Wednesday 28 September 2022

Return to Monkey Island

Guybrush Threepwood, pirate adventurer, would-be nemesis of the ghost pirate LeChuck and implausibly successful wooer of the beautiful Elaine Marley, has finally worked out that, despite all of his adventures, he has never actually worked out what the Secret of Monkey Island actually is. Returning to his original stomping ground of Melee Island, he sets out on his new quest, only to learn with horror that LeChuck is already three steps ahead of him.

Released back in 1990, The Secret of Monkey Island almost immediately became acclaimed as one of the greatest video games of all time. Fiendish puzzles, funny writing, awful puns and the daftest protagonist name in gaming history combined to make a memorably brilliant, if rather short, game. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge followed a year later with a better story, more interesting puzzles, a much greater variety of locations and fantastic music. It also, infamously, had a very strange ending that left a lot of people scratching their heads.

That ending was never really resolved. The creative team behind the first two games, most notably lead designer and writer Ron Gilbert, left LucasArts and moved on. A separate team eventually made a third game in 1997, but wisely skipped past the ending to the second title and picked up some years later with only minimalist references to what happened in the meantime. The Curse of Monkey Island was a great game in its own right, despite the change in ownership. Escape from Monkey Island (2000) and Tales from Monkey Island (2009) followed, to a middling reception. Better-received were HD remakes of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2 in 2009 and 2010, which introduced them to a new generation and got people thinking about that crazy ending again.

Now the unlikely has happened: Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman have reunited to make Return to Monkey Island, a game that finally picks up after the ending of Monkey Island 2 and forges on. The new game also doesn't eject the others from continuity: having kinda explained the ending to Monkey Island 2, we fast-forwards a few years past all of Guybrush's other adventures to pick up on him returning to Melee for his new expedition. He and Elaine are now happily married and Elaine is running a campaign to eliminate scurvy from the Caribbean, leaving Guybrush free to take up his quest.

The first two-thirds or so of Return to Monkey Island is a journey which will trigger the nostalgia feels in players. This part of the game almost exclusively uses locations from the original title in the series, so once again you'll visit the SCUMM Bar, hang out at the Governor's Mansion and visit the Voodoo Lady for enigmatic advice, before visiting Monkey Island, falling off the overlook again and sneaking onto LeChuck's ship. But this is a melancholic form of nostalgia: Melee Island has had an economic crisis, a lot of the old businesses are shut down, and there's newcomers who don't recognise Guybrush or particularly care about him being a regular from years or decades before. There's still plenty of laughs here, but Return also examines its own status as a legacy sequel made years after the originals (not always the best of ideas) in a way that that is smart without vanishing up its own posterior.

The latter third of the game opens up and Guybrush gets to explore a series of new islands and locations never before seen in the series. This sequence feels somewhat briefer than it should be, possibly a budget issue or the decision they had almost too much material for one adventure game but not enough for two, so trimmed some things to keep it in the confines of one title. This has the unfortunate effect of meaning that the game is dominated by locations you've seen before, whilst the new and fresher material is crammed into a relatively brief part of the game towards the end, before we once again return to a familiar location for the grand finale.

But ultimately it works. The puzzles are fine, not too obtuse apart from a couple of eye-rollers (a built-in hintbook pretty much means you never need to look up online solutions, although the game encourages you to use it as little as possible), and the story is entertainingly told, with that undercurrent of melancholic nostalgia running through it to make it more interesting. 

Return to Monkey Island (****½) is, improbably, excellent. Once you get over the stylised new art direction, it works really well and the music is fantastic. Creatives in their fifties revisiting the scene of their greatest hit from their twenties could have gone badly wrong, but Return to Monkey Island emerges as far smarter, funnier, emotional and engaging than it really should. Even if its own ending does definitely skim around the edges of taking the mickey, but it does earn it. The game is available now on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Netflix's AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER remake in post-production, announces remainder of main cast

Shooting on Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender remake wrapped a few months ago and the series is deep in post-production. Netflix have now chosen to reveal the rest of the main cast from the series.

The full announced cast (including previously-announced roles) now comprises:

Main Cast
  • Gordon Cormier as Aang, the Avatar.
  • Kiawentiio Tarbell as Katara.
  • Ian Ousley as Sokka.
  • Dallas Liu as Prince Zuko.
  • Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as General Iroh.
  • Daniel Dae Kim as Fire Lord Ozai.
The Avatars
  • Yvonne Chapman as Kyoshi, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
  • C.S. Leek as Roku, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
  • Meegun Fairbrother as Kuruk, a prior incarnation of the Avatar.
The Southern Water Tribe
  • Casey Camp-Horinek as Gran-Gran, matriarch of the Southern Water Tribe.
  • Rainbow Dickerson as Kya, Sokka and Katara's mother.
  • Joel Montgrand as Hakoda, Sokka and Katara's father.
The Northern Water Tribe
  • Nathaniel Arcand as Arnook, the chief of the Northern Water Tribe.
  • Amber Midthunder as Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe.
  • Irene Bedard as Yagoda, a Northern Water Tribe healer.
  • A. Martinez as Pakku, a Waterbending master.
  • Joel Outlette as Hahn, a Northern Water Tribe soldier.
  • Sebastian Amoruso as Jet, the leader of the Freedom Fighters.
The Fire Nation
  • Ken Leung as Commander Zhao.
  • Elizabeth Yu as Princess Azula.
  • Momona Tamada as Ty Lee.
  • Thalia Tran as Mai.
  • Ryan Mah as Lieutenant Dang of the Fire Nation Navy.
  • Francois Chau as the Great Sage of the Fire Temple.
  • Hiro Kanagawa as Fire Lord Sozin.
The Earth Kingdom
  • Maria Zhang as Suki, commander of the Kyoshi Warriors.
  • Tamlyn Tomita as Yukari, Suki's mother.
  • Danny Pudi as the Mechanist, an inventor from the Earth Kingdom.
  • Lucian-River Chauhan as Teo, the Mechanist's son.
  • Utkarsh Ambudkar as King Bumi of Omashu.
  • Arden Cho as June, a bounty hunter.
  • James Sie as the Cabbage Merchant.
The Air Nomads
  • Lim Kay Siu as Gyatso, an Air Nomad.
  • George Takei as Koh the Face-Stealer.
  • Randall Duk Kim as Wan Shi Tong, the spirit who guards a great library.
It's notable that James Sie reprises his role as the Cabbage Merchant from the original animated television series, making him the only actor to play the same role in both versions. Daniel Dae Kim voiced General Fong and Hiroshi Sato on the original Avatar and The Legend of Korra, whilst George Takei memorably voiced the Warden on the original show ("Get me someone I haven't thrown overboard!").

