Noah Howell

111 POSTS 2 COMMENTS
Noah Howell is the Arts & Entertainment Assistant Editor for Niner Times. He is currently majoring in Computer Science with a minor in Journalism. He is a fan of all things "Star Wars" and "The Muppets," and spends his free-time playing too many video games and watching the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Making an Impact

Elissa Miller

If I’ve spoken to you in the past two years, there is a 99% chance I have mentioned the television show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” to you. It tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, an unfulfilled attorney in New York City who happens to run into her first boyfriend on the street. She subsequently quits her job and moves to the suburban mecca of West Covina, CA in an attempt to win his heart. However, that doesn’t even begin to grasp the emotional depth and skill behind this masterpiece of television. I’ve completely fallen in love with it and was nervous to see how it would pull off its fourth — and final — season this year. Operating at such a high level and finding a satisfying conclusion can be hard.

Image courtesy of The CW

However, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” completely nailed it. Its final season was just as funny, heartfelt, musically-gifted and special as before. Its final two episodes left me utterly speechless. Over the course of four seasons, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” tackled a number of story-lines and themes, from coming out to abortion to mental illness to women’s sexuality. All were treated with incredible empathy and respect. I’ve never seen a show that featured a character coming out as bisexual in the form of a massive song and dance number. I’ve never seen a show that focused, essentially, on the main character’s journey to loving herself and overcoming mental illness (especially one that told her “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal”). I’ve never seen a show that was so obviously created by (and understanding of) women. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” also truly nailed the concept of character growth. The show built a city and a cast that I completely cared about; it gave even the smallest of characters a personality and a story-line (and often, a song as well).

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was a unique, special and innovative show. I feel lucky to have even been able to witness it. I’ll miss you, Rebecca Bunch. I hope you’re thriving out there.

Image courtesy of Nintendo

Noah Howell

Since its full reveal at E3 in 2018, “Super Smash Bros Ultimate” was at the forefront of my hype up until its release in December. Despite releasing at the halfway mark of the school year, much of my first semester was spent speculating over who would be added as newcomers which made me keep up with the Nintendo Directs that showed off all the new stuff coming. “Smash” is a culmination of some of gaming’s biggest and longest running franchises, and not just Nintendo’s either. The game is great both as a party game with friends and as a title to be competitive in. Through my classes in computer science and at some of the school’s tournaments and meet-ups, I have met a lot of cool people through “Smash” as well. Even as I dove deep into the competitive scene at UNC Charlotte with some intense singles tournaments, I am continually reminded each time I’m hanging out with friends that “Smash” is at its best when simply played as a group.

Image courtesy of BANDAI NAMCO

Aaron Febre

As a long time fan of the “Tales of” series, I was looking forward to buying this new remaster of “Tales of Vesperia.” I finally got around to buying it during Spring Break and I was glad I played it this semester. Playing this game was a reminder of an amazing time period of JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) in the 2000s. This was the same era of games such as “Tales of the Abyss,” “Kingdom Hearts II,” and “Persona 4.” Yuri Lowell is one of the best protagonists in the series. His snide yet caring personality was relatable that complemented an amazing cast. Combined with a solid story, a great combat system and the iconic art style from Kōsuke Fujishima‎, “Tales of Vesperia” has quickly become one of my favorite video games of all time.

Image courtesy of Heist or Hit Records

Tyler Trudeau

While I could’ve just as easily put something like “Avengers: Endgame” as one of the most impactful things I witnessed this semester (as it surely was), the first thing that came to mind was the band “Her’s”. With the Liverpool-based pop duo of Stephen Fitzpatrick and Audun Laading first piquing my interest last year when I stumbled upon their vibrant 2016 singles, “Marcel” and “What Once Was,” I was introduced to yet another phenomenally dreamy pop group to follow along. It was in March of this year unfortunately that the duo’s musical talents were cut short, as both Fitzpatrick and Laading, as well as tour manager, Trevor Engelbrektson, were killed in a head-on traffic collision in Arizona. With their sudden deaths, I was encouraged to turn my ear to their music again. As their 2018 sophomore album “Invitation to Her’s” perfectly encapsulated the duo’s love for peculiar, sardonic lyricism and off-kilter craftsmanship, Her’s represents yet another budding talent taken from this world much too soon. Some of my favorite tracks include “Harvey,” “Breathing Easy” and “Speed Racer.”

Arik Miguel

Image courtesy of Warp Records

Every once in a while, some piece of media will come along that stops me in my tracks and forces me to reassess my understanding of music or cinema. Yves Tumor’s 2018 release, “Safe in the Hands of Love,” is a series of experimental songs that are fluid but at the same time incredibly abrasive. These songs are tied together by elegantly crafted threads, but at the same time, these songs are often decorated with ugliness. The first time I listened to this album I was left gasping for air, I had never heard anything like this before. All of my preconceptions about music were ripped to shreds, doused in gasoline, and set aflame. Thematically, the album deals with the concept of freedom, but it is the albums freedom from music norms that has brought me back to it again and again, and changed my understanding of what music can and should be.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Jeffrey Kopp

The zombie genre is nothing new. There have been countless takes on the un-dead over the years, but people are still fascinated and moved by the dead rising and taking over the world. Back in January, Netflix released “Kingdom,” a zombie outbreak story set in Korea during the Joseon dynasty. As someone who loves history, politics and zombies, this was right up my fit and quickly became my favorite discovery of the year. It is terrifying, gripping and emotionally powerful, and is definitely worth a binge.

SPEECH: Chancellor Dubois speaks at vigil

Chancellor Phillip Dubois spoke at the UNC Charlotte vigil on Wednesday, May 1 that united the campus community after a shooting on campus Tuesday, April 30 left two dead and four injured.

Below is a full transcript of Dubois’ speech.

“Thank you all for being here, for organizing our gathering this evening and for being the compassionate and caring Niner Nation that you are. I’m proud to be your chancellor. Let me acknowledge the presence of Congressman Adams, Governor Cooper, Mayor Lyles, Chancellor Jim Woodward and many other elected and state and local officials and community leaders from Charlotte. Thank you for being here.

Yesterday’s violence and the loss of Riley and Reed cuts to our core as a university community. We’re heartsick to believe that anyone would act with such complete disregard for human life, and we hope beyond hope for the full recovery of Drew, Sean, Emily and Rami. I can tell you that I was able to visit with Drew, Emily and Rami in the hospital today, surrounded by their family and friends. They are doing okay. As is Sean, I am told, who did not require hospitalization. The students that we lost, Riley and Reed, and those who were injured are all so young, like many of you. With dreams and aspirations and a purpose in their lives.

As parents ourselves, Lisa and I grieve for the senseless loss of young life and share in the anguish of their parents, their families and you, their friends. We can’t bring them back. But with your help, we will find a way to remember their presence as 49ers. These next days, weeks and months will test our collective strength, but as I said yesterday, we have no course but to hold up each other, to work through this together and to reaffirm our 49er purpose.

UNC Charlotte cannot be and will not be defined by this tragedy. We must be defined by how we respond to it. Our focus will be on those we lost, those who were hurt and the countless others who were spared by the quick action of our police officers and first responders. As the facts emerge about what actually happened in Kennedy 236, we may learn of additional acts of heroism by Riley and perhaps by others that saved more lives. With that, let’s stay Charlotte Strong. The days ahead will be difficult, but we will emerge from them. We will not emerge unchanged, but we will emerge united and stronger. Go Niners.”

TV REVIEW: ‘Star Wars Resistance’ – ‘Descent’ & ‘No Escape’

Warning: Spoilers for all of season one of “Star Wars Resistance” follow.

It is hard to believe that we are now at the end of season one of “Star Wars Resistance,” as it seems we were just given the teaser for the series itself not long ago. “Descent” is an excellent primer for the finale, “No Escape,” which itself delivers a solid conclusion. With the First Order’s reign on the Colossus in full effect and Kaz (Christopher Sean) and company cornered with nowhere to run, the stakes are high — as they should be for a season finale.

“Descent”

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

The episode begins right where the last left off, with Kaz and the Fireball crew at gunpoint by Commander Pyre (Liam McIntyre) and his troops. With a distraction by Bucket — which grimly gets the astromech shot and is sent barreling off the edge of the hangar into the ocean — Kaz, Yeager (Scott Lawrence) and Neeku (Josh Brener) are able to escape while Tam (Suzie McGrath) stays behind, certain that it was all just a misunderstanding. Tam explains to Pyre that she has no idea about her friends being associated with the Resistance, and agrees to help her bring them in “safely.” Meanwhile, Kaz, Yeager and Neeku are found by Kel (Antony Del Rio) and Eila (Nikki SooHoo), who bring the group to safety with the Chelidae (shell folk). There, Bucket is also shown to have been fished up and repaired by the shell folk, which is a very pleasant surprise. The group then formulates a plan to contact the Resistance for help and rescue Tam.

While Kaz works on his plan, Tam is interrogated by a new character from the First Order, Agent Tierny (Sumalee Montano). Tierny reveals to Tam that Kaz and Yeager are in fact spies (which isn’t necessarily true for Yeager) for the Resistance. Of course, without them there to defend their reasoning, Tam becomes resentful towards the two, though still shows a clear concern for their safety.

On the other side, Kaz and Yeager begin an operation that submerges most of the Colossus underwater and then move on to the tower to override the First Order’s communications jammer to contact General Organa (Carolyn Hennesy). The two are able to do so, but not without the First Order catching wind of the operation. The First Order again corners the two, with Yeager pushing Kaz into the water and remaining to buy him time to escape. I honestly thought that perhaps they would actually kill Yeager here as sort of the “Star Wars” tradition of the mentor figure dying (Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Han Solo), but thankfully for Yeager he is simply taken hostage. Overall, like many episodes this season, I think “Descent” does a nice job at setting up its successor. Agent Tierny is also a well-performed and interesting addition to the mix, and her attempts to persuade Tam to the First Order is a cool twist on things as well. There is also the fact that Synara (Nazneen Contractor) and her pirate compatriots pick up on Kaz’s message to the Resistance, which leaves obvious implications for the finale.

“No Escape”

The finale for season one, “No Escape,” finds Kaz and his remaining friends in a very rough place. The episode begins with Pyre arresting Captain Doza (Jason Hightower), but not before we get to see his seemingly peaceful robot servant switch into kill-mode and take out a few troopers before being stopped by Pyre. Doza is thrown into a cell with Yeager, which pushes Kaz to act fast. The young spy also gets a response from General Organa, who says that the Resistance’s resources are spread too thin at the moment (bearing in mind that we are currently in “The Force Awakens” timeline at this point) and they won’t be able to send help. She does, however, say that if they can get off-world, to meet at the base on D’Qar.

Kaz links up with Torra (Myrna Velasco) and leaves Neeku, Kel and Eila behind to cover the Colossus’ control terminal. While Kaz, Torra and CB-23 make their move to break out Yeager and Doza, another First Order ball-droid comes in, resulting in a duel between it and CB-23. I can’t help but miss BB-8 at this moment, but the fight is both cute and fierce and is a well-done sequence overall. Close to their goal, Kaz and Torra stop when a transmission is cast to a squad of nearby stormtroopers. The transmission is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and it is the speech he gives right before Starkiller Base fires and destroys multiple planets, including Hosnian Prime. The speech is ripped straight from the film, which is fine because Gleeson’s performance in that is phenomenal. Minus some awkward animation on his model, the scene is just as chilling as it is in “The Force Awakens,” if not more so. Since Hosnian Prime is home to the Senate, and Kaz’s father is a Senator, he puts two-and-two together pretty quickly. Christopher Sean does a great job at conveying Kaz’s extreme sadness here, and it as a scene adds much more weight to Starkiller Base firing in “TFA.” Rather than just simply seeing some planets blow up which we have no attachment to, this will give the scene much more impact on future rewatches.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

Kaz and Torra take this terrible event and use it to push themselves even harder. The two are able to rescue Yeager and Captain Doza, and they soon move on to flush out (quite literally) the rest of the First Order and escape their grasp. With the discovery that the Colossus is actually a space station, the plan becomes getting the stormtroopers off the platform and getting the station into the air. What shocked me most was their sort of dark method of taking the troopers out, by locking them into a hallway and opening the airlock to send them into the deep sea. We see some shots of the stormtroopers struggle in the water, and if that wasn’t worse, some of them are snatched up in the mouths of some fish. Now I am obviously fully on board with taking them out, but honestly, what a terrifying way to go. I wasn’t expecting the show to get that dark, but I like it.

The episode ultimately leads to Kaz, Yeager and Torra confronting Pyre, Agent Tierny and their captive, Tam. When Neeku launches the Colossus out of the sea and into the air, chaos ensues, with the First Order foes making their escape. Tam is faced with the choice of leaving with them or staying behind with her friends (that she now sees as liars), and ends up choosing a new life with Tierny. Now, Tam was a solid character but not my favorite of the bunch, so I am looking forward to how this critical choice can make her character more compelling. Soon after, a Star Destroyer arrives to intercept their escape, which leads to Kaz, Yeager and the Aces taking to the sky.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

The show centers around fast ships and dogfights, so this climax is very fitting. I was really expecting that giant sea creature from the mid-season mark to show up and help fight, but we get something even better with the return of Hype Fazon (Donald Faison) piloting a ship with Aunt Z (Tovah Feldshuh) operating the gunner seat in the back. Synara’s crew of pirates also arrive in time to help, making the fight even grander. The whole battle is really well done, and it is awesome to see Kaz where he thrives in the air again. He saves Yeager by even taking out Major Vonreg (Lex Lang), putting an end to at least one of the season’s antagonists.

Once the Colossus is able to make its escape into hyperspace, Neeku reveals that because of the need for quickness, he was unable to input the coordinates of D’Qar in time. This makes sense, as given our confirmed timeline via Hux’s speech, there is no giant space station hanging around there at the end of “TFA” or the start of “The Last Jedi.” This leaves a compelling mystery to ponder until season two on where they will actually end up. Overall the finale does a nice job of wrapping things up and still leaving room to debate what will happen next with their mystery destination, Tam’s choice for the First Order and the close proximation to “Episode IX” now.

I have been following “Star Wars” animation since it really kicked off with “The Clone Wars” film in 2008, and I can honestly say that “Star Wars Resistance” has had the best season one yet compared to “TCW” and “Rebels.” It quickly established its core set of characters and gave us a number of glances at the galaxy we hadn’t yet seen. Kaz has his goofy moments, but overall I find him to be a great lead and one that has a lot of room to grow. This series presents a nice change of pace by going without seeing a lightsaber or the Force, setting it apart immediately from the rest of the saga. I think the series’ biggest strength is its art style though, which I have reiterated throughout my reviews this season. The color palette is expansive, and the animation definitely makes use of it with beautiful shots throughout. Among my wishes for season two is more Synara, a bit more mature themes, more of the Aces and further incorporation of the film characters like Poe and Phasma (also bring back BB-8). There are a number of things to think about before the series returns in the Fall but I will only have a simple, important question on my mind: did Opeepit the janitor get his floor sweeper back?

Gaming Roundup: March 2019

“Tom Clancy’s The Division 2” – March 15 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Image courtesy of Ubisoft

Ubisoft’s sequel to their take on the looter shooter genre, “The Division 2,” moves the series from New York City to the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. It is set at a point in U.S. history where the country is in chaos over a widespread disease, though thankfully the government has sleeper agents across the nation to counteract the terror. Similar to games like “Destiny,” the game sees players through cooperative missions in which they continuously level up and acquire new loot, like weapons and armor, that further fuel their progression. It is just about the closest manifestation in games to the phrase “carrot on a stick,” and I, having played a lot of the original “Destiny” and the beginning of the first “The Division,” can certainly understand the appeal. There is a satisfaction to getting new loot and simply seeing some arbitrary armor number increase and the reward that is felt to go along with that. Ubisoft has made it apparent that content for the game will continuously come after its launch and be free for the first year, starting with a leg-up on Bungie’s “Destiny 2.” While I don’t think it is something I would be interested in heavily investing time into, it is apparent that fans of the genre should at least give the game a look.

“Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” – March 22 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Image courtesy of FromSoftware

One of the games I have been looking forward to the most since its unveiling at Microsoft’s E3 conference last year is “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.” It is the latest game to come from the cruel minds at FromSoftware. Being the studio behind the “Dark Souls” series and “Bloodborne” (my personal favorite of the two), it can immediately be expected that this game will be no walk in the park. Known for the unchangeable difficulty in most of their major releases, FromSoftware is expert at creating games that kick your butt over and over again, only to further that satisfaction and triumph gained from getting past a certain area or boss. They are why you see the phrase uttered so often online, “the Dark Souls of platformers/shooters/racing/etc.” for when any game has any sort of high difficulty. With “Dark Souls” in a sort of medieval era and “Bloodborne” in a weird, Victorian England crossed with Lovecraftian and celestial horror setting, “Sekiro” takes the series on to a sort of Sengoku Japan-inspired land and architecture.

