Friday, 3 January 2020

Dark Souls: The Ethics of Linking the Fire

In case I haven't made it obvious yet, I love the Dark Souls franchise. I adore the challenging, clever and strategic gameplay, but just as important to me is the series' lore. FromSoftware have crafted an incredible mythology for these games which, in my opinion, is the main reason why this franchise has had the longevity it enjoys, as it encourages players to dwell on their own theories and piece them together even when they're not actively playing the game. FromSoftware have also baked in an intentional amount of ambiguity, meaning that every player is going to have their own interpretation of the world and events that occur within it. On that point, several months ago Jim Sterling put out a video about his interpretation of the politics in Dark Souls and, while I agree with his interpretation of the lore for the most part, I found it interesting that our ultimate conclusions on how to complete the story differ. I had kind of taken it for granted that my interpretation of how to proceed in Dark Souls and its sequels was "correct", so it was intriguing to see other peoples' takes on how one should proceed in the game. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that the Dark Souls franchise provides a fantastic case study to explore the philosophy of ethics.


Before we go on, it's worth establishing the basic lore of Dark Souls somewhat in case you're not familiar. In the world of Dark Souls, there was first the Age of Ancients, where immortal dragons ruled the world and nothing really ever changed. Then, one day, fire and souls appeared and the greatest of these souls were claimed by those who would become the four lords - Gwyn the Lord of Sunlight, Nito the Lord of the Dead, the Witch of Izalith and the Furtive Pygmy, possessor of the titular Dark Soul. Gwyn, the most powerful of the lords, kindled the "first flame" and used its power to wage a war against the dragons. The downfall of the dragons ushered in the Age of Fire, with Gwyn as its ruler. However, during all this the Furtive Pygmy split the Dark Soul into fragments, a small piece of which was possessed by every human. The Pygmy knew that one day fire would fade and that this would usher in an Age of Dark, which humanity would now possess. Indeed, while Lord Gwyn's reign was prosperous and saw the establishment of many powerful kingdoms, the first flame did begin to slowly fade, threatening to end his rule over the world. In desperation to prevent this end from occurring, the Witch of Izalith accidentally destroyed herself and her entire kingdom, turning them into demons, while Gwyn ultimately sacrificed his own life to the first flame to restore and prolong the Age of Fire.

The original Dark Souls picks up some time after Gwyn's sacrifice, with the first flame fading once again. As the fire fades, humans have begun being afflicted with the "curse of the undead", which causes humans to be unable to die, but they lose bits and pieces of their humanity and personality until they enter a zombie-like existence as a "hollow". The player takes the role of one of these undead who is tasked with gathering souls to become powerful enough to acquire the four Lord Souls. The driving force behind the player's actions is never quite clear - first, it's a vague prophecy about an undead who will collect souls and end the curse of the undead. Then they are confronted by Gwyn's daughter in Anor Londo, the city of light, and a serpent named Frampt who tell the player to collect the Lord Souls and use them to "link the fire". Ultimately, the player then has to confront Gwyn in the Kiln of the First Flame, where they then are presented with the choice of linking the fire, an act which the player probably still doesn't fully comprehend - which is what brings me to the point of this post. What should the player do at the end of Dark Souls?

There's one more thing that we need to establish before we can answer that question. It's worth mentioning that there is deception at foot in Dark Souls which many players will likely never even realize on a first playthrough (if ever). Anor Londo, the city of the gods, has been abandoned and darkened all this time and Gwynevere, who directs us on our quest, is an illusion. Furthermore, Frampt is not the only serpent out there, for there is another one named Kaathe who tells the player the "truth", that Gwyn usurped the Age of Dark from humanity in order to extend the Age of Fire, a process which he says goes against the natural order of the world. Frampt has been coercing undead to relink the fire through deceptive means and if the undead he was shepherding understood what this meant, they might not be so keen to see it through. In contrast, Kaathe reveals that he's looking for a "Dark Lord" who will rule humanity in this Age of Dark and is hoping that the player character will fulfill this role by slaying Gwyn and rejecting the fire.


Okay, now that we've got all of that out of the way, we can finally start looking at whether the player should link the fire or not. In his video, Jim Sterling talks about how he chooses to not link the fire because he likens it to real-world politics, where the gods are akin to the rich and humanity are akin to the oppressed working class who are exploited to give more power to the rich. In this reading, linking the fire is akin to holding up unequal power structures which are to your detriment. In that scenario, Jim chooses to not link the fire and to tear down the power of the gods in favour of humanity, which is a perfectly valid reading of this scenario. However, even being aware of this deception, I still choose to link the fire in Dark Souls because I believe that this is the most ethical ending.