Based on the characters announced, it looks like Netflix's Avatar will draw primarily on the first season (of three) of the animated series for its storylines, but some characters from Season 2 of the animated series will also be debuting early, such as Ty Lee and Mai. No casting has been announced for the fan-favourite role of Toph, making it more likely that, as in the animated series, she won't appear until a potential second season of the remake.

Netflix have not announced a release date for the show, but early 2023 seems like a reasonable bet at this time. Albert Kim is serving as showrunner and head writer.

Marvel's BLADE loses director just ahead of shooting

In surprising news, Marvel's new take on Blade has lost its director just two months before shooting was due to start.

Bassam Tariq (These Birds Walk, Mogul Mowgli) was hired to direct the film a year ago. The movie had not been on Marvel's radar, but actor Mahershala Ali had contacted them directly to propose starring in the film, which was then put into a fast turnaround. The film was teased with Ali debuting in an off-screen voiceover at the end of Eternals.

Marvel and Tariq have stated the split was amicable, with the reason for the split being changes in Marvel's schedule, suggesting that the filming dates may have shifted or Marvel may be considering a delay that would have clashed with another project the director had lined up. However, officially the movie's production still has a start date of November 2022 and a release date of 3 November, 2023.

Finding another director at such short notice who'll be willing to take over a script and pre-production they had no hand in, is going to be tough.

Age of Empires IV

The venerable real-time strategy series is back. A year ago, after a sixteen-year gap, Microsoft released Age of Empires IV, the latest in one of the most beloved strategy series of all time. It has a very strong heritage to live up to, so the question is if it has succeeded, especially with new franchise developers Relic coming on board. Relic have a solid pedigree, but their last game was the very underwhelming Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, so a lot was riding on this game for them as well.

The answer to whether this game is a success is, "kind of." The first surprise is that, despite the name, Age of Empires IV is not a sequel. Up to this point the series has always proceeded linearly forwards in time: the original game covered the empires of antiquity, so Rome, Egypt etc, and the second covered the medieval period, whilst the third game took us into the Age of Sail and colonisation. You might be forgiven for thinking Age of Empires IV would take us forwards into the Napoleonic era. Instead, Age of Empires IV is a remake of Age of Empires II. Once again we're in the Middle Ages, and once again we're fighting the Battle of Hastings, guiding the Mongols across Eurasia and fighting the Hundred Years' War between England and France.

Age of Empires IV is perfectly adequate at doing that. As with prior games in the series, you usually start with a town centre and a bunch of villagers whom you can set to work on building up resources: food, wood, stone and gold. You then expand your settlement by adding blacksmiths, universities, markets, barrackers, archery ranges and so on, as well as watchtowers and walls. Age of Empires IV tweaks the formula, mainly by adding a secondary research facility known as the Arsenal and moving some upgrades around between buildings, but it does not significantly rework it. There are some features like now being able to station your units atop walls rather than just behind them, but mostly it's low key changes.

The 3D engine is nice but not a huge advancement on the 3D engines of Age of Empires III and the now-twenty-year-old spin-off, Age of Mythology. The graphics are in fact a tad disappointing for a 2021 release, especially since they are so inexplicably resource-hungry. My PC (16 GB RAM, 12 GB graphics card) which can handle Cyberpunk 2077 and Spider-Man with everything turned up to max (albeit only in HD), chugged regularly with the considerably more visually underwhelming Age of Empires IV. Also, not much is done with the 3D engine. You can zoom in and out a bit and spin the camera a bit and that's it. This isn't Total War or even the much more versatile 3D camera of Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

More baffling, given the modern graphics and physics at work, is a lack of features from older games. In earlier games in the series you got a damage bonus from being on higher ground, but that disappears in this game and both attack and defence bonuses are missing, meaning units on walls with cover are just as vulnerable as if they are standing exposed in a field, which is a bold choice for both a modern game and also for the developers who made RTS cover such a huge feature of their Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series. There's also no ballistic or physic tracking of arrows: arrows will automatically hit their target (even blatantly swerving in mid-air to hit them like a smart missile) even if the target is moving at speed, which is baffling. In earlier games keeping your army active and smartly moving was a key tactical skill, here it is entirely absent.

Balancing against that is somewhat greater factional differences. Earlier games were notorious for having very samey sides, with maybe one or two unique units and maybe a single unique building or upgrade. Age of Empires IV does go a bit more into making the sides different, with French cavalry being much more hard-hitting than anybody else's, whilst the English have superior longbows. Most interesting are the Mongols, who can pack up their entire base and move it around the map in a matter of seconds which can give rise to unorthodox strategies (a Mongol wonder that can heal all the units around it becomes a mobile field hospital). I do feel this is has been a tad exaggerated. The factions are still mostly very similar, certainly a long way from the balanced-but-asymmetric design of, say, the StarCraft games or even Relic's own Company of Heroes series.

Age of Empires IV does impress with its amount of content: the game ships with four complete campaigns (Normandy, Muscovy, France and the Mongols), eight civilisations, a robust single-player challenge mode, skirmish maps and of course multiplayer. Focusing on just the single-player content, I got about 40 hours out of the game, which is reasonable and a long way from those RTS games which ship with one campaign lasting maybe a quarter of that. Presentation is also excellent, especially the FMV movies which accompany the campaigns with lots of video footage of the actual locations, with CG imposed on top of the real topography to depict the battles. There's also bonus videos on things like how to make a bow and how different tactics developed. There's a nice history documentary feel to the game which is unique and intriguing.

Less appealing are the bugs: as well as the choppy performance, the game's autosaves are disruptive to gameplay. Units will often go into idle mode for no apparent reason: villagers in particular may need to be manually told to do something two or three times before they actually do it. You can't tell a villager to build a wall halfway across the map and expect them to do it, you have to manually watch over them to make sure they don't do 25% of the task and then just doze off (literally, as idle villagers now go to sleep standing up), which is infuriating. Individual missions also have a plethora of bugs, with triggers often not triggering, enemy units not showing up when they're supposed to, or taking some weird path that leaves 50 men wedged behind a bush. It's also concerning that many of these bugs remain extant in the game almost a year after release. There's also the lack of basic QOL features, like being able to easily assign WASD to camera controls.

