Comics legend Stan Lee dead at 95

The End of an Era

It’s a sad day, dear reader.

Legendary comic-book writer and figurehead of Marvel comics and its film-studio, Stan Lee, has died at the age of 95.

This occurs after his wife of 69 years, Joan Boocock Lee, died of complications following a stroke in July of last year.

Though much of the news surrounding Lee of late has centered on a confusing string of legal troubles surrounding his estate and family, his devotion to the Marvel fandom never waned.

Appearing at conventions and in cameos in nearly every major Marvel film, Stan Lee was considered a timeless, grandfatherly figure to the new wave of fans following Marvel Studios uptick in production after Spider-Man (2002) and X-Men (2000) both laid the groundwork for the modern superhero blockbuster.

For old time’s sake, here’s a compilation of nearly every Stan Lee cameo in a major Marvel Studios film release.

As if the upcoming Avengers 4 wasn’t already a conclusion to the narrative born in Iron Man (2008) – the very beginning of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe – it will now likely be Lee’s final on-screen cameo. Assuming the Russo brothers deliver on the massive hype surrounding their Thanos-busting sequel, it may well be a fitting send off to one of the key players in the contemporary pop-culture landscape.

Stan_Lee_1975_cropped_(3)
By photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74346855

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922 in Manhattan, New York City. A gifted and hungry writer at a young age, he became an assistant at Timely Comics in 1939. Two years later he would debut under the pseudonym Stan Lee, with the May 1941 issue Captain America #3. In 1942 he joined the Army Signal Corps, repairing telegraph poles and communication equipment.

Through the superhero boom of the 1950s, Lee was assigned by publisher Martin Goodman to create a superhero team to match DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Lee’s response was to create the opposite of the idyllic, infallible, god-like characters of DC Comics, and instead introduced characters of considerable complexity and the all-too-human susceptibility to failure, anger, love, and, yes, paying bills.

Along with long-time collaborators Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, and others, Lee co-created a pantheon of iconic characters: The Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, Hunk, Thor, Iron-Man, Black Panther, Daredevil, and Spider-Man – with their forces joined, they were called The Avengers.

Lee eventually stopped writing to focus on publishing in 1972. Years later he would become the public face of Marvel Comics, well up to and throughout its transition to film.

He was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995. He was the recipient of an Inkpot Award, a Saturn Life Career Award, a Scream Award, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Visual Effects Society Lifetime Achievement Award, the Producers Guild of America’s Vanguard Award, a Best Supporting Performance in a Comedy award from the National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers, and the Independent Publisher Book Award’s 2017 Independent Voice Award for his final graphic novel, God Woke.

As gregarious, lively, and iconic as they come. He will be missed the world over.

GAME NEWS: What the hell is going on?

Strange Times

In case you needed a reminder, Video Games are the highest grossing entertainment medium per product – ever.

And if you’ve been living under a rock the last year, you’d be forgiven for missing out on what has been the nearly unprecedented success of Rockstar Game’s Red Dead Redemption II. Which, as reported by Polygon, just surpassed 17 million units sold in it’s first twelve days of release.

Those numbers are insane. For perspective, Red Dead Redemption sold fewer copies in its first eight years of release than Red Dead II did in its first eight days.

Incredible. Assuming the bare minimum price point of $60 USD for a copy of the game (which ignores the various deluxe editions’ extra costs), that means that as of November 7, 2018, Red Dead II has earned upwards of $1.02 billion. An impressive feat, make no mistake, but developer Rockstar is no stranger to this kind of blow-out success, seeing as Grand Theft Auto V has earned – as a single product – over $6 billion in revenue with nearly 100 million copies sold.

Meanwhile, it’s been a terrible week for Activision Blizzard. Bear with me, please, and rejoice if you must, because it looks like everyone’s favorite big bad game publisher is receiving its comeuppance – in a way only Activision would care about. Their stock price has fallen a massive 17% in just one month. Why? Well….

Treyarch’s Black Ops 4 earned decent review scores from critics, many praising the new BLACK OUT battle royale mode. BUT, the game currently isn’t selling any better than last year’s Call of Duty: WWII. Investors expect growth, people, and the Call of Duty brand has been slipping since the massive sales of 2011’s Modern Warefare 3. Though Blops4 isn’t outselling previous entries, it doesn’t look like Battlefield V will be much of a threat – delay or not.

If that wasn’t enough to give investor’s cold feet, the announcement of Blizzard’s new installment of the legendary Diablo franchise, Diablo: Immortal, went over about as poorly as possible. At the annual Blizzcon event, developers rode a wave of hype up to the stage and announced that Diablo was going to mobile devices, and not to PCs. The audience in attendance? Almost exclusively PC gamers. This prompted audible boos from the audience and for the trailer video posted to YouTube to receive upwards of 400k dislikes. Ouch. A full rundown of how Blizzard and Activision are handling the situation can be read here.

Add to that the under-performance of Destiny 2, a game beleaguered by a rabid fan-base full of conflicting and self-defeating demands of its overburdened development studio, once-prodigal creators of Halo, Bungie. Despite rumors of a more “hardcore” sequel in the works, Destiny as a franchise continues to under-perform. This comes as no surprise to long time players (myself included), as both Bungie and Activision have prioritized monetization schemes and microtransactions, as well as partitioned finished game builds to create expensive DLC to be sold back to the consumer years down the line. If Destiny 2 goes down as a failure, and Bungie along with it – so be it. Well, I take that back, actually. No developer should lose their job because Bobby Kotick can’t be bothered to sell a quality fucking product.

OH, AND ON TOP OF THAT (no that isn’t all!) Activision is reporting that it’s average active monthly users across all platforms is down by several million: 352 million to 345 million. Their projected fourth quarter revenue is coming in below estimates, as well: $3.05 billion, short of $3.06 billion. Oh, oh no.

Schadenfreude.

Anyways. Bad news for Bethesda Game Studios. Overall response to new entry in the Fallout franchise, Fallout 76, has been met with scores of lackluster first-impressions following the game’s lengthy string of betas. The problem, first and foremost, is that in order to play test the game (MERE WEEKS BEFORE RELEASE), you must have pre-ordered a copy of the game. From Digital Foundry calmly decrying the game’s lackluster performance on all platforms, to Laymen Gaming not so calmly referring to the game as a steaming pile of shit – the reactions have been mixed to say the least.

If a consensus was to be made, and I’m in no position to suggest one, but I’ll try, it’s that Fallout 76 looks awful, performs poorly, has a desolate world devoid of much meaningful interaction (aside from the occasional run-in with other players), and is still a lot of fun to play. My issue? The game looks buggy as hell, the game engine is another revamp of the Creation Engine, which is itself a revamp of decade old Gamebryo technology, and it’s “beta” in no way guarantees a stable launch. Simply put, Bethesda Game Studios is offering something ambitious, unbalanced, unpolished, and philosophically at odds with itself. I’m not biting, but no harm to those of you who decide to buy it. Oh, and if you decide to play the game on PC and fiddle with the .ini files to unlock the framerate? You can cheat your way to a higher level. It just works.

Alright guys, that’s it for gaming news – at least the stuff that was on my mind. Sound off in the comments with your opinions on all of this. I’d love to hear them.

