Why Play… ‘Stardew Valley’

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Welcome to Stardew Valley, a quiet little town isolated from the rest of the world. When your grandfather passes away and leaves you his farm in his will, you pack your bags and begin a new life away from the hubbub of the commercial world to learn what it takes to become a farmer.

With the option to create your own items out of the resources you have collected, Stardew Valley is more than an homage to Harvest Moon.  It takes what made Harvest Moon such a success and adds a factor that minecraft players would find familiar. Additionally, the game also incorporates a level up system for each different skill the player may use on and around their farm such as farming, foraging and fishing. With each level the player will find using those skills easier to use and ultimately will discover that a good farmer uses each and every one of these skills in order to maximise their daily success.

However, it isn’t the game mechanics that make the game such fun to play but the relaxation that the game provides. This quaint little town that holds its own secrets, villagers with their own unique personalities and backstories and the bright 8bit pixels all create a tranquil charm to get immersed in. Most importantly, the game’s music also ties in a warm calming atmosphere that changes with each passing season.

Despite the soothing tone though lies a darker realism to the game. As you play through your first year as a farmer and start making friends with your neighbours, you realise things are not at happy as they seem. Through a number of cut scenes brought about by filling up villager’s friend meter, the game begins to explore a number of adult themes such as alcoholism, depression and PTSD.

Moreover, Stardew Valley also holds a negative view of the free market seen between Pierre’s general Store and the JoJa Mart; the freedom to choose where to shop has a tendency for major corporations, with the money to sell items cheaper, to end up monopolising the market and forcing their competitors to go out of business. Yet, the player does have the option to ignore the evidently exploitative nature of JoJa Corp and have a different experience to the game by buying a membership card from the Hypermarket.

The success of Stardew Valley is in the fact that it doesn’t force the player to do any specific job they don’t want to. Instead it allows us to play the game as we like. Whether it be to get rich, make friends or discover the secrets of the valley, the player will find themselves immersed in a small town and its community that one can’t help but wish existed in order to get away from our hectic lives. Stardew Valley is proof that sometimes the simplest things in life can turn out to be the best.

Why Watch… ‘iZombie’

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Olivia ‘Liv’ Moore was living the dream; she had the perfect job, the perfect fiancé and the greatest friends. She worked as an upcoming medical resident with a promising career in becoming a great cardiac surgeon until one fateful boat party changed her life forever. The boat was attacked by brain-eating zombies and the entire incident was thought to have happened due to the influence of drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, Liv did not escape unscathed; getting scratched by the drug dealer turned zombie Blaine. Having distanced herself from her friends and family to avoid ‘infecting’ them, she is thought to be suffering from post-traumatic stress. With the hunger for brains (and the need to cover anything she eats in hot sauce just to taste it), Liv Moore (the irony would kill her if she could die) now earns an ‘unliving’ as a coroner’s assistant where she can eat the cerebral tissue of the already deceased. However, every time she eats a brain the victim’s personality and memories permeate into her own for better or for worse.

Life as a secret zombie couldn’t get any worse; that is until her boss Dr Ravi Chakrabarti discovers her ‘mid-dinner’ and wants to study her ‘disease’. Moreover, she is thought to be psychic by detective Clive Babineaux because of the information she can accumulate from the victim’s memories. Nonetheless, zombie life does have its perks, as she helps detective Babineux solve murders, Liv comes to realise that although her living life has ended, that does not mean she has to stop living altogether. Now with her boss actively looking for a cure Liv comes to realise that being a zombie may not be permanent.

Although only vaguely based on DC’s Vertigo comic book series, iZombie does pay homage to its original medium through the use of pop art-like chapter sequences and comic strip opening credits. It also follows a typical comic book strategy in that it has a stream of consciousness narrative by Liv Moore. The series mainly focuses on how the murder victim’s personality helps solve murders all the while affecting Liv in her already lacking social life; making her as cold-hearted as her hit-man victim to as nurturing as her pregnant victim. However, the programme also attempts to show how being untrue to the ones she loves can have terrible consequences with her confused ex-fiancé slowly losing his grip on reality by uncovering Blaine’s underground brain harvesting business without any idea what they are or why they are doing it.

If you like Warm Bodies, Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies then you will love iZombie. With its black humour, character development and dramatic subplots, iZombie is a must-see television programme that you would have to be dead not to give it a go.