Taken on its own merits, Age of Empires IV is perfectly fine (bugs excepted). It's safe, but the gameplay loop remains compelling and there's some interesting strategies to tease out. However, the game has to deal with a 500-ton elephant in the room called Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. This ultra-HD remake of Age of Empires II only came out three years ago and has seen three expansions released since then, the most recent only in April. Age of Empires II has less bugs, more responsive and easily customisable controls, a stronger interface, more focused gameplay and, although only being in isometric 2D, has sharper, more vivid and far better-performing graphics. It is also a more interesting tactic experience, with ranged weapons performing better from hills and tougher stone buildings (those in IV tend to collapse far too easily to just guys with swords and torches, even massive fortresses).

Age of Empires IV (***½) is solid, and will no doubt be expanded with interesting future content. But it's also a game that arrives being almost pre-redundant, since Age of Empires II Definitive Edition does almost everything that IV does in the same time period, but better, with less bugs and a far vaster amount of content, and will take you a lot longer to play through. The game is available now on PC.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Tuesday 27 September 2022

Marvel finally confirms DEADPOOL 3 for 2024, starring Deadpool and Wolverine

After several years with little news, Marvel has finally confirmed that Deadpool 3 will hit cinemas on 6 September 2024. Ryan Reynolds returns as the Merc With A Mouth and will have a new buddy: Hugh Jackman will reprise his role as Wolverine from the Fox X-Men movies.

Deadpool (2016) and Deadpool 2 (2018) were both released by Fox to critical and commercial success, with Reynolds' charismatic performance especially praised (specially after he played a mute version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009). Work on a third film was put on hold as Disney bought out Fox, with development resuming once the deal was completed. Deadpool is notable as the first Fox-originated franchise that will directly continue into the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity.

Hugh Jackman first played the role of Wolverine in X-Men (2000), reprising the character in X2 (2003), X-Men: Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), The Wolverine (2013), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) and Logan (2017). As of Logan, Jackman shared the record with Patrick Stewart as Professor X for the longest period spent playing a Marvel character on screen. However, Stewart pulled ahead by portraying an alternate-universe version of the same character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Jackman reprising the role of Wolverine in Deadpool 3 would give him the record again.

Deadpool 3 will be directed by Shawn Levy (Free Guy, The Adam Project) and again written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, possibly with input from Reynolds (whose script contributions to the second film saw him get a writing credit). The film will still be rated R and apparently the plan is to segue between the Fox universe and the MCU in an interesting and amusing way, possibly helped by the multiverse concept in full play in the MCU at the moment.

Monday 26 September 2022

HBO drops trailer for THE LAST OF US

HBO has dropped its first full-length trailer for The Last of Us, its adaptation of the hit video game.

The Last of Us stars Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie and is co-written by Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (who wrote and directed the two video games in the series). The series is expected to debut on HBO in the USA in early 2023.

Wertzone Classics: Better Call Saul - The Complete Series

Jimmy McGill is a lawyer, struggling financially whilst working as a public defender. His brother Chuck co-runs one of the most prestigious law firms in Albuquerque, but Chuck is sceptical of Jimmy's legal abilities. Jimmy's attempts to win his brother's approval and improve his standing lead him to cut corners and take up dubious cases, bringing him into the orbit of of former police officer Mike Ehrmantraut and a local drugs gang, represented by Nacho Varga. As Jimmy tries to get by, his antics lead him towards his ultimate fate, of taking up the name "Saul" and meeting one Walter White.

The spin-off series is an interesting proposition. Take an element from a successful show and try to spin that element into its own vehicle. Most of the time, these ideas crash and burn without success. But on occasion, they succeed and do well. On even rarer occasions they are stronger and better (or at least more consistent) than their progenitor show: Frasier, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Angel and Xena: Warrior Princess immediately come to mind (and The Simpsons, arguably). Heck, Vince Gilligan once before flirted with a spin-off show of his own, helming The Lone Gunmen as an ancillary appendage of The X-Files. It did not do well.

When the progenitor show is Breaking Bad, widely-acclaimed as one of the best TV shows of all time, the idea of doing a spin-off is a dubious one to start with, especially given that one of the greatest accomplishments of the show is its outrageously good ending. Messing with that mojo seems fraught with peril. But Vince Gilligan didn't get the memo (twice, as he also built the TV movie El Camino onto the end of the original show). Better Call Saul is a spin-off to Breaking Bad which acts as a prequel and sequel simultaneously, expanding on a side-character from the original show developed originally for comedy value: Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk.

The central brilliance of Better Call Saul is that it is the story of three men, but they're all the same person: Jimmy McGill, the younger man whom we join trying to make a relatively honest living and win the approval of his demanding older brother; Saul Goodman, the snake oil salesman lawyer we met in the original show; and Gene Takavic, the alias Saul is living under in Nebraska as he tries to lay low, several months after the blood-soaked events at the end of Breaking Bad. The show doesn't flip between them too much, with Gene's appearances isolated to vignettes at the start of each season and a closing arc later on, and Jimmy's evolution into Saul becoming the main focus of the series. It's an evolution which is also gradual: Jimmy doesn't start using the Saul alias regularly until the last two seasons and it takes a while for him to kick into the character we met on the mothership show.

For most of its length, then, Better Call Saul is a prequel and that can be even more limiting than most spin-offs. We know Jimmy/Saul will make it to the series finale, we know Mike is going to survive and when other Breaking Bad characters show up, we know they can't eat a bullet. More than once Vince Gilligan and his co-showrunner Peter Gould joked about setting the show in a parallel timeline and just killing Breaking Bad characters without warning, but sanity prevailed. The show then has to put the legwork in to make these stories about characters whose fates you already know more interesting.

It succeeds. Saul in Breaking Bad was a great character, funny with a hint of pathos, ably delivered by Odenkirk. Jimmy is a much richer, more three-dimensional character, with real reasons for being the person he is. But the show never excuses him. It explains him, but asks for no forgiveness for him. Other characters have bad breaks, awful luck or tough upbringings and improve on them and become better people. Jimmy, as we know from the very start, does not, and watching his decline and fall and how much of his later corruption was built into him from the start is fascinating.

Jimmy is the heart of the show, but it spends almost as much time expanding on Mike. When we met Mike on the earlier show, he was already a cool professional with a moral code but one that had clearly been compromised. Surprisingly, at the start of Better Call Saul he's almost already in the same same position, but the show teases out depths from the character and Jonathan Banks' performance that were not hinted at in the original run. Mike makes for an interesting counterpoint to Jimmy, as Jimmy walks into his situations with a total lack of awareness for the consequences, whilst Mike is always thinking five steps ahead, which means when he realises what he's becoming, he has to confront it with his eyes wide open.