Until next time.

INTRODUCING: Black Beanie Gaming

An Update

Hello, dear reader. It’s been a while, and I apologize for that. Thing is, keeping up with entertainment is a pain in the ass. I have a pile of half-finished reviews and commentary pieces for First Man, the box-office, The Good Place, South Park, Daria, BoJack Horseman, Red Faction Guerilla Re-Mars-tered, and so many other things. It can be overwhelming (and easier to ignore the pile of unfinished work than to complete it.) Not to mention the fact that I’m neck-deep in a manuscript I’ve been working on – one I hope to finish and begin editing in the next few months.

Kudos to those of you that do this for a living.

That said, I have no intention of abandoning this blog or the content I have planned for it. Far from it. As you may recall, I posted an update several weeks ago wherein I suggested that I could produce some video-related content for all of you to enjoy.

Well, the time has come.

Sort of.

Rather than fully commit to an entirely new medium to provide my commentary and prognosticating, I’ve started a YouTube channel specifically for gaming.

I call it Black Beanie Gaming. Consider it the new gaming-centric arm of the blog.

It even has a fancy logo.

Logo

How neat is that? (The answer is very.)

Why a gaming channel, you ask? Simple: I don’t like many of the gaming channels currently on YouTube. Each content creator has their niche, yes, but it’s far too often the case that a Twitch/Mixer streamer or Let’s Play-er will present their content in such a way as one: To lure in an audience with misleading thumbnails and titles; and two: Lace their videos with the attention-deficit antics of a fourth-grade boy snorting pixie-sticks. They can be loud, overbearing, and lacking a true appreciation for the games on display.

What I plan to provide:

  • Let’s Plays and gameplay walk-throughs
  • Insightful commentary on the games that I choose play
  • A calm, honest, and forthright demeanor
  • A black Neff beanie planted firmly on my head in each video
  • Thorough play-throughs of richly layered games
  • Simple editing and clear presentation

What I plan to avoid:

  • Clickbait
  • False or misleading claims
  • An over-reliance on choppy editing
  • Obnoxious sound effects
  • Dead memes
  • Offensive content

I’ve always said this, but it bears repeating: I truly believe that video games are pinnacle of interactive storytelling. They are the confluence of all artistic principles and mediums. Black Beanie Gaming is a means to supplement what I write here – a way to elaborate and share my favorite games and gaming moments directly with you, the reader and potential viewer.

I do hope you’ll come check it out.

You can follow along on Twitter here and subscribe on YouTube here. I might make a Facebook page in the future, and will be sure to post any video content to the blog before I post to YouTube. Anyways, I’d greatly appreciate any of your consideration. Hopefully you see something you like.

Until next time.

 

BOX OFFICE: ‘Halloween’ returns to its roots and wins big at the weekend box office

Before we get started

I need to address the two weeks I’ve been absent from this blog. Without saying too much, while also remaining as transparent as possible, I hit a bit of a mental block when it came to writing for this thing. To the few of you that read everything I post here, I’m sorry. Our behavior is so dominated by the reward centers of our brains, that when a sense of hopelessness settles in it can appear daunting to even sit at the keyboard and clack away for a few hours. Progress isn’t quite as obvious when the nature of your work is stationary – no pun intended. I’m back and hopefully on the right track with generating content.

Also, I am working on a manuscript for a novel. That takes time.

Why not post a separate article as an update on the blog? Because, dear reader, that’s more effort than should be spent airing out personal matters. Work smarter, not harder.

On to the box office.


Halloween’s back, baby

Normally when an old property is revived with the original cast, the results are less than stellar. In today’s nostalgia-laden and quality-conscious age, a long-awaited sequel can carry near insurmountable expectations. That isn’t the case with Michael Myers’ return to the big screen. I guess a mountain of shit-quality sequels lowered the bar enough for the average consumer to walk away happy with anything other than absolute garbage. However, Halloween (2018) has managed solid scores from critics and audiences, which allowed it to leap to the top of the box office pile, eclipsing both Venom and A Star is Born, which both have seen some serious legs.

The only other film worth mentioning was the limited release of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, which only hit four screens. We’ll see how that performs once it goes wide on October 26. The early response from critics has been decent and Jonah Hill is a big name, especially coming off the success of Netflix original series Maniac, where he stars alongside fellow Superbad alum Emma Stone. We shall see.

Anywho, let’s take a glance at BoxOfficeMojo.com and break down the weekend numbers.

candle creepy dark decoration

Weekend top ten

  1. Halloween debuted to $76.2m domestic, $14.3m international, and $90.5m global. Thanks to tremendous word of mouth and the return of Jamie Lee Curtis, this sequel / refresh earned the second largest October opening of all time, behind Venom‘s $80m from several weeks ago. This is a stellar debut for a film made for $10m.
  2. A Star is Born earned $19m domestic in its third weekend, surpassing Venom almost every day this past week. The Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga drama has yet to drop over 40%. It’s totals so far are $126.1m domestic, $75.6m international, and $201.7m global. For an R-rated directorial debut, it doesn’t get much better.
  3. Venom narrowly missed third place over the weekend, having earned $18m in North America. Last weekend it suffered a drop of over 50%, whereas this week it held on more firmly with a drop of 48.5%. Just goes to show that comic book fans aren’t concerned with the quality of their entertainment, only that it’s their entertainment. The film currently sits at $171m domestic, $290.7m international, and $461.7m global.
  4. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween remained in fourth place with $9.7m in North America. The film, a sequel to a movie I didn’t see, based on a R.L. Stine’s celebrated children’s horror book series, dropped a respectable 38.5% and has the following totals: $28.8m domestic, $11.1m international, and $39.9m global.
  5. First ManDamien Chazelle’s third feature film, continues to underwhelm audiences. The tale of unrepentant stoic Neil Armstrong as he stone-faces his way to the moon, ignores his wife, and silently resents Buzz Aldrin, earned $8.3m domestically. Its totals are currently $29.7m domestic, $25.7m international, and $55.4m global. That’s about $4m shy of its production budget. The far-reaching allure of Gravity has officially waned.
  6. The Hate U Give added over 2,000 theaters. Officially in wide release, it earned $7.6m to bring its domestic total to $10.7m. It has a long way to go before it earns back its $29m budget.
  7. Smallfoot, an incredibly forgettable movie that’s barely worth talking about, earned $6.5m domestic. Its totals are currently $66.3m domestic, $71.2m international, and $137.5m global.
  8. Night School, another pitifully forgettable movie and shameless appeal to Kevin Hart’s arguably diminishing appeal, earned $4.8m domestically. Its totals are $66.7m domestic, $17.6m international, and $84.3m global.
  9. Bad Times at the El Royale dropped 52.1% and two places in its second weekend. So far the Drew Goddard ensemble feature is struggling to earn back its $32m budget. So far, it’s earned $13.4m domestic, $7.9m international, and $21.3m global.
  10. The Old Man & the Gun, Robert Redford’s supposed final film, jumped up five places to round out the top ten. Fox Searchlight added over 500 theaters to bring it into wide release following decent reception in limited release. It earned $2.1m, bringing its domestic and only total up to $4.2m.