One immediate difference with “Sekiro” is that the game places you as a set protagonist rather than your own custom character. While it seems to take inspiration in “Bloodborne’s” faster-paced gameplay, “Sekiro” focuses in on sword-play and a blocking mechanic, which affects the balance of both you and your enemies. There is also a new grappling hook to traverse around the game, which looks like a lot of fun and is big in opening up the typical gameplay expected in a FromSoftware title, especially in the stealth department. While I am still in the process of beating “Bloodborne” myself after owning it for over three years — simply because of my lack of skill — “Sekiro” is next on my list to torture myself with, as I am sure many other fans of FromSoftware are as well. Knowing the fanbase, I also cannot wait to see some maniac beat the game a week after it comes out, probably blindfolded while only using the bongos from “Donkey Konga,” thus making me feel like an inanimate sack of potatoes in comparison.

“MLB The Show 19” – March 26 for PS4

Image courtesy of SIE San Diego Studio

The first major sports game of 2019, “MLB The Show 19” brings some interesting additions to this year’s title. The first of these being the new moments mode, which places you in key historical moments from throughout baseball, to see if you can replicate or even change history in these scenarios. I really enjoyed a mode similar to this in one of the past “NBA Live” games, so it is a shame that other sports games aren’t doing something similar, at least in the style of these two. The studio is also boasting the addition of new legends to the game, of which is their largest amount yet with over 30 coming to the game this year. As more of an NBA fan, I don’t watch a lick of baseball but much like “Fifa,” I have had a lot of fun playing “MLB The Show” in the past, particularly in the game’s career mode. It is still a crazy reminder each year the game comes out that it is a Sony exclusive, and the only real baseball simulation game you can play is locked on one console, unlike basketball, football and soccer.

“The Walking Dead: The Final Season” Episode Four – March 26 for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC

The end arrives at last, and it is the episode that I have been most looking forward to and dreading all at once since “The Final Season” was announced. The season has been handled fantastically so far, so whatever the ending may be for Clementine, I am sure it will be a great one. If you have been skeptical about trying the season after the whole Telltale fiasco, I urge you to catch up while you still can. This season has been the closest one yet to season one’s level of excellence, and quite frankly, it even exceeds it in a few places. “The Walking Dead” is one of the best representations of what games can offer in terms of storytelling influenced by users’ choices, and I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up.

“Star Wars Battlefront 2” Game Update – March 26 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC

Image courtesy of EA DICE

“Star Wars Battlefront 2” has come a long way since its rough launch in 2017, bringing along consistent updates to the game that have added and improved upon existing modes. The team at DICE has done a solid job at adding in things requested heavily by the community such as clone customization, a map based in Geonosis and some noticeably absent figures from the saga with General Grievous, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Count Dooku and finally, Anakin Skywalker. There have also been some surprise additions like the Ewok Hunt mode, where players make a stand in a pitch-dark forest on the moon of Endor as stormtroopers against Ewoks, which is a load of fun (and terrifying as a stormtrooper) and a mode I hope gets expanded upon with more species and locations in the future. This next update adds a large-scale and open game mode, which is a first compared to the game’s linear-focused objectives in its current suite of modes. Best of all, they are also bringing in Count Dooku’s pajamas as a skin to wear in game, which should be recognizable to fans of “The Clone Wars.” Simply put, if you are a fan of any aspect of “Star Wars” and were turned off by the game’s rocky launch, then the numerous improvements and additions fully merit a purchase, especially when you can find the game for less than eight dollars when on-sale.

“Yoshi’s Crafted World” – March 29 for Nintendo Switch

Image courtesy of Nintendo

The next semi-big exclusive on the Switch is the adorable “Yoshi’s Crafted World.” As the name suggests, the game puts its art style into an oddly-realistic world with carboard-like crafts adorning the backgrounds. Among the traditional Yoshi platforming gameplay, the levels you complete will then be played again with the camera flipped – essentially showing a whole other side of the level. The game’s unique direction is certainly appreciated, and it looks to be shaping up as a title that will be fun for any age. There is a demo of the game available on the e-shop currently, and it does a good job at getting you used to the game’s mechanics. I have never really given the “Yoshi” games a fair shake, and the single level in the demo was enough to convince me of the game’s fun-but-simple platforming and egg-throwing gameplay, as well as how great its charming art style and music blend together. While I am still scarred from my encounters with sadistic Yoshi players in “Smash Ultimate” online play, this is definitely a title to keep an eye on for Switch owners this month.

TV REVIEW: ‘Star Wars Resistance’ – Late Season Catch-Up

Warning: Spoilers for “The Doza Dilemma,” “The First Order Occupation,” “The New Trooper,” “The Core Problem,” “The Disappeared,” and prior episodes of “Star Wars Resistance” follow.

Seeming to finally be hitting its stride, “Star Wars Resistance” shows off the best that it can be within these five episodes, particularly in “The New Trooper.” Kaz (Christopher Sean) and Synara’s (Nazneen Contractor) friendship along with their parallel lives as spies is a highlight, as it again showcases the show’s strong art style. The teasing of the dynamic between the First Order and Kragan’s (Gary Anthony Williams) pirates finally finds some resolution as well.

“The Doza Dilemma”

As Commander Doza (Jason Hightower) continues to delay in making a deal for protection with Commander Pyre (Liam McIntyre) and the First Order, Pyre orders Kragan to kidnap someone Doza holds dear — who isn’t named initially but is clearly Torra (Myrna Velasco) — in order to speed up the process. Kragan sends word to Synara so that she can help smuggle in some pirates to carry out the deed, completely unaware of their intended target.

Soon after, Synara joins Kaz, Tam (Suzie McGrath) and Torra for a day hanging out on the Colossus. The group heads up to Torra’s room in the tower and, despite the two just meeting, Torra shares her access code to get into the tower with Synara so that they can hang out whenever she’s free. This amount of trust obviously has an impact on Synara, giving her further reason not to betray her friends on the Colossus. The four play a hologame involving shooting moving targets and it gives viewers a look at something not often explored in the “Star Wars” galaxy, friends simply hanging out. Most of the franchise finds the characters in some sort of conflict, and this show has a great opportunity as no real war is going on at this point. The phrase “so wizard” is also used by Torra, so I am extremely pleased to see that the slang first used by Kitster in “The Phantom Menace” has survived across all three eras.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

Synara ends up helping her pirate allies get onto the platform, only realizing her mistake once they reveal what their plan is. The resulting kidnapping leads to a fun chase, as Kaz embarks in the Fireball in pursuit of Torra and the two pirates with the Aces taking flight shortly after. We finally get a look at Kragan and his crew’s ship, the Galleon, with a specific shot of it coming out of the fog that looks fantastic. I’m ashamed it took me this long to realize it, but the Quarren pirate captain bears a remarkable resemblance to Davy Jones from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Of course, the Quarren species has been present since the original trilogy, though Kragan is a unique design that hasn’t been seen yet and has an obvious influence.

Once Torra is aboard the Galleon, the First Order arrive to make the exchange for her, but end up double-crossing Kragan and making it appear as though they were her saviors. This later leads to Doza accepting, still reluctantly, the First Order’s offer to prevent future attacks. The move antes up the stakes a bit for Kaz on the Colossus living his double life, as it does for Synara too. There’s also the interesting wrinkle that Kaz saw Synara help the two pirates get into the tower. “The Doza Dilemma” is a solid episode overall, but really serves to propel the next episode into action.

“The First Order Occupation”

With the First Order letting their presence be known on the Colossus, Synara comes into their crosshairs thanks to their search for a pirate spy. As the First Order has blocked anyone from leaving the station, Kaz realizes her trouble and decides to help Synara, despite being well-aware now of her ties to the pirates. This act of kindness is something Synara picks up on, and further drives that stake between her former pirate and new selves.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

The episode essentially spends its entire runtime getting Synara off the Colossus, which isn’t a bad thing as it really allows her character and her friendship with Kaz to be further fleshed out. Neeku (Josh Brener) accompanies Kaz, BB-8 and Synara in their escape attempt, and of course, they end up getting into a number of hijinks, failing at a few attempts before finally getting Synara back to her pirate crew. There are some very funny moments going along with Neeku attempting to lure the stormtroopers away, as well as the custodian Opeepit. The little custodian finally gets his chance to shine, seen mostly only in the foreground of episodes till now, though sadly it results in him getting his floor sweeper confiscated by stormtroopers. This leads to a very awkward elevator ride between Kaz, Synara and the now disgruntled custodian. If there is anything I want more now from this show, it is justice for Opeepit.

While the basis of the episode is simple, the humor in it feels right at home in “Star Wars” and doesn’t detract from the development of the characters. While it’s unclear when Synara and the pirates will return, I am eager to see more of her character. She has been an interesting analog to Kaz and even goes beyond being that role thanks to excellent writing and vocal performance by Nazneen Contractor.

“The New Trooper”

Possibly my favorite episode of the series so far, “The New Trooper” blends together laughs, action, cool character moments and a simply fun adventure-like episode. Returning this episode are the siblings Kel (Antony Del Rio) and Eila (Nikki SooHoo), who accidentally knock out a stormtrooper on patrol and go to Kaz for help. Kaz ends up taking advantage of the opportunity by putting on the armor to find out any info he can from the First Order’s shuttle docked on the Colossus. As clumsy as Kaz can be, he ends up successful in his mission, though his behavior throughout the episode does not go unnoticed. Ordered to have a mindwipe — also referred to as “brainscrape” here which is an even more horrifying term — Kaz runs away, switching the armor back onto the now dazed and confused trooper.

The episode has a lot of fun moments, most of which involve Neeku, Tam and the siblings keeping watch over the knocked-out trooper. Very reminiscent of the time SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs thought they had killed the health inspector, Neeku ends up knocking the trooper out to avoid him breaking out in a humorous fashion. Of course, Kaz has his moments as well, one involving a fight with a First Order BB unit over data stolen from the First Order’s shuttle. He also is saved by Neeku and replies that he’s so happy he could kiss Neeku, which the alien takes literally and politely-but-bluntly declines the offer.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

The start of the episode finds Yeager (Scott Lawrence) and his crew in an interesting discussion on the First Order’s occupation of the station. Tam believes that the stormtroopers mean well and are only there for the station’s protection, which she backs up by talking about how the Empire gave her grandfather a job when the economy was poor and was able to support her family. The galaxy is big, and it is interesting to see this viewpoint explored, especially when it is something commonly thought upon as the Empire — and later First Order — being entirely evil. From other stuff like “Rebels” and some of the books, we know that some Imperial workers/troopers were simply working as a regular military, completely unaware of the catastrophes that were being committed elsewhere in the galaxy by the Emperor’s command. Even Luke Skywalker was originally planning to sign up for the Imperial Flight Academy at the start of “A New Hope.” It is a grey area that I like that the show is willing to explore, and is something the animated series have been good at doing since “The Clone Wars.” Tam hears the story of Kel and Eila’s entire people being wiped out by the First Order though and clearly changes her tune a bit.

This episode tackles some interesting concepts and ones that I hope don’t go away anytime soon. “The New Trooper” is really the best example of what the show can be at this point by furthering the interesting plot with the First Order while leaving time for fun and humor as well. Kaz also did a nice job undercover despite some clumsy failings and I am glad to see he is keeping up this improvement in the latter half of the season. Opeepit is also shown having to use a rag to clean up a puddle in this episode, which is one more crime to add upon the First Order’s villainy.

“The Core Problem”

As the First Order’s occupation continues, Poe (Oscar Isaac) arrives just in time to help Kaz investigate the intel received from the previous episode. Given that Poe returned initially to simply retrieve BB-8 for a secret mission to Jakku, which is where “The Force Awakens” kicks off, I can only assume that this could very well be his last episode in the season. It is a strong episode to leave off for Isaac though as he once again does a solid job at bringing one of the sequel trilogy’s key characters to life.

Both Kaz and Poe leave on their secret mission, which includes a fun escape in order to slip by the First Order’s TIE fighter patrol. The maneuver involves Poe holding onto the outside of the Fireball as Kaz pilots it into the upper atmosphere and then jumps into his own X-wing. Once at the point indicated on the galactic map stolen from the First Order, the two find planets completely decimated, as well as the system’s sun completely gone. The planets appeared hollowed out to varying degrees, and the sun’s disappearance makes it clear this was a testing ground for Starkiller Base. Starkiller requires the entire planet’s core to be hollowed out to allow the power of the sun to fuel it so that it can fire its galaxy-destroying weapon.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

After flying through one planet that had its core perfectly drilled, the two land at a long-abandoned settlement. After some investigation and the discovery of a child’s doll, the two are ambushed by a First Order probe droid. TIE fighters, led by the Major Vonreg (Lex Lang) in his red color scheme, open fire on the two resistance spies, prompting them into their fighters and off into a dogfight. This is another strong example of the show’s ability to handle ship-heavy sequences, and through the creative use of flying through one of the planet’s cores, Poe and Kaz evade the First Order pilots.

This episode is again, one of the heaviest looks into the First Order’s origins and it certainly benefits from it. Kaz also gets to show off his own skills as a pilot where he can actually succeed without displaying his typically clumsy nature. It is going to be sad without BB-8 on the show, but CB-23 — another ball-shaped astromech — seems like an okay replacement. Depending on how deep this show runs into both “The Force Awakens” and subsequently “The Last Jedi,” I am guessing this is the last we will see of the two this season. They were excellent guests in helping to establish the core cast with at least some familiar faces, but I am excited for everyone else to get their time to shine now on their own.

“The Disappeared”

After an action-packed adventure in “The Core Problem,” “The Disappeared” takes a much more grounded-yet-interesting look into the First Order occupation. After the First Order forces Captain Doza to stop all future races, people on the Colossus grow restless. Ace pilot Hype Fazon (Donald Faison) gets taken captive after a run-in and an argument with some stormtroopers over the handling of his ship, as does Aunt Z (Tovah Feldshuh), who protests and essentially tells two stormtroopers to screw off after they attempt to put up enlistment propaganda in her bar. With two’s disappearances obvious, Kaz and Torra begin their search for their friends.

While Kaz and Torra are searching, Aunt Z, Hype and two other Colossus civilians are locked in a container, scheduled to be shipped off-world. The banter here between Aunt Z and Hype here is hilarious and makes me wish we had gotten more of the two in the past few episodes. When Torra demands to know where Hype is to two stormtroopers, they blatantly lie and say he was shipped off-world, which suffices as an answer for Tam. Because of her family history, Tam continues to appreciate the First Order’s “security” brought by their presence on the Colossus. She also continues to show distrust for Kaz as he continues to go missing, often with the Fireball and is constantly backed up by Yeager with no explanation, which I can actually see her side here. I am interested to see whether once she figures out Kaz’s true purpose on the Colossus she’ll turn him into the First Order or back up her friend.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

Once Kaz and Torra track down their missing friends, along with CB-23, they form a plan to break the group out as they are transferred to their ship. The plan goes as smoothly as you can imagine with Kaz in the lead, though thankfully the group is able to overwhelm the small group of stormtroopers, partly because Aunt Z body-slams two of them to the ground. Given that they are known escapees to the First Order, Aunt Z and Hype take off in the shuttle, with the bar-owner saying she knows of a friend on Takodona. This is more than likely Maz Kanata, who has her own castle/bar on the forest planet. Since we’re getting close to the events of “The Force Awakens,” it makes me wonder how close their arrival is to Han, Rey, Finn, BB-8 and Chewie’s in the film.

While I am extremely disappointed we seemingly won’t be getting any more of Aunt Z or Hype (mainly Aunt Z) for the rest of the season, I am glad they got some solid screen time in their send-off. With all five of these episodes, “Star Wars Resistance” has really been hitting its stride as we near the end. As we hit the events of “The Force Awakens,” I am curious to see how much the show will tie-in with the events of the film, and mostly how the destruction of the New Republic will play out, especially since Kaz’s father is a senator on Hosnian Prime. Given that “The Last Jedi” takes place right after “TFA,” we could even see the show extend past the current film chronology into a point that has largely been unexplored in preparation of “Episode IX.” Things are heating up and with only two episodes left (the finale of which is split into two parts across two weeks I believe), I am excited to see how things turn out on the Colossus. You can catch the penultimate episode of season one of “Star Wars Resistance” for yourself when it airs Sunday, March 3 at 10 p.m. on Disney Channel.

GAMING REVIEW: ‘The Walking Dead: The Final Season’ – ‘Broken Toys’

Warning: Major Spoilers for “Broken Toys” and prior episodes of Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” follow.

There was a time in September that I wasn’t really sure I would ever get to write this review. With Telltale Games’ closure, it seemed like Clementine’s story was coming to an abrupt end, and more importantly, the jobs of around 250 employees. Thanks to Skybound Games, though, we are indeed getting not only the conclusion to Clementine’s story, but also (and again, more importantly) a majority of those who were working on “The Final Season” at Telltale were brought in to finish their work. This episode picks up right after the last one. With the school and the remaining kids reeling from the attack, Clementine and AJ are left to interrogate their new hostage Abel.

Using the interrogation scene as the start of the episode is a smart choice, and based on how you decide to get the information out of Abel, it sets the tone for the rest of the episode. With AJ accompanying Clementine, the choices you make have an extra weight thrown upon them in deciding how you want him to see and learn from your choices. It continues the thread of how your choices really are affecting AJ’s own personality as a young, impressionable kid, and the dialogue throughout the episode does reflect this.