There are several ethical philosophies that can be applied to try to determine what course of action is the most ethical to pursue. Paul Martin Lester lists and briefly explains six of them on his website: the golden rule, hedonism, the golden mean, the categorical imperative, utilitarianism and the veil of ignorance. For our purposes we will focus on utilitarianism for now, as it is the closest to conventional views of morality. According to the University of Texas' "Ethics Unwrapped", utilitarianism is a moral philosophy where "the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number [of people]". You may look at this and wonder how linking the fire produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, especially since we have already revealed that the prolonging of the Age of Fire benefits the gods, while humanity is meant to inherit the Age of Dark. However, there is a key factor worth considering here - when he established the Age of Fire, Gwyn linked humanity's souls to the first flame, thus bringing about the curse of the undead and hollowed states. The undead may actually be intended to be humanity's natural state in an Age of Dark, but the Age of Fire has made it into an awful state of being which collapses societies and tears away the self. We see this many times over the course of the games, as colourful characters such as Solaire of Astora, Siegward of Catarina, Lucatiel of Mirrah and the crestfallen knight slowly lose themselves to hollowing, a condition that becomes more and more prevalent in society as the fire fades. As a result, the longer that the fire is allowed to fade, the more disruptive the curse of the undead is going to be for the lives of humans everywhere and the more people who are going to lose their humanity. When viewed this way, linking the fire is clearly going to cause the least disruption to the lives of the people, especially if it is done sooner rather than later.

The whole Frampt vs Kaathe debate is also worth a second look when deciding whether to link the fire. At first glance, most players who encounter Kaathe are going to assume that he's he one telling the truth about the world and the player's situation and therefore has your best interests in mind when he tells you not to link the fire. However, it's worth noting that Kaathe is a foil to Frampt and that both of the primordial serpents are kingseekers - Frampt wants to find a successor to Gwyn to link the fire, whereas Kaathe wants to crown a "dark lord" to usurp Gwyn's throne. As the player, that works fantastically for you, since you spend the whole game collecting souls and becoming (likely) the most powerful being in this world. However, is having one powerful overlord really the best option for humanity in the end, or is it better for humanity if one powerful individual is sacrificed instead to keep their way of life intact? Are we better off with another Gwyn-like figure ruling this Age of Dark, only more powerful since he or she has absorbed all of the lord souls? We, of course, don't really have an answer to this question, but it's worth keeping in mind when appraising the situation - we can't assume that Kaathe has the best interests of humanity in mind and, while it's great for us as the player that we could be the most powerful being in the world, it may not be the best situation for everyone else. As a result, Frampt's deception is likely warranted, as a being strong enough to link the fire is extremely unlikely to do so willingly. We actually see this play out several times in Dark Souls III, where the truth of the linking of the fire has become common knowledge and the man tasked to link the fire rejects his calling. Not only that, but three of the four resurrected Lords of Cinder who have already linked the fire once before reject the call and refuse to go through with linking a second time (not to mention that Aldrich was forced to link the fire the first time and Ludleth of Courland vividly recounts the pain involved in the experience, so there's little wonder why they don't volunteer to go through with it again). One can easily see how this deception would be necessary to convince the most powerful being in the realm to unwittingly volunteer to give up their power (and life) to link the fire.


Since the Age of Dark is supposed to be the time of humanity, wouldn't that inevitably be the best for humans though? This is, unfortunately, an answer that we simply don't know based on the lore that From Software have given us. This is, as "Ethics Unwrapped" puts it, a drawback of utilitarianism: "because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad." In the Dark Souls franchise, we simply do not know what an Age of Dark is actually like. The closest we get is the Untended Graves in Dark Souls III, which seem to portray a dim future in which an Age of Dark has fallen (although this is definitely debatable). Since we can't even conclusively look to the Untended Graves for an Age of Dark, we only really have the Abyss to go off of. The Abyss is a place in Dark Souls which seems to have some connection to the true nature of the Dark Soul and humanity. The Abyss spreads across lands and swallows them up. The Abyss is so corrupting and dangerous that we know of three entire kingdoms (Oolacile, New Londo and Carthus) who have succumbed to it have to be destroyed and contained to stop its spread. It's worth noting that Kaathe is heavily implied to have been behind the spreading of The Abyss in Oolacile and New Londo, further suggesting that it plays some sort of role in his quest for a dark lord. The results aren't pretty though - the people who come into contact with The Abyss all go mad and/or have their bodies twisted into monstrous forms. As one goes deeper into The Abyss, they find numerous mysterious, incorporeal phantoms which are clearly meant to symbolize humanity. Whether these are the souls of the people who have been swallowed up by The Abyss or a more base form of humanity is up for interpretation, but all that is certain is that they drain the player's life force on contact. It's also worth noting that, in the original Dark Souls' DLC, The Abyss seems to stem from the unrestrained desires of Manus, thought by some to be the Furtive Pygmy himself and perhaps Kaathe's original candidate for dark lord. This lends further credence to the idea that the dark lord is just the most powerful being of their age, one who can shape people and the world around them with their overwhelming dominance. There is so much ambiguity about The Abyss and the Age of Dark though that it's hard to make a concrete judgment call on them. Is everyone living a terrible existence, but humans are living the least-terrible existence of them all? Is life as a humanity phantom or a maddened, misshapen monster really all that bad? I can't say that The Abyss is bad with absolute certainty, but it is clear that to bring about an Age of Dark would change our fundamental understanding of human life. In my opinion, the risks are not worth it, especially since we know that life in the Age of Fire is perfectly fine for humans.

