Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Dark Shadows movie poster

So that's why I stopped watching Tim Burton movies over a decade ago. He had become a caricature of himself.

I'd forgotten.

His output has gotten bland enough that not even Eva Green's scenery-chewing can make it fun. Dark Shadows is so diffidently mediocre it doesn't even have the decency of being bad enough that you can make jokes at its expense.

#darkshadows #timburton #johnnydepp #evagreen

Book picture besides an iPhone X

The most striking thing about Tracy Kidder’s 40-year-old The Soul of a New Machine is not how well it holds up. That is a remarkable achievement by itself, consider its age. It chronicles the efforts to build the “Eagle”. The Eagle was a commercial computer, which at one demo has 128 terminals wired to it, and which fully-loaded didn’t have enough RAM to store an iPhone screenshot. Its processing was split among seven different boards wired together because miniaturized chips weren’t feasible yet. No description involving any of this has any right of holding up, and still Kidder manages.

The most striking thing about it is reading it now, decades later, and realizing how many of the lessons we knew back then we keep forgetting.

I’ll get back to that.

It’s no surprise the book is good – it won a Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. But it is a writing masterclass in at least two ways.

Tom West, someone who we expect will end up being our lead character, appears first on the sensational opening. We don’t talk to him, nor do we hear him speak much, but we see how others who don’t know him react around him as they are all on the same literal boat, in the middle of a storm. Then the book moves onto giving us a half-tour half-montage of the minicomputer industry in the 1970s, telling us about feuds and founders and fortunes being minted, talking about everything and anything other than our mystery man, before dropping him into the story again on the very last line of chapter 1.

It’s a beautiful, enthralling opening that sells you on the rest of the story right away.

The second way in which its writing is exemplar is how thoroughly researched it is. That Kidder takes his time with character is not extraordinary, but I’m surprised at his clear-eyed descriptions of things like the process of pursuing and removing hardware bugs. Kidder is a reporter, not an engineer, yet he describes hardware processes better than many experienced engineers I know. As he goes on to detail how, say, a CPU loads and evaluates instructions every time a billionth of a second ticks by, you get the impression that Kidder asks questions and doesn’t stop following up until he is satisfied he understands the answers.

And yet, that's all silicon, and a golem is nothing without a soul. Melvin Conway proposed in 1967 that any organization designing a system will produce a design that embodies the same organization’s communication structures. We get a preview of this early on, as Tom West disassembles the VAX – a competitor’s much-touted computer – and finds it wanting. It is complicated, expensive, involves too much protocol. West seems to disapprove that DEC was playing it safe.

His team, we feel him think, will do better.

The people that would end up becoming the Eagle team are the leftovers of a corporate move, an underfunded, understaffed eclectic collection that West starts pulling into his “insurance project”. West can’t throw money at the problem – hell, he can’t even order people to join his team. He needs to find ways to get them to “sign up”, to sell themselves on the idea that this project needs to succeed.

It’s the old Shackleton expedition apocrypha, but in an overcrowded basement.

Yet he succeeds in gathering a band to breathe life into this amorphous creature. The people he gathers say they don’t do it for the money so often that you start thinking that the engineer doth protest too much, even more so considering current day tech salaries. To all lights, they weren’t paid that much. These are not the current day spoiled millionaire engineer brogrammers. They’re not even the company stars – those moved to a new office at the start of the story, to work on Data General’s main project.

How does West do it?

He provides agency, freedom to invent, and a sense of shared purpose.

Tom West has little else to offer other than absurdly long hours, impossible deadlines, and a project that management itself doesn’t seem to believe in. But he creates an environment in which his engineers are allowed to roam with few constraints.

Do you want people to push themselves to achieve an unlikely goal? You set only a few gross parameters at a high level (“no mode bit!”). You then move decision making to the organization’s edges, to the boots on the ground who have the knowledge to make things happen and the capability to act. You let everyone feel that they can contribute, no matter their rank in the organization, and they do.

He does all that, then disappears into the background, to take care of the plumbing so that his team can have running water.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t tell them you’re empowering them, while spelling out everything they are supposed to do and micro-managing them, because god forbid you feel someone else knows more than you do. You don’t have overt signs of rank, because a nicer office, or more expensive hardware, have a way of reminding people of who’s boss. If you remind people that they have a lane, they may stick to it as you wanted, but also won’t contribute outside of it.

Sadly, there is one line people do remember from this story – West’s pithy phrase of “mushroom management.” He says that’s how you keep a team like this growing: you keep them in the dark and feed them shit.

Context, it turns out, is everything.

West was keeping the team in the dark about if the company believed in the Eagle team, its odds of seeing the light of day, management’s wavering support. Companies take that line literally now, not giving people enough information to make their decisions, run by insecure middle managers who hide behind it, feeling that empowering employees would threaten their position.

And still, the technology industry (and businesses at large) keep forgetting the Eagle’s lessons. Thirty years after this book came out, Dan Pink made a fortune proposing that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He called this “a surprising truth”.

Maybe that’s the true lesson from The Soul of a New Machine: companies don’t learn. If you want to make money, find a 30-year-old masterpiece and popularize a fraction of it.

Because Soul is a masterpiece. It not only holds up – it feels vibrant, current. The technology industry could learn a few things from West’s team, even now.

#tracykidder #nonfiction #book #technology

Yakuza 0 is a prequel to Yakuza, the silly action-adventure fighting game that introduced us to Kyriu Kazuma, the granite gangster with a soft, mushy center. On Yakuza 0, we spend our time alternating between two parallel stories. As Kyriu Kazuma, we spend our time in Kamurocho, out to clear Kyriu's name of a murder he didn't commit while staving off a conspiracy that threatens his mentor. As Majima Goro, Kyriu's deranged frenemy from the first game, we are trapped in Sotenbori (which is to Osaka's Dōtonbori as Kamurocho is to Tokyo's Kabukicho), slaving at building someone else a fortune before getting dragged into a conspiracy around a blind girl.

It would be a much better game if it had less Kyriu in it.

Kyriu introducing himself

Kyriu Kazuma is a lunkhead, an unimaginative bore who can mostly punch and kick his way through things. Yakuza: Kiwami works both because and in spite of it. The game is populated with absurd situations, like Kyriu teaching kids a lesson on friendship right after he punched his way through an entire building of thugs, Majima coming out of manholes or staging a zombie outbreak just to keep you on your toes, or attack helicopters trying to kill a kid. Kyriu approaches every one of these situations with the same solemnity, unaware of the level of absurdity going on around him. We are laughing at the preposterous side quests and farcical events, but we're also laughing at Kyriu, our own avatar, for taking them seriously.

Yakuza: Kiwami had its share of issues, but its sheer level of absurd fun made it easy to overlook them. It was the right kind of stupid.

Try as I might, I can't wring out the same fun out of Yakuza 0. All the pieces are there, but they don't just fit together in the same way. It's nowhere nearly as delirious.

Let me get this out of the way first and say that the story is part of the problem. Yakuza reveled in its absurdity. Even without the well-balanced gameplay (and there were a couple of sections that were less than stellar), you could derive a lot of fun out of the way the story kept trying to one-up its own barking madness.

Yakuza: 0's story is much more grounded, and seems to be trying to skew closer to Takeshi Kitano than Takashii Miike. The side quests and activities, though, keep being as juvenile as in the original game.

It's a surprise to find out that they share the same writer and producer, because it gives the impression that whomever assembled this one didn't realize what made the previous construction work.

If you mix toy car racing with melodramatic government-spanning conspiracies worthy of Oliver Stone writing a soap opera, you'll get belly laughs; but if you expect me to chase gravure phone cards after hearing how Demetrius and Chiron went to work on Lavinia, all you're going to get is dissonance.

Such a dramatic back story, full of tortured pasts and murdered friends would have worked, if Majima was the protagonist. The game has us play a more centered Majima Goro than the batshit insane knife-demon from the first game, the man capable of crashing a truck into a brothel just to have another go at fighting Kyriu. It's a side of him we haven't seen before.

This more calculating, younger Majima would have been a great vehicle for a dramatic story, with some funny ancillary elements. We know that he was tortured. We know he'll end up turning into some half-crazy half-playful lunatic. We know he has a story arc coming.