James, the former Whisperer, makes his return this episode and is asked by Clementine to help attack Lilly and her raider group’s riverboat to rescue the kidnapped kids. As James is able to blend in with the herd of walkers and maneuver them, his expertise is absolutely needed in their rescue. However, James first makes Clementine walk into his barn of walkers with his mask and gear on to try and prove that they still, in fact, have some semblance of humanity in them. At this point, James — a character I had quite liked since his introduction — had gone off the deep end for me. Clementine does perform the task and there is a touching scene that almost gave me an idea of what he was getting at, but I still believe he is a nut job. After doing it, James asks Clementine whether she agreed with what he was talking about now, and since I thought this was the make-or-break moment for getting him on our side, I agreed. Once Clem and AJ leave, though, AJ asks Clementine if she really believed what James was talking about, and I answered honestly that I thought he was nuts. AJ then takes that as it is okay to lie in certain situations. It was at that moment that I realized how terrible of a role model I set Clem up to be, at least for that whole segment.

Before the big climax of the episode, there are some moments of brevity to be had, the first of which is a party the remaining kids have to lighten up before their rescue attempt. Some of the kids talk to Clem about how they ended up at the boarding school for misfits. Everything is going swimmingly until Willy decides to share his tale which boils down to two words which I will not repeat here. The look on Clementine’s face and the reactions by the others, especially Louis, is priceless. Once the party is over, Clementine and AJ head to bed where Clem begins to dream.

Clem’s dream sequence is one of the best scenes in the entire series. Being back on the train from season one and talking to Lee is already a solid recipe for success. Hearing Dave Fennoy’s voice as Lee brings a level of reassurance and comfort, and to further drive it home, Clem is depicted as her younger, season one self. The setup as Lee being her conscience is awesome, with Clem using her memory of him for guidance and still seeing herself as the scared little girl. The best moment comes after Lee gets up to leave and hugs her with a camera cut transforming young Clem to how she looks in the present. Seeing Lee’s reaction is heartwarming, and its a great symbolism for Clementine as she finally accepts the responsibilities of looking after her own group now and no longer being afraid for the worst. Also hearing Melissa Hutchison’s voice transition from kid Clem to her young adult self is incredible, and again hits you right in the feels with how far she has come. This scene could have easily been to pander for season one nostalgia, but instead, its written beautifully and Lee’s inclusion doesn’t feel hamfisted in at all. It feels necessary for Clem’s growth and sets up the climax terrifically.

The final attack on Lilly’s riverboat to rescue the school kids is a terrific ending all throughout. Who you chose to save in the last episode (Violet or Louis) has a noticeable impact on the episode. I chose to save Louis, so we went in to get out Violet and the others. She doesn’t quite give the warm welcome I was expecting for saving her, and she shows a clear resentment towards Clem for picking Louis over her. I don’t think it actually had any effect on how she treats Clem, but it does make sense as I friend-zoned her in the last episode. I am even more happy I picked Louis now, as not saving him would have meant he gives a warm welcome but has his tongue cut off by Lilly (and also because Violet is incredibly ungrateful).

At the very end of the episode, the final showdown between Clem and Lilly occurs. After some fighting and switches in the hands of who has control over the situation, AJ ends up in a similar position yet again with his gun pointed at Lilly. He looks to Clem for the advice on whether to shoot her or not, and I told him no. This decision pleases James as it was his wishes for AJ not to have to kill another human being at such a young age, though right after this, James gets a knife driven through his head by Lilly. While I think he was a bit on the loony side, at least he got his wishes respected despite how disingenuous I may have been with some of them. Despite how much my hate for Lilly extends from all the way back in season one, letting AJ kill her would only ruin the kid’s moral compass even more (which was confirmed by watching the fallout of the alternate choice afterward which AJ unloads the entire magazine into her). The episode ends with the lower decks of the ship exploding from a homemade bomb Clem and the others planted, leaving the fates of Clem, AJ, Lilly and everyone else up in the air.

I was curious as to how the quality of the series would continue after the shutdown of Telltale, even with most of the original crew working on it, but I am blown away by just how good it is — if not better. The weight of your decisions molding what AJ becomes enhances the story significantly. There are a number of great moments in this episode — some happy, some sad, some funny and some tense — and it just felt like a rollercoaster of emotions. Going into this season, I told myself that if there was ever a decision that involved choosing to sacrifice Clem to save AJ or let him die, I was going to always keep save Clem no matter what. Now, though, I am not so sure. The role reversal of Clem to Lee’s position is well-deserved, and no matter how much I still see her as her season one self, AJ has quickly taken that role over. The next and final episode of Clementine’s story is set to release on March 26, and I am not at all prepared.

48 Hours: An Inside Look at the Global Game Jam

The only sounds in the room are soft conversations and the clicks of fingers on keyboards. Someone is curled up in a sleeping bag by the window, another has their head bent over their desk. At this point, some of the people in the room have been present for almost 36 hours, putting every ounce of effort into designing and creating a unique video game. This is the Global Game Jam at UNC Charlotte, an event created with the goal of allowing developers to learn and work collaboratively to build new games. The catch? They have to build the game in 48 hours. The Global Game Jam, hosted by the student organization Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, took place in Woodward Hall from Jan. 25 – 27.

How does a group design a video game in just two days? Those of us in the Arts and Entertainment section were curious about the answer. To find out, a roving team of five reporters covered the entire Game Jam, hour-by-hour. Read below to learn what the experience was like.

Friday

6 p.m. Noah

Kicking off the event, an intro video on the theme of the Game Jam is shown. This year’s theme: “What home means to you.” A few people from around the globe display their own thoughts on the theme inside the video, and then the event is kicked off. The officers at the front make sure no new people are without a group, and from there everyone splits off into their teams to begin brainstorming ideas for their games.

7 p.m. Noah

The first team I sit down with is Upside Down Bird, a team well-acquainted with the Game Jams already. Benjamin Hamrick and David Dempsey are UNC Charlotte alumni and founded Upside Down Bird. The two have been participating in Game Jams from as early as 2013. The two are programmers along with Matthew Schwiebert. Also on the team is Mike Murray doing level design, Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley as musicians and finally Nick Eldridge who is going to help with brainstorming ideas, food runs, and a number of other needed tasks.

As the team gets into ideas, some of them range from a procrastinating simulator to a smart home escape room, as well as a sibling war game/pillow fort builder. Signature to “Resident Evil” is the safe rooms, the few areas where you are truly safe in the hostile environment and save the game. The team springs off this thought and its relation to home by adding the idea of running one of these rooms where multiple adventurers from different game genres come in to save (The player runs and manages this room).

8 p.m. Noah

Jumping to a new group, Guardian Frontier, the team is well into brainstorming their idea. The entire whiteboard is covered in ideas and extrapolation on them. The plan combines two of their initial ideas of a kid talking to several NPCs and finding out what home means to them. Then each NPC will take you into the gameplay in the form of a flashback, bringing out the story from there. Dillon Zhong works as programmer, designer and project manager. With him is programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

9 p.m. Elissa

In the corner of room 140 is the team Pixelsprite, comprised of four members: Jahdiel Couchman, Charlotte Barrett, Vishal Naik and Stephanie Lam. The first three are taking charge of the coding, while Lam is the artist of the four. Pixelsprite met in the fall semester during their Intro to Game Design and Development class, and have created approximately two games together (though Couchman was not a full member for those games). Their project’s concept is that the player will take on the role of an ant which will seek to find safety and a new “home” after being chased by obstacles, such as a vacuum cleaner.  While coding begins, Lam works on creating the aforementioned ant and vacuum cleaner which are red and pixelated in a classic video-game style.

10 p.m. Elissa

Gaming duo Worst Case Scenario works on their project “Mistep.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Nearby is the duo Mike Dorn and Jonothan Sigman, otherwise known as the team Worst Case Scenario. Dorn is in a state of controlled panic, as his Cdrive was accidentally wiped directly before the event. This means all of his pre-made designs have been completely deleted or corrupted, though the team is confident everything will still turn out fine. The two worked together previously when they were randomly placed in the same group during the Fall 2018 UNC Charlotte Game Jam. This time around though, it is clear the team began to plan out their idea before the event. The current concept is a two-player game that takes place in a single, temple-themed room with pressured tiles. At the start of each round, the players will be allowed to link a trap with a specific tile (though this will be invisible to both players once the round begins). When the round begins, both players will set off in hot pursuit of a treasure, both trying to avoid the traps and reach the treasure in the short time allowed. Whichever player survives, wins. It doesn’t really fit the theme of “home,” but Worst Case Scenario is largely unconcerned. Dorn hastily creates graphics, including the tile floor’s layout and animation for when the tiles are activated.

11 p.m. Elissa

As the Game Jam edges into the later hours of Friday evening, first-time team Game PJammers works diligently on graphic design. Half of the team has left the room to go home and grab some sleep, but Shaquiel Smith and Kristian “Axel” Melendez plan to rest later. They hope the team will operate on a shifting schedule in which at least one team member at a time will be working on the game. Focused on the guiding concept of “What home means to you,” their game will be centered around the idea that “friends and stories are what makes a place home.” One will play as a character who has just moved to a new city and will have the option to travel to a number of different locations, such as work, the gym and the library. They will meet new characters at these locations and attempt to befriend them. If they achieve a certain level of closeness, they will receive a reward from their new friend (i.e. a dumbbell or a book) to fill their new-but-empty apartment. At the moment, the main goal is to have as many friends and rewards as possible before the game ends after seven days. At this point in the evening, a few of the original characters and text bubbles have already been created by team member Naima Karzouz. The fourth member, Martin Gutierrez, worked on making an animated typewriter effect for the game’s text before heading to bed. Melendez will spend the evening creating the various scenes and locations while Smith examines various camera angles and different options for how objects can interact with each other.

Saturday

12 a.m. Elissa

One of the less-conventional team dynamics comes from JEM++, a group that consists of current Vice President Jonathan Keku and alumni Matt Ballard and Eric King. They have worked as a team for the past two Game Jams, typically as a cohesive group. This time though, the personal theme of “home” presents a challenge, and each member is working on a different game prototype. They plan to meet within a couple hours to decide which is the most fun and work as a coordinated team from there. Keku and King are both working on varying versions of a “Snake”-inspired gameplay. Keku’s main character is a person, while King’s is a house. Both versions will have the player travel to try and collect houses and from a “tail.” Running into the tail (as well as off the edge of the map in Keku’s case) will result in a Game Over screen. Keku’s idea extends a bit beyond that, as the end of the game in his version will display the way the main character died, as well as list the significant life moments (such as childhood, entering college or getting a job) represented by each house the player added to their tail. Ballard’s strategy is to try various gameplay mechanics until he finds one he likes, though he is currently running with something inspired by “Excitebike.” Midway through the hour, he changes strategy to try and create a sort-of Shuffleboard but with houses.

1 a.m. Noah

Probably the most passionate team I have come across tonight, team Space Shark is making good progress on their bombastic fighting game. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker take on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice works on the art and Tyler Johnson handles the concept design and music. The group likens their game to a retro-style “Smash Bros.,” in which the focus is knocking characters off the stage rather than your traditional health bar. The roster consists of four characters, including Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. All of these characters feature elaborate backstories on the team’s design document, except their star character Cleetus, whose background simply reads as “Just Cleetus.” I got a peek at Cleetus’ character design, a mountain man who wields a banjo as his weapon of choice. As I sit here writing this, the team debates over whether they should make one of Cleetus’ special moves involve throwing a bottle of moonshine or ramming his enemies with a truck.

Members of Upside Down Bird work on creating their game. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 a.m. Noah

Back with Upside Down Bird, the group has settled on the game idea of driving to “the ultimate destination,” home. The challenge presented in the game is that navigation has to be done by pulling up your map, which completely covers your view of the road. With three musically-inclined individuals on the team, the speed of the car will be dictated by changing the radio to faster and slower tempo songs that will control the speed of the car. The team has a driveable car at the moment, as well as a partly designed map for the car to actually drive on.

3 a.m. Noah 

As the night hours draw on, five of Upside Down Bird remain working on their game for the night. At this point, the team has the car driving on a map featuring roads, trees, mountains and other obstacles. The team works on getting the wheel to actually turn, adding hands for the players to see on the wheel, ironing out the kinks in the car’s physics and adding other details on the map, such as a waterfall. It is incredible to see them start off brainstorming their title, and then to come back about 8 hours later and see them have a somewhat playable game already. As the hour draws to a close, the remainder of the team heads home to get some semblance of sleep to be ready to work tomorrow (or today).

4 a.m. Noah

Most of those who remain in these wee hours of the night are either continuing work or getting what sleep they can in sleeping bags on the floor.

5 a.m. Noah

For a majority of this hour, everyone was asleep (or at least trying to).

6 a.m. Noah

The sleep continues…

7 a.m.  Noah

As everyone continues to sleep, the sun finally begins to rise. A pair of students (not associated with the Jam) come into the room attempting to print something. The two are completely unaware that there are multiple people trying to sleep, and after some loud arguing, the two eventually give up on trying to print in the room. A few of the jammers begin to awake because of the disturbance.

8 a.m. Melissa

Hansel Wei is the Site Coordinator of the Game Jam. He is a senior computer science major and Secretary of the Game Developers at UNC Charlotte, the student organization hosting UNCC’s Game Jam. This Game Jam came together quickly: the majority of its organizing occurred two days ago, with some of the work beginning last week. This was partly the result of delays with reservation services. YoYo Games was one of the companies to donate free software which the developers could choose to use during the week of the Game Jam. Their software, GameMaker, enables pieces to be dragged and dropped into the game.

A spotlight on Wei: While he has done some game developing in the past, he now focuses his energy on developing curriculum to teach people about coding. He is currently working on developing a curriculum for UNCC’s satellite location of the North Carolina Science Festival.

9 a.m. Melissa

The Global Game Jam is an annual, international event with sites operating around the world. At the beginning of this year’s Jam, each site played the same keynote speaker video to announce the theme: “What does home mean to you?” There was a social network — similar to Reddit — for the jammers to share their ideas and communicate with other participants. Jammers needed to be careful of the things they posted on their social media (and on the aforementioned network) so as not to spoil the theme for the jammers in the last time zone, Hawaii. The theme could be openly discussed at 11:10 p.m. on Jan. 25, EST.

In addition to the theme, there were specific challenges jammers could choose to attempt that were sponsored by outside companies. Prizes were offered for challenge winners. One such challenge involved creating a game that used iPhones as controllers. As stated by Hansel Wei, “The idea of the game jam is that you band together.” Like an instrumental band with a drummer, singer, guitarist etc., in this game-developing event individuals come together with their specific skill sets to create one cohesive piece.

10 a.m. Melissa

Where are they now? A review of three teams’ progress:

The Game PJammers at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

When I first arrived at 8 a.m., The Game PJammers was the only group awake and working. Furthering their theme that friends and stories make a place home, the team concisely states that “home is where you make it.” Having moved on from graphic design for the moment, the team is developing dialogue responses to progress the story.

Jonathon Sigman continues coding solo for Worst Case Scenario as his partner gets some rest. Sigman has just completed writing the code to link multiple traps to a single tile, a game feature that means an unlucky player may set off multiple traps at once. This task was the hardest yet, according to Sigman. Some of the traps proposed for the game include a saw blade swiping across the screen, blow darts and crumbling platforms. A trap that has already been coded is a pit the character can fall into. When a character is killed by a trap, they will respawn so long as it is within the round’s time limit. A round is completed either when a player successfully procures a gem from one side of a room and returns it to a starting place, or when the timer runs out. Currently, the team plans on the game consisting of four rounds. The team’s new response to the query: “Does your game relate to the theme?” is “Yes and no.” The game relates to the theme in the idea that the player is an adventurer, and an adventurer’s home is the places they discover.

Guardian Frontier has begun to develop their cast of characters, that is, the characters the player comes to know during flashback sequences. One such character is Calendella, a soldier who desperately misses her family. A more complex character is Mark. Mark’s parents both died, his mother from natural causes and his father murdered (a fact Mark learns by watching the evening news). With no one to care for him, Mark was sent to an academy for soldiers and put into a class with five others his age. The purpose of the academy is to try and find ways to reduce PTSD. Mark’s backstory focuses on the six characters making up his class.

11 a.m. Melissa

The Game Jam is back in full swing with five teams actively present. The room has grown gradually louder throughout the morning and is currently a hub of activity. In one corner of the room, alumni team, House on Fire works on their game and their fourth member has just arrived. Members of the team have attended Game Jams for the past several years although they have not always worked together. This team is one to watch according to Wei. Wei recalls that last year, they created a game in which players moved physical pieces on a projector (such as pieces of paper) to manipulate virtual items in the game. This year, House on Fire is making a two-player virtual reality game that requires a single headset. The objective of the game is to escape a burning house. However, each player faces a physical limitation. One player, the one that wears the virtual reality headset, is a paraplegic in a wheelchair. This player is to sit in a rolling chair in the physical world outside of the game to simulate the wheelchair. The second player, not wearing the headset, cannot see the virtual world and its obstacles. This character is blind. It is the job of the player in the chair to direct the blind player in moving the chair around virtual objects to escape the burning house in the game.

12 p.m. Maya

At noon, there are still people who are sleeping after a long night. Other participants are currently walking in to begin work, while some are leaving room 140 to grab a bite to eat. There is only a little bit of dialogue between participants. Beyond that, the room is quiet. The only thing you can hear is tapping from the keyboards and clicking from mouses.