That's the situation in the original Dark Souls, but what about Dark Souls II? Should the player ascend the Throne of Want, or turn their back on it? There are a couple new elements introduced in this game which are worth taking into consideration. First, the concept of cycles is introduced. Dark Souls II reveals that there is a constant back-and-forth of ages of fire and dark. As a result, we discover that even if you did embrace an Age of Dark in the original game's ending, the fire returns eventually and all of this will have played out again. Considering that the curse of the undead still persists, this would suggest that humanity is still linked to the fire and that these cycles of the Age of Dark aren't even beneficial for humans, further giving fuel to the idea that linking the fire is the safest choice. In Dark Souls II, Aldia calls the linking of humanity to the first flame "the first sin" and says it has corrupted the natural order of the world - however, until humanity can be unlinked from the fire, it is unavoidable. However, just because something is natural, that doesn't mean it is therefore the right or best option and Aldia knows it, as he rages in search of a solution to this problem.


The other variable worth taking into consideration in Dark Souls II is the theme of kings and their queens of Dark. Dark Souls II reveals that the defeat of Manus split his soul into fragments which became four granddaughters. These granddaughters would seek out kings, the most powerful people in the land, and seek to corrupt them and eventually take the first flame for themselves. Unfortunately for them, their corrupting influence would eventually be the downfall of each kingdom before their efforts could come to fruition, leaving only ruins or kingdoms in decline. Interestingly enough, by taking the crowns of each of the lords, you can actually stave off the effects of hollowing - it doesn't cure or end the curse, but it is a way to freeze it in place and effectively become a god of the Light and the Dark. In Dark Souls II, your ultimate goal is to take the kingdom of Drangleic for yourself and Queen Nashandra is your final opponent. In this game, it is explicitly the Dark which is manipulating you, as Nashandra is waiting for you to be powerful enough to take the throne before swooping in to take it for herself.

So, with Nashandra defeated, do you then sit on the throne and therefore link the fire? The answer feels simpler, yet more ambiguous than it did in the first game. The Throne of Want is analogous to the First Flame, but the exact effects of sitting on it are uncertain - unlike Dark Souls where you become human kindling, in Dark Souls II the ending implies that you'll establish your own kingdom. Or, if you choose to forgo the Throne of Want, you'll allow an Age of Dark to take hold once again. Considering the journey of this game, the ending where you take the throne is far more satisfying. I'd also argue that, since humanity is still linked to the fire, taking the throne is the best option in order to stave off the curse of the undead once more.


Finally, we have Dark Souls III, where things have taken an interesting turn. In this game, the fire has been linked so many times that each successive linking has produced a shorter and shorter Age of Fire, and now the fire itself is nearly spent. It's gotten to the point where the heir meant to link the fire refuses, figures who have previously linked the fire are resurrected and also refuse to link it again, and so people who failed to link the fire before are resurrected to try to get them to link it. The situation is so bad that space and time itself has become reshaped and distorted, desperately trying to bring about the linking of the fire that has become so fundamental to existence. Dark Souls III has several possible endings, but once again the "right" ending seems much clearer than in the first game. However, the variety of endings allow us to explore some of the other ethical philosophies in more detail.

There's only one ending which allows the player to link the fire, but the flame has become so feeble that it merely dances along their arms, instead of becoming a surging conflagration like in the first game. It's clear that the fire's power has faded almost entirely and that this act of linking at this point it is functionally pointless. However, this ending could be viewed as the "categorical imperative" ending. In the ethical philosophy of the categorical imperative, once something has been established as "right", it should always be done and there are no excuses not to not perform this action. Since the linking the fire has long been established as the "right" thing to do, it should be linked regardless of the long-term benefits (after all, have we not been looking down on Prince Lothric all this time for not linking the fire to begin with?). However, I personally find this ethical philosophy far too restrictive and inadequate. From a utilitarian perspective, since the fire is spent the curse is already wracking humanity, and the world itself has twisted to try to relight the flame - it's clear that the time to link the fire has past and that embracing the Age of Dark is the only option left to us (in fact, considering that the Age of Fire was becoming shorter and the curse of the undead more frequent, the most ethical thing to do would probably have been to embrace it sooner than this). So, what options does the game give us to bring this about?

In the normal ending, the player summons the fire keeper to snuff out the first flame. She reveals that although an Age of Dark is now settling, eventually fire will come again anew. Perhaps this will be a new flame, no longer linked to humanity. This seems to me like it is the most ethical of the endings from a utilitarian perspective, since it severs humanity's ties to the first flame and allows the Age of Dark to finally settle in on its own merits. It also gets around the problem we had in the original Dark Souls of one extremely powerful being dictating the flow of this age - a new Gwyn, using their power to extend the Age of Dark in the same manner that the Age of Fire has been unnaturally extended. This ending could also be seen as the "golden mean" ending. The golden mean ethical philosophy posits that the most ethical approach is to find a middle ground between two extremes (in this case, linking the fire and becoming the Dark Lord). Since you have chosen to not link the fire, but have not become the new lord of the Age of Dark, this ending strikes about as close to a middle ground as possible. The fact that this ending satisfies two different ethical philosophies is just further evidence that it's probably the best outcome for this world.