Better Call Saul brings in new characters as well. Michael Mando is a fantastic actor with a powerful screen presence (exemplified in the video game Far Cry 3 and his two-season arc on Orphan Black) who's been looking for a role to make the most of his gifts. Nacho Varga is certainly that role, a drug dealer and criminal who seems dissatisfied with his lot, trying to keep in touch with his family and find an outlet for his ambitions. Nacho might be the most honest character on the show, the one whose humanity grows over the course of the show rather than erodes, and definitely the most underused. Although Nacho's arc spans all six seasons, he appears in barely half of the episodes. But that doesn't detract from Mando's excellent performance or his brilliantly-performed storyline in Season 6. Tony Dalton also joins the show late to deliver an outstanding performance as Lalo, a villain with bags of charm and a vicious streak a mile wide.

Veteran actor Michael McKean is also outstanding as Jimmy's older brother, Chuck, an accomplished and skilled lawyer who is dealing with complicated health issues as well as a lifelong suspicion of his little brother's antics. The relationship between Chuck and Jimmy defines at least half of the runtime of the show and their constant wary circling around one another, switching from loathing to sympathy to contempt to love, is a constantly challenging balancing act for both writers and actors, and a challenge they rise to. Also outstanding is Patrick Fabian as Chuck's partner, Howard, whom is presented initially as an antagonist, but again is fleshed out beyond that to become a more interesting, complex character, moving from an unlikable arsehole to one of the most sympathetic characters on the show over the course of his evolution.

If the cast has one absolute standout - and in this cast that's a very hard call - it's the Emmy-nominated but not winning (so far!) Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Jimmy's ally on the inside at his brother's law firm, a tough but fair lawyer with a keen legal mind and a high sense of integrity, who indulges Jimmy's antics up to a point. Her evolution over the course of the series is as good as anyone's, and Seehorn's performance continuously ups the ante, delivering ever more riches of character.

Of course, any character who appears in Saul and doesn't appear in Breaking Bad may have the sword of Damocles hanging over them, and the show is mostly fair in not indulging in this too much, and the question of who lives and who dies becomes far less interesting than what they do, and why they do it.

Better Call Saul is a less-obviously immediate show than its forebear. Breaking Bad has that much pithier premise ("a high school teacher can't afford cancer treatment, turns into a meth dealer crime lord,") and delivers more obvious dramatic twists every few episodes. Better Call Saul is subtler and more restrained. Breaking Bad signalled its season finales with major character deaths and sometimes actual massive explosions; Better Call Saul's often twist on a single line of dialogue between two characters. That's not to say that Better Call Saul is completely bereft of action, especially as the cartel storyline becomes prominent in its second half, but it's more strategic in how it deploys mayhem and murder, and makes those moments count so much more powerfully by building up to them with almost forensic foreshadowing and scene-setting. More than once the show feels like it's spinning its wheels mid-season, only for later episodes to take these widely-scattered plot threads and tie them together in the impressive ways.

Are there more substantial criticisms? Well, it inherits one issue from Breaking Bad, which is severely underusing the excellent Laura Fraser as Lydia (who gets even less screen time this time around). A few times you might wonder if a story beat could have been delivered faster with less buildup. But in most respects Better Call Saul improves on its forebear, such as having the same number of episodes but splitting the action across six shorter seasons rather than five longer ones gives the show more focus.

Better Call Saul (*****) is fantastically acted, beautifully written and peerlessly constructed. It stands by itself as a fantastic slice of television drama but also builds on and enhances its predecessor show as well. The series is available to watch in full via AMC in the US and Netflix in most of the rest of the world.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Saturday 24 September 2022

RIP Louise Fletcher

News has sadly broken that the actress Louise Fletcher has passed away at the age of 88. Fletcher is best-known for her terrifying and Oscar-winning turn as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but SFF fans will more likely recognise her for her nuanced, intriguing performance across all seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Kai Winn.

Fletcher was born in 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama. Both of her parents were deaf and worked with hard-of-hearing communities across the south-eastern United States. Fletcher did not share this disability, but learned sign language, and signed her Oscar acceptance speech for them.

She became interested in acting at school and got her first gigs working in Westerns, notably the TV series Lawman (1958). Fletcher noted that she was somewhat taller on average than most women and this stood her in good stead for Westerns and crime dramas which typically attracted taller-than-average male actors. After a number of minor roles in films and television series from 1958 to 1963, she took a break from acting for a decade to raise her two children. She returned to acting in 1973 and very quickly won the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nurse. She thanked the audience for hating her during her Oscar acceptance speech.

Despite the Oscar win, Fletcher's career did not take off as many expected, something she attributed to her age (she was 41 when she accepted the award). She appeared in mostly lower-profile films from then on (with the exception of Cruel Intentions). She had better luck in television, appearing in shows like Shameless, Heroes, ER, Wonderfalls and Picket Fences. She picked up two Emmy nominations for her roles in Picket Fences and Joan of Arcadia.

In 1994 she made her first appearance in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, appearing in the Season 1 finale In the Hands of the Prophets as Vedek Winn, a hardline religious leader on the planet Bajor who often appears in an antagonistic role to Commander Sisko and his Bajoran executive officer, Major Kira Nerys. The writers initially wrote her as a villain, but showrunner Ira Steven Behr came to love her performance so much that he decided to make her a much more ambiguous figure, several times having her as a good guy keep even more hardliners in check.

At the end of Season 2, Winn became the Kai or spiritual leader of the entire Bajoran people, resulting in an ever-more complex relationship with Sisko and Kira. In subsequent seasons, Winn varied between being a complication - or sometimes outright antagonist - with the main characters but also an ally, whose own viewpoint was sometimes shown to be correct, or at least sympathetic. In the final season Winn's faith is tested when she discovers how she has been manipulated by Gul Dukat into working for the evil Pah-Wraiths, and throws herself into the role of being an outright villain. At the last moment, though, her faith in the Prophets returns and she briefly thwarts Dukat's plans at the cost of her own life, allowing Sisko to defeat him for good.

Fletcher's nuanced performance of the character across seven seasons was impressive, and her impact on the show was seismic: she only appeared in 14 out of 176 episodes but is often cited as one of the best actors and most influential characters on the series.

Many obituaries have suggested that Fletcher was constantly underused and underrated in Hollywood, and was not given the chance to capitalise on her Oscar win as perhaps she should. Whilst that is true, Louise Fletcher also gave us two excellent, memorable villains on screen, one in film and one in television, and that is no mean feat.

