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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox – TechCrunch

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It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration of the state of AAA gaming today than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game where the whole of the wine-dark Classical Aegean is available for you to ply with your oars — but which operates according to a risible, cartoonish video game logic that seems, if possible, even more anachronistic. Should you play it? Absolutely.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.)

In case you haven’t been following the Assassin’s Creed… well, odyssey, the last few years, the game took some time off following the lavishly produced but ambivalently received Unity and Syndicate games, set in revolutionary Paris and Victorian London, respectively. The series, critics said, was wearing itself a bit thin despite the fabulous set dressing.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when AC returned in Origins, set in an enormous swathe of ancient Egypt. New systems nudged the game from the stealth action of its roots toward the expansive, open-world RPG currently in vogue. It was a little rough around the edges, but the scale was welcome, as was the shift away from the increasingly turgid Assassins versus Templars secret society scramble.

The news that the next game would take place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War thrilled me to no end. I’ve always been a fan of the Classical era, Homer and Herodotus and Periclean Athens and all that. I’ll also admit to an unironic love of “300” and the story of Leonidas’s last stand — the graphic novel, not the movie, which was awful.

Are you kidding me? Look at this.

Here, then was that world brought to life with all the fidelity that Ubisoft’s hundreds of artists and modelers could bring, with a narrative combining secret societies with classical warfare, historical figures and high-seas adventure (I loved the pirate-themed AC Black Flag). On paper this is the greatest game ever to grace the screen.

And in a way, it is. Ubisoft’s rendering of the Classical world is so beautiful, so massive, so obviously a labor of love and skill and intensive research that I have spent much of my time in the game simply gawking.

The costumes! The statues! The landscapes! The light! It’s a feast of details at every location, from the idyllic backwater of Kephallonia, where your hero begins their story, to the sprawling, bustling Athens just approaching the zenith of its glory. I (that is to say, my character) walked past the Theatre of Dionysus in its construction, which I have visited in person (now ruined and restored, of course), and on up to the Acropolis, where I scaled the Parthenon and looked out over the tiled roofs under one of which, for all I know, I may find Plato sitting and writing The Symposium.

Seriously.

Then I meander to the harbor, board my black ship and split the seas to explore any of the islands in the entire Aegean — any of them. The whole Aegean! Well, most of it, anyway. Enough that you won’t ask for more. Here be mythical creatures, political machinations, stormy seas and sunny shanties.

The world that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inhabits, I feel confident in saying, is the largest and most impressive that I have encountered, with special credit given for having to reflect reality to a certain extent, which is not a limitation shared by its eminent competition in the open-world genre, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.

In my opinion, both as a gamer and a lover of antiquity, it is worth the price of admission to experience this world, to see and hear Ancient Greece in a way that was heretofore impossible, and simply to revel in the almost inconceivable level of craft that was so obviously put into this mind-boggling world.

And now, having made that judgment, I will proceed to trash the game I just recommended for about two thousand words.

The game itself

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game itself, is embarrassing to play. The characters you interact with and the minute-by-minute gameplay are so uneven that I truly believe that Ubisoft simply didn’t have time to adequately play-test it. It feels like the game was just too big to run through once they’d made it so they just shipped. If someone from Ubisoft were sitting next to me as I played, I would expect them to be cringing constantly.

It’s an incredibly lopsided collection of old and new ideas, balanced and unbalanced systems, good and bad UI, intuitive and baffling combat, beautiful and repulsive graphics, and excellent and laughable voice acting. I haven’t finished the game, let alone all the side quests, but although I expect to encounter more good things as I go, the bad things were apparent pretty much from the first few minutes and haven’t abated.

The AI of the people in this game seems to have regressed 10 years to a simpler age. They are truly idiots all, from people on the street to elite soldiers.

Good old Adrastos the Logician, engaging in hand to hand combat.

One of the first things that happened when I got my horse and learned to have it follow a road was that it mowed down a few laborers. This, I found, would happen everywhere I went: every character in the game walks right in the center of the road and dives madly out of your way as you canter down it, screaming and cursing. Wild animals cluttered the road, and reacted confusedly as I approached, throwing themselves under the hooves of my steed, Phobos.