1 p.m. Maya

The room is still quiet. Everyone is focused on getting their game finished. Richard Camara from the independent team Game Dev Pro is hard at work. The rest of his team is not there now; they are out taking care of other responsibilities. Even though this is the case, the team keeps in contact by communicating on a message board. In the meantime, Camara is working on a projectile for one of the bosses in the game, which proves to be difficult to create. However, Camara relies on a game engine called Unity for help. It provides tutorials for game developers. Eventually, Camara finds a function that works. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. The artwork seems to be completed already since one team member sent in the artwork. They have made some progress since Friday evening. Game Dev Pro will meet back up 3 p.m.

Tyler Johnson of the team Space Shark. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

2 p.m. Melissa

In contrast to the general buzz of collaboration I left, the silence I return to after my lunch break is deafening. Heads bow over individual keyboards almost reverently. And then the silence is broken by the tinkling of music: many of the groups, having by this time finished the development of their stories, are focusing on the special features of the games. One jammer with the team Space Shark works on designing the menu for the game. Another jammer, Tyler Johnson, works on music, playing a guitar and keyboard. To record the music, he plugs each instrument into a red box and plays. The box is plugged into a laptop, which is then plugged into a monitor. On the computers, the sounds recorded from the instruments can be manipulated. The team plans on creating four songs, one to go with each of the four worlds and four characters (remember: demon, pirate, dwarf and mountain man) in the game. The group is calmly working.

An update on JEM++: Their “Snake”-like game now has a game mechanic differentiating it from the original game, that is, part of the game now includes returning houses to their appropriate plots.

An update on The Game PJammers: Most of the tasks on their to-do list, art withstanding, have been completed. This is far ahead of the schedule they expected. They are now working on the end-game mechanics throwing around ideas such as, angry neighbors smashing the windows of the apartment if the player does not create enough positive relationships by the end of the game.

Global update: Break time approaches. This break time is a feature of the Global Game Jam, with sites responsible for scheduling their own activities for the breaks. Several sites around the world engage in yoga. Others located in the southern hemisphere go swimming in outdoor pools.   

3 p.m. Melissa

The break time was announced and met with little enthusiasm. Some jammers, clearly in the zone, reject the interruption. Others have just returned from staggered break times with their group members and do not feel the need to break so soon. An organizer started writing out team names on the board but gives up on that endeavor as the jammers talk over her in their planning.

4 p.m. Aaron

The teams that are present during my arrival are Team Guardian Frontier and Space Shark. Then, two boys appear.

The duo consists of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop. They are working on a game that features a crab with a colony of shrimp. You control the shrimp and perform certain tasks with them. Jones thinks of the mutually beneficial relationships in marine biology when he hears the theme of this game jam. He thinks of how one big animal needs small animals to clean it while the small animals find the big animal a nice place to stay. This duo has been part of previous game jams. Riley does the art aspects of the game while Luke does the programming and mechanics. The duo met each other through other friends and began to work together during the spring semester of their freshman year.

Continuing on with Tyler Johnson of Space Shark, so far the team has created three out of four of the tracks they were making. He is currently working on the track for the wild character named Cleetus. Johnson has referred to old country music to help give him inspiration for theme track of the son. He uses an unconventional guitar tuning that is D flat tuning (the most common guitar tuning is Standard E). This tuning could be inspired by stoner rock/metal bands such as Sleep, Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.

5 p.m. Aaron

Work continues on as usual for the teams. Everyone is focused on their work but retains casual conversations with laughter and banter.

The boys of JEM++ so far have most of the basic mechanics of their game. They will be using sample pieces of music as the team does not have a musician in the group.

I begin talking to team Pixelsprite. This team typically does Adventure/RPG games but decided to make a side-scrolling game this time for the convenience. According to Jahdiel Couchman, the previous Game Jam taught them a lot from the sheer scope of what they were trying to do last time.

6 p.m. Aaron

The members of Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite) present their game, “Bug Out” on Jan 27. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Continuing on with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman states that if they were given more than just 48 hours, they would have converted the side scrolling game into an adventure game.

As I write my observational notes, the team is very quiet and focuses on the programming aspect of the game. Couchman uses a calculator on his phone to help calculate the place of the pixels and the animations. This will help him know if the items are way too close or too far.

Couchman demonstrates how he is programming the game. At the time of this writing, he is working on placing the items during the game. He hopes to make the items randomly generate after each level, as well as making the vacuum move faster. The items featured in the game are spiders, webs, ledges, walls, etc. Couchman also uses a blank sheet of paper to draw out the level layout to help plan out on what is doing. This is where he would measure out the ledges.

7 p.m.  Elissa

When I walk into the main room 140, there are a number of groups at work. Sometimes, the lines between them are blurred, as the computer-filled room’s setup requires the teams to format themselves in rows.

The duo Worst Case Scenario’s tile/trap game now has a name: “Mistep.” They’ve made significant progress and feel confident about their ability to finish before 3 p.m. tomorrow, the suggested time to submit games before the server begins too slow. Coder Jonothon Sigman believes he’s conquered his hardest challenge: linking the traps to specific tiles. While he had worked on trying to link multiple traps to one tile this morning, that plot has now been abandoned. Now, each tile can only have one trap. He is now embarking on making the game transfer from one round to the next. Mike Dorn’s animations are complete for at least four traps, as well as the movement of characters walking side-to-side. Each small animation takes him between 2 – 2.5 hours. President Alexus Smith travels to each team in the room giving them advice and supporting their endeavors.

I take a trip down the hall to room 154, where I find a group of six people including some members of the team House on Fire. They sit around a table with a hand-made game board consisting of squares and three different kinds of dice. The group is all alumni, mostly ex-officers of the club. According to Taylor White, the unique board game is called “Mundane Heroes” and was created at a Game Jam a couple of years ago. It is now a tradition. It functions a bit like “Dungeons and Dragons,” with a game master leading a group of heroes on an adventure. The trick is that they all have lackluster superpowers, such as the ability to summon a toddler. The adventure they are currently on features one of the players, who has the ability to talk to demons but not to understand them. Unfortunately, this means the group is now under attack by a demon. Actions made to try and avoid the demon include throwing food out of a window and hiding in a barrel.

8 p.m. Elissa

Three members of the PJammers spend a decent part of this hour trying to plan how the conversation feature of their friendship-building game will operate. The team has set up positive and negative responses to prompts made by the various characters. The debate is whether they should create and program the conversation to have multiple threads and tracks based on how the player responds. Instead, they decide that choosing a negative response will simply send the player back to the last stage of the conversation. Beyond this, they have completed designing the apartment and are working on perfecting how the gym conversation will operate. Once that conversation is completed, they will be able to easily copy the coding format for the other characters and places. The list of planned settings the main character can travel to is currently: the park, a general store, the bar, work, the gym and a bookstore. Rewards one can win for friendship include coupons, alcohol and a lucky pen. The team wants to finish the game before 3 p.m. but seems nervous about their ability to do so. They split up to write the conversation scripts and draw the backgrounds for the other places/characters in the game. Their fourth member, Naima Karzouz, is working on some of the backgrounds from home. She is also in charge of music for the game.

I check back in with the musician Tyler Johnson from Space Shark. He has moved on from Cleetus and is now almost complete with the music for the character Douglas. Since Douglas is a dwarf, Johnson would like him to have a Celtic-inspired sound. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an electronic bagpipes (though he does have a number of electronic instruments, from cellos and drums to sitars and synths). He rejects the idea of sampling something, and thus decides to use his guitar instead. After he is done with this track, he will move on to creating the theme for AesirBeard.

Matthew Ballard of JEM++. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

9 p.m. Elissa

An update on JEM++: Jonathan Keku suspects that the team will have no trouble finishing their game in time. At the moment, he believes that the only things they have left to do are create a game over screen, create a better feedback system for players and work on improving the graphics. He is in charge of the latter part and is thinking of creating some animations for when the houses “come to life,” primarily a sparkle effect. He has also created a simple animation of a bouncing/jumping house for when the houses join the chain and travel around the map.

An update on Guardian Frontier: Two members of the team, Dillon Zhong and Irvin Naylor, work on creating the dialogue system and finalizing the art for the game. They have just recovered from a three-hour set back in which the code for the dialogue stopped functioning when they were trying to give it the ability to change for different characters. After strenuous troubleshooting, they finally found the one word that was throwing off the code. While they’ve since fixed the issue, this unfortunately means the two are back to solving the problem of switching characters. The team plans on working overnight to finish the code by tomorrow morning. As of right now, they plan for the game to consist of an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion. It will have four characters. First is Alan, a magic character the player will assume the role of. There is also Mage, a magical hunter, Mark, an engineered soldier from the year 2050, and Calendella, a “regular” soldier from an alternate-universe Earth.

10 p.m. Elissa

Catching up with Pixelsprite, Jahdiel Couchman is working on trying to solve a problem in the code. As the ant moves through the level, it comes into contact with a number of objects. While all of these objects are not squares, invisible squares called “collision boxes” appear around them. These squares are what the ant collides with, and unfortunately, they aren’t lined up exactly with the non-square-shaped objects (meaning it sometimes looks like the ant is floating in space). Couchman would like to simply code for the objects at the same time as the boxes. Organizer Hansel Wei walks over to the group to provide suggestions, though it eventually seems to be unavoidable. Couchman will have to code for the collision boxes and actual game objects separately. Meanwhile, Stephanie Lam works on creating the title page for the game. This presents a challenge as the game still does not have a working title.

Wei explains to me that there are actually three Game Jams a year at UNC Charlotte. Two are local 49er Game Jams. These occur in the fall and late spring. The Game Developers club that hosts them typically tries to find sponsors for the events to provide things like food and caffeinated drinks. The Global Game Jam is consistently in January. Sponsors for Global Jams provide things like code and access to their platforms.

When I walk past room 154, the group of six alumni is still playing tabletop games.

11 p.m. Elissa

Team Space Shark works on their character, AesierBeard. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

Team Space Shark is at the point in which they have a working prototype of their game, “Home Field.” They seem surprised by the fact they actually feel like they might have a shot at finishing the game before 3 p.m. Still, there is a lot of work to do. Things still on the to-do list include: a “win” screen, a flashy death animation, adding in the music and the hardest task: trying to make the game use Xbox controllers instead of keyboard commands. They are also considering adding voice lines. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker are currently debating over a piece of code that has abruptly stopped working. While they know the code is either A) the one allowing players to select a character or B) the one that carries that character selection on to the next screen; they are unsure which of the two it is.

The biggest area of uncertainty for the fighting-style game is trying to tie it to the theme of “what home means to you.” Currently, the team is running with adding backstories to the four characters that will allow each one to represent a different type of home. For example, the pirate AesierBeard’s ship is always moving and rapidly changing while the dwarf Douglas never leaves his enclosed cave. The team seems unsure of how to make this tie to the theme clear and are toying with the idea of having the backstories appear during the character selection screen.

Midway through the hour, Jonathan Keku plugs his Nintendo Switch into the projector and turns on the game “One Strike” for attendees to play. The room seems torn between watching and trying to ignore it to focus on their work. By the end of a couple rounds though, the room is mostly invested and cheers and laughs at the game.

Sunday

12 a.m. Elissa

As the night (or early morning, depending on how one decides to view it) wears on, discussion about the lack of a “dark room” begins. In the past, the group would book a room specifically for attendees to sleep in without having to leave the Jam. There is not one for this Jam, though people have still brought blankets, pillows, etc. While the dark room was nice for convenience, Marketing Officer Dylan Zhong points out that it wasn’t without issues. People would often walk in and out at varying times, meaning people would be forced awake without planning to be. Without a dark room, attendees have previously slept under tables and in spaces by windows. This seems to be the plan for tonight. Considering the fact that it is absolutely frigid outside, I understand the urge not to leave.

The game playing on the main screen has switched to “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.” The members of Space Shark have been in full control of the Switch since it started. Team Worst Case Scenario leaves, agreeing to meet back in the morning.

The Game PJammers have made a lot of progress in the past four hours. Their debate about how the conversation feature will work is settled. They now have functioning animations for four out of their six characters; scripts have been written for three. At the moment, Axel Melendez is working on completing those last scripts and characters. Meanwhile, Shaquiel Smith is creating the gifts/rewards. Naima Karzouz works on designing the backgrounds at home which she then sends in remotely via Discord. She completes the bookstore scene.

1 a.m. Noah

Preparing for a run to Cookout, the jammers continue to play “Smash Bros. Ultimate” and work on their code as they wait for the groups heading out to be ready. Usually, this event is done as a walk to the actual fast-food hotspot, but due to the near 30 degree temperature outside, travel by car is the preferred method. I ride along with Hansel Wei, Dylan Zhong and Jacob Miller. We talk about our classes in computer science.

2 a.m. Noah

After the recharge from Cookout, some jammers head home, some prepare to sleep and the rest continue what work they can with the energy they still have.

Guardian Frontier presents their game “Where the heart is” on Jan 27. Photo by Niaythi Sulkunte.

3 a.m. Noah

I talk with Dylan Zhong, the sole remaining jammer from Guardian Frontier at this point, a little about what the game itself will turn out as. There is the visual novel aspect as a front for the main protagonist, and the different flashbacks split off into different gameplay variants. The main three discussed include a platformer, a top-down isometric shooter (similar to “Hotline Miami” or “Enter the Gungeon”) and a run ’n gun style game inspired by “Mega Man.” The team has done these different kinds of gameplay as individual games at previous game jams, so the idea is to take this experience into one package. This is the team’s fourth game jam, and when asked about whether he thought they would finish in time, Dylan Zhong said that with cutting certain corners and some retooling, it is always a for sure thing. Essentially, what you can consider “finished” is always subjective.

4 a.m. Noah

Part of the remaining jammers still here are either sleeping or hard at work continuing their games. Dylan Zhong from Guardian Frontier continues programming on his game, as do Vishal Naik and Jahdiel Couchman of Pixelsprite and Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez of The Game PJammers. Some time is spent watching short skit videos with Couchman, Naik, Smith and Melendez in an attempt to unwind. Upon asking about their team name, both Couchman and Naik made it clear that they wanted a name change from Pixelsprite. The group opens it up as a discussion for other suggestions, as well as ideas for a name for their ant-themed game. Some ideas included “A Bug’s Life Sucks” and “Bug Out.” Deep theological questions on whether Dr. Pepper actually has his Ph.D. are also discussed, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the late-night hours are having an effect on all of us.

5 a.m. Noah

Members of “House on Fire” at work. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I check in on the alumni group House on Fire, though the team has already retired for the evening. Two are asleep on desks, one is on a bed of rolling chairs and the other is in a sleeping bag on the floor. This is a wise decision, as they’ll need as much energy as they can as the deadline approaches. I shadow in on Pixelsprite, and after a bit of explaining in how the designing of levels and the use of XY coordinates work, I get to try out the game for myself. The main objective for Jahdiel Couchman right now is still to make different designs for half of the level so that they can be randomly matched to create a new level on each play. The artwork done by Stephanie Lam is really good, even without considering the amount of time that has been given thus far. Eventually getting into a discussion about game design courses offered in the computer science department, they soon become focused on debating “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” versus its predecessor, “Oblivion.”

6 a.m. Noah

Heading into the morning hours, I sit down with Vishal Naik of Pixelsprite, who gives me a look into adding a smoke effect for the vacuum in his game, which at first glance would seem like a simple task. Essentially an image is used that has multiple sub-images of smoke that gives the effect that it is real, like a gif. There are then a number of values associated with getting it into the level in the correct spot, size, transparency and much more. It’s clear that Naik has a good understanding of how this process works, and he even is able to explain it in a way that makes sense to myself as well. It is a great example of how little things in games can be taken for granted when in reality there is a whole process and amount of time needed to even implement something as simple as a trail of smoke. It makes me much more appreciative of those kinds of things in games, and for the endless number of names in the credits that appear in your typical triple-a game. Satisfied with the progress made, both the jammers left from Pixelsprite and The Game PJammers make a trip to McDonalds for breakfast/dinner.

7 a.m.  Noah

Dylan Zhong remains the only person left coding for the time being and has just finished the dialogue boxes for his game, the visual novel aspect specifically. This gets his team over a tremendous hurdle where a good portion of the work now is to get some art assets created and added in. He now would like to get some sleep. As the sun rises, the McDonalds crew also makes their return with newfound energy. The PJammers present now, Shaquiel Smith and Axel Melendez, both have been working on multiple aspects of the game. Now those pieces are coming together at once so the pair is obviously very excited.

8 a.m. Elissa

When I arrive, only one PJammer remains. The room is mostly empty, and a couple of attendees are asleep at their desks (plus one in a sleeping bag on the floor). Hansel Wei attempts to get some sleep while sitting in his supervising chair. The sound of light snoring fills the room, only interrupted by Pixelsprite’s Jahdiel Couchman as the lone attendee coding. Talking feels like disturbing the peace. Eventually, two other coders awake and work silently on their projects.

9 a.m. Elissa

Finally, there is some semblance of conversation and life. A couple of the coders break into “Tell Me Why,” by the Backstreet Boys, blaming it on the long hours and delirium.