Louise Fletcher is survived by two children, and she will be very much missed.

Thursday 22 September 2022

IRON WIDOW optioned for film

Xiran Jay Zhao's debut novel Iron Widow has been optioned for film by producer Erik Feig via his Picturestart company.

Iron Widow has a similar premise to Pacific Rim, namely that humanity is fighting an alien threat using giant robots with two bonded pilots. However, Iron Widow is more fantastical, with the robots requiring male and female pilots, and the female pilot often dies as a result of their lifeforce being used up by the male pilot during battle. The protagonist, 18-year-old Zetian, sets out to find the ace male pilot who killed her sister in such a manner and take revenge.

Feig is an acclaimed producer for his work on films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Borderlands and the Step Up franchise. He has also worked in various capacities on the Hunger Games, Divergent and Twilight series, and Oscar-winners La La Land and The Hurt Locker.

Feig will produce the film alongside Jessica Switch and Julia Hammer, with Sami Kim Falvey executive producing. J.C. Lee (Bad Genius, The Morning Show) will write the script.

Zhao is currently working on the sequel to Iron Widow, Heavenly Tyrant, which is due for release in 2023.

New Vince Gilligan show lands on Apple TV+ with two-season order

Apple TV+ has given a two-season order to Vince Gilligan's new TV show. The Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator is working on the show with Sony Television and will re-team with actress Rhea Seehorn.

Presumably, this is the science fiction idea Gilligan was recently discussing. The show will have a somewhat contemporary setting, but with an SF "twist."

Seehorn played the character of Kim Wexler across all six seasons of Better Call Saul, attracting significant critical acclaim for her performance and an Emmy nomination (although, remarkably, not a win).

Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered

Eight years into his superhero career, Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is a lab assistant working for Dr. Octavius on the next generation of prosthetic limbs. Parker finds juggling his job, personal life and his secret identity as Spider-Man challenging, resulting in his breakup with his girlfriend Mary Jane. Parker finally succeeds in helping the NYPD (via his contact, Yuri Watanabe) take down the dreaded Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. However, the peace does not last long: Fisk's absence results in a power vacuum, which various villains and mobsters rush to fill, leading to a full workload for Parker.

Way back in 2009, Rocksteady Studios hit on the idea of making a really good Batman game, after many years of mediocre titles. They created Arkham Asylum, a superb game that featured great combat, excellent stealth, a strong storyline and outstanding use of the existing Batman canon. Insomniac Games seem to have taken a leaf out of their book in developing Marvel's Spider-Man, the first attempt in a few years to create a definitive Spider-Man video game.

The game is, as you'd expect, an open-world title set in a sort-of realistic depiction of New York City. Playing Spider-Man, you can websling between buildings, create ziplines and engage in spectacular amounts of combat against a variety of enemies, both super-powered and mundane. The storyline borrows from the entire Spider-Man canon and sees Parker teaming up with allies like Yuri, Miles Morales, MJ and Black Cat whilst fighting enemies including Mr. Negative, Kingpin, Electro, Rhino, Scorpion and Vulture. The game also mostly presents Otto Octavius as an ally, but of course even a casual Spider-Man fan will know his destiny and the game evokes some impressive tension as he drifts closer and closer to his eventual fate of becoming Doc Ock. The game even has some time for nuance, with Peter having a complex relationship with Mayor Norman Osborn and security contractor Silver Sablinova.

The game's golden feature is its depiction of webslinging. Traversing around New York City as Spider-Man is a delight and for the first time a video game evokes those dizzying memorable shots from the 2002 Spider-Man movie. The game strikes an excellent balance between making movement spectacular and giddying but also allowing you to retain control over what's going on. The PC version of the game goes further with mouse movement allowing for much greater, pinpoint accuracy in where you put your webs, when to jump and when to arrest your movement. The game features the most pointless fast travel system in existence, since just getting around New York is so much fun that you'll never want to use it (apart from the achievement it bafflingly gives you).

As well as jumping around, you'll spend an inordinate amount of time in combat. Spider-Man is not the beefiest guy in the world and can't take a lot of punishment, so combat is very movement-focused, with Spider-Man landing a few punches and then jumping away before he can be crowded. You can use your handy spider-gadgets to help in battle, and as the game continues you acquire new Spider-Suits with various abilities to help you keep up with your enemies' own escalating abilities. You can also use scenery to help in combat (flinging manhole covers into an enemy at high velocity never gets old, although curiously it never kills anyone either), and if fighting on a rooftop you can propel your opponents off the roof, to be webbed to the side for arrest later.

Combat is fun, but there's a recurring feeling that there's too much of it. Spider-Man is not Batman and although he certainly gets into fights with opponents, the massive brawls with up to several dozen enemies at a time do feel rather out of character. Whilst the game tries to keep new enemy types coming at a steady clip, it does feel like most are variations on a theme (small brawler guy, ranged attack guy, massively huge dude who needs to be weakened before being taken down, and then jetpacks!) and as you level up and get new abilities, combat becomes less challenging and more of a chore. It doesn't help that the Arkham series influence here is at its most overt: the sound effect that rings out when you knock someone one for good is identical to the one from those games. Stealth is also undercooked: although Spider-Man can use stealth in some situations to make combat easier, the game usually makes it impossible to 100% complete objectives through stealth alone, which is disappointing.

The game's central storyline is pretty good, though somewhat predictable. It makes solid use of Spider-Man's villainous roster and there's a good mix between very familiar characters and more obscure characters from the comic book. An ingame codex allows you to keep everyone straight and the game's journal system and excellent map both do a good job of keeping you up to date on what's going on. The voice acting, in particular, is superb, though Spider-Man's quips do repeat a bit more often than you'd like.

Where Spider-Man suffers a bit is how it organises its side content. To overcome the problem of a Ubisoft-style game eventually burying the map screen under quest markers, this game doles out side-activities very slowly, and seems to expect you to do all of the side-activities the second they become available. This is doable because they are relatively constrained, such as twenty new "help the police" missions popping up in one go and it being possible to polish them all off in under an hour or two. However, taking this view (and, if you don't, the map really will end up buried under icons) eventually makes you realise you're spending maybe 85% of the game on these filler tasks versus 15% on the actual story. The Arkham games had the sense to avoid this by being happy that it was possible to see off the entire game in under 20 hours by giving you much more meaningful content to enjoy. Marvel's Spider-Man lacks that confidence and keeps throwing filler content at you so it takes over 50 hours to 100% the game's story and side-missions, plus its DLC and filler. The game does risk outstaying its welcome.