Why Watch… ‘Farscape’

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Farscape follows a group of escaped prisoners that band together to outrun their captors; the Peacekeepers (a militant and policing species of alien that to some extent share a similar genetic code to humans). With the addition of a human John Crichton (Ben Browder) having being sucked through a ‘wormhole’ into the middle of the prisoner’s escape and ultimately befriending the aliens on board the escaping living prison ship; Moya, he finds himself as much a fugitive as they are in a galaxy he knows nothing about. The different species of alien on board Moya adds to the character development between them all and the characteristics of their races are cleverly thought out. With a Luxan which are famous for their anger and a Delvian which are known for their meditative and religious beliefs, each species attributes are in direct opposition of another’s. Nonetheless, with such a small crew they all rely on one another for their survival and become some form of surrogate family. This family concept makes the audience care for each character despite how selfish or headstrong the characters may be.

Crichton’s constant references to television, jingles and songs throughout each season reminds the viewer just how far from home he is as well as adds to the ways Crichton attempts to keep the thought of Earth with him at all times. With every other character lost as to what he is talking about and some thinking him insane these moments add a comic factor that many other sci-fi space programmes lack. Additionally, Farscape uses Jim Henson’s puppetry studio to portray many of the alien species including two members of Moya’s crew; Rygel and Pilot, the puppets are nowhere near similar to Henson’s other projects such as the Muppets. Although not completely realistic, the puppetry adds another dimension to the series which makes the series a unique mix between special effects, puppetry and make-up.

All lost in uncharted space looking for a way back home; the series creates a fantastical universe filled with a plethora of alien threats such as the Scarrans, Nebari and the Sheyangs which keeps the viewer wondering just how big the universe really is. A cult television show which ended in its prime due to production costs; Farscape is a cult television series which continues to captivate the audience several years after the final episode aired and entered into graphic novel territory. If you like Firefly but wished it contained more alien species and were not so keen on the mix between sci-fi and westerns then Farscape is the show for you.

Why Watch… ‘Arrow’

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Set as playboy millionaire Oliver Queen is rescued from an island he had been shipwrecked on for 5 years, the series centres around his return to Starling City. Oliver is intent on fulfilling a promise he made to his father before his death when he gets home and, using the survival skills he gained while on the island, dresses as a hooded archer who targets those that have corrupted his city. Due to his unlawful exploits he becomes known as the Vigilante and must lie to all those around him including his mother, sister, best friend and love interest causing a rift between them all for being dishonest with them. Nonetheless, Queen does gain help from his bodyguard John Diggle and an IT expert Felicity Smoak who both see the importance of what he does and not only helps with Queen’s mission to right the wrongs of his father but also help Oliver escape the isolation he became accustomed to on the island.

The series constantly moves between the past and present with the events that occurred during those 5 years on the island and Oliver’s vigilante activities in Starling City. During the scenes set on the island it becomes evident that Oliver’s account as to what happened there is not as true as he wants people to believe and as the series progresses more of the truth is revealed to the audience. Additionally, the programme also introduces other characters from the DC universe such as Deathstroke, Deadshot and Black Canary. Not to mention introduces Barry Allen in season two, creating the new The Flash series thus sharing the same television universe.

A city owned by the wealthy and a devious plan that connects the Queen family right in the centre of it. Packed with lies and family secrets, Arrow constantly refreshes its narrative by adding more to Oliver Queen’s past. This is cleverly made possible through the use of his decision to keep his past a secret; perhaps due to a sense of trauma he suffered there. However, with his past refusing to remain just that, Arrow will leave you wanting to know more.

Why Watch… ‘Gotham’

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Similar to the short-lived Gotham Central comic book series which focussed on the Gotham City Police Department rather than Batman, Gotham centres on Jim Gordon’s first year attempting to fix the corrupt Gotham City before Batman existed. As one of Gotham’s few ‘clean’ cops, Gordon gets tasked with the murder of a young Bruce Wayne’s parents which leads him to the mob; most specifically Carmine Falconi. Since Falconi owns the police force and there cannot be “organized crime without law and order” Gordon is tasked to prove he is ‘part of the programme’ by killing a whistle-blower lackey named Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin). Keeping to his moral code, Gordon pretends to kill him and orders him never to return to Gotham. Unbeknownst to anyone, this action is the beginning of a big change in Gotham. With mobsters such as Fish Mooney and the Moronis attempting to overthrow Falconi, Cobblepot returning to create his own mob and Bruce Wayne beginning to train with Alfred, the only thing clear is that Gotham will never be the same again.

The programme mixes the gangster genre with comic book elements in order to create a gritty portrayal of a city in need of a saviour, allowing for people uninterested in comic books to enjoy a police drama. That is not to say that Batman fans will be disappointed as the show is filled with characters from the Batman mythos such as Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Renee Montoya and Edward Nygma. Some characters are obvious but there are many hidden allusions to the DC world such as the introduction of Thomas Elliot (Hush) and even Harley Quinn’s costume (seen on dancers within Fish Mooney’s night club). These ‘easter eggs’ add to the programme’s appeal for die-hard Batman fans while those who are not familiar with the comic books will not truly feel excluded from following the plot.