This was my first taste of what would become a theme. Why, I asked myself, wouldn’t these people just walk on the side of the road? The developers clearly accounted for horses riding down it, and have behaviors and barks for when that happens. But it’s so weird, so unrealistic, so video gamey. Surely in this lovingly rendered world it is not unusual for a horse to run down a mountain road? Why then do they behave in this way? Because the people were not created intelligently — it’s as simple as that. None of them.

I once emptied a military camp of guards and then set about looting the place. A woman was being held captive in a cage — not an uncommon thing to find — so I let her out. As she escaped, thanking me, I turned to take the items out of a nearby chest. The woman, mid-escape, screamed with rage at me for this theft, snatching a nearby spear and rushed me in righteous anger. What?

Perhaps I can’t expect every peasant to be a genius, but guards too (of all ranks) are unbelievably dense. They will step over the corpses of their fellow men to get to their post and not say a word. They will fail to hear the clashing of swords, or not notice a guy being violently flipped over and disemboweled, a matter of feet away. They will follow you one by one around corners where you can dispatch them individually and fail to see or care about the ever-widening pool of blood. They are as dumb as the dumbest guards from games that came out 10 years ago.

“Mother of Spiders”

Not much better are the much-ballyhooed mercenaries, who come after you if you do too many bad things. It’s not really clear what the bad things are, but eventually you’ll see a red helmet icon on your map and know you’ve been naughty. They’re basically guards with special weapons and a few characteristics like “weak to fire” or “takes 20 percent less ranged damage.” Technically they have backstories but you have to drill down to their description to find them, and by the time you’re doing that you’ve probably already killed them. You can recruit them for your ship, like you can recruit anyone, but they generally amount to stat bonuses with funny names like Demos the Drunk. He didn’t act drunk — just had a spear I wanted, so I took him out. I mean, the variation is welcome, but it’s nothing like, for example, the nemesis system in the Mordor series.

Combat is a real mix. You are no longer a fragile assassin who can be killed from a few good hits, but a powerful warrior with supernatural skills like instant mid-battle heals and teleportation. This is combat between equals, but your equals are generally stiff types with two or three attacks they repeat over and over, glowing a bright red or gold before doing so.

A slippery-feeling dodge system zips you through these attacks, or you can parry some of them, then slash away at your attacker. Some guards or targets, especially if they’re a level or two above you, will take minutes of patient slashing before they drop. I was sent on a hunt to kill a legendary boar that I gave up on after a couple minutes because I had only taken its health down by a quarter while not being hit myself.

Compared with other action RPGs it’s pretty listless stuff. More appealing is the stealth, which the fools of guards are obviously there to encourage, since you can empty a camp or fort of its occupants systematically and it can be quite satisfying. But with the perfect knowledge effected by scouting such a place with your eagle’s x-ray vision, it feels more like bullying than anything.

The Peloponnesian War is going on around you, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice most of the time. You don’t exactly take sides, since whatever area you’re in, your enemies are the ones in control. You can weaken the faction in power by various means and force a battle (a melee in which the combat, now against dozens, feels frustratingly sloppy), but ultimately the guards and camps feel much the same as one another — Spartans have different helmets from Athenians.

I thought at first this would be deeper than it is. I had looted a variety of armor pieces, several of which suggested I could use them to blend in among the Athenians whom I was at that moment working to undermine. So I donned them and headed to the nearest camp, hoping to walk about unsuspected, Hitman-style, sowing chaos by releasing caged animals and setting fire to supplies. Nope: I was immediately attacked on approaching the gate, before I’d even come in or done anything suspicious. The guard that had never seen me before apparently recognized me as the bloodthirsty mercenary who’d wiped out a camp a mile or so away, minutes earlier. No espionage for me.

It’s never really clear who you’re fighting or why, because the locations and people are just names. It doesn’t matter if they’re Athenian or Spartan, just that they’re the ones between you and the treasure chest. I guess that’s the life of a mercenary, but it doesn’t make you care a lot.