Honorable mention to Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, which debuted in limited release to $258k, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider that that’s from four theaters. That’s a stellar $64.5k theater average. Oh, and for some reason, Disney still has Incredibles II in theaters. The smash of the late summer, Crazy Rich Asians, is still raking in over a million a week, half a million just this past weekend. Wonderful.

Alright, that’s all I care to talk about.

Since I’m a few weeks behind on predictions, I think I’m just going to leave you all with a shorter article today. I might separate the predictions into their own things right before the weekend. Who knows. I leave you with a calm and colorful image of autumn. Enjoy the season, dear reader.

Until next time.

photography of maple trees

REVIEW: Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’

Released October 5, 2018; Directed by Bradley Cooper; Distributed by Warner Bros.; Runtime 2h 16m; Rated R

Screenshot_20181006-041726_YouTube

When purchasing the tickets for this movie, an older, grizzled man cut the ticket and made an offhand remark about the film. “A Star Is Born,” he said dryly. “Fourth time they’ve made this one. Theater six, to your left.”

Normally, I’m inclined to ignore the dismissive language of the jaded, but what he said stayed with me as I took my seat in the center of the theater. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a remake, but it’s been promoted as a kind of re-imagining. Rather than focus on the glamorous toxicity of fame, this film offers a raw, intimate portrayal of art and success. In many ways, it’s exactly that, but it’s beholden to the same tropes and clichés as is common in the typical rise-to-fame narrative. Point being: You’ve seen this before. Only, Cooper and Gaga are so damn good that it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen a million tortured musicians take a million amber-lit stages, baring their souls in a million different ways.

Screenshot_20181006-041421_YouTube

I’ll refrain from summarizing much of the plot. It’s a simple premise. Gaga’s Ally is an aspiring musician who has all but given up on success, while Cooper’s Jack is an aging Country-Rock star who’s resorted to boozing his way through his old hits to make a living. After a chance encounter at a bar, they grow enamored with one another and develop a working relationship on stage. Ally’s star rises, while Jack’s begins to fade as his substance abuse worsens.

While its premise is simple, and beholden to all of the archetypical rich-man-meets-woman narrative beats you’ve come to expect, this iteration of the classic narrative succeeds where others have fallen by the wayside. How? An insistence on unflinching intimacy and emotional honesty between the two leads.

Cooper and Gaga both give complex, varied performances here. Gaga is especially vulnerable early on, shedding much of the audience’s preconceptions about her status as a world-renowned musician. As Ally, she’s stripped down, sometimes literally, to reveal the depth of her earnest ambitions and love for Jack. We are never, as an audience, lead to believe that the love these characters share for one another is in any way imbalanced or unfair. If one character suffers, they both suffer. And there is suffering.

Cooper has lowered his voice here, lightened only by his scenes opposite the inimitable Sam Elliot. His pitch is raspy, aged, and his face is leathery – tarnished by his time in the limelight. His diminishing health walks hand-in-hand with his diminishing returns as an artist. Although Ally gives Jack a much-needed shot in the arm, the film is smart to subvert the typical woman-as-muse trope in favor of a far more honest, and visceral, portrayal of the nature of addiction. Jack is heavily flawed, and though Ally is certainly a force for good in his life, she isn’t there to save him. Nor can she.

Screenshot_20181006-041654_YouTube

The film is strongest when focusing primarily on the relationship between Jack and Ally, mainly due to the superlative performances of Gaga and Cooper, but also due to Cooper’s startling proficiency behind the camera. We are treated to close-up after close-up, wavering dialogue and all the “uh” and “um”s that indicate strong, believable conversation. The script has its fair share of platitudinal idioms – the type of fortune-cookie vaguery that belies many inspirational narratives – but it delivers them earnestly through the mouths of two characters that the audience trusts have each other’s best interests at heart.

The narrative needs that trust, and builds it diligently and intelligently in the film’s first half, but at times struggles to maintain focus on it as the film progresses toward its conclusion.

That isn’t to say that Cooper doesn’t know what he’s doing as a director. The smartest move he made was keeping Gaga dead-center throughout so many of the film’s more intense emotional moments. It cannot be understated how well she performs in this role.

Unfortunately, at around the mid-point, when the narrative capitalizes on an hour’s worth of anticipation by having Ally perform her first duet with Jack on-stage, the film’s carefully cultivated lacquer of authenticity begins to fade.

Screenshot_20181006-041600_YouTube

Following that goose-bumps inducing performance, the film becomes a juggling act between its disparate themes. Cooper seems to manage this by giving each individual element of his film equal screen-time, but all that manages to do is distend the second act into something more akin to a biopic, rather than the down-to-earth fairy tale of the film’s first hour.

One thought kept creeping into my head as addiction and toxic-fame began to take center stage. The balance between what constitutes whimsical coincidence and insightful commentary just isn’t there. Some moments are reminiscent of Scorsese’s claustrophobic portrayals of spousal conflict – raw and uncompromising – while others require a suspension of disbelief simply beyond what should be required of the audience. Considering the lengths the film goes to in order to place this film in reality – our reality – it struggles to maintain it.

The film simply struggles to resolve its plot-threads in its closing act. There’s a poorly-communicated B-Plot involving Sam Elliot’s Bobby, Jack’s brother, as well as a comically over-simplified caricature of the money-hungry Hollywood type in Ally’s manager. Jack’s back story is fleshed out in bite-sized increments and delivered through gruff, farm hand mumbling. The emotional impact that those elements intend to deliver is massive, but being the tropes that they are, eventually offer little. I’d argue that they go so far as to diminish the aforementioned narrative focus on Ally and Jack.

Screenshot_20181006-041343_YouTube

That will be my lasting complaint with this film. Whereas the first hour is enthralling, the latter hour and fifteen simply does too much. There’s a Dave Chappelle cameo that provides literally nothing substantive to the arcs of either character, save for what they do while in his company. The narrative moves so quickly through Ally’s rise to fame that it becomes difficult to discern exactly how much time has passed between her discovery and the accolades she inevitably receives. Time and space mean little in fairy tales, but in a film that attempts to ground itself so thoroughly, it’s frustrating that the film has so little setting to speak of.

Sure, there are sets. There are apartments and tour busses and hotel rooms and many, many stages upon which Cooper and Gaga actually performed live music. Commendable, all of it. But, the film is content to not clearly define when exactly all of this takes place, and for how long a period, preferring instead for the here and now. That’s it. It takes place in the age of smart-phones and Spotify. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. How, then, are moments of titanic personal achievement supposed to resonate with an audience when the context of spent time is lacking? Especially considering the weight of the film’s closing moments.

Screenshot_20181006-041628_YouTube

That isn’t to say that the film isn’t a stellar entertainment. Bradley Cooper has proven himself a competent director and vocalist, and Lady Gaga can act like it’s nobody’s business. That’s on top of her impressive vocal ability. Despite the film addressing too quickly the nature of addiction, fame, creative expression, love, and art; despite its struggle to choose which character’s lens to filter the story through, Ally’s or Jack’s; and despite all the rocky melodrama that bogs down the third act – it’s still a wonderful time at the movies.