A gritty police drama filled with plenty of plot twists and betrayal Gotham will leave the audience unsure who to trust in a city where the police are just as corrupt as the criminals. The show bypasses the expectations of a simple series to set up a world before Batman by making sure that each case Gordon and Bullock do tackle are just as difficult to solve as any other crime drama. The viewer won’t be disappointed by the judiciary narrative or the connections with one of DC’s most recognisable superheroes.

Why Watch… ‘House of Cards’

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A remake of an original British series, the US political drama House of Cards revolves around Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) exacting his revenge against his political peers (including the President) for breaking a promise to make him Secretary of State. He subtly uses, abuses, lies and manipulates those around him in order to gain more power for himself. What makes the series so likeable is that the viewers do not need to be familiar with the American political system in order to understand what is happening unlike many political dramas. Additionally what makes the series unique is that Underwood constantly talks to the viewer directly. It is Spacey’s breaking of the fourth wall that truly makes House of Cards such a series worthy of winning 3 Primetime Emmy Awards for its 1st season.

House of Cards ultimately feels Shakespearean in nature, reminiscent of Macbeth and Hamlet. However, as Shakespearean tragedies always suggest, the more powerful they are, the harder they fall. It is this fact that intrigues the viewer to continue watching Underwood’s subtle machinations in the curiosity as to when or if indeed he will fall. Additionally, the viewer also feels like an accessory to Underwood’s plan to topple the political order as they are the only ones aware of his motives. That is not to say that the viewer knows everything though, being caught up in the web of lies and deceit formed by the Underwoods, blurs the boundaries between the truth and all the lies. The viewer must delve deeper into Frank’s malicious plan in order to find out more.

House of Cards not only focuses on Frank Underwood however. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) also plays a vital role in the series. Owning a charity named ‘The Clean Water Initiative’ she appears to be the opposite of Frank, yet, as the viewer learns quickly with Willimon’s drama, appearances can be deceiving. The series itself proves this; it is ultimately more than a political drama. It focuses on people and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to gain and retain power. Reporters, politicians, families and lovers are all doing anything they can to get what they want.  The series cleverly portrays what the corporate world epitomises; a dog eat dog attitude and those who refuse to play the game are easy targets. Additionally, House of Cards also calls attention to how powerful the media is over politics as well as how fragile the political system can be; so brittle that one man can ultimately manipulate it to his will.

A political thriller for the masses, House of Cards keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats in trepidation. With Season 3 being released on Netflix on 27th February, 2015, there is no better time to watch the two previous seasons portray the dark side of American politics in all its glory.

Movie Review: ‘Pride

8/10

Pride is a British ‘dramedy’ written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus. It depicts the true story of a group of lesbian and gay activists from London calling themselves L.G.S.M (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) who helped raise money for the families affected by the miners’ strike in 1984 during the reign of Thatcher’s government. Due to the National Union of Mineworkers’ worry of being associated with homosexuality L.G.S.M decide to go straight to the source and offer their donations to a random mining village in Wales; the Dulais Valley. With no idea how the locals will react in such a small, isolated village, L.G.S.M are invited to its town hall which results in an unlikely alliance between two oppressed groups during Thatcher’s time in power.

In honesty, I was hesitant to watch the socio-political and historical feel good film due to the fact that a number of similar films share a depressing tone focussing heavily on the negative circumstances surrounding homosexuality such as the homophobic brutality that took place in the streets. However, I was glad and very relieved to discover that Pride concentrates largely on the positivity of how two minorities can work together to attempt to oppose the government’s regressive actions. Although, it did contain some emotional scenes which aided in presenting the spectrum of public opinion at the time, it did so without losing its uplifting vibe. Similar to many of its peers though, the film is based on a part of history that very few people are aware of to do with the mining strikes of 1984 (my parents are both Welsh and come from the same area and had no idea about L.G.S.M’s influence on the area). However, what makes Pride such a must-see film is that it does not simply stop at informing the public of a group of forgotten heroes but attempts to change the public perception that is held over a very dark decade of British history as well.

I must make clear that the film is not only for homosexuals (or the Welsh); it is a film that can be enjoyed by straight people as well. It delves deeper than merely a movie about homosexuality; it explores several themes such as acceptance, community and struggle. Obviously it is these three themes give the L.G.S.M and the small Welsh village its similarities which help them accept each other.

With a plethora of celebrity actors merging with a number of lesser known actors such as Bill Nighy and Andrew Scott, Pride is not entirely a roar with laughter film but the audience will find themselves beaming from ear to ear throughout with, as the name suggests, pride.

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