That was a quest?

The RPG elements, from gear to abilities, have almost no integration with the game itself. From the very beginning you can see your whole skill tree, including things involving the magic spear that you don’t yet know is magic. You gain new abilities and upgrade your ship not through interesting quests or meeting interesting people, but simply by spending points and resources.

When your ship’s captain says the hull ought to be upgraded, it’s not the start of a quest to find some cool big trees or visit his hometown where he left his ship-building tools and pals. It’s literally just a reminder to stock up on wood and iron and press the button to upgrade in the pause screen.

When you meet a talented carpenter whose brother is being held by bandits, it isn’t a quest to reunite these guys for a power team that enables a ship repair superpower. He just turns out to be a regular guy who increases your hull strength by a couple of percentage points.

Quests, talked up ahead of release as being fully voiced and emergent, as though you’re receiving a request from help from a needy merchant or the like, are nothing of the sort. Every one I’ve encountered so far has been a variant of: Kill these five wolves specifically. Kill these three Spartan elite guards specifically. Kill these bandits. Sink these ships.

Each has a flimsy justification (they’re blocking the road; they stole money from me) and are often atrociously acted. In one I found the quest giver asleep; he obligingly woke me up to say he wanted to take the fight to some bandits who had been demanding money from him. As soon as I agreed, those very bandits appeared not 10 feet away and instantly ran him through. Quest failed.

There are deeper side quests, to be sure. But the hundreds of quests you’ll see on quest boards or appearing randomly in the wild are like this, and rarely give more than a spritz of XP and gold. Sometimes you can recruit the quest-giver, though they might or might not be helpful on your crew.

I wish that they had taken the time and effort that went into creating 20 or 30 of these quests and made one single side quest with multiple steps, characters that mattered a bit, and provided substantial rewards like a new ability for your ship.

Even main story quests, such as the targets you’ll be taking on, can be disappointingly shallow. You’re supposed to be following threads and clues, but several are just handed to you: Here’s some lady. Here’s her exact location. Go kill her. No dialogue, no footwork, no alternatives. Stab this person and take their shiny thing. Shouldn’t I at least try to get some information out of her? Why isn’t there even a death cut scene like in so many of the other games?

The writing is hit and miss. The main story and its immediate side quests are fine — I’m perhaps 25 hours in and I’m interested to see where it’s going, even if it’s not particularly surprising. And it helps that the writing and voices for the main characters are leaps and bounds above the rest.

I chose to play as Kassandra, as opposed to Alexios, for a lot of reasons. And I love her. She’s well-acted, her writing is funny and occasionally realistic, and I like that she is indistinguishable from her male alternative in every way. Your companions, especially Herodotos and your exuberant captain Barnabas, are great.

Yet other characters are ridiculous: badly written, worse acted. Even major ones. I remember one exchange with a soon-to-be-target who was pressuring me to torture some poor sap. His voice acting was so bad, especially compared to his interlocutor Kassandra’s, that I was laughing out loud. He was far from the only example of this.

Games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us on the quality of the writing and quests, but that should be a new bar to meet, not a high-water point. It’s sad that Ubisoft hasn’t upped its game here, so to speak; it feels like 90 percent of the game I’ve played so far is purely mechanical, and even at its best it sits like a layer of butter spread thinly across an enormous Greek piece of toast. But what toast!

It’s tantalizing to see how good a game like this could be, only to be let down again and again with elements that would feel out of date 10 years ago. I’m having a great time when I’m not shaking my head at it, and enjoying the scenery when I’m not being attacked by one of the evidently 50,000 bears out for my blood in the Classical world.

As I wrote earlier, to me it is worth buying just for the good parts. But as someone who cares about games and loves the idea of this one, I can’t help but observe how dated and baffling it is at the same time. It doesn’t live up to the world it was created to inhabit, but that world is practically a complete game in itself, and one that I immediately loved.