What will stick with me, more than anything, is the image of Cooper and Gaga during their first duet, singing a song they wrote the night prior in a convenience store parking lot. When it commits to telling a fairy tale, one with its feet planted firmly on the ground – weighing its character’s aspirations against their circumstances – that’s when it shines very, very brightly.

The songs are catchy, the performances solid, the cinematography adherent to theme, and the emotional core resonant. It may be the best iteration of this old Hollywood story, flaws and all.

Score: 3.75 / 5 – Good film. See in theaters.

Screenshot_20181006-041536_YouTube

NEWS: An interesting week for Marvel

Well, it’s been an interesting week to say the least. Ignoring the incessant death throes of our democracy, let’s instead turn to acknowledge another of our great American pastimes: Pop escapism!

This week saw the release of two new trailers for Marvel properties. Sony’s Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse and Netflix’s Daredevil series both unleashed onto an unsuspecting, though willing, audience. One is bright and colorful, inviting, while the other is dark and foreboding of the kind of pulpy dread we series-bingers yearn for.

The Spider-Verse trailer looks fun, and funny. The animation is reminiscent of Insomniac Games’ recent Spiderman PS4 exclusive, with warm lighting and playful, Disney-Marvel banter.  Full of homages and references to the web-slinger’s other on-screen outings, this looks like the type of kid-friendly, light-hearted fare that could finally win Sony some much-needed love from fans.

As for the Daredevil season three trailer? God, it’s so good to see Wilson Fisk again. His presence was deeply missed in season two, especially after being (arguably) the greatest aspect of the first season. How he and Matt Murdock do battle remains to be seen, but expect psychological manipulation and long-take tracking-shots of martial arts in the many hallways of Hell’s Kitchen.

No word yet on whether one of these Marvel shows will be able to match the potency of its first season. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage each had fairly solid first outings. The Punisher felt a bit redundant by its eighth episode, and Iron Fist has been a raging dumpster fire from the jump. As far as overall quality, I’d say Jessica Jones’ first season is the high-mark for the Netflix Defenders universe. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next comes the totally unexpected, couldn’t-have-been-predicted, out of left field realization that Sony’s Venom received poor review scores from critics. Holy shit. Unbelievable. A movie whose protagonist likened his existence to a turd in the wind – IN THE PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL – met a poor critical response. I stand by my box-office prediction from earlier this week – A Star is Born is charming literally everyone, and buzz for Venom never felt more fervent than lukewarm apprehension. We’ll see, I suppose.

Screenshot_20181005-051612_Twitter

Lastly, Chris Evans took to Twitter to announce that he has wrapped filming for the upcoming Avengers movie. He provided a heartfelt farewell to the character of Captain America, a role he’s played dutifully for the last eight years. One can only assume that he will go back to his day job of being a golden retriever. Oh, and him signing off definitely means he’s going to die. Just saying.

That’s it for Marvel news. At least what I care to talk about.

Stay tuned for more.

Until next time.

 

BOX OFFICE: Kevin Hart’s ‘Night School’ won the weekend – the end is nigh

Commentary pieces are longer, stream-of-consciousness style essays about a particular topic. They can and will take many forms, are randomly organized, and are deeply saturated with personal bias.


Welcome Back

Grab your box office hats, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to analyze a great September performance in North American cinemas.

Friday to Sunday, September 28-30, saw the release of three major films: Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish’s Night School, Warner Bros. Smallfoot, and Lionsgate’s Hell Fest. Three large releases, targeting both kids and teenagers, which propelled weekend receipts up over 14% from the weekend prior. And, if Brad Brevet and Box Office Mojo are to be believed, it capped off the second highest grossing September on record, behind last year.

Isn’t that nice? Go Hollywood.

Anyway. Have you fastened that box office hat firmly to your noggin, yet? Yes?

Good. Last week’s predictions:

  • Smallfoot
    • $20-23 million
  • Night School
    • $15-18 million
  • The House With A Clock In Its Walls
    • $10-13 million
  • Hell Fest
    • $8-10 million
  • A Simple Favor
    • $6.25 million
  • The Nun
    • $5.5 million
  • Crazy Rich Asians
    • $4.75 million
  • The Predator
    • $3.2 million
  • White Boy Rick
    • $2.5 million
  • Peppermint
    • $2.25 million

Let’s look at those weekend totals.


The Numbers

bank bills business cards
Photo by Michael Steinberg on Pexels.com

As mentioned, the box office jumped up by over 14% for an estimated North American total of $105 million – or the equivalent of a modest opening weekend for a tent-pole picture in the MCU. That’s not bad when compared to last weekend, but it’s fantastic when compared to 2017’s September 29-October 1 total of $82.3 million. Still, 2017’s September saw consecutive weekend totals of $67 million, $154.7 million, $103.5 million, $110.4 million, and $82.3 million. September 2018 only managed two weekends with totals over $100 million, and only just over the mark.

Our sturdy September 2018 is thanks not to any particular release, but to Hollywood insisting on releasing multiple properties of a wide range of genres each weekend. We have spooky movies, actioners, franchise flicks, comedies, slashers, and fluff for the kids. August was dominated primarily by one movie: Crazy Rich Asians – which won two-thirds of August and the first weekend of September. Since the first, a different film won each subsequent weekend of September.

The last of which had this as its top ten:

  1. Night School, the same kind of Kevin Hart feature that allows the actor to flaunt his money-first ideology while wooing female comedians far more talented than he is than, say, Think Like a Man Too. Sort of like how Dwayne Johnson only produces and stars in films that accentuate his physique. It’s no secret that the two of them are Instagram business buddies, hyping up their films with online, app-driven antics that neither address the film or offer anything worth investing time into. It’s marketing via histrionics. Essentially, they’ve developed a cult of personality through family friendly, corporate assembled, consume-and-forget marketing. Oh, and Night School opened to $27.2 million from 3,010 theaters. Universal Studios should be proud. I’m not.
  2. Warner Bros. Smallfoot, the kid-centric animated feature about a bunch of yetis or something, debuted to $23 million from 4,131 theaters.
  3. The House With A Clock In Its Walls fell 52.6% for a second weekend pull of $12.6 million. It’s domestic total is $44.8 million – well over the film’s $42 million production budget. Its international total is $9 million and worldwide is $53.9 million. Universal Studios should be proud(er). We need more Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in our lives. And Eli Roth should consider making more kids movies.
  4. Paul Fieg’s A Simple Favor had a respectable 36.2% drop in its third weekend. It added $6.5 million to make its North American total a cool $43 million. It’s still playing in over 3,000 theaters, so Lionsgate is obviously confident that the Blake Lively, Anna Kendrik picture has legs. No pun intended. With an international gross of $19.8 million, the film has earned $62.8 million across all territories.
  5. The Nun dropped only 45.5% and two places to earn $5.4 million over the weekend. Its domestic total is $109 million, which is significant. Add to that the $220.2 million international earnings, its worldwide total of $329.2 million makes it the highest grossing film in the Conjuring franchise. It still lags behind the original here in North America, but give it time.
  6. Hell Fest, the teens-get-chased-in-a-dark-area-by-people-in-masks movie, debuted to $5.1 million from 2,297 theaters. That’s about $400k shy of its production budget and $3 million shy of my prediction.
  7. Crazy Rich Asians is still making decent money, even after its seventh weekend. It fell 35.4% and two places to earn $4.1 million. It’s domestic total is now $165.6 million. Internationally it’s only managed $53.8 million, but a worldwide total of $219.4 million off of a $30 million budget is nothing to pout over. Good on you Warner Bros.
  8. The Predator continues to underperform. It dropped four spots and 57.9% for a domestic weekend pull of $3.8 million. As of today, its domestic / international / worldwide is $47.7 million / $68.3 million / $116.1 million. All off of an $88 million budget plus marketing costs. Please, Shane Black, give us a The Nice Guys sequel. Please.
  9. Here’s White Boy Rick with a weekend total of $2.4 million. Its domestic now sits at $21 million, well shy of that $29 million budget. The renaissance is over, it would seem.
  10. Closing out the top ten is Peppermint. The apparent waste of Jennifer Garner’s talent earned $1.7 million. Its domestic / international / worldwide is currently $33.5 million / $6 million / $39.5 million. It earned its budget back, so expect STX Entertainment to start yanking it from theaters once it drops from the top ten.

