp constantly renewing them making an enormous difference to the game's difficulty.
The second issue probably won't be one for a lot of people: the game is on the long side. It consists of four acts, with the first three seeing you conquer Asia Minor, Egypt and Gaul in turn. Marching your troops across the map, fighting a big battle, then multiple missions to advance the story and secure each province is rewarding, but soon starts to get a little repetitive, and risks becoming filler. This is particularly notable during the Egyptian campaign, easily the biggest of the three (Gaul, in comparison, is refreshingly tight). The combat is excellent, being clever and rewarding, but it starts to wear a little thin, especially in the mid-going when you are levelling up skills and equipment comparatively slowly. There's also the feeling that some game systems are not quite as important as they should be: levelling strategems to improve your chances in battle was something I forgot to do until completing the Egyptian campaign, meaning I finished well over three-quarters of the game using just the strategies you get at the very start and not really suffering for it.
Expeditions: Rome (****) is a hugely enjoyable game with a great cast of characters, some very solid writing, a good-enough plot and brilliant tactical combat. The strategy metagame is light but enjoyable enough. At around 60 hours, the game does outstay it's welcome by a bit, but if you're after a historical RPG with turn-based combat and a lot of rich atmosphere, this is the game for you. The game is available on PC now.
Wednesday 23 March 2022
The first major expansion for Mythic Quest has been a huge success, but now the game studio's backers are keen for more content. Ian and Poppy are bereft of ideas, so brainstorm ideas, concepts and even titles for the new expansion, whilst also trying to keep the team's morale up as the competition gets fierce.
The first season of Mythic Quest was a solid success, a funny workplace comedy that used the field of video game development to tell amusing stories about human eccentricities. It did ascend to absolute greatness twice, with the episode A Dark Quiet Death telling a self-contained flashback story with a completely different tone to the rest of the season, and Quarantine using the COVID19 pandemic to tell a surprisingly powerful story about loss, loneliness and self-reliance.
The second season surprisingly repeats the feat. The "normal" episodes of the season once again focus on workplace foibles, character clashes and people struggling with relationships, job ambitions and family issues. The fact they are dealing with these problems whilst working at a video game company gives the show its own unique feel. There is greater character depth this time around, with stories such as the exasperated Ian mentoring game tester Rachel to find out what she really wants to do with her career, whilst Poppy and Ian's competing ideas for a second expansion are cleverly used to show their ongoing struggles with art versus commercial practicality. There's also a nice exploration of Poppy's character as she moves from a technical role to a leadership one, and struggles with that move.
Once again, the show throws an out-of-format curveball that ends up being brilliant, this time in the form of a two-parter. The first part, Backstory, is set entirely in the 1970s and sees the young Carl "C.W." Longbottom struggling to become a science fiction writer. The episode is another brilliantly-written stand-alone, with guest appearances by SF authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (all played by actors, natch) and a somewhat maudlin ending. The second half, Peter, set in the present day, sees the older C.W. trying to reconnect with some of the people from that time period and making an awful job of it. Particularly admirable is the way the two-parter avoids the cliche of C.W. "growing and learning" or becoming a better person or confessing the rather horrendous secret he's been carrying around for so long. Instead the show has the confidence to let C.W.'s actions speak for themselves.
The season rounds off with an unexpected, but logically-set-up, finale. It surprisingly feels more like a series finale than a season cliffhanger, with almost every character in motion, being fired, getting a new role, being promoted, or even being arrested.
The second season of Mythic Quest (****½), like the first, is well-written, well-acted and does some very good character work, except all better than the first season. The out-of-format sixth and seventh episodes are once again even stronger (*****), delivering exceptional performances and real pathos. The second season of Mythic Quest is streaming worldwide now on Apple TV+. A third and fourth season have been commissioned.
Tuesday 22 March 2022
Monday 21 March 2022
Saturday 19 March 2022
The Ten Very Big Books Podcast has hosted an interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont, co-creator of the Malazan universe (with Steven Erikson). Esslemont confirms that his next Malazan novel, hitherto known as The Jhistal, is now called Forge of the High Mage.