Worst Case Scenario returns; they’ve come a long way since I last spoke to them. “Mistep” is now a (mostly) working game with spike, pit and dart traps functioning. The duo is in the process of playtesting the game for bugs and creating a final to-do list. The main goal is refining the already created traps, and adding in springs and rocks. They tried to create the rock trap last night but decided to come back to it later after it caused persistent issues. Other things on the list include walking and death animations, finding public domain music and fixing some lighting problems with the game.

10 a.m. Elissa

Everyone works diligently at their games. The room is largely silent except for when bugs appear in someone’s work.

An update on Space Shark: This group largely didn’t work overnight and remains about where I left them on Saturday evening. Only one of their team members, Hamilton Rice, is currently on site. He is working on completing some of the final animations; other tasks that need to be finished are adding in Tyler Johnson’s music and playtesting for bugs.

An update on Guardian Frontier: This team still has a fair amount of work to do, probably because their game seems to be one of the more elaborate ones. Irvin Naylor is adding color to the hand-drawn character designs; he will then scan them in Atkins Library to digitize them. Dillon Zhong is working on coding the platforming round of the game. Other rounds still need to be coded for, and the dialogue also has a couple of holes left. Four members of their team will be arriving soon to help finish the process.

The goal of their game is to allow their main character to learn what home means from their three other OCs, each of which has their own definition. What are those definitions? For Mark, it is the idea of not being alone and creating a family of friends that will support you. For Calendella, home is whenever and wherever she can be in contact with her family and know that they are okay (even if that is just via letter form since they are separated by distance). Alan defines his home as being located within himself, sort of like a self-assuredness that he will be okay.

Members of independent team “Game Dev Pro” rush to meet the 3 p.m. deadline. Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

11 a.m. Elissa

I travel down the hall to rooms 144 and 145, where most of the alumni and independent teams are working. There I find the team Game Dev Pro, which is composed of a group of adults that attend Meetup game design events at Central Piedmont Community College. Outside of game design, they range from a college student to an eighth-grade teacher to a programmer at Duke Energy. Since UNC Charlotte’s Game Jam is the official Charlotte location, they’ve been using the space during the day but returning home to work at night. Their game’s concept focuses on a young artist living with his overbearing, controlling parents. His “home” is art which he must use to escape his physical house. There is still a significant amount of work to be done; models, the combat system and a boss are only partially completed. Team member Alec Ziskund tells me the goal for today is simply to complete one level and one boss. As a whole, Game Dev Pro wishes they had been able to spend more time working on the game.

An update on Upside Down Bird: This team did not visit campus yesterday, but has returned with an almost-completed driving game titled “Cruise Ctrl.” The aforementioned map still blocks one’s view, but now it also causes changes to the viewer’s perception via filters. When I play, the map causes the game to look blurry and turn into a green notepad. I am absolutely awful at the game, though I am consoled by the fact no one else has made it home yet either. The team is especially proud of the comedic commercials that play on the vehicle’s radio which were crowdsourced from friends using Facebook and Google Voice. The only things left to complete are simple logistics, such as finishing the credits, completing the main menu and inserting a “real” house instead of a simple placeholder one.

An update on House on Fire: Progress is going slowly. Team member Ryan Carpenter is worried about the team’s ability to finish in time but reminds himself that a majority of the coding typically occurs in the last couple of hours at the Game Jam. For now, they have the basic set of the room. However, they still need to add in the puzzles and interactive aspects.

12 p.m. Elissa

Team member Eric King of JEM++ tells me the group is at “rush point.” They’ve rejected the concept of adding any new ideas and are simply sticking with polishing what they currently have. This means adding some simple missing animations for the houses and as well as background music and sounds.

The Game PJammers are also hard at work putting all the pieces of their game together. Currently, three of them are working to code in all of the characters’ dialogues. There are still two locations and two characters left to be animated as well. The exhaustion in this group is palpable (Shaquiel Smith is taking a nap on the desk when I arrive), but they are confident and driven to finish in time.

1 p.m. Elissa

All four members of Pixelsprite collaborate, determined to complete the game by 3 p.m. Charlotte Barrett is searching for music/sound effects for public use. Vishal Naik is still working on the vacuum’s smoke and adding powerups while Stephanie Lam attempts to create 10 different color variations of the game’s background. Jahdiel Couchman has headphones on and talks to no one as he concentrates on coding the game to have new levels generate one right after the other.

The teams are quite aware of the time crunch.

2 p.m. Elissa

While the teams rush to complete their tasks, I interview Game Developers at UNC Charlotte’s President, Alexus Smith.

Smith was elected President almost three years ago, after attending only one Game Jam and maybe two meetings. She had a history of leadership experience and a strong background in computer science. In all, her election took less than 15 minutes. While the Game Developers have been around long enough that only alumni remember when and how the group started, Smith’s goal has always been to maintain and grow the club. She says, “My main focus was to make sure that it existed, no matter what, outside of just the people who always want to do Game Jams, so that there is something for other people that are going to come along and will eventually be just as passionate as them.”

In the past three years, a number of things have changed in the structure of the organization. The days and structure of meetings, the roles of eboard members and the addition of a Discord channel are also components of that list. The club has also shifted to trying heavily to recruit from outside CCI. “When people are like ‘I’m a musician,’ we’re like ‘Yes!’” states Smith. She continues, “Because we are always trying to bring artists and musicians more than programmers. Everybody will eventually program on the team. So we feel like we should supply teams that need that type of specific…you know, someone that can hear and write specific music, or artists, assets. That’s the type of person you need.”

Since I’ve talked to only three women participants during the entirety of the Game Jam, I ask her about her experience as a woman in computer science. She notes that my experience of representation at Game Jam is pretty comparable to her classes where she has typically only seen five or six (always less than 10) women. When asked what that experience is like, she remembers a time recently where a student in her ethics class asked the professor why equality of the sexes in computer science is important. Why is it important? Smith references a study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health that demonstrated that women were more likely to die in car crashes because all the safety features (seatbelts, airbags) were designed with crash test dummies that were men. If more women had been involved, she argues, that would change. She also discusses the fact that Dr. Fatma Mili became the Dean of the College of Computing and Informatics last year. Smith tells me that as an employee of the department, “She’s [the Dean] taken the good staff that we already have and worked with them to say: ‘How do we do this?’ And they haven’t just been like ‘Okay, we’ll quietly implement changes and see if we like them.’ They’ve actually taken the time to be like ‘We’re going to host a forum, we’re going to have one-on-ones.’ The personal assistant of the Dean wants to meet with us next week to talk about what is going on with the college. So I do see the change…it is happening.”

3 p.m. Aaron

One of the members of Chip Boat, the team responsible for “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” Photo by Niyathi Sulkunte.

I go to catch up with the duo of Riley Jones and Luke Sloop (later known as the team Chip Boat). They are currently test running their shrimp-themed game and adding any else to refine the game. Jones stated that this is a game he is really proud of due to the amount of work they’ve put into the game. He cited the fact that the Game Jam was very early on the semester and that he did not have anything major in his classes to prioritize as reasons the team was able to be very creative and put so much effort into their work.

Jones has noted that the teams in this Game Jam are more ambitious than the previous ones. The title of their game is called, “Fresh Cut Organic 25 Piece Shrimp Meal.” According to Jones, having long titles for their games has been a running gag for a very long time.

I notice that the atmosphere in the room is very vibrant. People are either still working or are talking to each other and laughing. I can only assume that this is due to it being the final hours of the Game Jam. They can at least relax a bit before presenting their games.

4 p.m. Aaron

Checking in on Space Shark, all of the animations that Hamilton Rice made are finished while Tyler Johnson is importing all of the music into the game. They are also testing the game out so they can deal with bugs. One of the bugs in particular features characters being stuck on the floor after performing a particular jump. At the moment Rice does not have a solution to the problem. Regarding his final thoughts on this year’s Game Jam, Rice feels proud. He says that he is much more prepared this time and that this Game Jam was able to fit into his schedule better than last year’s.

I check in with the boys of Worst Case Scenario. Apparently, a game bug has been very persistent and caused a delay in turning in the game. They now expect to be finished by 5 p.m.

5 p.m. Aaron

Mike Dorn from Worst Case Scenario talks to me about the bug in their game. The rock trap that they were working on was described as a “sentient being.” When this trap was activated, one of three things would happen. One, every trap in the field would activate. Two, a random trap in the field would activate the rock. Three, the trap would shoot diagonally across the field like a meteor. The solution for this rock trap? They had to delete everything involving the rock trap and replace it with a GIF that features an animation of the rock falling down. That GIF solved a lot of problems. According to Dorn, this bug took over three hours to settle. The other bugs that they were handling were effectively dealt with. It has already been announced to that they made the upload deadline.

Some of the people involved in the Game Jam had begun to pack up and leave. The link to the server to submit the game is shown on the projector. There are still some teams left working on the finishing touches and uploading their games. It leaves me wondering if 48 hours is enough for people.

6 p.m. Aaron & Noah

Overhearing the conversations of various teams, they are quite relieved about having the whole thing come to an end. The overall atmosphere is in good spirits. Some team members said cheers before drinking their soda.

—-

Final Teams and Games

Anticipate (formerly Pixelsprite)

Anticipate displayed their platformer “Bug Out,” which has players take control of an ant escaping a vacuum trying to make its way to its hole/home. The final game features random level generation, matching two of six different level designs together to make each playthrough different. Jahdiel Couchman handled programming and the mixup system of the level design, Charlotte Barrett worked on the different levels themselves, Vishal Naik worked on the background, powerups and smoke effect of the vacuum and Stephanie Lam created the game’s terrific retro art style.

Chip Boat

Chip Boat created a sea-exploration action game entitled “25-Piece Shrimp Meal Organic Fresh-Caught.” A game that allows one to take control of a crab rounding up shrimp, the game’s underwater art style works well with the given backdrop. While there were only two enemies by the end of the jam, they were unique enough in design and play that they kept things interesting. The angler-like fish had a cute animation and could eat the shrimp that you shoot at them, while the starfish became a pest by knocking away your shrimp and stunning them. Riley Jones handled the art for the game and Luke Sloop did the majority of the programming.

Guardian Frontier

An ambitious project at first, “Where the heart is” is a visual novel that leads to different forms of gameplay at certain story beats. The game follows the protagonist to multiple characters that will each teach the player what home means to them. The game was originally set to include a different form of gameplay for each character’s flashback. However, due to time constraints, this was limited to one platforming level in which the player takes on the persona of a soldier named Calendula, whose flashback involves a game of hide-and-seek with her siblings. Dillon Zhong worked as programmer, designer and project manager. With him was programmer Justin Carrasquillo, 3D-modeler/programmer Michael Helwig, programmer/writer Jacob Miller, programmer Hashim Qureshi, designer Don Albert Collins, artist/programmer Irvin Naylor and artist/designer Christina Andre.

The Game PJammers

The game that probably meshes the best with the Jam’s central theme, “Jem’s Adventure,” finds players in control of Jem, a character who just moved to a new city and is looking to make friends. The main theme behind the game is “home is where your friends are,” which was inspired by one of the game’s own developers, Shaquiel Smith. Smith moved to the U.S. from Jamaica and was faced with the challenge of making new friends himself. The game’s other two programmers were Kristian “Axel” Melendez and Martin Gutierrez. Melendez also authored the game’s story, as well as contributed to the art with the team’s artist, Naima Karzouz. Karzouz also created the game’s soundtrack. The game had an overall wholesome vibe which can really be attributed to its great character animation.

Space Shark

With inspiration taken from “Super Smash Bros.,” “Home Field” is a retro fighting game with four main characters with vastly different backgrounds. There is Heinrich, a hellspawn focused on fire-centered attacks, AieserBeard, deadly captain of the S.S. Grimeback, Cleetus,  a powerful mountain man, and Douglas, a muscular dwarf who spends a majority of his time mining in caves. Just from the well-designed main menu and heavy metal soundtrack, “Home Field” immediately leaves a positive impression. The game was also a huge hit with the crowd during its presentation and garnered a lot of laughter during matches. Chris Sanchez and Timothy Walker took on programming, whereas Hamilton Rice worked on the art and Tyler Johnson handled the concept design and music.

Upside Down Bird

A well-oiled machine with experience making games, Upside Down Bird created the game “Cruise Ctrl.” For the team’s roles, Benjamin Hamrick, David Dempsey and Matthew Schwiebert handled programming. Working on music was Aaron Schwiebert, Nick DeJohn and Cyrus Homesley. Mike Murray worked on level design and Nick Eldridge handled design ideas, crowdsourcing and food runs. In line with the Jam’s theme, the objective of the game is to drive a car to “the daily final destination” — aka home. The actual driving mechanics are intentionally difficult, which can lead to some funny moments. As discussed in their presentation, another challenge in the game is that to see your long-term destination, you have to block your short-term sight by using your map. Not only does it cover up the entire screen, but once it is put away, a distortion to the screen is added as well. This was the team’s first year without an artist, though they did have the three musicians, so music played a large role via the form of the car’s radio which dictated the speed of the car.

JEM++

A sort of combination of “Snake” and “Pac-Man,” “Home Run” has you play as a house chasing other runaway homes, slowly building a chain of houses. The game features a nice upbeat theme song and meshes well with the 3-D, isometric-like art style. You have the option of picking either a small map or a big map, the latter of which definitely fits its adjective of choice. Eric King and Matthew Ballard worked as the game’s programmers, and Jonathan Keku oversaw the game’s art.

Worst Case Scenario

This duo created the two-player game, “Mistep,” in which your goal is to beat your opponent to a prize hidden in a tile-based grid. To sabotage your opponent, you can utilize a number of different traps. The game’s setting is an ancient temple, and the traps are similarly-themed. They include pits, spikes and darts. There were multiple maps planned, though only the temple was ready for the demo. At one point in the jam, the team had the choice of paying for their licensed music or buying a pizza. They chose the music. There is also a funny victory animation for the victor. Jonothon Sigman handled the programming side while Mike Dorn helped with the design and created the art.

No Name

“Boxing” is about moving, and in regards to the theme, runs on the notion home is always on the move. Played in a 3-D space, the game simply has you boxing up items from your house as you move to your new home. Items include rotary phones, slim vases and even your own baby. Once the boxes are packed up, you are immediately taken to your new home, where only the rotary phones will follow you due to a bug in the game. With no team name, the game was created by James Kingdon and Vuong Le. They created the game outside of the space used by Game Developers at UNCC but came in to present their final work.

House on Fire

An ambitious project created for the HTC Vive, “Fire Buddies” is a cooperative game for virtual reality. The main premise is that the player with the headset is in a wheelchair and must guide his blind brother (the player without the headset) to escape their house fire. The team was composed of alumni such as Ryan Carpenter, William Karnavas, Michael Pedersen, Ryan Cook and Bijan Razavi. Vuong Le contributed voice acting. 

Game Dev Pro

This team, composed of Richard Camara, Lynden Hill, Alec Ziskund, Manaka Green and Keith Isham, created the game “Tasukete.” The premise is that the player takes on the role of a young artist trapped in his house by his overbearing parents. He then realizes that art is his true “home.” Gameplay is centered around escaping his overbearing parents and the family home he is enclosed in.

You can play the games and read more about the teams here: https://globalgamejam.org/2019/jam-sites/university-north-carolina-charlotte/games

Correction: The article originally stated that Hansel Wei was the organization’s Treasurer. Wei is actually the Secretary.

TV REVIEW: ‘Star Wars Resistance’ – ‘Bibo’ & ‘Dangerous Business’

Warning: Spoilers for “Bibo,” “Dangerous Business” and prior episodes of “Star Wars Resistance” follow.

While I have enjoyed “Star Wars Resistance” so far, it hasn’t yet completely enamored me. That said, throughout the mid-season break I did find myself missing the weekly escape to Castilon along with Kaz (Christopher Sean) and company. These two episodes quickly put me back into the swing of things and were a solid kickoff to the start of the latter half of the season.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

“Bibo”

One thing that the series has done really well so far is highlighting other characters alongside series’ protagonist Kaz. This week’s episode narrows in on the quirky yet always positive, Neeku (Josh Brener), who finds himself a new pet, Bibo (Bob Bergen), brought in from one of Synara’s (Nazneen Contractor) scavenging runs. Very quickly it becomes apparent that Bibo is more of a nuisance than a new best friend for the Fireball crew with Kaz, Tam (Suzie McGrath), Bucket (Himself) and Yeager (Scott Lawrence) expressing their distaste rather quickly. Kaz escapes the madness by joining Synara on one of her scavenging runs to look for a part for the Fireball, though their trip is soon cut short once a giant sea creature passes beneath them heading towards the Colosuss.

Synara continues her double life as a spy for her pirate crew, drawing a close parallel to Kaz with him and the Resistance. The two’s dynamic gets explored a bit here when Synara attempts to pry a bit more at Kaz’s own past. Back on the Colossus, Neeku and Tam go on a hunt for Bibo after he runs away where they end up finding him in the engineering sector with the returning shell-folk and the two orphans, Kel (Antony Del Rio) and Eila (Nikki SooHoo). Eila warns of a monster coming to the station for Bibo, saying that she saw the vision in her dreams. Of course, this reeks of her being Force-sensitive and would explain why the First Order was so desperate to find the two refugees (besides the fact that they were witnesses to their planet’s mass genocide). Right on cue, the giant monster arrives in search of Bibo, which Tam theorizes him to be the creature’s prey.