Other notable releases include My Hero Academia: Two Heroes, which was released by Funimation in 508 theaters for a debut domestic total of $1.3 million. Awesome. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 fell four spots and 63.1% for $1.1 million. Also awesome. The Meg is shedding theaters quickly as Warner Bros. prepares for home release. It still managed another $1.03 million despite dropping 54.4% and losing over 700 screens. Oh, and that dumpster fire Life Itself lost 254 theaters, dropped 63.7%, and earned only $770k on the weekend. Amazon Studios has some work to do.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout earned $621k off of only 538 screens. It’s domestic is just shy of $220 million, but it’ll get there before home release. Worldwide it’s managed $789.8 million. Given more time in the international market, expect it to make a bid for $800 million, but don’t hold your breath.

The Old Man & The Gun, Robert Redford’s self-professed final acting role debuted in limited release – literally just five theaters – and earned $142,131. That’s a $28k theater average. Send it wide! I wanna see it! Speaking of limited engagements, that Nic Cage movie everyone is raving about, Mandy, is only playing in like 64 theaters across the country. It’s almost earned a million bucks, though. Kudos.

So, how did my predictions line up with reality? Prediction / Actual

  • Smallfoot
    • $20-23 million / $23.04 million
  • Night School
    • $15-18 million / $27.2 million
  • The House With A Clock In Its Walls
    • $10-13 million / $12.6 million
  • Hell Fest
    • $8-10 million / $5.1 million
  • A Simple Favor
    • $6.25 million / $6.5 million
  • The Nun
    • $5.5 million / $5.4 million
  • Crazy Rich Asians
    • $4.75 million / $4.1 million
  • The Predator
    • $3.2 million / $3.8 million
  • White Boy Rick
    • $2.5 million / $2.4 million
  • Peppermint
    • $2.25 million / $1.7 million

Margin of error: $539,000

Not bad, even though I was way off with Night School and Hell Fest, the other predictions saved my ass. Let’s see if next week bodes well.


Speculation

design desk display eyewear
Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

Next weekend, October 5-7, has the potential to be massive. You have two highly anticipated movies coming out in Tom Hardy’s Venom and Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born. My gut tells me not to underestimate the star-power of Lady Gaga, who is a fucking magnificent human being. I’m willing to overlook the fact that Bradley Cooper’s only claim to fame is one good comedy and two leading roles in bad David O’Russel films (they’re all bad.)

I’m also hesitant as to whether Tom Hardy can pull Sony’s Marvel features out of their funk. They haven’t released a solid superhero picture since Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 all the way back in 2004. Speaking of, has anybody seen Tobey Macguire anywhere? Is he doing alright? Come back, Tobey. Bring Brendan Fraser with you.

giphy.gif
Source

Anyways, here are my predictions for the top ten.

  1. Venom opens to a disappointing $60-65 million.
  2. A Star is Born surprises with a $30-35 million debut.
  3. Night School drops 60% to earn $10.75 million.
  4. Smallfoot drops 55% to earn $10.25 million.
  5. The House With A Clock In Its Walls will drop around 55% to earn $5.75 million.
  6. A Simple Favor will fall around 40% for $4 million.
  7. The Nun drops around 50% for $2.75 million.
  8. Hell Fest drops around 60% for $2.25 million.
  9. The Predator falls around 60% to earn $1.5 million.
  10. White Boy Rick hangs in tightly to the top ten, drops 50% to earn $1.25 million.

So, there you have it. Tune in next week to see how these predictions play out. Also be sure to follow along on social media here and here for updates, or subscribe to get email updates whenever a new article is posted using the widget below.

Until next time.

TRAILER: ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ will blow our minds

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about this game? Quite little. So, rather than drone on and on about the particulars of the upcoming, it’s-been-eight-years-where-have-you-been, Red Dead Redemption II – developer Rockstar Games decided to just, you know, show us everything.

Here’s the latest gameplay trailer.

Are those goosebumps? Yes they are, dear reader. They came to watch the trailer, too.

A shortlist of activities / immersion-elements confirmed by the trailer:

  • Heists
  • Bathing
  • Horse balls
  • Train robbery
  • Deep outfit customization
  • Dead-eye leveling, and perhaps character leveling, RPG-style
  • Stick up stores
  • Hunt bounties
  • Hunt wildlife
  • Watch shows
  • Play cards and other parlor games
  • The best looking graphics to leave Rockstar’s studio
  • Consequence and minute player choice
  • Grand vistas you and Roach your horse can meander through
  • GTA-style cinematic camera options
  • FIRST PERSON MODE

Reader, I can’t tell you how excited I am for this game. It seems now, more than ever before, that Rockstar has solidified its sterling reputation for open-world games. This is the culmination of years of hard work, undoubtedly. Can you even imagine the laboring hours spent coding the behavior of snow around Arthur Morgan’s feet? Or the dedication to realism that warrants rendering the testicles on his horse?

They do this for us, people. Hold your wallets close, because Broke-tober has officially begun.

But don’t preorder. Seriously, it’s time to stop. Once the game drops and the review scores are aggregated, then decide. Rockstar can attain a monster launch-week without all that premium mumbo-jumbo.

Until then, let’s just consider the trailer’s final parting words, “This world has its consolations.”

We may not be perched high atop a mountain, overlooking some expansive mountain range bathed in early morning light, but we do get to play Red Dead Redemption II on October 26, 2018 on PS4 and Xbox One.

Considering the tumult on rise in the world today, that’s a mighty consolation indeed.

(Sorry PC players. The master race might have to take the L here.)

Until next time.

INTERVIEW: Adriel Wallick, the mind behind Train Jam

Insights pieces seek out unique perspectives from members of the Game, Film, and Television industries. They aim to provide context for readers and an unfiltered platform for industry-insiders.


Imagine this. . .

The majesty of this nation’s most iconic vistas spanning out before you in all their radiant splendor, while you recline comfortably in the wide-windowed Amtrak California Zephyr train car. You can see rolling plains taper up into white-capped mountain ranges – a jagged line across the belly of a clear blue sky. There are clouds and animals out there, beyond the fog of breath on your window, and suddenly you are removed from yourself. Inspired, even.

Feeling motivated, yet? Are the creative juices flowing?