In the Edelweiss Catalogue, the book's entry has been updated with the new title and a new release date: April 6, 2023. However, that date may just be a placeholder, with Esslemont saying in the interview that the book should be out "this year."
Last year, it was confirmed that Esslemont had sold over a million books and had been contracted for three more books in his Path to Ascendancy series - with Forge of the High Mage now serving as Book 4 - although it looks now like the release dates for all three were on the optimistic side of things.
Esslemont's colleague Steven Erikson is also writing two new Malazan novels: Walk in Shadow, the final book in The Kharkanas Trilogy, and No Life Forsaken, the second book in the Witness Trilogy.
Friday 18 March 2022
The USS Discovery has been upgraded and integrated into the Starfleet of the 32nd Century. As the crew continue trying to adjust to life a thousand years into their future, they also face a new threat: a vast storm of energy, capable of destroying entire star systems. The Discovery crew try to discover the source of the storm and how to communicate with those who created it...if that is even possible.
Star Trek: Discovery is the show that has, for three seasons solid, given with one hand and taken away with the other. Exemplary casting, some great ideas and some great effects are constantly undercut by murky writing, chunky exposition, most character development taking place offscreen, and people constantly busting into tears for no immediately discernible reason, before the story nosedives towards its end into incoherence.
Season 3 saw a small but sustained uptick in quality. Pleasingly, Season 4 continues with that upward trajectory. We are presented with a huge, "proper SF" mystery which Discovery and her crew have to tackle through scientific research and careful deliberation, as well as diplomacy when the scale of the problem becomes clear. The result is a break with the tendency of the first three seasons to resort to firing phasers and solving problems with explosions. There are still some action beats, but these are more restrained and more Star Trek-y, for lack of a better term, than previously. Early episodes dealing with the mysterious artefact and attempts to penetrate or disable it recall Star Trek: The Motion Picture's dealings with the alien cloud V'Ger.
The show makes better use of its ensemble cast. Prior seasons had been very firmly "the Michael Burnham Show" but this season brings other characters to the fore. Saru gets a new role and a potential relationship, Tilly gets a new job (better-suited to her than her role last season), Stamets and Culber have much less intense issues to deal with, and Booker gets his own storyline separate from Michael's. Even the lesser-known bridge crew get a few more scenes in the sun this season, and more of a sense of Discovery as a community which has often been achingly missing in prior episodes.
As the season unfolds, it develops several simultaneously-developing storylines. Diplomatic relations with United Earth and Vulcan form key parts of the story, with entire episodes dedicated to overcoming diplomatic hurdles without so much as a phaser in sight. It's like watching a stronger 1989 episode of TNG all over again. There's also the attempts to find and then make contact with the aliens, which tap into the spirit of 2016 movie Arrival, and a subplot revolving around new character Dr. Ruon Tarka (a splendid performance by The Expanse's Shawn Doyle) who becomes something of an antagonist, but an unusually fleshed-out one. Discovery has struggled more than most shows in making a story arc justify a full season, but here they succeed, dividing the season nicely into beats in the larger story.
Even making Michael Captain works much better than expected. As a constantly mutinous and insubordinate officer, her character never really made sense. As a more cooperative and instead "nontraditional" captain, recalling the off-kilter inventiveness of Captain Kirk, the character suddenly comes to life in a way she didn't in prior seasons. It also helps that she's now only whispering about a tenth of her lines rather than half of them.
Problems still remain: murky and unclear CGI, some rather unlikely coincidences and plot contrivances, the show suddenly making a big deal of characters you don't really know anything about because they've never had much development, and some occasional leaps in plot logic. But these are constrained and indeed minor compared to the previous seasons.
Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery (****) is easily the best season of the show to date, with an intriguing central storyline which unfolds in a compelling manner, with solid characterisation and a renewed dedication to Star Trek ideals that was lacking in the first few seasons. The show retains some of its earlier problems, but significantly moderated. It may have taken a long time, but Discovery is finally starting to realise its potential. The season is available now in the USA via Paramount+ and on various platforms in other countries.