But it also stays just on the right side of that gap. Swinging through New York City, stopping a jewelry shop robbery, then tracking down some rogue drones (requiring an exciting chase through midtown skyscrapers) before polishing off another story mission can be great fun. If immersion is a key goal of any game, Spider-Man certainly makes you feel like the hero in a very convincing manner.

You also can't fault this edition when it comes to content. As well as the original game, it includes the three-part City Never Sleeps DLC, which adds up to a pretty decent-sized game's worth of content (even if it does over-rely on similar enemy types to the original game). The game has spectacular graphics and the options for your suits are excellent. You can even put on the OG Spider-Man suit from the original run of the comics which also turns you into a 2D flat character (though everything else stays in 3D, which is disconcerting), or you can put on the Into the Spider-Verse suit to become a more stylised 3D animated figure. A mild disappointment might be that the Spider-Man: Miles Morales stand-alone expansion is not included (that will follow in a separate release at later date), but the package is pretty generous.

Marvel's Spider-Man (****) is a compelling, fun title that might be the definitive Spider-Man video game experience to date, with a great open world, spectacular graphics and a fun, well-acted storyline. It does have perhaps a bit too much filler side-content, resulting in issues with pacing, and some of the combat experiences go on for rather too long. It also wears its Arkham series inspiration a bit too obviously on its sleeves at times, drifting from homage to simple replication. But the game is fun and has a good heart. It is available now on PlayStation 4 and, in its remastered form, on PC and PlayStation 5.

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The world's most expensive video game crosses the half billion dollar barrier

The world's most expensive video game has gotten richer. Star Citizen's funding yesterday crossed $500 million.

Star Citizen started development in 2011 and was revealed to the public in the autumn of 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign. The initial Kickstarter campaign was relatively modest, drawing in $2 million. However, Cloud Imperium Games allowed crowdfunding to continue directly between fans and the company, resulting in a continuous revenue stream. By the end of 2014 funding had reached $65 million and $127 million by September 2016.

Star Citizen is the brainchild of veteran video game designer Chris Roberts. Roberts began his career in the 1980s working on games on the BBC Micro like Stryker's Run (one of the very first video games I ever played) before moving onto much more powerful machines. In 1990 he released the game that made his name, Wing Commander, a space combat simulator with a strong storyline attached. Several sequels followed and saw the game branch into full motion video cutscenes, using actors like John Rhys Davis (Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings) and Mark Hamill (Star Wars) to tell increasingly elaborate stories about the war between humanity and the alien Kilrathi. After the release of Wing Commander IV and Wing Commander: Privateer 2 in 1997, Roberts moved on to working on a Wing Commander movie. The film, released in 1999 and starring Jurgen Prochnow, Freddie Prinze Jr., Saffron Burrows and David Suchet, was critically derided.

Roberts returned to gaming, producing with his brother Erin the games Starlancer (2001) and Freelancer (2003), which were set in a shared universe. Starlancer was a story-focused, single-player game with a strong narrative and linear campaign, whilst Freelancer was envisaged as a more freeform, open-world game akin to Elite or Privateer, with a bigger focus on online multiplayer. After multiple delays, budget issues and concerns over "feature creep," not to mention a buy-out by Microsoft, Freelancer was released in 2003 with a reduced focus on the multiplayer approach and a narrative storyline in place. Roberts returned to working in the feature film industry, believing it was not possible to make a game based on his vision with the resources available in the industry at the time.

Star Citizen marks Roberts' unfettered vision for a science fiction video game set in a large, open universe that the player can explore as they choose. They can own multiple spacecraft and take part in trading, mining and mercenary work. The game features a first-person mode, allowing characters to walk around their spaceship, take part in boarding actions and leave the ship to engage in combat, negotiations or discussions in person. The game will have a storyline of sorts, but will rely on online multiplayer for most of its dynamic plot generation.

The game also incorporates a whole second title using the same engine and assets, Squadron 42. Squadron 42 will be a more linear, story-focused and single-player game akin to Starlancer and the Wing Commander series, guiding the player through a lengthy story campaign featuring characters modelled on and voiced by actors including Gary Oldman and Gillian Anderson (plus a returning Mark Hamill.

Star Citizen has raised most of its money through direct player donations and contributions, including the sale of more powerful and capable spacecraft they will be able to use in the game itself. Almost 4.1 million individuals have contributed to the funding scheme. It has also raised over $60 million in external, private investment.

The game has attracted criticism for its funding methodology and its extended development time, with frequently missed deadlines and an apparent overload of feature creep, with development reportedly focusing on things like realistic sheet deformation for beds rather than optimised performance (the current build is noted as being very laggy even for top-end graphics cards). Newcomers to the early access version of the game have also criticised it for a very steep learning curve and almost non-existent tutorials. However, its fanbase has also praised the game's commitment to unparalleled levels of detail at both the macro and micro levels and its focus on immersion, as well as the potential for highly varied missions incorporating both spacecraft and ground combat, and the extended development time has been down to the game doing things that no other title has before attempted (not to mention using an engine - derived from the CryEngine mostly used for first-person shooters - that is perhaps best not-suited for these things).

Whilst scepticism over the game's progress and its funding methods is natural, there does appear to be an interesting and ambitious game design at work here, and the fact you can play it right now does show where a lot of the work and money has gone. What is astonishing is that after ten years, people are still funding the game to a very high level (in the time it's taken me to write this article, the game has raised around $4,400; the game raised $75,000 yesterday by itself), showing a remarkable degree of confidence and trust in the project.

It's hard to get precise figures, but the previous most expensive video game development budgets for titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and the in-development Grand Theft Auto VI are thought to be more to the in the region of $200 million, with around the same for marketing. Star Citizen pulling in vastly more money, mostly for development alone, is an impressive achievement.

Star Citizen and Squadron 42 remain in development with no estimated release date at this time.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

J. Michael Straczynski calls on BABYLON 5 fans to help boost the show's reboot chances

Babylon 5 creator and showrunner J. Michael Straczynski has called on fans to join a social media franchise to boost the show's profile and help get a planned reboot of the show off the ground.

As reported previously, Straczynski is currently developing a Babylon 5 reboot project with Warner Brothers, potentially to air on the CW. A pilot script has been written and the CW took the highly unusual step of turning down the project for the 2022-23 season but keeping it in active development for the 2023-24 season. Apparently this delay was partially down to major seismic shifts both at the CW, which has been bought by the Nexstar Media Group, and Warner Brothers, which has been bought by and merged with Discovery.