Good.

That’s exactly the kind of environment that independent game developer, Adriel Wallick, hopes to foster with Train Jam – the annual fifty-two hour, cross-country game jam on a train. From Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California, aspiring and veteran developers gather in several rented train cars to create games in an environmnet condusive to collaboration, networking, and creative inspiration. But don’t take it from me, take it from the woman behind it all.

Readers, meet Adriel Wallick.

Headshot
All pictures used with permission.

Where to find her: Twitter; Website; Train Jam; Train Jam Games; Square Bowl

I recently had the opportunity to ask Adriel some questions about Train Jam, about the gaming industry at large and the role of independent developers within it; the shifting trend toward equal representation in our media, and how she finds the time to both make and play games. She had plenty to say, so I have plenty to share with all of you.

This is, more or less, a transcript of our conversation, edited minimally for clarity, grammar, and format.

Do enjoy.


Game-Jamming on a Train

trainjam1
“…fostering an adventurous and inspiring environment…”

The Murphy Media Blog: So, what is Train Jam?
Adriel Wallick: Train Jam is an annual game jam that occurs on a train. Every spring, game developers from all over the world meet in Chicago to ride the California Zephyr out to Emeryville, California while making games during the fifty-two hour journey. Train Jame always occurs the Thursday-Saturday before the annual Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco – which means that we then get to show off all of the games that were made during Train Jam at the largest gathering of professional game developers in the world.

Train Jam’s goal is to take developers beyond their comfort zone and push for creative inspiration outside of a regular office environment. It strives to meet this goal by fostering an adventurous and inspiring environment where develops from diverse backgrounds and cultures are able to pursue new ideas in a safe, accessible, and empowering way.
MMB: When did the inspiration for Train Jam strike? What was the epiphany?
AW: The inspiration came from a train trip that I took back in 2013. I was living in Boston at the time and decided to travel for a while. I took the train from Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, and then Seattle to Vancouver. I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally. I started doing research into how Amtrak’s group-reservations worked, set up an Eventbrite page, made a website, and launched the first Train Jam just a few months later.
MMB: I’ve spent most of my life around trains and on trips. There’s a romanticism to those long journeys and feeling yourself float through the scenery. What an ingenious way to work with the inspiration of the outdoors, but doing so as a group still connected to the Wi-Fi.
AW: There actually isn’t Wi-Fi provided on the train! It’s one of my absolute favorite things about the train ride, because it really forces the developers into a completely different mindset than they’re used to working in. Everyone has to rely on their own innate knowledge OR the other developers around them. It’s also one of the reasons that I keep Train Jam completely non-competitive. I’ve centered so much of Train Jam’s core experience around collaboration and togetherness, and the forced reliability of the other developers on the train really helps solidify that.

“I found the journey to be super inspiring, and after talking with other game developers about it, the idea of turning that type of journey into a game jam just progressed naturally.”

MMB: Now, the average person might never have heard of a game jam, could you explain how one works?
AW: A ‘game jam’ is where a number of game developers get together and work on a new game idea in a short amount of time. There are tons of different types, but most will last around forty-eight hours (usually over a weekend), will have a theme to base the game idea on, and will encourage developers to work in teams of around four people. The concept and motivations for a game are very similar to that of musicians getting together to jam – most times, it’s not so much about creating something that will be commercially viable, or the next “big hit,” but about exercising your creative muscles, working with others, and trying out new ideas.
MMB: The Comparison to music seems appropriate – collaboration and cooperation are key. What are some of the themes or new ideas that you have used for, or have developed from, Train Jam?

AW: The themes I give for Train Jam are always very loose and based on trains, journeys, or adventure. To get a good feel for what comes out of something like Train Jam, you can check out all of the games from the last five years at www.trainjam.com/games.

Breaking into the Industry

B-28jlqUYAAWGKb
“…I decided that I just needed to make a change and get into an industry that I was passionate about, which would allow me some creative freedoms…”

MMB: Your Twitter bio mentions that you used to work on satellites, why / how did you make the switch to video game development?
AW: Games have always been a passion of mine, and something I’ve been a huge fan of my whole life. After working as a software engineer for some big companies after graduating from college, I decided that I just needed to make a change and get into an industry that I was passionate about, which would allow me some creative freedoms while still being in a tech role.
MMB: Out of curiosity, which games were most significant in developing your passion?
AW: Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Thomas Was Alone.
MMB: How would you encourage others to approach employment in the industry? Any advice for those without a computer-technologies background?
AW: Everyone is different, so that’s hard. I’m self-motivated to learn things on my own, so I just started following tutorials and making small prototypes to learn tech skills specifically relevant to game development. I started attending local developer meet-ups in Boston and just kept networking and meeting people until I finally found an indie studio that was hiring for someone exactly like me.

For anyone wanting to enter the games industry, the best general advice I can give is to just make games. It sounds kind of silly and simplistic, but the best way to get the skills to make games is to make them. If you’re a writer, look into something like the Ink Scripting Language and write a few interactive fiction games. If you’re an artist, draw some character designs, animate some models, or mock-up some UI elements. If you’re a musician, play around with sound effects or practice different genres of music for different levels. People have the misconception that if you’re not a tech person you simply can’t make a game, and that’s just not true anymore. There’s always a way to work on your game development skills.

I addition, meeting other game developers is another good way to learn about game development and to get your foot in the door. If you can, attend local meet-ups in your area. Go and talk to other developers. If there aren’t any meet-ups near you, or you can’t attend, then join an online community. Look for developer forums and start posting. Ask questions, post your work, etc.

A Day in the Life

CdYlXJqVAAAM-Z1
“I see Train Jam as a great place for people to be inspired, to try to make games in a safe and non-competitive environment, and to simply meet other developers.”

MMB: Video games have never been more popular, and AAA production studios have never been larger. Do you, on the independent / freelance level, see the higher demand for entertainment and personnel trickling down?
AW: Definitely. I entered indie development just as it was starting to really take off, as a type of game development that people were taking seriously in a commercial sense. As the years have gone on, the line between AAA and indie (and everything in-between) has been increasingly blurred – which means it’s more accessible than ever to dip your toes into game development. Also, the type of person who plays games is so diverse. So, as games are getting more popular, the demand for every type of game is growing, as well. People want to play everything from a small artistic indie game to a huge AAA adventure game, and the fact that games have gotten so popular means that we now have the resources to make many different types of games.
MMB: Do you see Train Jam as a way to further propel the accessibility of gaming to both developer and consumer? Where do you see Train Jam in five years’ time?
AW: I hope so. I see Train Jam as a great place for people to be inspired, to try to make games in a safe and non-competitive environment, and to simply meet other developers. I hope that all of those things will help developers feel comfortable trying to make games or more confident with their current skill-level. I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined. I think we’ve grown to a size that I’m completely comfortable with. It’s big enough that I can use it to do a lot of good (e.g. by using our reputation to get more sponsorships that I can put towards our diversity initiatives), but that I can still organize the event with the help of just one other organizer and a small crew of volunteers. That’s kind of perfect to me.

“I actually really hope that in five years’ time, Train Jam is exactly as it is now, just more refined.”