There's also a secret ending where, just before the fire keeper snuffs out the fire, the player betrays her and steals the last of the flame in the final seconds. It's the kind of ending you take if you're roleplaying a complete bastard who is collecting souls, any soul, to empower themselves at the expense of everyone else. One could view this as a particularly nasty "hedonism" ending. In ethical philosophy, hedonism posits that the most moral thing to do is to maximize pleasure while you can, because you don't know what tomorrow may bring. In the dark and brutish world of Dark Souls, your character has been slaying people and collecting their souls to empower themselves all game and with your journey at its end, there really isn't any reason not to just collect one more soul from this viewpoint. That said, obviously, viewed from any other ethical philosophy (not to mention conventional morality), this is by far the most unethical ending in the game.


Perhaps the most interesting ending involves completing a quest for the Sable Church of Londor, a coven of undead. During the course of gameplay, you can discover that the Sable Church are dedicated to fulfilling the legacy of Kaathe and want you to become the Dark Lord. Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that if you choose this ending then you absorb the remaining power of the first flame into yourself and bring about an Age of Dark with yourself as its appointed Dark Lord. However, the ethics of this ending are dubious - not only do you have to marry and then kill Anri of Astora to bring it about, but the ultimate implications of this ending are left up to the player to interpret. As a result, this ending could be categorized as hedonistic or utilitarian, depending on how you imagine your rule as Dark Lord will play out. Interestingly enough, the eclipsed sun which has been in the sky throughout the late game turns into a pale, dark eclipse upon your ascension to Dark Lord, perhaps signifying that you have indeed become the Dark foil to Gwyn and your legacy may mirror his. Knowing this, allowing the fire keeper to snuff out the flame is probably the most conventionally-ethical option since it keeps the most people on an even footing, but the Dark Lord ending is the most interesting in my opinion.

Considering how much interpretation is involved in Dark Souls, a clear "ideal" solution is almost impossible to declare definitively. A Dark Lord ending may indeed be the best possible ending if you decide that your character will rule benevolently and not make the same mistakes as Gwyn. Similarly, not linking the fire may be best if you believe that it will end the cure of the undead - again, we just don't know and it's up to your interpretation of that ending to decide. This interpretation and debating over the lore and its implications is a major factor in Dark Souls' enduring popularity - as I said in my Love/Hate article on the series, the original game has been eclipsed in terms of performance, gameplay and challenge, but the world it has created is damn-near unparalleled and makes this game still stand out to this day.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

15 Best Movie Posters of 2019

Welcome back to the annual, year-end countdown of the best movie posters of the year! And just like that, this is now officially an annual thing! I've been browsing impawards throughout the year, keeping an eye out for eye-catching, interesting posters and saving them for later. Suffice to say, I had a bunch of posters to sift through and narrowing this down to a top 15 was difficult (not least of all because new posters are released all the time so I couldn't even begin to narrow the list down until the start of September). Also, starting this year I'm going to be giving extra consideration towards posters which are actually intended for mass distribution rather than posters which are intended to be artistic but very limited in their reach. I mean, this Dark Phoenix poster is really cool, but it's also clearly a poster you're never going to see if you go to a theatre. I'm still going to consider these kinds of posters if they're really good, but I find it more impressive when a poster which is meant to sell general audiences on the film does something particularly artistic or interesting.

Anyway, with those considerations out of the way, let's get onto the list! As usual, you can see the full-sized poster in all its glory if you click on the images.

Honourable Mentions
While Disney absolutely destroyed the competition at the box office this year, their posters were, by and large, very mediocre and lifeless. This poster for Frozen II was one of the few exceptions, with its interesting use of colour and reflections hinting at the plot and feel of the film. It ultimately just missed the list, but it was definitely worth mentioning.

This is another entry which could have easily made the list if the competition wasn't quite so fierce. It's got such a creepy design already and then as your eye gets drawn upwards you realize that the trees have been arranged in such a way that they spell "FEED". I like this poster a lot, it looks way better than a gritty, Grimms fairy tale adaptation should.

Having seen Us, I like this poster quite a bit with its minimalist design resembling a Rorschach blot, but with the right side missing bits which hint at the film's psycho doppelganger premise. It gets across the idea of the film very well, but I feel like it's just a bit too subtle to really be appreciated unless you've actually seen the film first.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2019

It's that time of year once again, when I look back on all of the random-ass, new music I've listened to in 2019! I've been slowly curating this article all year as there have been plenty of new albums by my favourite bands, which has given me plenty of time to parse my feelings on them. Also, if you're curious about last year's picks, you can read that list here.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let's get to the rankings!