Straczynski wants a show of support to show the interest in the show, using the hashtag #B5onCWin23 across social media platforms. The campaign began yesterday and appears to have been successful, briefly trending at #1 for the day and displacing even coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's funeral in London.

The effectiveness of the campaign remains to be seen, although companies do factor in social media presence and profile in making these decisions.

Babylon 5 is a science fiction, space opera franchise created by Straczynski. It originally ran for 5 seasons and 110 episodes airing between 1993 and 1998, along with 7 TV movies and a short-lived spin-off series, Crusade. The series which was mostly written by Straczynski (who penned 91 of the episodes) and won critical acclaim during its original run, including two Hugo Awards. The show was particularly noteworthy for its dedication to telling one continuous story across five seasons - common now but unheard of at the time - and its pioneering use of CGI for its visual effects, including some of the earliest TV uses of virtual sets and 100% CG creatures. The show was also recently given a HD makeover and re-release.

Since the conclusion of the original show, the cast has unfortunately suffered a high level of attrition, effectively blocking attempts to revive the show with a "next generation" approach. Straczynski has instead planned a reboot, telling a similar story in a similar universe but with substantial differences to the original.

Sunday 18 September 2022

Biggest video game leak for 20 years sees GRAND THEFT AUTO VI and DIABLO IV secrets unveiled

In possibly the worst day for video game developers since the infamous Half-Life 2 source code leak of 2003, two of the most eagerly-awaited video games of all time have had their secrets spilled all over the internet.

This morning, more than 90 development videos and a ton of screenshots were released from Grand Theft Auto VI. The sequel to Grand Theft Auto V (2013), one of the biggest-selling individual video games of all time, the status of GTA6 was a mystery until Rockstar Games confirmed earlier this year they were working on it, and had been for some years. The new leak confirms that the game is in a relatively advanced state of development, although the images and videos seem to run the gamut from very early development (with untextured characters running and jumping against a bare background) to high-quality, finished scenes with dialogue.

Although Rockstar and publisher Take Two Interactive had not commented on a potential launch window for the game, Take Two had allocated a large marketing spend for financial year 2023-24, later delaying that to 2024-25, suggesting they envisage a mid-to-late 2024 release for the game. Whether the leak delays that remains to be seen. Famously, when Half-Life 2 was leaked, Valve delayed the release of the game and reworked a huge amount of the source code from scratch, but that's really not viable with the scale and scope of modern games. It's also unclear if the GTA6's source code has been compromised in the same way as Half-Life 2's was.

This afternoon, an hour-long video of beta gameplay footage for Diablo IV was also leaked. Diablo III was released in 2012 and sold over 30 million copies, so anticipation for the sequel is also very high. Diablo IV is also closer to release, with the game tentatively scheduled for release before the end of 2023, with the video more likely to show things as they will be in the final release.

Leaks of this scale are almost unheard of in the video game industry, and both Rockstar and Activision-Blizzard will be looking closely to see how this happened and how to stop it happening again. Other video game companies may also be wondering nervously if any of their forthcoming high-profile releases have also been compromised.

Thursday 15 September 2022

Amazon greenlights BLADE RUNNER 2099 TV mini-series

Amazon has greenlit Blade Runner 2099, a live-action TV mini-series set in the world of the 1982 movie Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049. They initially announced the series was on the fast track to development back in February.

Ridley Scott, who directed the first movie and produced the second, is on board as executive producer and consultant. Silka Luisa (Shining Girls) is the main writer and showrunner for the project. Tom Spezialy (Watchmen, Ash vs. Evil Dead) is also on board as a writer. Alcon Productions (The Expanse) will make the show in conjunction with Scott's own production company, Scott Free.

Both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 were commercial disappointments on their original release, but have grown to be cult successes, with both movies enjoying an impressive long tail on video, DVD, Blu-Ray and now streaming. Both films have also enjoyed substantial critical acclaim.

Moving the story a full fifty years on from the events of Blade Runner 2049 suggests there will be few, if any, story or character crossovers with earlier iterations of the franchise. Amazon fast-tracking the project suggests it will film in 2023 for a likely 2024 release.

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Tor Books publish a new, and possibly erroneous, WHEEL OF TIME world map

Tor Books have unveiled a new world map for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time book. The map appears in Origins of the Wheel of Time, a new behind-the-scenes book about the series by Michael Livingston, due out in November.

The original world map was published in The World of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (published in 1997). The map was created in 1995 by John M. Ford*, between the publication of Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords (the sixth and seventh books in the series), based on Robert Jordan's notes and directions. Artist Tom Canty then redrew the map for the final book. After Robert Jordan's passing, those notes were among those made public, and are as follows:
The world of the books is the same size as our world. After all, it’s supposed to be our world, with all the tectonic plates shifted. Some reference points:
  • Illian is about 2,500 miles south of Chachin, and 2,700 miles south of the Mountains of Dhoom.
  • Falme to the Spine of the World is about 3,300 miles.
  • Falme to Seanchan across the Aryth Ocean is about 11,000 miles.
  • Seanchan to Shara across the Sea of Omerna is about 3,000 miles.
  • The Aiel Waste is about 1,200 miles across, while Shara is about 2,000 miles (W-E) by 5,000 miles (N-S), with the Great Blight extending further south in Shara than in the Borderlands.
  • Seanchan is about 16,000 miles from the southern tip to the Mountains of Dhoom (named by Hawkwing’s armies) in the north—yes, the same mountain range that girdles the world on land and under the ocean. The north of Seanchan is about 2,000 miles across at its widest, and there is a span of 6,000 miles at its widest in the south.
  • South of the known world is an island continent known only to the Sea Folk, but avoided by them, which they call “the Land of the Madmen.” Its dimensions are about 3,000 miles (W-E) by 2,000 miles (N-S), with its southern coast less than 500 miles from the southern ice cap in places. Some speculate on the resemblance of this continent, in all respects, to current-day Australia, but on this we have no opinion.
  • There are both northern and southern ice caps. The southern ice cap completely covers whatever land is beneath it, and is larger than Antarctica. The northern ice cap also stretches somewhat further south than in our world.
  • And to cap off this post, we note that some of the early maps were sketched out by Mike Ford, and others drawn by Thomas Canty; but the later maps throughout the series are the work of Ellisa Mitchell, a talented artist whose clarity of vision and attention to detail have been responsible for helping us imagine the major cities that have appeared in the story.

The published world map looks like this:

The world map from The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Teresa Patterson and Robert Jordan, map by Tom Canty, based on an initial sketch by John M. Ford (never published).