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Review: Separated siblings struggle to survive a brutal world in Tribes of Europa

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The same people who brought us Dark are back with the dystopian sci-fi drama Tribes of Europa.

The folks who brought us three captivating seasons of the existential time travel thriller, Dark, are back with a new science fiction series for Netflix: the dystopian drama Tribes of Europa, featuring warring factions battling over what is left of the European continent late in the 21st century. Brutal and compelling, it’s like a German version of The Hunger Games, with bits of Game of Thrones and The 100 thrown in for good measure. In other words, we’re on familiar, well-trodden territory here, but the series is still one heck of an entertaining ride.

(Some spoilers below but no major reveals.)

The production company is Wiedemann & Berg, whose credits also include the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, in addition to Dark. The six-episode Tribes of Europa series was created by showrunner Philip Koch, who reportedly was inspired by the Brexit vote of 2016.  Per the official premise:

2074. In the wake of a mysterious global disaster, war rages between the Tribes that have emerged from the wreckage of Europe. Three siblings from the peaceful Origines tribe—Kiano (Emilio Sakraya), Liv (Henriette Confurius) and Elja (David Ali Rashed)—are separated and forced to forge their own paths in an action-packed fight for the future of this new Europa.

The global disaster in question is known as “Black December.” In 2029, technology “started going crazy,” causing a mysterious planet-wide power outage that plunged the world into darkness. Forty-five years later, the survivors on the European continent have divided into various warring tribes, scavenging for the remaining precious resources. The Origines choose to steer clear of the fighting and live in pastoral isolation deep in the forest, trading for additional supplies when necessary with a friendly neighboring tribe. Liv is a feisty Katniss Everdeen type, good with a crossbow, as is her brother Kiano. Youngest brother Elja is more of a sensitive sort, and has just passed his coming-of-age trial to become an adult member of the tribe.

Alas, their peaceful existence is interrupted when an aircraft crashes in the forest. It is highly advanced “Atlantian” technology, and Liv insists that the gravely injured pilot be brought back to the Origines settlement for treatment. It proves to be a serious error in judgment. Meanwhile, Elja has found a strange black cube, which the dying pilot transfers to him, instructing him to return the cube to “the ark.”

Whatever the cube is, everyone wants a piece of it, since Atlantian technology seems to be the only tech unaffected by Black December. A tribe that can exploit that technology would thus have an enormous edge in battle. A brutal tribe known as the Crows soon descends on Liv’s tiny settlement, massacring most of the people. The separated siblings must each navigate the treacherous new circles in which they find themselves to survive—and perhaps even one day be reunited.

Pursued by Crows, Elja escapes with the cube, and teams up with a rakishly charming scavenger named Moses (Oliver Massucci, who played Ulrich Nielsen in Dark). Liv is gravely wounded and rescued by David (Robert Finster), an officer with a military tribe known as the Crimson, along with a Crow captive, Grieta (Ana Ularu).

As for Kiano, he and his father, Jakob (Benjamin Sadler), are taken captive and brought to the Crow fortress of Brahtok (what remains of Berlin) as slaves. The hunky, defiant Kiano soon catches the eye of Lord Varvara (Melika Foroutan), who adds him to her elite harem of consorts. Their relationship is… complicated, given that she essentially rapes her consorts, but it also becomes one of the most interesting as the power dynamics start to shift in Kiano’s favor. (Kudos to Kiano for being able to, ahem, “perform” at all with a knife pressed to his throat.) He soon becomes a favorite, much to the dismay of fellow consort—and former favorite—Dewiat (Jannik Schümann).

The show is expertly plotted, well-paced, with strong performances across the board—especially Massucci and Foroutan’s Varvara. Frankly, my only criticism of Tribes of Europa is that there is nothing here we haven’t seen many times before in post-apocalyptic fiction—at least in this first season—and thus it’s a bit predictable. But it’s also eminently watchable and a perfect length for binging. Even better, each sibling’s quest takes them to the brink of a shiny new adventure—including a big final clue as to the true nature of the Atlantian cube that would drive a second season in exciting new directions.

Tribes of Europa is currently streaming on Netflix. In German and English, with subtitles.

 

Listing image by Netflix

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A music video you can play: Indie rock inside the Unity engine

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For nearly as long as video games have been around, they’ve enjoyed a tight relationship with pop music. As early as 1983, Bally-Midway collaborated with Journey to make a game full of licensed songs and the band members’ digitized faces (which followed more than a decade of pinball cabinets featuring megaton bands), and that says nothing of media sensations like “Pac-Man Fever.”

Meanwhile, interactive musical experiences, somewhat outside the firm “gaming” realm, began emerging in the CD-ROM era. These ranged from simple computer-exclusive content slapped onto a normal album’s data track to full-blown multimedia software featuring the likes of David Bowie and Prince.

Thus, the synergy of gaming and pop music is littered with various “firsts,” and this week, a modest music video by a Texas indie band might not register as a particularly big deal. It’s not a Doom clone starring Iron Maiden or a hilarious light-gun game starring Aerosmith. But this “playable” music video arguably heralds a new era: one where video game engines, and thus a gaming mentality, has become utterly foundational in pop culture.

WASD to the beat

The non-interactive version of “Greatness Waitress” by Fishboy.

“Greatness Waitress” is the lead single for Waitsgiving, the upcoming seventh album by Fishboy. This long-running pop-rock group out of Denton, Texas, compares favorably to the likes of They Might Be Giants, Weezer, and Ben Folds. In its newest single, nasal vocals wistfully spin a meta-narrative yarn about a struggling indie-rock band, and the words glide over heavily percussive piano and fuzzed-out guitar: I often perform, you should come take a look / but you can’t take a look, the band’s on a break / and the time that we took was specifically taken / on waiting… on a great idea.

The single sounds appropriate for a grungy basement venue or a friend’s backyard, somehow simultaneously loud and intimate, with an animated, teenaged jubilation. Its music video follows suit, posing fictional, geriatric band members as 3D-rendered cartoon characters (drawn by lead singer and songwriter Eric Michener) on a ramshackle stage. For a hint of what the band really looks like, a series of TVs flashes pictures and video snippets throughout the song.

It’s the band’s first 3D-rendered music video, but in fitting indie-rock fashion, this isn’t the result of a Pixar-caliber computer farm rendering each frame to immaculate, ray-traced levels. “Greatness Waitress”‘s video was instead built using the immediate-rendering flexibility of the Unity 3D game engine, and its limited geometry means it’ll run on most any gaming-capable PC. To prove this, the band decided to keep the indie spirit alive by launching its video as an interactive executable; you can even “play” it within a web browser. This build removes the YouTube version’s intentional cinematography, instead allowing viewers to WASD their way around the environment.

Hang back and watch the whole band. Get uncomfortably close to the lead singer. Or poke around the entire video’s geometry, clip through polygons, and find Easter eggs.

Rock god + Dunk Lord

In an email interview with Ars Technica, Fishboy’s Eric Michener says he has previously applied his day job’s skills as a freelance video editor to prior shoestring-budget music videos. “I work a lot in After Effects, but it somehow never occurred to me to use a gaming engine in this way,” he says.

This idea emerged thanks to the prodding of director, artist, and animator Dann Beeson, who connected with Michener via Instagram as a Fishboy fan. The duo bonded over a number of things—shared love for the original Planet of the Apes films, along with the singer’s experience with multimedia album projects (particularly Fishboy albums that have come with Michener’s own full-length graphic novels).

“I didn’t realize he was a game developer,” Michener says. “I just saw cool 3D models that were their own works of art.”

Indeed, Beeson has some serious chops on his resume: most recently, he worked as the sole 3D artist and animator for the gorgeous NBA Jam homage Dunk Lords, built alongside Andy Hull of Spelunky programming fame. When Beeson and Michener began talking about a possible collaboration (which Beeson admits was a ploy to sneak an early listen to a Fishboy album), Beeson already had a workflow in mind: translating Michener’s 2D art into animated 3D characters; modeling, texturing, and rigging the “set” in Maya and Blender; and using Unity to compile the assets.

“I’ve been making games for the good part of a decade now and never really thought to merge the two disciplines” of music and gaming, Beeson adds. But the process of applying a gaming engine to a music video was a revelation, he says, especially compared to trying to make animation projects entirely by yourself. “Rendering just a second of animation can take hours,” he says. “If you need an edit on a shot, there’s your whole night.”

Meanwhile, “Greatness Waitress” worked out as a humbly scaled project, requiring “about an evening” to build looping animations for each modeled character. “The lip sync was done in a kind of weird way,” Beeson says. “I found a way to do motion sketching, or puppeteering, in Blender. I ran the song and scaled a circle up and down to make it look like a mouth. It looked way better than it had any right to.” This only took him roughly 2 minutes 30 seconds—”exactly how long the song is,” he notes. After framing the virtual set for an intentionally filmed video, Beeson and Michener gave the assets a second pass for more interactive fun—including teases about the full album’s “rock opera” story.

“More and more common”

Michener is careful in answering technical questions about the video, and he wonders aloud how many other video-production projects have leaned on popular, easy-to-use gaming engines. (If you’re as unfamiliar with the concept, Ars Technica has previously covered Jon Favreau’s cutting-edge use of the Unreal Engine on the sets of films and TV series.) But for him, that lack of technical understanding is part of the point.

“I love that you can look around at this video like it’s a virtual concert,” Michener says (without mentioning how few of those we’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months). “I know that’s been a bit of a thing lately, but probably not on a small scale like this for a tiny indie band like Fishboy.” Indeed: only Michener and Beeson did any work on the video, with the singer praising Beeson’s ability to “pivot with my ideas.”

“I’ve seen a few other short films and demos done in Unity and Unreal, but my prediction is, it’s going to become more and more common,” Beeson adds.

Thanks to its intentional simplicity, “Greatness Waitress” likely won’t win traditional “music video” awards. But how many music videos can you think of that let you take control, live inside of a miniature concert, and view at whatever perspective you want? Right now, the answer is limited; even 360-degree and immersive-VR options for concerts and videos tend to plant viewers in specific seats, as opposed to Fishboy inviting viewers to hunt for secrets (and clip through geometry along the way). But dirt-cheap Unity and Unreal access will almost certainly change that reality as more artists and musicians come up with clever ways to replicate the real-world concert experience—and as a harbinger of interactive music fun to come, this project’s charming accessibility is indeed its “Greatness.”

Listing image by Eric Michener / Dann Beeson

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Ars’ plea: Someone make this into a series

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Enlarge / Vancouver Public Central Library. Libraries are where books sleep when you’re not reading them.

The past few years have seen an explosion in high-concept, high-budget adaptations for premium TV and streaming services, like The Expanse and Game of Thrones. Following in the footsteps of antecedents going back to the miniseries based on Roots, they’ve tackled material that’s too intricate and too sprawling to possibly squeeze into a movie-length work. At their best, these adaptations have done justice to the most challenging material.

All of which has left the Ars staff wanting more. If producers and networks are willing to put that much love into works we either weren’t familiar with or weren’t in love with, what might they manage with some really good material?

What started as a watercooler chitchat morphed into an article and has now blossomed into a series of short pleas/pitches—Hollywood, we’re all easy to reach. And we’re giving you, the reader, the chance to tell us how wrong we are or to come up with some suggestions of your own.

The Chronicles of Prydain (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander

This series, a loose retelling of stories from Welsh mythology, was absolutely formative for me and for countless other children in generations both preceding and following mine. Given how big fantasy has gotten since the turn of (this) century—and how many tween- and teen-friendly books have hit the big screen—I’m frankly shocked that nobody in the modern “prestige TV” era has taken a run at this childhood classic yet.

A young man, bored out of his head as an assistant pig-keeper, dreams of glory—despite all his elders’ warnings that “glory” really isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. One day, the pig in his care—who turns out to have a distinctly unusual skill set for a swine—escapes, and he chases her directly into the adventure of a lifetime.