It is rather obvious from a viewer’s perspective that Bibo is actually the child of this creature, though thankfully, Neeku figures this out on his own. Captain Doza (Jason Hightower) scrambles the Aces to intercept the giant sea behemoth with Kaz joining in once he sees they need as much help as they can get. This is a shift in the right direction for the series’ protagonist as Kaz finally shows just how competent he can be behind a flight stick. He rescues former Imperial pilot Griff (Stephen Stanton) — who I hope we learn more about later down the line — and is given trust by the Aces when he asks for them to call off the attack on Neeku’s request. I hope this is something for Kaz that continues moving on since it really shows just how compelling he can be when he isn’t acting like a goofball most of the time.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

From the episode guide on StarWars.com, it is revealed that the species of Bibo and his parent is called rokkna. Gigantic creatures are no stranger to “Star Wars,” with the Zillo Beast enacting his King Kong-like destruction on Coruscant in “The Clone Wars,” as well as on a bit smaller scale with the monstrous aquatic life with the submarine voyage of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks in “The Phantom Menace.” The adult rokkna’s roar is reminiscent of Godzilla, and visually, it looks stunning in the art style with its darker blue and green colors popping in contrast to Castilon’s bright blue ocean. There are also some stunning shots that demonstrate its difference in size compared to the Colossus and its residents, which again highlights just how well this art style works. Neeku ends up returning Bibo to its parent after a heartfelt goodbye, though I get the feeling Bibo and its guardian will come up again later in the season.

While it does not dive too deeply into the First Order plot, this episode certainly carries on other related strings like Kaz and Synara’s relationship as well as further develops Neeku as more than comedic support. I don’t want to skim over the shocking scene at the end of the episode where Kaz offers a gorg as a pet to Neeku to ease the pain of having to give up Bibo, which Neeku then devours whole in a matter of seconds. I am not sure if I perceive Neeku more as a crazed lunatic rather than a happy-go-lucky sidekick to Kaz, but nevertheless, it was a weirdly grim yet heart-warming moment between the two friends.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

“Dangerous Business”

The beginning of “Dangerous Business” starts off strong by carrying along Kaz’s growth not just a spy, but a mechanic as well. Impressing Tam, Neeku and Yeager, Kaz adds much-needed parts to the Fireball without screwing it up majorly as well. He managed to get the parts from Flix (Jim Rash) and Orka’s (Bobby Moynihan) shop in exchange for running the shop while the two are away for the day. Kaz and BB-8 run the shop without much trouble — minus pain caused by Flix and Orka’s pet gorg Bitey — until a shady character, Teroj Kee (John Ennis), claiming to be from the mining guild comes in.

Unable to get a rare phase connector from Kaz, Teroj settles for some random junk which he demands Kaz hand deliver. Kaz accepts and ends up getting himself locked in a storage container which is about to be dropped to the bottom of the ocean. While Kaz works on getting out, BB-8 gets his time to shine once Teroj arrives to steal the phase connector from the shop. The resulting sequence is a fun defense put up by BB-8 involving some shocking, cute beeps and a wrecking ball-like move in which the droid attaches his cable to the ceiling and swings himself at the intruder. The animation and choreography of this scene are excellent, and the animators have just done a splendid job at capturing the same magic for BB-8 in the show that he has in the films as well.

The remainder of the episode finds Kaz following Teroj and sneaking onto his freighter only to discover that the thief is in cahoots with the First Order. Unable to get the phase connector back after take-off, Kaz ends up bringing the entire cargo ship down into Castilon’s sea. Despite tripping into the hallway of escape pods, the climax of the episode once again shows Kaz’s growth and how he can operate well, even on his own. The First Order connection wasn’t a huge reveal nor did the show intend it to be, but the revealed interest in a phase connector, which is used in mining things like asteroids, is certainly useful info for the Resistance and leaves possible implications to Starkiller Base.

While it had some cute moments with BB-8 and letting us get more of the peculiar duo of Flix and Orka, “Dangerous Business” was definitely my least favorite of the two. Both episodes do huge favors for the character of Kaz and set him on a path that I am really excited to see fleshed out moving forward, though. These two episodes were a solid start to the latter half of the season and set up some interesting plot threads within Synara and Kaz’s relationship, the First Order’s increasingly bolder moves and what role the rokkna creature will play in the future. You can catch the next episode of “Star Wars Resistance” for yourself when it airs on Disney Channel next Sunday at 10 p.m.

Gaming Roundup: January 2019

Image courtesy of Skybound Games

“The Walking Dead: The Final Season” Episode Three – January 15 for PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC

Following the closure of Telltale Games last September, the fate of Clementine’s final chapter was left in the air. Thankfully Skybound (the company that owns “The Walking Dead” and is run by its original creator Robert Kirkman) has stepped in to carry out the rest of the season. More importantly, many of the developers who were originally working on “The Final Season” at Telltale and were left without jobs have been brought on to finish the remaining episodes. The first two episodes of the season were a fantastic start and I am glad most of the team responsible for making them will be handling the final two. We’re so close to the end now and I am both excited and anxious to finally see how the rest of Clementine’s story plays out.

Image courtesy of Capcom

“Resident Evil 2 Remake” – January 25 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

As a recently turned “Resident Evil” believer, “Resident Evil 2 Remake” is a title I have had my eye on playing since beating the remake of the original “Resident Evil” in 2016. While I jumped ahead to “RE 7” since it is standalone for the most part, I’ve been delaying my playthrough of the entire series for this game. While the fixed camera angles were certainly helpful in building tension in the original “RE 2,” I am glad the remake is opting for the much more manageable third-person camera view. Like the original, the game features two campaigns that offer differing perspectives on the story through the eyes of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield. For those on the fence or just eager to play, there is a 30-minute demo available for an early part of the game. For the past two years, Capcom had been wisely capitalizing on the barren month of January with “Resident Evil 7” in 2017, “Monster Hunter: World” in 2018 and now “RE 2” for 2019. As excited as I am for Clementine’s story, this remake is easily the highlight release of the month for me.

Image courtesy of Square Enix

“Kingdom Hearts III” – January 29 for PS4 and Xbox One

It’s been almost 14 years since “Kingdom Hearts 2” released with only a few spin-off titles for fans to bide their time with till the next major release. “Kingdom Hearts” is a series that somehow successfully blends together the “Final Fantasy” series with numerous Disney properties and has a dedicated fan following. I only played a part of the first game when I was younger, and while I could not explain to you what happened plot-wise, I did have a fun time fighting enemies with Donald Duck, Goofy and whatever protagonist was a part of the Disney property I was currently in. This long-awaited entry in the series includes worlds and characters from films like “Frozen,” “Tangled,” “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” While I probably won’t play on release, “Kingdom Hearts” is a series that I’ve been wanting to give another shot one day, and this newest entry seems to be great both in gameplay and visuals.

The Top Ten Games of 2018

Video games are great. They can range from a variety of different styles and deliver stories and experiences which can only be told through their medium. 2017 was a fantastic year for video games with titles like “Breath of The Wild,” “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and “Super Mario Odyssey,” and 2018 was no different. Part of the following games were some that I had been anticipating for years and the others came completely out of nowhere yet still grabbed my full attention.

Before I get on with the list, I did want to acknowledge Microsoft, who may not have delivered killer exclusives, but certainly made strides in appealing to the consumer. The Xbox Games Pass is an excellent value for those whose main hobby is gaming, and they also continue to push the standard of cross-play across all platforms. More importantly, they released the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a controller that makes gaming much accessible for those with certain disabilities. This is an area that both Sony and Nintendo have failed to improve upon, so I hope this offering from Microsoft is the spark to set things in gear for the other two companies.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Interactive
  1. “Florence”

A majority of mobile games — at least the ones I have come across — often hook you in with some neat mechanics, but quickly show a lack of substantial or memorable content to keep you coming back. “Florence” is a rare exception to this that delivers a thoughtful, near-hour-long narrative in the form of an animated graphic novel. The story focuses on a young woman named Florence and goes through the cycles of her new romantic relationship. The illustrations are beautiful, as is the game’s soundtrack. I would much rather pay something up front for a complete product that feels as though it had actual love and care poured into it, as opposed to some free-to-start game that plagues most of the Apple and Google app stores. Just about everyone has at least a smartphone these days, and I think “Florence” is well worth the price of admission for a thoughtful and gorgeous game like this one.

Image courtesy of SIE Japan Studio
  1. “Astro Bot Rescue Mission”

PlayStation VR is an intriguing piece of hardware and has a number of experiences that truly sell the effect that VR can have on immersion in games. “Astro Bot Rescue Mission” is one of these games, taking the 3-D platforming of something like “Mario Odyssey,” and using the entire world around you in-game as the camera view. The game makes some clever use of the environment through this, and has some spectacles inside that simply will amaze you. The gameplay itself is a blast, and Astro Bot is a charming companion to go on the journey with. If you own a PSVR headset, this game is a must buy.

Image courtesy of Matt Makes Games
  1. “Celeste”

“Celeste” first came out at the beginning of 2018 and was a game that I kept my eye on after seeing the near-unanimous critical acclaim for the little indie. I finally gave it a shot at the start of my winter break and was sucked in as soon as I booted up the game. The soundtrack is superb and it hits you right at the main menu. The game follows Madeline, a young woman dealing with anxiety who seeks to climb the mystical mountain, Celeste, in hopes of overcoming her mental illness. The gameplay is an analog to this, standing as a difficult 2-D platformer. Dying will occur often, but it never feels like a serious setback as the game quickly puts you right back at the prior checkpoint. The multiple chapters deal with different mechanics to keep you on your toes, and overall provide a rewarding experience by the end of the game and Madeline’s story. There is a load of content to dive into for alternate, more difficult takes on each of the game’s chapters, so completionists have their work cut out for them here. While I have finished the main story, I am excited to dive back into “Celeste” in 2019.

Image courtesy of Enhance Games
  1. “Tetris Effect”

Based on a real theory that individuals will begin to see shapes snapping into place in everyday life after playing “Tetris” for a long amount of time, “Tetris Effect” brings this to light in a very cool way. Developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi is a bit of pro when it comes to puzzle games, so bringing his own ideas to the biggest puzzle video game of all-time seems like a match made in heaven. The PS4 exclusive can be played with or without PSVR, and I opted for the former. The experience is like none other and I was quickly reminded as to why “Tetris” is the best selling game of all time. The visuals along with the music are incredible, and the zone feature adds an interesting mechanic without messing up the core of what makes “Tetris” so fun. I am sure it sounds out there, but this is a game that has to be experienced to fully understand what it accomplishes.

Image courtesy of Quantic Dream
  1. “Detroit: Become Human”

One pillar of the trio of excellent titles released by Sony this year, “Detroit: Become Human” delivers a story-telling experience that can only be done in video games. Set in the not-so-far future of 2038, the adventure game revolves around three androids’ storylines in the city of Detroit, the epicenter for android production. The game feels inspired by films like “Blade Runner” and “Terminator,” more specifically the former as it deals with the question of android rights. “Detroit” also touches upon topics like climate change, growing world powers, and humanity’s increasing reliance on technology. The game takes a dystopian approach. What struck me most about my time with the game was how scarily realistic some of these ideas could become. The core cast of Kara, Markus and Connor are all well-written and performed, and each felt like narratives I was equally invested in and dying to see what would happen after each chapter. The game forces difficult decisions on you, much like how Telltale used to do, but the effects of these decisions feel much more impactful here. The flowchart that is shown at the end of each chapter details the path you took and could have taken, and looking online at everyone else’s completely different endings to mine makes me even more excited for another playthrough.

Image courtesy of Epic Games
  1. “Fortnite”

The phenomenon of “Fortnite” is one of the most intriguing stories of the year to me. Its growth from an early-access game with only a simple base building and defense mode last year to the most popular game of 2018 now is incredible. While I have fallen off the train now, the game consumed a majority of my spring semester this year, along with all of my other friends. We played so much that it’s probably why we got so burned out come summertime, but the game continues to bring weekly updates and seasons of content that sets a strong standard for the games-as-service online titles. The thrill of entering the top twenty, especially with friends, is a lot of fun, and often resulted in some memorable finishes, win or lose. The above games may stand as overall better games, but the memories and moments I shared with my friends in “Fortnite” will stand as ones I look back fondly on.

Image courtesy of Nintendo
  1. “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”

A culmination of over 30 years of video game history from across multiple franchises and developers, “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” is a celebration of some of the best parts of gaming. I’ve already put in over forty hours since its Dec. 7 release and fully intend on spending even more time playing the game. The game is filled to the brim with content including characters, modes, stages and music, pulling from so many franchises you’d be hard-pressed to not find at least one you’re attached to. Whether you’re playing with friends at a party or competitively at a tournament, “Ultimate” is the most accessible of the fighting game genre. Including an entire roster of every character to ever appear in the series is crazy on its own, but all the newcomers are welcomed additions as well — my personal favorites being the squid-kid Inkling and mayoral assistant Isabelle from “Animal Crossing.” This is a game that will be a mainstay when getting together with friends and is easily the must-buy for the Switch this year.

Image courtesy of Insomniac Games
  1. “Marvel’s Spider-Man”

With both “Into the Spider-Verse,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” this is easily the best year for on-screen “Spider-Man” entertainment. The PS4 exclusive was my most anticipated game for the past year and still managed to exceed my expectations (which should be quite telling for the next titles considering this is only number three). It told one of the best Peter Parker/Spider-Man stories to date and accompanied that with fun gameplay that matched what playing as the vigilante would seem like. The character performances are great all-around, and the score itself is one of the best of the superhero genre from both film, games and television. Insomniac already created one of my favorites franchises in “Ratchet & Clank,” so doing it again in a much bigger way in terms of recognition is awesome to see.

Image courtesy of Rockstar Games
  1. “Red Dead Redemption 2”

It’s hard not to look at any stretch of landscape and environment in “RDR 2” and not wonder about just how much work had to go into creating just that singular slice. Protagonist Arthur Morgan may very well be one of my favorites to play as in any game period, and the narrative on its own is one of the best the gaming medium has put out to date. The gameplay is solid, but overall didn’t stand as the major takeaway once I was done exploring all that “RDR 2” had to offer. The online portion of the game has been a lot of fun so far with friends and Rockstar has fixed many of the gripes I had with the mode since my initial review. It is definitely a beast of a game and one that moves rather slowly in order to further immerse you, so it may not be for everyone. It’s an excellent cast of characters, strong score and beautiful environments were enough to grab me in for my around 60-hour playthrough.

Image courtesy of SIE Santa Monica
  1. “God of War”

I had little to no connection or experience to the “God of War” franchise going into this soft reboot of the series, but what Santa Monica Studios left me with by the end of my time with the game was the impression that this was easily the best of the year. Gone are the combo meters all across the screen, constant sprays of gore, quick time event love-making scenes and overall unrelenting violence. Instead, what you’re left with is a game that makes Kratos a relatable protagonist thanks in part to the relationship with his son, as they embark on a journey that is simply the pinnacle of what games are doing now. The title manages to keep the tricky balance of having great gameplay alongside an excellent narrative (which I think is where “RDR 2” and “Detroit” falter). Bear McCreary gives an epic score that matches the gravity of dealing with Norse mythology as the stage which the game is set on. This revitalization of Kratos and his story, while still paying respect to the titles to come before it, is near perfection. Throwing the Leviathon Axe and recalling it is incredibly satisfying and is one of the small details that make this game so great. I knew the game would be good with Sony’s recent caliber of exclusives, but I never thought it would end with me considering it as one of the best games that I have ever played.

Best Songs of 2018 as Selected by A&E Writers

Album art courtesy of Tessa Violet.

Elissa Miller

4. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by the “Mary Poppins Returns” Cast: If there was a machine that you could throw your interests in to create a new product, the entirety of the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” would be my result. A sequel to one of my favorite movies? Check. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a character reminiscent of Bert the Chimney Sweep, my first childhood crush? Check. London as a backdrop for musical theater? You got it. While the movie is not a perfect film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a practically-perfect song and dance number. Clearly mirroring “Step In Time” from the first film, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and the movie’s) biggest number. It absolutely screams classic musical theater in both sound and design. Honestly, this felt extremely cathartic, because while I’ve loved the recent resurgence of musical films, they’ve generally failed to truly recapture that signature style. The dancing is absolutely breathtaking. The song is catchy and upbeat. Lin-Manuel Miranda looks like he is literally made of sunshine. I cried.

3. “Burn the House Down” by AJR: AJR crafted a perfect album with “The Click” in 2017. It was hard to imagine that adding anything could improve it, yet “The Click (Delux Edition)” somehow managed to do so when it included four new songs. While I’m a fan of generally every new addition, this the absolute best of them. It is a loud, angry anthem that reflects on Twitter and modern-day protest culture, while still being able to function as a dance track. The band allowed it to be used in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement earlier this year. Everything about it, from the musical style (the horns in this are GREAT) to the lyrics, is compelling. More songs like this in 2019, please.