Obviously, the visual depiction of the map is at variance with Jordan's instructions. Depending on where you count it, Seanchan is between 3,000 and 5,000 miles wide south of the equator rather than 6,000 miles, and Jordan seems to have spent a fair proportion of the two years between the completion of the map and the publication of the book asking for it to be redone:
“extend Seanchan a little farther south. Make southern portion of Seanchan wider by 75%, all south of equator.”
However, the world book was infamously made on a non-existent art budget (the other art in the book is...debatable in quality) and there seems to have been no money available to have the map redrafted. As a result, the map was published as-is, to Jordan's irritation.

We can also assume that RJ wasn't using a detailed art programme to gauge sizes and was going off the scale squares to gauge Seanchan's size. He might have simply taken the 3,000-4,000 mile size and added 75% on it to make it between 5,250 and 7,000 miles, so was still trying to align with his original, 6,000-mile plan.

Twenty-seven years later, Tor have published a "fixed" world map in Origins of the Wheel of Time, and it looks like this:

The new world map from Origins of the Wheel of Time by Mike Livingston, map by Ellisa Mitchell.

Seanchan has been extended in width to some 9,000 miles across in the southern hemisphere, which is a lot (and also looks like it has a tumour sticking out of the side of it, which is less great) and seems to be a lot more than Jordan originally planned. I think simply stretching the map by 75% would have made more sense, and would have made the continent look a bit more natural:

An adjusted version of the original world map with Seanchan made 75% wider.

That's 5 minutes' work so you'd have to massage it a bit, but you get the idea. In this configuration Seanchan is a bit over 7,000 miles wide, so still wider than RJ's original notes but certainly closer to his original plan.

Michael Livingston gives some interesting reasons for the changes here, but curiously Robert Jordan's notes for the construction of the map are never mentioned, to the point where I wonder if Livingston was aware of them. Instead, he has simply followed RJ's suggestion that Seanchan be stretched by 75% (possibly more) without consideration of Jordan's earlier clear directions that Seanchan is 6,000 miles wide. Simply stretching Seanchan makes the continent some 9,000 miles wide instead (or a whole United States of America bigger!). Livingstone argues this is desirable for two reasons: to bring Seanchan closer to the Westlands, making the immense voyage of the Seanchan to the Westlands more plausible, and also because it "fits" the continental shapes of the landmasses better.

The second point I would say is not really germane: the world is the shape it is in The Wheel of Time because of the Breaking of the World, not natural geological forces. The WoT world is our world and before the Breaking likely much more closely resembled our current world map, bearing in mind Robert Jordan's original plans for a cataclysm between the First Age - our age - and the Age of Legends was for a nuclear war, which would have devastated civilisation but left the continental landmasses largely unchanged. It's possible Seanchan is a reconfigured North and South America (though much larger), and the Land of the Madmen is certainly a reconfigured Australia. The Westlands and Shara may be a reconfigured Eurasia, but the much greater size of the Westlands versus Europe suggests that a huge chunk of Africa was also smershed up into it as well. Of course, it's also likely that the Breaking was so immense that none of the reconfigured continents could really be 1:1 identified with preexisting ones at all (although Jordan did note that the Breaking was not quite so severe the greater the distance from Shayol Ghul).

Bringing Seanchan closer to the Westlands might also be desirable from a plausibility view, but it's also not really possible: Robert Jordan identifies the distance from Falme to Seanchan as being 11,000 miles, so clearly he envisaged the distance as simply being immense in any case, much more Pacific-sized or larger, than Atlantic-sized. The Seanchan could have simply used the One Power via damane to speed their passage, eliminate the risk of storms and make the crossing vastly more efficient than any mundane passage. We also see that the Seanchan invade the Westlands via Falme and Toman Head, whilst this new configuration of Seanchan would make invading via Tremalking, Tarabon and Altara from the start much more likely.

Livingston also mentions Jordan's wish to rename the southern continent, the Land of the Madmen, but that also creates another issue. It appears that after calling the continent "the Land of the Madmen" in the text of the notes, Jordan changed his mind and he wanted to call it "the Mad Lands" instead. Again, the lack of art budget seems to have made it impossible to change the name of the continent on the map so they also decided not to change it in the text. Interestingly, Robert Jordan then proceeded to call it "the Land of the Madmen" for the rest of his life. It appears in his notes under that name and whenever anyone raised the issue in interviews, Q&As, fan mail etc, he stuck to calling it "the Land of the Madmen." Basically, the published canon overrode his behind-the-scenes preference, and to save confusion he stuck with the original name.

This may also indicate that, however, unhappy he was that Seanchan's configuration could not be changed before publication, once it was published, he accepted it as canon and proceeded accordingly. So changing Seanchan's size at all, whether to the 6,000 miles of his original notes or the 9,000 miles of this new configuration, might have simple been out of keeping with the way he worked.

In my own Wheel of Time Atlas project, I found a compromise that worked surprisingly well.

The first thing I did was simply swapped out the world map version of Seanchan for the larger-scaled map of Seanchan found elsewhere in the same world book: 

The map of the Seanchan home continent from The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Teresa Patterson and Robert Jordan, map by Tom Canty, based on an initial sketch by John M. Ford (never published).

The "close-up" map of Seanchan is already different in shape to the world map version. It is significantly wider both to the west and east. Simply substituting this map for the other immediately made Seanchan significantly wider. Indeed, comparing the scale of simply inserting the "other Seanchan" on the map makes it line up almost immediately with being 6,000 miles wide, possibly slightly wider already. This makes me wonder if the world map was made first and the continent map later on, with Robert Jordan's notes already taken into consideration.

My Wheel of Time world map, which replaces the original Seanchan from the world map with the larger continent map from elsewhere in the book.

I also did the same thing with the Westlands and Shara, using the larger-scaled local maps to replace their world map versions, resulting in both greater accuracy and more detail.

More pleasingly, placing the map on a globe works extremely well, and the "bulge" effect on the maps from placing them on a sphere immediately makes Seanchan even larger without having to distort it's shape at all.

So it appears that the well-intentioned attempt to redraw the map for the new book may not have been really necessary in the first place, with a more moderate approach respecting Robert Jordan's intentions being possible.

Still, I'm looking forwards to the book to see if Livingston has unearthed any further interesting material.

* Yes, the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning The Dragon Waiting and other fantastical works (including the fan-favourite Star Trek novel How Much for Just the Planet?). It turns out that Ford was also a massive Wheel of Time fan, a fan of maps and a friend of Robert Jordan's. Sadly, John M. Ford passed away in 2006.

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