23) Jesus Is King, Kanye West
If you've checked out any of my previous annual album rankings then you'll probably know that I skew towards rock and metal rather than rap or RNB, so perhaps it wouldn't be all that surprising that my white, heathen ass would rank a Kanye West album so lowly. However, I did enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and some of my all-time favourite albums are pure gospel music (Worship and Worship Again by Michael W. Smith are just inspiring to listen to back-to-back), so suffice to say I was pretty intrigued by the hype surrounding the release of Kanye West's big Christian music debut. It's undeniable that Kanye West is an asshole, but the guy has a way of crafting really interesting music so I was very curious to see what he could come up as an outsider in the Christian music scene. However, the results are pretty disappointing. With 11 tracks and clocking in at only 27 minutes long, this album just feels half-baked, like Kanye put out a bunch of demos instead of taking the time to actually craft something satisfying. Only 3 tracks manage to get over the 3 minute mark, "God Is", "Hands On" and "Use This Gospel", and these are clearly the most enjoyable and well-crafted tracks on the whole album. There are some potentially interesting aspects to "Selah" and "Follow God" as well, but these tracks are so brief and incomplete that they leave you very unsatisfied. I also got a bit of a kick out of the gospel choir opener "Every Hour", although it is little more than an enthusiastic mood-setter. Most of the tracks are just lacking in substance. All this said, the only track on this album that I actually liked and would listen to on its own is "God Is", a fantastic gospel choir and RNB fusion which is helped immensely by Kanye West's sincere singing and declarations of faith and praise to God. It's actually moving, has something to say and is easily the best track of the bunch. However, this is just one well-crafted song on an entire album and it's not enough to justify how scattershot, incomplete and uninteresting the rest of Jesus Is King is. Now, if Kanye would gimme a whole album of gospel tracks similar to "God Is"? I'd be all over that, but as it stands Jesus is King just feels like Kanye is dumping his half-completed homework on us.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Love/Hate: Pokemon Sword & Shield

Over a year ago I wrote the first of what would become my Love/Hate series, a retrospective of the pros and cons of each generation of Pokemon. Since then, we've obviously gotten the start of another whole generation of Pokemon with Sword and Shield and, having completed the main story and gotten some time to mull over my feelings on the game I feel like it's time for a Love/Hate update. That said, this is of course only my opinion and there's the potential for it to change over time (opinions on the Pokemon themselves in particular are likely to soften as more time passes). So, with that in mind, let's get this started!


Love
  • Raids - Easily my most-anticipated feature from the previews was raid battles, which pit four players against an extra-powerful Dynamax Pokemon. I'm happy to say that these are about as fun as I had hoped, requiring some additional strategies to get through successfully. That said, for four- or five-star raids you're definitely going to need 2 or 3 human companions because the default NPC trainers are terrible.
  • Dynamax Makes Gym Battles Climactic - Restricting Dynamax to raid battles and gyms was a truly inspired move. By the time you get to a gym, you're already pumped up by the music and the roar of the crowd as you march out onto the turf and then send out your first Pokemon. Then, when the battle is drawing to a close, you finally get your chance to bring out your Dynamax Pokemon and things get even bigger and more exciting. I have to admit, with these rare intervals, Dynamax is a really cool feature and the flashy moves make for a suitably epic climax to each challenge, almost like a reward in itself.
  • Some Great Characters - I was actually pretty surprised how well fleshed out many of the characters were in Sword and Shield. Hop starts out as your standard friendly rival, but he actually learns to not just define himself in the shadow of his superstar brother or feel like he's hurting the family legacy. Meanwhile, Marnie is carrying the hope and dreams of her town on her shoulders as she battles through the Gym Challenge. Bede goes from arrogant prick, to desperate to prove himself worthy, to humble over the course of the story. It's also pretty exciting to see Sonia earn the mantle of Pokemon Professor for her efforts in studying the Darkest Day. All-in-all, these characters are great and are going to be remembered for years to come.
  • Quality of Life Improvements - As always, Sword and Shield have brought some much-needed refinements to the formula which just make playing the game more enjoyable. These include Surprise Trades which go on in the background while you play, nature-changing mints, XP candies for quick and easy level-ups, access to PC boxes at any time, name raters and lotto-ID in every Pokemon Center (halle-freaking-lujah!) and the introduction of TRs to replace move tutors. It's a lot of little things, but add them all up and it makes the experience of actually playing the game far more enjoyable.
  • Spoiled For Choice - While much has been made of the restricted Pokedex in these games, you are absolutely spoiled for choice at the start of the game. Most Pokemon games will very slowly dole out the available Pokemon, often repeating the same ones over and over from route to route. Sword and Shield say "screw that!" and give you two packed routes and then throw you into the Wild Area in the first couple hours, absolutely spoiling you with choices for a solid team. While I did eventually settle into a composed team by the second or third gym, the amount of choice you get off the bat was impressive and helps ease the sting of the restricted Pokedex in the first few hours.
  • Customization - Due to an increased emphasis on multiplayer options, Game Freak have really upped the number of customization options available to the player. Almost everyone I've encountered playing the game has customized their character beyond the default outfits (which is almost too bad because even the default outfits are really cool). Even better, the Card Maker allows you to design your own player trading card, which has no real purpose other than to be cool... and I love it. It's such a small, pointless feature but probably my favourite thing in the whole game.
  • Some Really Cool Pokemon Designs - As always, there are some really great Pokemon introduced this generation. Corviknight, in particular, is probably the coolest "starter bird" Pokemon of all time, while Yamper and Wooloo make your heart melt as much as any Eevee could, and the Galarian forms are all quite interesting and distinct. There are some wildly different Pokemon in this game and several of these experiments pay off in interesting ways.