MMB: What does the average day look like for Adriel Wallick? When do you actually get a chance to play the next big release?
AW: Hahaha. As a freelancer who is working on three different game projects (all indie games), who plans a major annual game development event, and also travels a lot, there’s no real “typical” day. On those rare occasions that I’m able to settle into a routine, of sorts, it’s really no different from someone who goes to an office all day. Once I’m done with work I can kick back and play whatever game I’m playing through at the moment. Which, to be honest, is usually just Destiny. However, there are periods of time where I’m speaking at games events, or travelling, or just wrapped up in what I’m working on that I either don’t have access to my console, or just don’t have the brain power to sit down and save the universe. In that case, I just wait until I can.
MMB: Do you think it’s ironic that you work in game development, but have to search for the time to play games?
AW: A little! I actually think it’s a good reminder to find a better work-life balance. I should have more time to play games, and that I don’t is a failing on myself and my time management skills.
MMB: Can you share anything about your upcoming projects? Anything to get excited about?
AW: Most of the things I’m working on are unannounced indie games. I wish I could talk more about them, but I can’t! But, I am excited about all of them.

The State of the Industry

tj2018
“I think it would be almost impossible to have something like Train Jam before laptops. . . .before the level of knowledge-sharing that we have now.”

MMB: The industry is changing rapidly. Fortnite has disrupted the shooter-space and loot-boxes have disrupted everything else. As a game developer, what is your opinion on these emergent trends?
AW: Game development is a relatively new industry compared to other forms of entertainment. That, combined with the fact that games are also growing in popularity at such an incredible rate, means that everything has to change rapidly right now. The games industry is still finding its footing, still dealing with huge technological advances, and still figuring out what it can be. It’s interesting to watch these trends change so fast, and it’s terrifying as a developer, because the “stuff” that works for a game right now will probably be completely different from what works for a game in six months.
MMB: Considering the industry’s growing pains and all the noise about evolving technology or trends, Train Jam must seem even more like an escape – a back-to-basics event. Do you find that to be the case, or find it necessary to help tap into the passion that drew you to the industry in the first place?
AW: I never really thought about Train Jam like that, but there’s an aspect to it where we just get down to our basic knowledge and tools, and simply make games. However, it’s that growing accessibility of game development tools that make things like Train Jam possible. I think it would be almost impossible to have something like Train Jam before laptops, before free versions of game engines, before the ability to make builds at the press of a button, and before the level of knowledge-sharing that we have now.

Looking Forward

TrainJam 2014
“The majority of gamers and developers are happy to see diverse representation in media…”

MMB: The gaming industry didn’t have much of a “Me Too” movement. Rather, it had the “Gamergate” period, which was simultaneously a call for more representation in gaming and a significant backlash to it. Comments on Anita Sarkeesian and internet trolls aside, do you think representation is improving? Do you think it starts at the indie level (e.g. Gone Home) before it reaches the AAA – The Last of Us Part II kiss – level?
AW: Though we, as an industry, still have a long, LONG way to go, you can see small improvements everywhere. As there’s been a huge push for more accessible development tools, it’s now easier than ever for games to be made by folks from different backgrounds, countries, viewpoints, sexualities, etc.; which leads to more perspectives in games, more varied stories, and more opportunities to build empathy between people from different backgrounds. Because of this, and because of the push to actually talk about these topics, developers have also gotten more sensitive to the types of games they create, the people that they portray as the protagonist (or antagonist), the language they use, and the views they perpetuate. It’s been interesting to watch these changes slowly take hold.
MMB: It’s heartening to see that your outlook is optimistic about gaming’s future. Obviously, if Twitter and YouTube are to be believed, there’s a vocal backlash to what some view as “the politicization” of gaming. Do you feel this negative perception, and the reluctance associated with it, will change as our collective understanding of “normal” changes?
AW: The backlash that happens is awful, but in my optimistic view, it feels like the death-cries of an outdated way of looking at things. One that will hopefully be obsolete soon. It’s people who are resistant to change, people who are resistant to no longer being 100% catered to in every aspect, and greedy people who feel entitled to an entire industry. The majority of gamers and developers are happy to see diverse representation in media, are welcoming of new viewpoints, and are excited at the number of different games that we see now.

Honestly, who wouldn’t be excited to see a bunch of new and original ideas?


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Who, indeed. With people like her leading the charge, the future of gaming is very much worth feeling optimistic about.

My many thanks to Adriel for taking the time to answer my questions during her incredibly busy schedule. It was a pleasure.

Please, follow her on Twitter to stay updated on all things Train Jam, or just to follow the adventures of an independent, freelance game developer. Also be sure to check out the official Train Jam website for more information.

The next Train Jam will take place March 14 – 16, 2019.

As for you, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this, or that you learned something. There’s plenty more to come.

Until next time.

REVIEW: ‘Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads’

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads

Screenshot_20180927-130646_YouTube

Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment; Published by Square Enix; Rated Mature; Released September 26, 2018; Available on PS4, XB1, Windows PC; Reviewed on Xbox One X


Three long years and one prequel later, developer DONTNOD is back with the long-awaited sequel season to 2015’s award-winning Life is Strange. Back is the teenaged angst, the hand-painted textures, the American Pacific Northwest, and the feels – dear god, the feels.

The first season of Life is Strange pushed boundaries, strengthened the case for queer narratives in games, and chose to highlight issues unique to the teenaged experience – all while operating within the framework of a supernatural sci-fi murder-mystery. It had a lot going for it based on its premise alone. As that season progressed, however, the narrative shifted from the murder-mystery in order to better develop the central relationship between heroines Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Develop it did, and I promise I’ll be reviewing that very, very special first season in due time.

For now, however, let’s see if DONTNOD have managed to follow-up on one of this generation’s most surprising hits.


Narrative

Screenshot_20180927-130434_YouTube

Life is Strange 2 starts without much fanfare, or music in general. A soft Syd Matters melody plays-in our protagonist, Sean Diaz, and the differences between seasons one and two of this series begin immediately. It’s no secret that DONTNOD sought to leave Arcadia Bay, the setting of season one, behind in favor of a radically different approach.

Sean Diaz is no Max Caulfield. For starters, Sean is the son of a mexican immigrant, lives in Seattle, runs for the track team, has a job, plenty of friends, and a nine-year-old brother, Daniel.

Screenshot_20180927-130456_YouTube.jpg

We don’t get to see his school, any of his teachers, and only get a vague idea of his classmates – aside from his best friend Lyla. And, like the first Life is Strange, the majority of the subtext within the game is found with selectable notes strewn about the many environments. Aside from those brief interactions, our narrative revolves almost entirely around Sean for the first half-hour to an hour (depending on how thoroughly you explore.)

No premonitions of deadly storms, or anything quite as iconic as Max walking through Blackwell Academy with “To All of You” by Syd Matters in her ears. All Sean has to do is prepare for a party at his friend’s cabin. Simple enough. Talk to your father, Estaban, talk to Daniel, cram some party-favors in your backback from around your house, and you’re good to go.

We are then thrust into our supernatural road-trip narrative. In an emotional scene, especially if you took the time to interact with your family before progressing, sixteen-year-old Sean and nine-year-old Daniel are thrust from their home and must flee south toward Mexico (from Seattle, Washington, no less.) Here, the politics of Life is Strange 2 rear their head, and do so occasionally to mixed results. At the onset, thankfully, the result is strikingly effective.