2. “Bad Ideas” by Tessa Violet: While Tessa Violet made waves with her other release, “Crush,” this year, I’m quite partial to this second song. One of many musicians to first find their audience on YouTube, Violet has continuously grown as an artist to create a signature style. This is incredibly clear with “Bad Ideas,” which stands out among indie-pop releases for its unique sound. Lyrically, it explores the concept of falling for someone you really don’t want to, while sounding upbeat and light as a musical piece. The music video for this is also a great time and uses color in one of the best ways I’ve ever seen. Violet will continue releasing her new album as singles in 2019; I’m incredibly excited to see how it evolves.

1. “Everybody’s Lonely” by Jukebox the Ghost: I definitely link songs to specific times and places in my life. “Everybody’s Lonely,” off Jukebox the Ghost’s fifth album, “Off To The Races,” was the distinct soundtrack of my study abroad trip in the spring. I listened to it during bus commutes, while stuck in airports and when typing papers at the very last minute. It is extremely fun to listen and sing along to, yet it is also complex musically. It uses a number of instruments and vocal layering; soundwise it is largely reminiscent of the band Queen. I cannot recommend it enough.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classical Records.

Noah Howell

4. “Spidey-Bells (A Hero’s Lament) by Chris Pine: “Into the Spider-Verse” was one of my favorite films of the year, and is easily the best animated feature of 2018. The whole ride is a spidey-bonanza, and waiting into the credits was worth the wait for this song alone. Chris Pine is hilarious here and he gives me the Spider-Man Christmas song I never knew I actually needed. This song, along with the album I discovered on Spotify after the movie, will be a staple in my Christmas playlist for years to come.

3. “Shockwave” by Elena Siegman: Easter egg songs are a staple within every zombies map in the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” series, and many of these, like “Shockwave,” are written by Kevin Sherwood and performed by Elena Siegman. There is a reason for this: simply because the duo is fantastic. Siegman’s vocal performance is always stellar, and while the lyrics take a bit to wrap your head around, her job on the song here is no different. I don’t usually find myself listening to much heavy rock/metal like this song, but perhaps it’s just a great backdrop to the actual gameplay of killing zombies that makes it work so well.

2. “That’s The Way it is” by Daniel Lanois: The score within “Red Dead Redemption 2” is already phenomenal, but the best moments of the game are the long, reflective horse rides which come after key story beats and feature songs from a variety of different artists. This song comes towards the game’s climax and is the perfect beat to go alongside the penultimate moment of the player’s journey. I can’t give away too much without risk of spoiling the game, but the song is right at home at this particular moment and is one that will stick with me for a while. 

1. “Kitster’s Song” by Trevor Moore: When a friend first suggested this song to me, I was on board right from hearing the title. A song about Anakin Skywalker’s somewhat obscure friend in “The Phantom Menace” who had only a handful of lines? Count me in. The song straddles the line of being outright hilarious and emotional all at once, with Moore singing from the point of view of Kitster years after his appearance on-screen, reminiscing on what his childhood friend — now Darth Vader — is doing these years later. I had never listened to Moore before this, but one thing is for certain, he knows his “Star Wars.” Parodies of “Star Wars” songs usually rely on simply changing up the lyrics of an already popular song, but Moore creates an entirely new song on his own for Kitster and it is a great one.

Album art for “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment.

Breanna Herring

4. “Sauce All On Me” by CoCa Vango: Another song to contribute to my high self-esteem! This song raps about containing the sauce. “Sauce” is used to describe someone who has a style, confidence and attraction about them.

3. “Nice” by The Carters: Let’s be honest, The Carters are black royalty. This song serves as a confidence boost for me and motivates me to be successful. Some of the lyrics highlight how African Americans are told that they can do anything in America, but racism and inequality challenge the belief.

2. “Wasted Love Freestyle” by Jhené AikoThis song hit close to home for me. The song describes how sometimes our energy and love are not reciprocated back to us in a relationship. We find ourselves realizing that we wasted our time and energy on someone who was incapable of loving us the way we wanted to be loved.

1. “CPR” by Summer Walker: I adore Summer Walker and can completely relate to her and her music. The song “CPR” is a metaphor describing the artist’s lover. She characterizes his love as air bringing her back to life because she’s been misunderstood and alone for so long.

Album art for “Let’s Go Sunshine” courtesy of Lonely Cat Records.

Tyler Trudeau

4. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA: As Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ erupted onto the screen as one of 2018’s biggest movies, the soundtrack, curated by hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, also made waves as it brought some of the top names in hip-hop together to showcase the massive influence of the superhero hit. Featuring the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Future, the song that comes to my mind first lies in the Lamar and SZA team-up “All the Stars.” With it kicking off the end credits for the blockbuster film, the rhythmic ballad of SZA mixed with Lamar’s rap inklings remains one of the top tracks from the soundtrack.

3. ”Holy” by King Princess: One of the most enigmatic new artists I uncovered this year was Brooklyn native Mikaela Strauss, or as her fans know her, King Princess. A multi-instrumentalist with soulful vocals to match the atmospheric synth melodies that run behind her, Strauss has already made a name for herself as the next bold revolutionary in the queer-pop genre. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the artist has expertly carved her way to the top as one of the most promising new artists out there. While her early hit “1950” might have won the hearts of fellow artists Harry Styles, Halsey and Mark Ronson, her somewhat haunting track “Holy” off her debut EP echoes with sonic nuance and cinematic flair.

2. “No Pressure” by The Kooks: After grappling onto other alternative rock groups like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, the unique sound of English band The Kooks quickly drew me into a similar fascination into their more recent releases. While their hit 2006 track “Naive” made for a worthy song to lodge itself eternally within my brain, I didn’t initially pick up their later records until this year’s “Let’s Go Sunshine.” With the rest of the record offering a foot-tapping catalog of drunken nights and unrequited affections, the closing number of “No Pressure” perfectly captures the ease and joys of a new relationship.

1. “Superposition” by Young the Giant: Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, the latest record from indie rock outfit Young the Giant kicked off with a trio of sensational, cinematic and undeniably catchy tracks. Escorting us effortlessly into their newest collection of soul-searching tunes of lost love, adrift ambitions and super-sonic melodies, the best of the trio in ‘Superposition’ shows off the band’s talented and atmospheric instrumentals, as well as the dreamy vocal nuances of frontman Sameer Gadhia.   

Album art for “Joy As An Act Of Resistance” courtesy of Partisan Records.

Aaron Febre

4. “One Point Perspective” by Arctic Monkeys: It was pretty difficult to pick one track off the new Arctic Monkeys album as I was thoroughly impressed with the overall product. This song takes the cake due to the wonderful layering of instrumentation, Alex Turner’s witty and observable lyricism as well as one of his best vocal performances. Plus, this reminds me of the 1970s for inexplicable reasons.

3. “Baby I’m Bleeding” by JPEGMAFIA: Released in January, JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran” is one of the most exciting and intense albums of the year. “Baby I’m Bleeding” shows JPEGMAFIA’s fierce flow that is backed-up with an abrasive production that will leave your jaws dropped. Go ahead and play this, you won’t find another hip-hop track (or album) of this year that as fierce as this one.

2. “Dilemma” by Death Grips: As if all of their music wasn’t crazy enough, Death Grips returned with an even crazier album that made their previous work look more accessible. Out of my favorites from “Year of the Snitch,” “Dilemma” is my favorite for various reasons. Spoken word by Andrew Adamson (the director of “Shrek”), MC Ride screaming “DILEMMA!”, the video-game synthesizer and too many things that are incomprehensible to digest even for a fan of Death Grips.

1. “I’m Scum” by Idles: English Punk band Idles returned with a new album (“Joy As An Act of Resistance”) that is catchier and angrier than their 2017 album, “Brutalism.” This track encompasses the overall sound of the new album: Joe Talbot’s gruff voice, the steady and danceable rhythm, dirty guitars, a chorus that drunk soccer (or football) fans can sing along to, and the theme of “say what you want, I don’t care” in the lyrics make this song a favorite.

Artwork for “TINTS” courtesy of Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC.

Cecilia Whalen

4. “Bring Me Love” by John Legend: Yeah, it’s a Christmas song. I get it; Christmas is over. But I love John Legend, so I take what I can get. He definitely has one of the most beautiful voices of this generation, and this song is upbeat, well-arranged, and of course, well-sung.

3.“TINTS (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” by Anderson .Paak: I don’t think there’s anything smart I can say about this song, but it’s just fun to sing along and dance to, OK? Plus Kendrick Lamar is featured on it, so you know it’s gotta be a win.

2. “1985” by J. Cole: I love J. Cole’s voice and basically every song he’s done. This song is kind of a diss track to all those who have come out dissing him, but Cole doesn’t just cuss them out and be done with it. Cole warns them about the harm their attitudes and their lifestyles are causing themselves and others — and he doesn’t sound like a bully or a punk defending his own pride. Really, he sounds like a big brother looking out for the hip-hop community, while peppered with the occasional big brother boast.

1. “Brackets” by J. Cole: J. Cole knows how to use rhythm. While a lot of rappers tend to repeat a similar rhythmic pattern, triplet and sixteenth after triplet and sixteenth, Cole masters syncopation. This matched with his poetry creates a whole album of reflection and creativity, and “Brackets” is the climax of both of these musical attributes.

Album art for “Love” courtesy of Reprise Records.

Mayra Trujilo-Camacho

4. “Taki Taki” by Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B and DJ Snake: It’s a song I can dance to that has a mix of Spanish and English.

3. “Money” by Cardi B: I just think it’s a very catchy song and even a good workout song. It’s very hype.

2. “Scripted” by ZAYN: This song comes from his second album “Icarus Falls,” after leaving One Direction in 2015.  It is a love song with a creative melody and nice chill R&B background.

1. “Love You Anymore” by Michael Bublé: From his new album “Love,” which was released two years after his son was diagnosed with liver cancer. “Love You Anymore” is a very beautiful song. It’s more of a song to forget your ex, but it just has a very nice melody and aesthetic.

Album art for “CARE FOR ME” courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC.

Arik Miguel

4. Shoota (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Playboi Carti: When I listen to this song, I know that half of what I’m singing is my incorrect decipherings of Uzi and Carti’s mumble rapping. The other half of the lyrics have about as much depth as the line “money on the floor just like some shoes,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. “Shoota” is fun just for the sake of being fun, and that’s really all we could have asked of these two besties in 2018.

3. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra: This is one the most gleefully infectious songs I have heard in a long time. “Hunnybeehas the power to evoke the childhood joy that comes from somersaulting down a grassy hill.

2. “PROM / KING” by Saba: “CARE FOR ME” is Saba’s greatest album yet, and “PROM / KING” is its emotional peak. The seven and a half minute song builds up slowly until Saba is rapping at breakneck speed, describing his cousin’s untimely death. Saba has always had an incredible gift for storytelling, but he’s never told his story as breathtakingly as this.

1. “Noid” by Yves Tumor: Yves Tumor intertwines beauty and violence in an incredibly jarring and exciting way. “Noid” is unlike any song I have heard in my life. Almost as if you asked an alien to compose a song about police brutality.

 

Listen to the music featured in this article via the Spotify playlist below!

TV REVIEW: ‘Star Wars Resistance’ – ‘Secrets and Holograms’ & ‘Station Theta Black’

Warning: Spoilers for “Secrets and Holograms,” “Station Theta Black” and prior episodes of “Star Wars Resistance” follow.

While it hasn’t enamored me completely yet, “Star Wars Resistance” has continued to provide solid explorations into the sequel trilogy era, and these two episodes are no different. The threat of the First Order is fleshed out even more, especially in the most recent episode, “Station Theta Black,” with Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) taking charge for once. One of the things that has interested me most about the newest trilogy of films has been the mystery behind the formation of the First Order as well as simply the state of the galaxy at large. Both of these questions are being answered by the series, and besides its diverse cast, they may be my favorite aspect of “Resistance” thus far.

“Secrets and Holograms”

Probably my favorite of the Aces, Torra Doza (Myrna Velasco) gets the spotlight for this episode, as does her relationship with her father. I like that the episode tells the story through her point of view in a way and that it gives further insight into just how cool of a character she is. Myrna Velasco does such a great job at giving the character a sort of spunk and fun outlook on life, which pairs her nicely with Kaz (Christopher Sean) for the episode.

With Commander Pyre (Liam McIntyre) arriving to discuss a deal of protection from pirates with Captain Doza (Jason Hightower), Doza keeps his daughter locked in her room as his way of protecting her. Torra very quickly manages to sneak out and ends up coming across Kaz, who is on his own mission to spy on Doza’s meeting with Pyre. Starved of social interaction, Torra takes Kaz to hang out, which Kaz happily agrees to in order to gain access to where the meeting is being held. While Kaz does come to enjoy this spot of friendship as well, Torra is pretty quick to figure out his true motive.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

While I knew he had to have some sympathy to make a deal with the First Order, I will say I was surprised to learn the revelation that Doza was an Imperial Officer, which Kaz discovers through hiding in his closet and discovering his old uniform. This adds another dimension to his character, primarily showing how his decisions up until now can be viewed in this new light. Even though he wasn’t a bad character by any means, I think that this surprise — plus the deeper exploration into the relationship with his daughter — makes him a lot more interesting to learn more about.

Not much else was really explored more in this episode, though we did see the return of Jace Rucklin (Elijah Wood). Since blowing up his racer with the misuse of hyperfuel — which he still blames Kaz for — Jace is now working as a sort of server and errand boy for the residents of the Tower to make up the lost credits. There is also a cute moment where Kaz believes to have fallen into a trash compactor, though Torra calms him by assuring him it is not a trash compactor, it is actually a trash incinerator!

“Station Theta Black”

This was a bit more of a meatier episode, with Poe (Oscar Isaac) returning to take Kaz on a reconnaissance mission at an abandoned mining outpost of the First Order. Though I really dig the setting and atmosphere of the Colossus, it is nice to have these breaks every so often off-world to experience a new environment. A standout moment of the episode comes right in the beginning with General Leia Organa (Carolyn Hennesy) herself delivering the mission to the two, as we only got a glimpse of her on a hologram in the first episode. I don’t think her voice actress quite nailed the voice, though I don’t discredit her in the slightest as the late Carrie Fisher’s voice had a unique flair in the latest entries of the trilogy and I imagine it had to be extremely difficult to even get that close.

On the mission itself, Poe is a bit cockier than usual and even makes Kaz seem like the sane and responsible one. I appreciate this attention to detail though, as it does fall in line much more with the character we see at the start of “The Force Awakens,” since we’re still a few months out supposedly from the events of that film. The two discover that the First Order used the facility to mine dedlanite, used in the construction of blasters, and that the facility’s demolition was scheduled for that day. Phasma personally escorts the demolition team after learning of possible lifeforms aboard the station, which shortly ends in the pair’s quick escape. The escape of the two results in the station’s explosion, which both looks and sounds excellent as the episode’s climax.

Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

One thing I really like about this era of “Star Wars” storytelling is the cohesion of the different mediums with one another. In this episode, we see Poe and Kaz come across one of the First Order’s sentry droids, which was especially cool as it is one of Phasma’s abilities in “Battlefront 2” (I assure you it is a lot cooler than I am making it sound). While it is seen in the background of the most recent films, both here and “Battlefront” are the only instances we can actually see it in action and perform its job. I think it is just neat to see this thing that I often see in-game actually come across on-screen in another medium that I enjoy, despite how niche that thing may be.

As a pair of episodes, both “Secrets and Holograms” and “Station Theta Black” deliver another excellent dive into these characters and their problems. Torra is quickly becoming one of my favorites on the show, and I am glad that we finally got an episode dedicated to finding out more about her specifically. The adventure with Kaz and Poe was probably my favorite of the two, and it was cool to see Kaz become the level-headed one for once. Despite my overly-picky grievances, General Organa’s debut on the series was strong, and her relationship with Poe — especially with what we see in “The Last Jedi” — was on par with the films. The series keeps on showing this less-seen side of the galaxy and I am loving every minute of it. The latest episode was the first time the lead protagonist even held a blaster, which I think speaks to why I am personally enjoying this unique take within the show. Going into the mid-season break, I am pleased with what we’ve gotten from this new series so far and I’m excited for what’s in store for the second half.

GAMING REVIEW: ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’

In the lead up to “Red Dead Redemption 2,” most of the talk surrounding the game was about just how detailed it was. Rockstar Games is known for their expansive open-world titles that feel as though every inch was combed through in a scrupulous fashion. When I started hearing about things like having to keep protagonist Arthur Morgan (Roger Clark) well-fed, having to brush and care for your horse, and a number of other real-life activities, I’ll admit I got a bit nervous about just how realistic Rockstar was making their game. It seemed as though all of these activities were things that most were playing games to avoid, and I thought perhaps this could lead to the game’s downfall. I suppose I should have had a little more faith in Rockstar’s plan, because not only do these aspects of the game avoid its detriment, they enhance it.

Narrative

The story of “RDR 2” predates its predecessor by a few years, focusing on the gang that the prior protagonist, John Marston (Rob Wiethoff), was a part of before settling down with his family. In addition to John and his family, a few more returning faces are back, like gang leader Dutch van der Linde (Benjamin Byron Davis), Bill Williamson (Steve J. Palmer) and Javier Escuella (Gabriel Sloyer), just to name a few. While we do see John’s path to where he ends up in the original game, the story is very much focused on Arthur Morgan. Morgan has been with the gang for pretty much his entire life and both he and the rest of the gang must come to terms with the beginning of the end for the Wild West. As technology and civilization grow further inland, outlaws like the Van der Linde Gang are hunted down and captured for their crimes.