Mixed
  • Graphics - Much has been made about the graphics in this game and, while I'm nowhere near as critical about them as some, I understand the criticism. Personally, I like the game's aesthetic and think that it looks very pretty in places like Wedgehurst, Galar Mine, Slumbering Weald and Ballonlea. That said, the game has an embarrassing amount of pop-in, with characters just disappearing into thin air if you move more than a couple dozen meters away. Worse, the frame rate drops in the Wild Area are really bad a times, especially when playing online (and, considering that this is basically how you're supposed to be playing in the Wild Area, this is a big problem). The game doesn't even look particularly taxing for a Switch game so this lack of optimization is frustrating.
  • The Wild Area - A lot of people love the much-hyped Wild Area, but I'm pretty mixed on it personally. On the one hand, it's certainly cool being able to explore the world, but the design is very limited. Each area is basically just three patches of grass spawning the same three or four Pokemon over and over again. The world would feel more lively if there were way more Pokemon in each area instead of just having to see the same three again and again - it's pretty bad when traditional routes feel way more lively and diversified than your open world. World traversal is also a pain in the ass because you can't climb over even tiny hills. Oh, and the dynamic weather sounds great, until you get stuck encountering Pokemon over and over again in snow or sandstorms, trying to figure out where you're trying to go. Look, I think the Wild Area's a decent trial run of this concept of an open world Pokemon game and I do think that this is where the series is going to be going in the future, but it's going to need to feel way more open and lively if it's going to be better than traditional routes.
  • Camping - Much was made of camping in this game, but there's very little going on with it. I mean, it's pretty cool seeing your Pokemon (or an online player's) walking around the camp, but it gets boring pretty quickly. You can also play with your Pokemon, but there's only two toys available and they also get very boring quickly. Then the only thing left to do is make a curry, of which there are a 151 different varieties! There are probably some players who are going to have fun filling out their "curry dex", but it's a pretty lengthy mini-game which involves a ton of resource gathering with little reward... basically, for all the effort you go through, your Pokemon just get some XP, happiness and get healed. It can be handy when you're out in the Wild Area and need to heal, but just using a healing item is far faster and less of a pain in the ass.
  • In-Game Events - Holy crap, Game Freak are actually using online functionality to add things to their game and keep players engaged? So far they have been having special events which make certain Gigantamax Pokemon appear more frequently in raids and have even released new Gigantamax Pokemon into the game (apparently there are 30+ unavailable Pokemon in the game's code which are going to be released in future). That said, there Pokemon are such a pain to obtain. First off, you have to find the Pokemon to begin with. Second, these tend to be five-star raids and therefore require at least a couple online partners to succeed, which can be enough of a pain in the ass to wrangle. Then you still have to win the raid and you only get one chance to catch the Pokemon. What if it breaks out? Too bad, you have to go through the whole process all over again of finding the Pokemon in a raid, wrangling your partners, winning the raid, etc... Just trying to get a Gigantamax Snorlax recently took me hours of unsuccessful attempts.