Screenshot_20180927-130320_YouTube

One can commend DONTNOD for their willingness to approach issues such as immigration, racism, and police-violence so earnestly, but one hang-up I had – a carryover from the first season – is that the dialogue can at times suggest the reading of an informational pamphlet on the dangers of racism, and an adult-slanted understanding of how teenagers discuss the use of marijuana or alcohol. This isn’t much of a complaint, because where DONTNOD excels is in the writing of their characters.

And that’s an important strength to have considering the plot of episode 1, aptly titled “Roads.” This is Sean and Daniel’s story. They aren’t trying to save the world or find missing friends, or really even explain how Daniel has the ability to move objects with his mind – they’re in full self-preservation mode.

It’s a timely story, yes, one that I enjoyed immensely, but I need you, dear reader, to understand that the following statement may seem paradoxical. The narrative here in episode one is hours long if you decide to explore its every nook and cranny, find every hidden collectible or truly ponder the decisions you’re presented with. It’s an incredibly slow start, devoid of much lisenced music, an ecosystem of recurring characters, or the unwinding layers of complicated interpersonal relationships set against supernatural intrigue. No, this feels very long, frustratingly slow to develop, and damn it – it’s better because of it.

I’ll explain.

Screenshot_20180927-130424_YouTube

This is clearly the start of something much larger, a road trip of epic proportions down to Mexico. If anything, episode one needed to present a state of normalcy before thrusting us into chaos and uncertainty. As well as adequately foreshadow the creator’s intended brand of politics. Oh yes, those politics. And, more importantly, to develop the bond between Sean and Daniel. And oh, buddy did they succeed there.

Sean is prideful, but sensitive to the needs of his younger brother – beyond Daniel’s nine-year-old impulsiveness. Sean can comprehend the racism he encounters, the otherness latched onto him by others – portrayed wonderfully in a scene where he is asked to justify his presence in a store, to prove his innocence in the face of assumed guilt.

And Daniel is, well, awesome possum. He’s everything he needs to be: an adorable foil to our playable character, but sympathetic and uniquely complex enough to sustain a compelling narrative. He has superpowers, an affinity for wolves and other animals, and loves chocolate bars. Love him already.

Screenshot_20180927-130255_YouTube

Without taking time to truly display the bond between the brothers, and bond them to us, the audience, the beginning of this new season wouldn’t feel anywhere near as sturdy.

Considering that it ends in a motel, far away from where it starts, it’s obvious that DONTNOD has plenty more up their sleeve. We’re going to cover a lot of ground over these five episodes. Let’s get excited for it.


Gameplay

Screenshot_20180927-130214_YouTube

As for the gameplay, it hasn’t changed much from the original. Meander through environments to find the answers to easily accomplished puzzles. Check your cell-phone to read texts from your friends and family. Find hidden notes and flesh out the back-story.

Narrative comes first here, and with it, plenty of complicated decisions.

Whereas the original Life is Strange had characters’ lives hanging in the balance with every decision, here it has more to do with how your actions reflect on your impressionable young brother, Daniel. He absorbs your behavior and reacts accordingly. The balance between immediate survival and the long-term consequences of your actions weigh heavily as you progress down the open road. What do you say to hide the fact you are wanted for questioning by police? How do you conceal the death of your father to Daniel? How do you gather adequate supplies with only a meager sum of money? These are the things you must consider while progressing through the narrative.

It’s an interesting, more immediate motivation when compared to season one.

One element missing in Life is Strange 2 is the ability to manipulate time. Your decisions here are permanent, unless you feel like loading a previous save or beginning a new playthrough. We won’t know how our decisions play out until the end. The flip-side to that is how it removes a sense of agency from the player. It’s an easy sin to forgive, as Sean doesn’t have much agency within the context of the narrative.

Screenshot_20180927-130509_YouTube

There’s a bit too much walking, a bit too much sitting, a bit too much exposition, and a bit too little variation to the environments or the set-pieces – there’s one stand-out kidnapping sequence that’s worth not spoiling.

Honestly, seeing as the gameplay and narrative are so inherently linked, the greatest achievement of this first episode is placing the player in the shoes of an immigrant’s son. He doesn’t look like the predominantly white, rural northwesterners. It’s as overt as it comes, but I won’t be the white guy that argues to which degree racism is prevalent in the lives of minorities. It’s not my place, nor my inclination, but in Life is Strange 2 it’s difficult to look away from the systemic issues in the United States that would lead someone to accuse a young man of color of shoplifting, without proof; or for some of us to beg the necessity of a wall along the southern border.

Screenshot_20180927-130621_YouTube

Life is Strange 2 doesn’t touch lightly on these subjects, as I’ve stated, but demanding that it should is insulting to the type of injustices on display. This isn’t a carbon-print of reality, here. Only a response to it.

And it works as well as it can.


Presentation

Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 (2).png

Perhaps the most noticeable change between Life is Strange and its sequel are the graphics. It isn’t as striking at first, while you’re walking around the Diaz household or stepping off the school bus, but once the environment opens up into the forest of the Pacific Northwest? Holy shit. The assets on display is fantastic. The environments are lush with foliage and moving parts. Lighting is equally impressive, with god-rays flitting through swaying branches and glistening off of slow-moving water. It’s wonderfully serene.

Also, and I can’t overstate this, the character models look like actual people. Remember, all the textures in-game are hand-painted before being scanned in to the game-engine, so the fact that Daniel has a slight coloration under his eyes, in-keeping with his age and complexion, represents an astonishing attention to detail. Light plays off the angles of our characters’ faces and, holy crap, the lips are synced to the dialogue. What a time to be alive.

Screenshot_20180927-130542_YouTube.jpg

If you have the opportunity to play this on a 4k screen, using either the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, you’ll enjoy a sharp presentation and near-consistent 60fps performance through and through. Truly the way it was meant to be played.

Sound is also phenomenal. Wind pushes through creaking trees, water babbles along a rocky shore, and voice-work is full of all the “uh’s” and “um’s” for increased verisimilitude. Everything here is convincingly realised. Whether it be papers strewn across a desk, trash spilling from a dumpster, or markings on trees and bathroom walls, it’s all in service of creating a world that feels lived in, real, and worth exploring.


Verdict

Screenshot_20180927-130232_YouTube

Considering the lethargic, but cathartic pacing, sleeve-worn ideology, the bewildering attention to environmental detail, the beautiful presentation, and rock-solid character work, it’s hard not to consider this a flawed, but wonderful introduction to the next story in the Life is Strange universe.

I’m excited, optimistic, and totally invested. Just like the first time around. I will not, however, allow my enthusiasm to overlook what I perceive as flaws: some rough dialogue, pacing, and a lack of licensed music characteristic to the series.

Bonus points for the Arcadia Bay cameo, though.

3.75/5 – Well above average, but not without flaws. Fully recommend buying.

You can purchase Life is Strange 2 as a bundle on the Playstation Store, Microsoft Store, or from the Square Enix store for $39.99 USD.

Stay tuned for the review of every episode, and follow along on social media here and here.

Until next time.