While “Grand Theft Auto” — Rockstar’s other open-world behemoth — is very much focused on satirizing the entirety of American culture with off-the-wall missions, odd characters and language used like a middle-schooler just learned their first “sentence-enhancer,” “RDR” has a much more mature and deeper story to tell than its close cousin. While there is still a bit of that DNA to be found in a few of its side missions, overall the game follows a much more character-driven and serious narrative. “GTA’s” tone certainly has its place, but I feel “Red Dead’s” just sinks me into the world and its characters to a more significant extent.

Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

Again, it is all about the characters for the purpose of this story. While the Van der Linde Gang are not saints, the game does do a great job at getting you attached to this family of outlaws and making most of them people that you can genuinely root for. Dutch views the group more as a Robin Hood-esque gang, and while there is some truth there, as things progress, this sentiment begins to unwind.

Rob Wiethoff as John Marston set a strong standard for the video game protagonist in the original “RDR,” so the fact that Rockstar one-ups themselves with Arthur here is even more mind-boggling. At first glance, Arthur comes across as an unwise country boy, but as time goes on and I spent more time with him, he really shows just how intelligent he is. His journal is the primary example of this, something that updates after each in-game day and chronicles his real thoughts on certain situations that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up on. The first time I thought about finally reading it, I set aside about two-hours to read up to where I was currently at. As you come across countless individuals for the numerous side quests and main story, Arthur begins to open up even more about how he views the situation at hand. This is something that is best experienced for yourself, and while I think I want to sit on it more, he might just be the best protagonist I have ever played as in a video game.

The rest of the cast’s performance is just as good, whether it be an integral character to the storyline or just some non-playable character (NPC) you come across for a one-time encounter. Another of my favorites includes Rains Fall (Graham Greene), a Chieftain of the Wapiti Indians whose place in the story brings to light more of the injustices done to Native Americans by the U.S. government. His actor, Graham Greene, delivers a great performance in the role, along with a relevant and superb soundtrack that typically accompanies missions pertaining to him and his people.

If I went on to talk about the other characters I loved, it would likely result in me just listing every character and make this article much longer than it already is. The story that Rockstar has pulled off here is incredible and is one of the best to showcase just how excellent of a narrative a game can pull off in comparison to films and television. The main story uses its biggest moments sparingly, which in return makes them all the more poignant. The rest, though, is far from being called filler and expertly drives the narrative from place to place in its near 60-hour run-time.

Gameplay

In conjunction with the narrative, the gameplay in “RDR 2” is certainly the weaker link. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t excellent either. If you played the original “RDR” or any of the “GTA” games, the gunplay will likely feel familiar to you. While it is not as revolutionary as the narrative, the gunplay does feel true to the older weaponry being used in terms of the minor tweaks done to how accurate you are based on how fast you shoot. Making a return from the original game, the deadeye slowdown ability is a big help in making fights go by easier, and it is incredibly satisfying to come upon a camp of bandits, target them all in deadeye, and dispense of them in about two seconds.

The best I can compare the game to is to “Breath of the Wild,” another game with a gorgeous and fully realized open-world. While “BOTW” has a typical “Zelda” narrative with some interesting twists thrown in, the real draw is the pure gameplay of the exploration, and freedom in how you choose to carry out a variety of your tasks. “Red Dead” is the opposite, where the narrative is, by and large, its strongest suitor; yet the gameplay takes a bit of a back seat. Both are exceptional games, and again, their weaker aspects are not necessarily bad either.

Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

A good portion of the game is spent on horseback, and thankfully the mechanics here work really well for the most part. There is an emphasis on bonding with your horse, which includes feeding, brushing and petting it when it gets anxious or hurt. Riding feels fun, but as the game progressed, making large treks across the map and through the same scenery did get a bit dull. Thankfully, there is an option with the cinematic camera to auto-drive the horse to where ever your marker is on the map, which alleviates this a bit. There are also some issues I found with the horse taking on a mind of its own when cutting through something like a forest, which would occasionally end with both my horse and me colliding face-first into a tree. The story itself does incorporate this bond for a good reason though, and through all the labors of caring for it, I never thought that the horse would be the thing I got the most emotionally invested in.

One of the main focal points of how you play is the honor system, which is based on a number of your choices as Arthur and dictate how the world sees you and how some key story beats play out. Say you’re riding out to town and a man comes out of the woods with a snake bite, you can choose to suck the venom out or leave him to die. I chose to suck the venom out, and later down the line, I passed him on my way into a general store. He then offered to buy something for me in the store (I chose the most expensive outfit I could find). There are countless more examples of these that you can come across in your play-through which really solidify the living world Rockstar has created here.

Coming across any random NPC will present you with the option to either greet or antagonize, which can lead to a number of possibilities. Once, I bumped into a guy in a saloon where he then drunkenly challenged me to a duel in the street, then once there, he passed out. The honor system plays a big role into the kind of individual Arthur is, and based on just how well these characters and the world are designed, I found it hard to go any way but the honorable route.

Tying into my original worries over the game, the core system is what dictates your health, stamina and deadeye ability. Making sure you eat and sleep are the primary contributors to the cores, and while it sounds like a lot, I never thought it got in the way of my enjoyment. Eat too much and Arthur can get fatter; eat too little and he can get skinner. The same applies to sleep, as towards the end of long days, Arthur will progressively walk more tiredly. While not applied to cores, you also need to bathe or else your fellow gang members or people in towns comment on your look and stench. Your horse also has a core system of its own, but really the items you’ll find in homes or off bodies help to maintain both yours and your horse’s to where it never really becomes an issue.

Design

Just looking at any screenshot of the game, it’s pretty clear just how much Rockstar has put into “RDR 2.” The variety of landscapes you’ll come across are all gorgeous and house their own ecosystem, pulling from the game’s 200-some number of species. Walk into a general store, and you can inspect just about every item sitting on the shelves and counters to buy if you please. Each individual cranny of the world has been thought out and further immerses you into the world that Rockstar has created.

The ultimate design choices that Rockstar made for this game make it one that starts off slow and only picks up slightly after the prologue. I think this really works to the level of immersion that they are trying to instill in the player, but if you’re not one to settle in for a gaming session of at least two hours, it may not be your cup of tea. Each in-game day for myself, I would start off by picking out my outfit and then grab a cup of coffee and converse with the other gang members. There are a number of random interactions to be had with them and even some activities can pop-up to further bond with them.

Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

Music can make or break a scene, and composer Woody Jackson has done a terrific job with the score here for “RDR 2.” Similar to its predecessor, the music outside of cut-scenes is reacting to what is happening in the game. Moseying along on your horse will have some calmer beats, where suddenly you’re held up by a rival gang and the score rises up with it. You can definitely hear the influence that films like the Eastwood classic “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” have on it, with a lot of loud brass, orchestral strings, heavy percussion and electric guitar. The score is excellent and further enhances the cinematic moments. Like the last game, there are long horse rides in key story beats, which are usually accompanied by original vocal tracks from names like Willie Nelson and D’Angelo, all of which here match the tone of their respective moments perfectly.

Besides the main story and stranger missions, there are a number of activities to spend time with. You can go on a hunting or fishing trip, search for a bounty set by the law for cash, play poker or another game with your gang, shop for a new outfit, or even get your hair/beard done at a barber shop. One of my favorites to do were the shows in one of the later game areas, which lasted about twenty minutes each and were comprised of multiple acts like magic tricks — dancing and singing to name a few. Each show was different the four times I went, and Arthur can even interact with the people on stage to your choosing through applauding or antagonizing. Hearing him give off wholesome compliments was a treat and again was a part of why I grew so attached to him as the protagonist.

As detailed as the world is, I think that can sometimes work to the game’s detriment. With how scrupulous Rockstar has tried to make their world, that only makes its imperfections more visible. One example of this was a mission where we blew up a bridge used by a train, and only during a mission later on the same day, I could see the bridge in the foreground perfectly intact. In a game that makes use of a system that shrinks or grows your horse’s testicles based on the weather, this seems like something that you wouldn’t let slip by. Looting bodies after a fight is one way to get ammo or stuff to pawn off, and having to make Arthur walk sometimes in a full circle around the corpse to get in the right spot for the animation each time was a bit of a drag, especially with how many bodies are usually left over. These issues are extremely minor and infrequent in the grand scheme of things, but when the game prides itself on being extremely detailed, the imperfections become a bit more clear. They didn’t really take away much of my enjoyment; they just took me out of a game that serves to be as immersive as possible.

Online

In the lead up to the game, I was looking forward to the online mode just as much as I was with the main single-player portion. The prospect of the online being even more in-depth — based on what they did with “GTA V” — was exciting. The online was finally released nearly a month after the game launched and just in time for Rockstar’s “November” time frame: waiting until the very last week to release. The foundation of the mode is pretty much what I wanted it to be, but there are a few glaring issues that have kept me from enjoying it to its full extent.

Getting the bad out of the way first, the main problem with online at the moment is connection issues. It seems to be on a case-by-case basis, but while I usually get disconnected either as soon as I join in or anywhere from five minutes to two hours of playing, most of my friends stay connected just fine. Looking into it further on Reddit, it seemed to be a common issue with other players as well, and Rockstar has since acknowledged it and claimed to be working on a fix. The only other issue is the in-game economy is the prices of guns and other items being high with missions paying out little, which Rockstar has already tweaked (though I don’t think that they have found that happy balance yet). They are calling this their “beta” period though, so I suppose these issues should come as expected.

Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

What I do love about online the most though is that it allows me and my friends to play in this giant sandbox that Rockstar has created. While some of the options aren’t fully incorporated like they are in single-player, the ones that are there are fun to take part in. Even for the side missions with basic objectives, the journey there is one of the best parts of the game. The freedom allowed makes the possibilities endless, especially when coming across other players. There is always the uncertainty of friend or foe, which helps to ante up the stakes a bit. Once I was riding with a friend only for him to accidentally crash into a rival posses horse, which resulted in a fistfight between him and the owner as everyone watched. The comedic moments are simply endless with friends, and I am not sure how enjoyable the mode will be for those looking to simply go at it solo.

Final Thoughts

“Red Dead Redemption 2” has been one of the most hyped up games since its original reveal in 2016, and for the most part, it lives up to that anticipation for me. It contains one of the most compelling narratives to be told in any game and leaves me excited for where the industry as a whole can go from here. While it is not without its flaws, the gameplay was enough to keep me well-engaged during fights and satisfied for the most part. Their process of design yields fantastic results as the music, sound design, visuals, story and truly in-depth world harmonize perfectly with one another. This is a slow game though, and it demands a lot of time for each play session, so I don’t think it will be a title for everyone. The online also has its issues that will hopefully be fixed, but the foundation in place is strong for future updates. My original worries mentioned at the beginning were thankfully unwarranted, and overall I think “Red Dead Redemption 2” is one of the best of the generation.

A Sponge’s Impact: Reflecting on ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’

Millennial humor is a strange thing; just take a look at the most recent memes and you will quickly see how absurd, chaotic and seemingly random our sense of humor is. Why is that? The Nickelodeon animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” has to play some role in the formation of who we are as a generation. A cartoon based around a talking sea sponge who lives in a pineapple and works as a fry cook is a wild concept for a television series, but the jokes that come from the individual episodes shine a light on where our humor comes from. Even as adults, the millennial generation just can’t seem to move past this iconic series as reaction images and memes from the show seem to pop up constantly on our social media timelines. There are also plenty of quotes that find themselves in conversation and in social media bios.

Following the death of “SpongeBob” creator Stephen Hillenburg on Nov. 26, the Internet created countless tributes and many shared how they were personally impacted by the series and its band of lovable characters. To pay tribute to Hillenburg and the wonderful world he created and its timeless legacy, four Niner Times editors have selected their favorite episodes to share just what this sea sponge means to them.

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom Media Networks.

“Pizza Delivery”

Adulthood is finally realizing that not only is Squidward justified in his anger, but that you may also be Squidward yourself. There’s nothing more relaxing to me than going home after a long day of school and work, but it isn’t always that simple. In this classic episode, SpongeBob and Squidward are tasked with delivering a pizza, which Mr. Krabs has suddenly decided to start selling as a means to make more money. Being that this is “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Squidward is relentlessly tortured throughout the episode during what should have been a simple delivery by the two losing their boat and ending up in an undersea tornado. Between the “Krusty Krab Pizza” song that SpongeBob sings and Squidward’s desperation to eat said pizza after becoming lost, there are so many hilarious moments and jokes packed into this episode. The standout line and my personal favorite quote comes as they finally reach the customer’s house and realize they have forgotten one important part of his order: “How am I supposed to eat this pizza without my drink?!” This just adds to the absurdity of the episode and the series as a whole. And who could forget the “big, beautiful, old rock” that the “pioneers used to ride for miles?”

Jeffrey Kopp, Editor-in-Chief

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom Media Networks.

“Rock Bottom”

The greatest SpongeBob episodes are nonsensical, clever, and, yes, social commentaries. The astutely named “Rock Bottom” from the first season meets all of these requirements in the weirdest way. It starts when Patrick and SpongeBob take the wrong bus on the way home and end up in Rock Bottom, the abyssal zone of the ocean. They are coming from Glove World…yep, a glove-themed amusement park. Patrick immediately catches the next bus home, leaving SpongeBob to fend for himself in the dark, strange area. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get on the bus, SpongeBob goes to the bus station where he waits for hours, only to be told the next bus won’t arrive until the morning. He goes back outside and meets a frightening anglerfish who appears to only communicate through spitting noises. SpongeBob tries to speak with him, but the anglerfish can’t understand his “accent” — speaking without spitting. SpongeBob grows increasingly frustrated and wary of the fish, but in the end, he is the one to retrieve SpongeBob’s balloon from Glove World, which ultimately helps him float home.

The best part of this episode is the concept of Glove World, made even funnier because it takes no real role in the plot. Patrick and Spongebob could have been coming from anywhere — the store, a friend’s house, etcetera. Why include this random aspect of the episode? Perhaps the obsession with anything glove-shaped is a commentary on consumerism, just as the bus station could be a criticism of bureaucracy or the interaction with the spitting anglerfish an analogy to xenophobia. Or perhaps it is just SpongeBob, and we need not take the talking sea sponge and starfish that wear clothes and go to a beach in the ocean at anything other than face value.

-Megan Bird, News Editor

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom Media Networks.

“Club SpongeBob”

Almost every episode from the first three seasons of SpongeBob are iconic, classic pieces of cinematic history. And while I believe they, as a whole, form one of the many foundational chains in the block of what established our generation’s sense of humor, a personal favorite episode of mine would have to be the “Club SpongeBob.” This episode is among one of my top ranks because it is utterly ridiculous. It also features some of the most iconic jokes of the entire series. The flawed, absurd and ludicrous logic presented in it makes absolutely no sense and it sets the stage for a downright comical experience. Why do SpongeBob and Patrick spend an entirety of three days stuck in “Club SpongeBob” without asking for help? Why do they listen to a “Magic Conch Shell” toy, and why do they literally nothing to get out of the forest, just because it told them to? How does that plan even work? How does there just so happen to be a plane overhead that releases food magically into a perfect picnic around them? Just when you think the episode has finally reached its climax with a park ranger coming in to save them and no more idiocy can be had, said ranger also ends up being a follower of the Magic Conch and has brought along his own. Squidward seems to be the only sane voice of reason in this episode, and watching him get driven to the brink of insanity by SpongeBob and Patrick’s shrewd logic actually working for their benefit is what really cranks up the humor in this episode.

I felt like I spiritually related to Squidward throughout this entire episode, from the start when he gets offended by SpongeBob and Patrick not letting him into their club to the end when he gets riled up trying to understand how everyone except for him is getting good favors from this “all-knowing shell.” The script is incredible; the jokes are incredible; everything about this episode is just incredible. Sometimes I too find myself wanting to ask the Magic Conch for advice on my life.

-Pooja Pasupula, Photo Coordinator

Photo courtesy of Nickelodeon/Viacom Media Networks.

“Band Geeks”

Long before I even started marching band in high school, “Band Geeks” stood as my favorite episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” It has humor all throughout, with standout moments like Patrick’s inquiry on whether mayonnaise was classified as an instrument, which alone may be the series’ most iconic line. I think what pushes it to the top, though, is the spotlight on Squidward, and not just that, but the fact that the main gang of characters rally behind him, resulting in the episode ending in his favor (which I think is the only time that ever happens for him in the entire series). The episode also makes use of pretty much all of the major characters as well as side ones like Plankton, Mrs. Puff, Pearl and even Larry the Lobster. Watching the group fail miserably at trying to be musicians is hilarious throughout, though when they come together at the end, it results in one of the greatest moments in television history. The performance of “Sweet Victory” (David Glen Eisley) is just so out of left field and amazing that it remains just as iconic to this day. Overall, this episode excels at incorporating the whole cast, solid band humor, the greatest halftime performance of all-time, and the sweet satisfaction of Squidward’s rare success being rubbed in Squilliam Fancyson’s face.

-Noah Howell, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor