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Forget trailers: The best upcoming games we played at this year’s E3

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Enlarge / In another year, these weird games wouldn’t necessarily rise to the top of our “best of E3” list. But when the biggest gaming companies focus almost exclusively on non-playable trailers, our picks have to go to the games we can personally test.

Chris Klimowski / Gamious / rose-engine

As the dust begins to settle from another hype-filled series of gaming announcements, timed for what used to be known as “E3,” one thing stands out: folks in the press, like myself, have fewer ways to go hands-on with the biggest publishers’ wares and tell you what stands out. Carefully staging bluster is easy; getting Ars Technica staffers to agree that the games in question are fun or interesting to play is not.

While a post-pandemic landscape has led more gamemakers to begin to offer remote game demos, none of the industry’s current “triple-A” titans offered me a way to play their most-hyped titles, the ones typically slated to launch a few months after a big June showcase. Sorry, Metroid Dread and Age of Empires 4.

Even so, plenty of other gamemakers were happy to offer me 30-minute slices of their cherished games-to-be, whether via direct downloads or cloud-streamed demos on services like Parsec. No, these are not blockbusters by any stretch, but guess what, games companies? You had your chance. And the indies took it.

With one major Steam-related embargo out of the way, I can finally begin telling you about my favorite surprises and delights I’ve tested thus far. Starting today, you, too, can access most of the below recommended demos via two massive options: the ID@Xbox Summer Game Fest, and the Steam Next Fest. Both offer full downloads of upcoming games’ demos, with 40 available on Xbox consoles and a staggering 550 games on Windows via Steam. The below list includes links for how to find the same demos I tested, with the exception of exclusives made available to Ars by the inaugural Tribeca Games Festival—whose limited game selection happened to impress.

Ogopogo: Coming August 27 | Demo via Steam | Official site

I’ve matched, popped, and dropped more video game puzzle pieces than anyone I know, yet even I did a double-take upon seeing this brand-new puzzling concept. After losing hours to the game’s limited demo already, I can safely declare this my absolute favorite game of E3 2021 and possibly a contender for my year-end list. Is Ogopogo this E3’s best game? Maybe not. But it’s my most-played game preview out of all of them.

Like most of my all-time puzzling favorites, the concept is simple, yet the depth stretches for miles: you clear blocks by mapping out palindromes.

The above screens demonstrate what I mean: use a mouse (or a finger, whenever Ogopogo‘s mobile port launches) to draw a line of colors that reads identically forward or backward. Red-green-red is a simple palindrome, made up of three blocks. A single block also counts as a palindrome, in a pinch—but you get fewer points for smaller clears, and that can end a run once the difficulty ramps up.

The game really sings as the challenge ramps up, thanks to pesky block patterns that require careful plotting to create high-value chains. The game’s demo includes one additional pesky mode, dubbed “Countdown,” that further boxes players in with a limited number of moves. And its creator says even more modes will appear upon the full game’s launch.

Seriously. Warn your loved ones, kiss them goodbye for a while, and download this demo. (Thankfully, the demo will save your progress, should life and responsibilities intrude on this game’s genius.)

Tunic 2021 demo overview, courtesy of developer Andrew Shouldice.

Tunic: No release date | Demo via Xbox | Official site

Though I’ve played (and enjoyed) this Zelda-like game at conventions and expos over the years, the game has never felt as feature-complete or satisfying as in this year’s entirely new demo on Xbox consoles, which I played long enough to confirm its quality—then immediately deleted. Why play the demo for another minute, when it has already convinced me that it’s an incredible final product?

I already knew that Tunic‘s art design hinges on a bouncily animated 3D world, viewed from a top-down perspective, with tons of beautiful lighting and particle effects whether indoors or out. And I already knew that its mysteries unfold by way of a gibberish language found on various signs and items, with enough colors and icons to clarify the basic gist in the early goings (“you’ll need a sword,” “this door is locked,” etc.). What I didn’t know until this week is how crisp its top-down combat feels, as it splits the difference between Zelda and Dark Souls in a way that is snappy and tense, not punishing.

If, unlike me, you haven’t already been charmed by Tunic, I urge you to grab the free demo to see how its unique art direction bolsters the game’s mechanical core, which emphasizes a sense of wonder and challenge. Since this years-in-development adventure still doesn’t have a release date, its latest (and largest-yet) demo may have to tide you over.

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Blizzard confirms developer named in lawsuit was removed for “misconduct”

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Enlarge / Ex-Blizzard developer Alex Afrasiabi as he appeared in a 2019 video promoting World of Warcraft.

Last year, reports started to bubble up among Blizzard-watchers that longtime World of Warcraft developer Alex Afrasiabi, who was first hired in 2004, had quietly left the company without any official explanation. Now that Afrasiabi has been specifically named in a gender discrimination lawsuit brought against the company by California state, Blizzard is confirming that Afrasiabi was let go in early 2020 “for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”

That confirmation from a Blizzard spokesperson comes from a scathing Kotaku report that includes pictures of and stories about the so-called “Cosby suite,” a hotel room at Blizzcon 2013 that was reportedly used as an alcohol-filled party space for Blizzard employees and fans.

The California lawsuit refers to a “Crosby Suite” (misspelled in the suit), alleging that “Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the ‘Crosby Suite’ after alleged rapist Bill Crosby [sic].” More specifically, the suit alleges that Afrasiabi “would hit on female employees, telling [them] he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them. This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees.”

Kotaku’s reporting found contemporaneous social media images and discussions showing multiple employees in the suite, often posing with a framed photograph of Cosby (who by 2013 had faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct but was years away from his 2018 conviction and its overturning earlier this year).

Some sources in Kotaku’s piece dispute the name’s association with the sordid side of Cosby’s past, though. Ex-Blizzard employee Josh Mosqueira wrote on Medium that he thought “the suite was named after Cosby because of the hideous carpet that reminded us of his sweaters.” He also wrote that the suite was the scene of a party he attended with “close to 100 people,” including “Blizzard employees and also their spouses, friends, and even family.”

Former Blizzard employee Greg Street, who is shown in some of the Cosby Suite pictures and now works at Riot games, tweeted a short statement saying the suite was “a green room at BlizzCon that many of us at the time used to take a break and relax during the convention.” Street says he “never saw or experienced any of the harassment described in the allegations—and if I had I absolutely would have stepped in.”

But Kotaku’s reporting shows that Street participated in text conversations in which former Blizzard employee Dave Kosak mentions “gathering hot chixx for the Coz,” among many other sexualized references.

“An employee brought these 2013 events to our attention in June 2020, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told Kotaku. “We immediately conducted our own investigation and took corrective action. At the time of the report, we had already conducted a separate investigation of Alex Afrasiabi and terminated him for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”

Though Afrasiabi is no longer with Blizzard, he is the namesake of a handful of World of Warcraft characters and items. The World of Warcraft development team promised Tuesday it was working to take “immediate action in Azeroth to remove references that are not appropriate for our world,” though the team didn’t mention Afrasiabi by name.

Ahead of a Wednesday “Walkout for Equality” organized by a number of Activision Blizzard employees, CEO Bobby Kotick wrote a public message late Tuesday apologizing for the company’s “tone deaf” initial response to the lawsuit and promising several actions to encourage “long-lasting change” at the company. “It is imperative that we acknowledge all perspectives and experiences and respect the feelings of those who have been mistreated in any way. I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding,” he wrote.

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How Final Fantasy VII radicalized a generation of climate warriors

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I mean, all the packaging required for a game spanning three CDs might help inspire some environmental mindfulness on its own.

In September of 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released for the original Playstation in North America. The watershed game swapped the series’ swords-and-sorcery-and-sun-dappled-forests motif for bombs and machine guns in a dark, rainy futuristic urban metropolis. It was a time before the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, a time when sci-fi and cyberpunk were ascendant and the stodgy old wizards and sword-wielding heroes of fantasy worlds reeked of the distant past (say, 1992).

While FFVII wasn’t the sequel I had been expecting, eventually even SNES JRPG diehards like me came to appreciate the change in style, as well as the sheer scale and ambition of what it was trying to accomplish. Nobody had ever told a story that big on consoles, and moving away from the 2D sprites into a (sort of) 3D world was a huge technical step forward for RPGs and gaming in general.

Thanks to a corrupted third-party memory card, I was never able to beat the game on that original hardware. It wasn’t until this year that the Switch re-release (and coronavirus-imposed lockdown) gave me the chance to breed the chocobos, find the KOTR materia, destroy JENOVA, and kill Sephiroth.

That’s when I found that, over 20 years after the initial release, FFVII’s ending still had the power to shock. Whatever I was expecting from the game’s conclusion, it wasn’t what I took to be the end of both human life and civilization.

The final cut scene in <em>Final Fantasy VII</em> still has the power to shock

Gaming for the environment

The final cut scene is set hundreds of years after the events of the endgame, when Cloud and the gang are, presumably, very dead. We see party member/space coyote Red XIII (whose species lives for thousands of years) and his children roaming the weedy ruins of the world’s forgotten, unpopulated metropolis of Midgar.

As nature reclaims the land and the coyotes frolic, not a single sign of human life is seen.  It appears that mankind and all traces of its civilization had perished from the earth due to the summoning of METEOR.

It’s a shocking narrative moment, especially compared to the endings of most ‘90s video games. Hooray, you beat the game, kids! Also, humanity had a nice run, yeah?

But the ‘90s did see environmental themes popping up all over gaming. Niche games like Ecco the Dolphin made this explicit, but even iconic hits like Sonic the Hedgehog asked the player to free imprisoned and adorable forest animals whom Dr. Robotnik was attempting to transform into cyborgs. As they return to their habitat, the birds and squirrels bound and flutter offscreen, chirping cheerfully.

Final Fantasy VII, however, made an extraordinary leap in asking the player to assume the role of violent ecoterrorists bent on blowing up a reactor inside a densely-populated metropolis. One of the game’s early, epic cutscenes ends with the bomb going off and the reactor being destroyed. Sure, some people died as “collateral damage,” but it’s OK… you’re the good guys!

In the game’s finale, the planet itself is saved, but at what appears to be the cost of all human life. No matter how you choose to interpret the ending, it’s thought-provoking.

With almost 13 million units sold worldwide, FFVII had a huge influence on an entire generation of gamers. It also helped move Final Fantasy, and RPGs, into the Western mainstream. It’s easily among the best-loved and most influential games ever.

But its impact wasn’t limited to the industry—the game’s radical environmental themes and Shinto-tinged philosophies wound up influencing a generation of environmentalists.

Pay attention, children

Bobby Pembleton, now an Enterprise Executive at a top European University (and a member of my international Mario Kart online group) is among those who found FFVII’s environmental message stuck with him. And he’s got the tattoo to prove it.

“Me and both of my siblings were totally radicalized by the game,” Bobby told me. “When we first finished it back in the day, our takeaway was, ‘Oh, civilization ended, and this is a good thing.’”

“We hadn’t seen an uncertain ending (in any media), that level of complexity was new to us,” he added. “It took a few days to sink in, but we concluded all humans were dead, and this was a good ending.”

Bobby’s youngest sibling, Jaclyn Dean, now works in healthcare. Jaclyn was 8 years old at the time so more of an observer at first, but recalled “I would actually assign characters to my brothers, enlist them to do character voices with me, and really act out the dialogue to immerse us in the story.”

After a year or two Jaclyn would pick up the game herself. “As I developed my agency, I thought, ‘hey I can do this too, girls can play video games!’ ” Eventually she went as far as printing out a strategy guide, becoming the first Pembleton to 100% the game.

Well when you put it that way…

Dylan, the middle Pembleton child who now works in the film industry, recalled that the ending made them all feel “we need to be stewards of the land, like these ancient talking coyotes. Our takeaways were that major industrialization is bad, and understanding how the lifestream and the planet works is much more important—because look how cute those coyote puppies are!”

Dylan says it’s hard to overstate the game’s impact on his choices as an adult. “FFVII affects the way I vote…everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve started a community garden. I’ve worked as a horticulturist. I know what I’m trying to do, and yeah, it’s essentially based on the philosophies of FFVII.”

“At the time we didn’t realize [Final Fantasy VII] could be an allegory for what was going on with extraction of capital from working masses, extraction of oil and resources from the planet, the distribution of that to the top .01%, up in Midgar,” Bobby remembers. “It was very influential for us all. We spent two years playing the game, again and again. We left the Playstation on as we went to bed so we could drift off to that opening theme music.”

“It primed us for this concept of a battle between workers and a hyper-capitalist machine hellbent on extracting every ounce of value from the planet,” he continued. “Soon after [the game came out] 9/11 happened, the Iraq war… there was an increasing comprehension [for us] that evil things were being done for the sake of making people rich.”

“Twenty-five years ago playing this game we didn’t realize how important that fight was—increasingly, [now] we do realize how important it is. Now people are going vegan, trying to help the world move to a well-being based economic system—we’re all considering increasingly extreme actions ourselves in order to fight the fight.”

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Historian recreates Thomas Cromwell’s London mansion in exquisite detail

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Enlarge / Artist’s reconstruction of Thomas Cromwell’s mansion on Throgmorton Street in 1539, London, England.

Peter Urmston

Tudor England was a treacherous place for ambitious courtiers, as the steady rise and sudden tragic fall of Thomas Cromwell—one of the chief architects of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII—makes clear. Cromwell had just completed work on a magnificent private mansion in London when he fell out of the king’s favor and was summarily beheaded. Now, a British historian has produced the most detailed analysis yet of both that mansion and the townhouse in which Cromwell lived prior to its completion, presented in a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

“These two houses were the homes of this great man, they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up,” said Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, who authored the new paper. “It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country. No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”

There was a time when historians considered Thomas Cromwell to be a rather insignificant court figure during Henry VIII’s reign. That view began to shift in the 1950s, as historians realized just how much Cromwell may have influenced the king and Parliament during a particularly chaotic period in British history. Much of that chaos, it must be said, stemmed from the monarch’s impetuous nature, particularly when it came to wives.

Cromwell’s star had already been rising at court when Henry VIII first stated his desire to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was Cromwell who first tried, and failed, to get the pope’s approval for the annulment. So naturally he became a staunch champion of the so-called doctrine of royal supremacy, which claimed that the reigning king was also the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby granting Henry the power to annul the marriage himself.

Mark Rylance plays a brooding Thomas Cromwell in the BBC Two adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel <em>Wolf Hall</em>, first of a trilogy.
Enlarge / Mark Rylance plays a brooding Thomas Cromwell in the BBC Two adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, first of a trilogy.

Cromwell was instrumental in getting the House of Commons to recognize royal supremacy in March 1532. Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor soon after, marking a huge victory for Cromwell and the reformation movement. Parliament enacted legislation to formally break with Rome in 1534, and Cromwell became the king’s principal secretary and chief minister. More was subsequently executed for refusing to swear an oath of succession to accept the king’s new powers.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533, and Cromwell’s position at court seemed secure; the king named him Royal Vicegerent in 1535. Then the marriage to Anne began to sour, driven in part by her inability to give Henry a male heir. But she also instructed her chaplains to speak out against Cromwell because of a legislative disagreement over what to do with the proceeds from the dissolution of monasteries. Plus, the king’s notorious wandering eye had by now fallen on Jane Seymour.

Most historians agree that Cromwell played a key role in smearing Anne’s reputation with accusations of infidelity. She was executed on May 19, 1536, and by the end of the month, Henry had married Jane Seymour, forcing Parliament to issue a new Act of Succession to recognize the new queen. Cromwell’s faithful service was again richly rewarded: he became Lord Privy Seal and was named a baron in 1536. By then, construction of his grand London manor on Throgmorton Street was already underway.

Holder has been researching the medieval friaries of London for more than a decade, and his earliest reconstructions of the floor plans for both the manor and Cromwell’s tenement house near Austin Friars were included in his 2011 doctoral dissertation. This latest paper is the first time Holder has fully presented the historical evidence he gathered to make those reconstructions, drawing on letters, leases, surveys, and inventories. And it includes an artist’s illustration, based on all that research, of what the mansion probably looked like.

Cromwell likely paid 4 pounds a year in rent for his London townhouse—one of ten tenements owned and rented out by an Augustinian friary. There were 14 rooms across three stories, with at least one cellar and a handful of attic garrets in the roof for servant housing. It was Cromwell’s primary family residence; his book-lined private office was located in the ground-floor parlor.

For his reconstruction, Holder relied upon two inventories of the house and its contents, providing a room-by-room description, including the coats of arms of two former patrons: Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Grey. According to Holder, this suggests that, despite his ruthless reputation at court, Cromwell still retained some private loyalties.

“In the 1520s [Cromwell] seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

Those inventories also provide some insight into Cromwell’s religious leanings. “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530 Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants,” said Holder. “But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic. He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”

Cromwell had been quietly buying up properties around his London townhouse for several years, including acquiring (by apparently illegal means) a 22-foot strip of land that technically belonged to a neighbor, in order to have a larger garden. Construction was delayed in late 1536 when most of the workmen were conscripted to put down a rebellion in Yorkshire (the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising). Holder estimates that Cromwell spent roughly 1,600 pounds on the residence, which seems to have served multiple functions: family residence, administrative base, and an excellent venue for entertaining prestigious visitors.

The new mansion boasted 58 rooms, plus at least a dozen servants’ garrets and several storage cellars for wine and beer. It spanned two main blocks built around three courtyards, linked by a long frontage on Throgmorton Street and by connecting galleries at the rear of the house with windows overlooking the courtyard. There were several kitchens (including a separate pastry kitchen) on the ground floor, a good-sized larder, a buttery and pantry, a chapel, a stable, and a porter’s lodge.

A large stair tower led to the first floor, which featured a waiting room and parlor, as well as several bedrooms—including what was likely Cromwell’s private and family chambers, located in the west block with a view of the garden. “The family apartment even included a separate bathroom with a plaster ceiling,” Holder wrote. The heated halls were likely hung with rich tapestries, and one of the halls featured bay windows—an unusual architectural feature in Tudor homes. The second floor consisted of a series of bedchambers along the street frontage, likely reserved for Cromwell’s staff and senior household servants. The other servants were probably housed in the various attic garrets.

There was also a storage space for Cromwell’s considerable personal armory, including several sets of German plate armor, almost 100 head pieces and helmets, and 759 bows with hundreds of sheaves of arrows. The large, detached garden may have included a bowling alley and tennis court, although it’s possible these were never finished.

"This then is my reward for faithful service!" Site of the ancient scaffold at Tower Hill in London where Thomas Cromwell was beheaded in 1540.
Enlarge / “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Site of the ancient scaffold at Tower Hill in London where Thomas Cromwell was beheaded in 1540.

The mansion was completed in the summer of 1539, but Cromwell did not enjoy the luxury for long. Jane Seymour had died in 1537, and Cromwell convinced the king to marry Anne of Cleves, passing on reports of her beauty and a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. But Henry was not at all happy when he finally met Anne in person, declaring, “I like her not!” He still went ahead with the wedding but apparently had trouble performing on their wedding night because he found her so unattractive. The marriage was never officially consummated.

Cromwell was one of only two courtiers who knew that secret, and when it inevitably leaked at court, Cromwell was blamed. Blabbing about the king’s humiliating inability to perform sexually wasn’t exactly solid legal grounds for execution, but Cromwell had made plenty of enemies during his rise to power, and they were all too happy to manufacture a variety of trumped-up charges: corruption, protecting people suspected of Catholic sympathies, and so forth. “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Cromwell reportedly said, right before he was tossed in the Tower of London and condemned to death without trial.

Meanwhile, Anne of Cleves was just fine with having the marriage annulled and was rewarded handsomely for her cooperation. Henry next married Catherine Howard on the very day Cromwell was beheaded: July 28, 1540. (Howard suffered the same fate the following year, and Henry subsequently married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr.) I’m sure it was little consolation to Cromwell that the king later expressed regret for executing “the most faithful servant he ever had.” Naturally, Henry blamed his ministers for presenting him with “pretexts” and false accusations.

As for Thomas Cromwell’s grand London mansion, it was among the assets seized by the state; some of the furniture went to Anne of Cleves as part of her annulment settlement. The house remained unused for three years and was then purchased by a trade group called the Drapers’ Company in 1543 for an estimated 1,200 pounds, per Holder. And it’s a good thing that the drapers did, since the group’s archives held a “treasure trove” of relevant documents—including the surveys and inventories Holder used to create such a complete picture of Cromwell’s London homes.

DOI: Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 2021. 10.1080/00681288.2021.1923812  (About DOIs).

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