Hate
  • Weak Story - As good as some of the characters in Sword and Shield are, the story surrounding them might just be the weakest in the entire main series.
    • For the story itself, you get endorsed by the Champion and go complete all the gyms. Every once in a while something unusual happens, but for nearly the entire game the Champion tells you to forget about it while he goes to deal with it instead. The "evil team", Team Yell, aren't even all that much to talk about either, they temporarily block your path and fizzle out quickly. The villain is potentially interesting, but he gets very little development and makes maligned villains of games past like Lysandre look positively inspired by comparison. Eternatus is also very poorly explained as a villainous Pokemon.
    • Worst of all though is the post-game, which involves you running around Galar to each of the gyms and fighting a bunch of repetitive, weak raid battles... but you don't even get a chance to catch the Pokemon you fight. Oh, and you also have to fight a pair of chodes, Sordward and Shielbert, who might be my least-favourite characters in the entire series. They suck and this whole post-game is just a pain in the ass that I only plowed through in order to catch the box art legendary.
    • It's also worth noting that several characters are totally underserved by the story. Professor Magnolia, for example, shows up maybe twice in the entire game and ends up getting completely overshadowed by Sonia by the mid-point of the game.
  • Feature Removal - Look, I know much has been made of this already, but it's really difficult to ignore the fact that over 500 Pokemon are missing from this game. On top of that, the removal of Megas and Z-moves sucks. I'm still exploring what the region has to offer, but the longer I play, the more this exclusion is going to sting because it cuts down on the variety Pokemon has always offered.
  • Dynamax and Gigantamax - Like I said earlier, I actually like Dynamaxing as a mechanic in gym battles, but allowing it by default in online battles isn't very fun. It encourages stall in order to get through the three turns, while also being broken for certain Pokemon because of the additional effects of attacks (being able to set weather or terrain AND cause damage is so much more deadly than the more powerful base damage of one-use Z-moves). Gigantamax, on the other hand, is kind of a pointless addition considering the additional work it caused. The only difference is that the Pokemon gets a new look for three turns and can use a G-Max move if they have the right type of attack. Funnily enough, these G-Max moves tend to be less useful than the default Max Moves they replace... so can I just have my Megas and Z-moves back? Please?
  • Online Features - Online stability has never been a sure thing with Game Freak, but I had hoped that they'd be able to get with the times on Switch. Unfortunately, the online functionality in Sword and Shield is not great at all. Not only does being online in the Wild Area make your frame rate tank, but it also can cause connected players to float in the air or go into impossible places. Navigating the online menus is a waiting game, as you can wait for a minute or two for it to refresh and show you a bunch of useless notifications. Trying to connect to raids is also a total crapshoot, if any even show up in your feed (this is a particular sore point for me because raids have been my go-to entertainment thus far). Oh, and to make matters even worse, basic stuff like the VS Recorder and the freaking GTS have been removed! I know some people have said "oh, well just use Discord if you want to get a specific Pokemon", but no, screw that. I should be able to just search the Pokemon I want or deposit to get what I want. Removing this key feature is just a kick in the nuts for a collecting game like this, especially when you have pointless shit like Gigantamax and camping which were clearly taking up a lot of resources to implement.
  • Catching/Level Cap - Game Freak put themselves into a weird situation by allowing you to encounter extremely-high level Pokemon in the early game if you wander around the Wild Area. Their solution to this potentially game breaking problem? Just outright forbid you from catching Pokemon of certain levels until you have a gym badge allowing you to do so. This is a baffling decision. For one thing, it discourages exploration - after all, why go off the beaten path to look for new Pokemon if the game isn't going to even let you catch it? In the early to mid-game I was just blitzing through the Wild Area to get the gym badges so I could be allowed to catch Pokemon. Even stranger, your team's level cap outpaces the catching level cap very early, so you can be rocking a team of Pokemon at level 40 and still not be allowed to catch Pokemon of a lower level than them. It's such a dumb decision and I don't think that this was the right way to handle it.
  • Game Just Feels Half-Baked - The sum of a lot of these issues is that the game just feels half-baked and incomplete, likely due to the strict annual release schedule of these games. Missing features and unsatisfying story might not even be an issue if Game Freak had some more time on their hands, or if they'd be willing to outsource some of their work. Game Freak and The Pokemon Company really need to take a 2-3 year break to give us a game with some serious, uncompromised passion behind it, although given the success they have regardless I can't see this happening...
  • Some of the New Pokemon... - Good God. I was really liking every Pokemon that was officially revealed prior to release, but having played the game in full there are some seriously butt-ugly Pokemon hiding in this roster.
    • I feel like Eiscue deserves a special mention here. It's a penguin with a gigantic ice block on its head and then when the ice block breaks, it's got this stupid, derpy, sad face underneath... what the actual hell. It's so stupid and derpy that I can actually see myself turning around and maybe liking it someday, but right now I'm deciding whether or not this Pokemon is worse than Barbaracle.
    • The four fossil Pokemon are also so bad looking. I find the idea of having two Pokemon fused together to be an interesting one, but then you remember that Kyurem Black and White exist and that these Pokemon look arguably worse. Having genetic abominations that look like they wish they were dead is funny in a Judge Dredd comic, not in Pokemon. These things are seriously the most casually unethical development in a series which has long lampshaded the fact that it's all about cockfighting.
    • It's also worth mentioning that the final evolutions of the starter Pokemon are pretty much universally acknowledged to be the worst ever. They're all incredibly disappointing or off-putting, which is particularly unfortunate since their first evolutions are actually probably the best since at least Gen 2.

Best Pokemon of Gen 8: Corviknight, Wooloo, Eldegoss, Thievul, Yamper, Frosmoth, Flapple, Dragapult, Zacian, Zamazenta, Galarian Weezing
Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 8: Chewtle, Sandaconda, G-Max Copperajah, Impidimp's entire evolution line, Pincurchin (guaranteed to be a future "most forgotten Pokemon"), Eiscue, Dracozolt, Arctovish

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

10 Worst Movies of the 2010s

As you can probably tell if you've frequented this blog, you'll know that I have a thing for bad movies. There's a special sort of film-going experience that you can only get from a crap-tacular film, be that stunned disbelief or pure rage. Then there's the true bottom of the barrel. Most of the films on this list are so bad that I would never want to subject myself to them again, and even several years removed from watching them they still leave an awful taste in my mouth. So let's go down memory lane and exhume some of the worst movies of the entire decade and show off their rotting putridity for all to see?

Honourable Mentions

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (February 27, 2010)
You would be remiss to mention bad movies of the 2010s and leave out Birdemic, a rip-off of The Birds that's so legendarily incompetent that it became a meme. Director James Nguyen really wanted to make a positive film about environmentalism and pacifism, all wrapped up in an epic love story, but good God he failed spectacularly. For the most part, the film is just boring, but then suddenly the clip art GIF-quality birds attack and it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I swear to God I laughed for at least a minute straight when they started dive bombing and literally exploding. Even with everything else wrong with this film, that alone made it at least hilarious and so-bad-it's-good enough that it's more enjoyable than any of the movies that made this list. Still, for the sheer ineptitude on display, this film deserves at least a mention on this list.