Our hero, Taran, is immediately surrounded by a cast of characters who are both archetype and individual all in one. First he meets an old veteran prince, Gwydion, followed in short order by Gurgi, a woodland denizen who defies categorization. Later, he and we meet with Fflewddur Fflam, a bard who means well but has some trouble with the truth; Eilonwy, a self-rescuing princess who drags Taran along for her liberation; and Doli, a dwarf and member of the fair folk, among others.

The books follow Taran not only as he moves through events in the world, fighting a Manichean battle against the god of Death and his lieutenants, but also as he moves through the path to adulthood, learning that the world itself is in fact not so black-and-white as he once imagined. He finds in the end that the seeking must count more than the finding and the striving more than the gain; that you cannot judge the secret heart of another, where good and evil mix, but must instead judge someone by their deeds.

It is, in short, a powerful coming-of-age tale that also has some absolutely killer action sequences lurking in it along the way, teaching all the moral lessons of a Game of Thrones with a tiny fraction of the violence and 10 times as much compassion. The series tied together by a genuinely bittersweet ending that earns its triumphs without being cloying and its losses without leaning in to nihilism.

From a business end, it’s also got five full books’ worth of stories, told episodically, with room for more spinning of stories around the edge—the perfect competition to all those young adult trilogies that get adapted into films, or Warner Media’s unending and seemingly unkillable Harry Potter juggernaut.

Variety reported in 2016 that Disney had snapped up the rights to make a film-series adaptation—a decidedly mixed blessing, considering Disney was also behind the fairly execrable and utterly forgettable 1983 animated adaptation. But in five years, that project appears to have gone exactly nowhere. Why not hand it over to someone else—even the Disney+ streaming service, which has churned out phenomenal original TV—to take another try?

—Kate Cox, Tech Policy Reporter

Ancillary Justice (2013-2015) by Ann Leckie

I would love to see Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series done for television—and done right. In Ancillary Justice, an incredibly powerful AI named Breq—designed to control a massive starship, along with an entire army of mind-wiped human bodies called Ancillaries—has become greatly diminished. With its ship destroyed, the AI has only a single human Ancillary body available for use—and only the processing power of that single human brain to think with.

Although reduced, Breq is still a force to be reckoned with—the Ancillary body, which once belonged to a human, was rebuilt from the ground up to serve as a superhumanly strong and fast high-tech soldier. But its enemy is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of an entire civilization—and, Mianaai is not limited to a single body, having created hundreds of clones that have been melded into a disturbed hive mind.

The quest to get revenge on Mianaai necessarily leads Breq through a rich pageantry of “barbarian” civilizations and aliens, as well as Breq’s and Mianaai’s own Radchaai Empire—the cultural differences between the Radch and the “barbarians” made the original novels one of the most initially frustrating but ultimately rewarding reads I’ve ever experienced. The “barbarians” are basically what most readers would consider normal cultures, while the Radchaai are technologically and culturally transcendent enough to come across as alien to most.

In particular, the Radchaai find gender nearly irrelevant in any context outside reproduction. Their bodies are generally heavily modified both cosmetically and functionally for strength, speed, and long life. They use gender-neutral pronouns, and their fashions do not discriminate between male and female—so it’s not obvious what gender an individual Radch is in the first place. This outlook colors their encounters with foreign cultures, leaving them puzzled by the boorish and irrelevant (to them) focus that barbarians have on gendering everything.

A typical reader of the books will be massively frustrated by this at first, flipping pages back and forth trying to catch some hint as to whether each character is male or female, despite the Radchaai (and nonhuman) narrator’s obliviousness. Eventually, the worldview clicks and the reader, like the narrator, simply stops caring. While a television show wouldn’t be able to recreate the Radchaai’s indifference towards the gender of “barbarians,” it should be able to cast thoroughly androgynous actors for the Radchaai themselves.

Besides, I’d like to see a competitor in distant-future, altered-clone, body-independent weirdness to Netflix’s outstanding Altered Carbon.

—Jim Salter, Technology Reporter

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