Dogman (November 6, 2012)
I've always been highly intrigued by the legend of the Michigan Dogman, so when I found out that someone made a movie about this creature I was excited to see what they would come up with. I even saw a Blu-ray copy of the film on sale and even though it was going for freaking $35 I was tempted. However, I ultimately decided that I'd better find out if it was good or not before dropping that much on it... and thank God I did, because I dodged a freaking bullet. Dogman is clearly a no-budget film and what we do get on screen is just boring. I can't really remember much more about it than being extremely disappointed that nothing happens, so I can't really justify putting it on the list proper (and like hell I'm rewatching it).


The Predator (Septemer 14, 2018)
The Predator isn't *quite* bad enough to actually make this list, but it is easily one of my most hated films of the decade. I don't often advocate for films to be written out of continuity, but the Predator franchise is absolutely dead in the water if this film is allowed to dictate the franchise's future. And why did they feel the need to reboot the franchise anyway? Predators was awesome and went over most of the ideas this film tries to pass off as new anyway.

So with those dishonourable mentions out of the way, let's get on to the list...

Sunday, 1 December 2019

My 10 Favourite Movies of the 2010s

It's the end of the decade, so you know what that means - big retrospectives of the years that were the 2010s! We've already done a list of my favourite albums of the 2010s and today we're moving onto my favourite movies of the decade. It was so hard narrowing this down to only 10 films (plus a couple honourable mentions) - at the outset, I had over 70 films listed that I had to whittle down until only 10 remained. As before, this is purely my opinion, although I'm much more confident that these picks should be less niche than my favourite albums are. So with that in mind, let's get on to the list.

Honourable Mentions


The Witch (February 19, 2015)
While it wasn't quite good enough to make my top 10, The Witch is one of those films which sticks with you and just gets better every time you see it. The film is rich with themes of family and religious devotion which give you many different ways to interpret it. There's also a slavish attention to detail as director Robert Eggers tries to make the film as authentic as possible to the time period. For that matter, the film is basically a straight adaptation of the sorts of stories Puritans would have been telling each other in the 1600s, to the point where I consider this movie equal parts a Christian movie and a Satanist movie, depending on how you read it. This can make the movie a bit dense, particularly if you're not into Puritan history or constant discussion about religion, and the scares are few and far between, but if you aren't turned off by these then The Witch is a truly engrossing, unforgettable experience.


Berserk: The Golden Age Arc (February 4, 2012 - February 1, 2013)
Okay, this one might be slightly cheating since it's a trilogy of animated films, but it's my list so here it is. Berserk is one of those stories which has been indirectly influencing me for years, through all of its many imitators. The Golden Age Arc is what got me into the franchise and makes for a great introduction to the story (and, in some ways, streamlines the manga for the better). Part 1, The Egg of the King, isn't great, with rough CGI, some strange choices in direction and a plot which is clearly just set-up for the next 2 films. However, Part 2 (The Battle for Doldrey) and Part 3 (The Advent) are both top-notch. The Battle for Doldrey is one of those rare battle sequences which manages to be both cinematic and clever, since the heroes actually win the day through fairly sound tactics, while giving us some fantastic character growth in the process. The Advent is the crown jewel of this trilogy though - if you're like me and went into this trilogy essentially blind about what was going to happen, it's a shocking, truly horrific turn of events that have been set up since the very first film in the trilogy. All-in-all, The Golden Age Arc is just a solid adaptation of an already-fantastic manga and I heartily recommend it to anyone for the compelling characters, as long as you think you can stomach a very dark fantasy story.

Friday, 29 November 2019

My 10 Favourite Albums of the 2010s

Man, I really left myself a lot of work for the end of this year. Not only did I do my "Best of 2019" albums ranking, but it's also the end of a decade, which means that it's also the time for "Best of the 2010s" lists. We're going to start out today with my favourite albums of the 2010s. Standard caveats apply here - music is not only incredibly subjective, but there is so much of it and my tastes are somewhat niche, so I wouldn't be arrogant enough to declare that these are "the best" albums of the decade. That said, they're all great and have affected me in one way or another, so I would certainly recommend checking them out if you have not!

Honourable Mentions:

Asylum, Disturbed (August 31, 2010)
I waffle between Asylum or Ten Thousand Fists being Disturbed's best album, but it's pretty much unquestioned that this was the last time they were such a self-assured band. Whatever your thoughts about their last couple albums are, the post-Asylum hiatus changed the band significantly and I don't predict that we're going to get another album from Disturbed that I'm going to like nearly as much as Asylum.


Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, Volbeat (April 5, 2013)
They say there's nothing quite like your first... Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies was the album where I decided to give Volbeat a chance and I fell in love with their style. Seal the Deal & Let's Boogie would also have a pretty good shot at being one of my favourite albums of the decade, but they both fell just short of the top 10. Still, I love the band so much that I had to at least give them an honourable mention.