Kyriu, though, is just Kyriu. There are only two differences between him here and in the rest of the series: his tattoo is not complete yet, and he hasn't sorted his perma-wardrobe. There's nowhere for the character to go, nothing they can do with him other than have him punch out people for a different reason than he did before. And who was the genius who added another quick-time highway shootout to this?

The worst thing is that it's not a bad game. It's a good one, even, but you can see a great Yakuza game in there, if they'd only committed. The funny moments still work. Kyriu not only Bogarting Nishiki's golden lighter, but commandeering his car in the middle of a theatrical, overblown exchange, without anyone commenting on it. The Complete Dominations. The chicken. There were parts where I laughed out when they happened, then chuckled every so often later when I remembered them.

Majima striking a dance pose

But the side quest design is not as imaginative as in Yakuza Kiwami. There are some funny people you encounter, but most situations resolve immediately – there is barely any surprise in them, a sense that you'll meet these people later.

The minigames, which soon become tedious but are almost required for progress, are what detracts the most from it. You spend too long grinding, trying to get money to actually increase your stats, to unlock the ultimate fighting styles. Once you reach those, the attached activities stop being a way to meet people, and become conversation trees that you're forced to sit through.

Majima's story gets the short end of the back-and-forth stick, which pulls the rug from under characters with who we could have spent more time. A potential antagonist and mentor, who I was sure was going to have an impact on Majima's personality. A moment, where you walk with someone through Kamurocho, which carries more tenderness than anything Kyriu did with the goddammed baby on Yakuza 6. People who we meet, and start to know, only to have them brushed away so that we can switch back to the lunkhead.

Kyriu doesn't need much of a story. He is nothing but a human wrecking ball, and if you want to keep this as a melodramatic action comedy, he is the perfect choice. But if you are going to put this much work into humanizing Majima Goro, the Mad Dog Of Shimano, you should stick with it until the job is done.

Majima high-fiving his brain

#yakuza #yakuza0 #games #sega #majimagoro

The King's Speech

I'd have an easier time recommending Tom Hooper's The King's Speech if the strings weren't so damned evident.

In case you don't know (it's ten years old, and historical): Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of Wales, needs help with his speech impediment. Knighted doctors of the realm have tried to treat him with worse than medieval methods. His wife, whose name I don't believe they say out loud once, reaches out to unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue for help. Logue also happens to be a poor, egalitarian iconoclast, of course, but him and “Bertie” hit it off. There are a few bumps here and there, as class and nationality interfere, but the Duke of Wales, eventually King of England, comes to appreciate his commoner Australian friend (even if His Highness never apologizes for being a royal cunt).

Of course it raked in the Oscars. Best director, best screenplay, best actor, best picture. Colin Firth got both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as King George VI. It's the kind of tick-laden, showy part that awards love – like the one that got Geoffrey Rush his own Oscar playing David Helfgott in Shine.

And it's not bad. It's just so artificial, every bit there placed for effect. Logue's disregard for protocol and his off-handed send-up of the Royal Therapists. How much of Bertie's stuttering came from his dad's pressure. The requisite attempt that the establishment – made flesh in Derek Jakobi's Archbishop – makes at discrediting Logue, presented perfunctorily at the very last minute and just as quickly brushed away. Queen Elizabeth's stoic helpfulness. The ending note informing us that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. There isn't a single background prop in this movie that wasn't meticulously manicured, with a debate to analyze its potential audience impact.

Yes, it's a polished result, and it creates the intended effect, but it feels fake. Everyone involved has done better things, and it's this construct that gets a standing ovation.

#thekingsspeech #tomhooper #geoffreyrush #colinfirth

Kayo and Satoru

Erased’s Satoru Fujinuma works a day job as a pizza delivery man while struggling with his attempts at a wanna-be manga artist. He doesn’t share much with others, which his editor thinks reflects on the manga he writes and stops him from connecting with potential readers. At 29-years-old, his career ebbing away from him, he seems a teenager whose gap year before college extended to an entire decade. He is thoroughly unremarkable, other than the fact that he sometimes jumps back in time.

It’s not exactly an ability. Satoru can’t control it. It’s more something that happens to him, like everything else in his life. It always happens before an accident, a disaster, or another event with negative consequences, giving him a chance to prevent it. But since there is no warning, and it happens before the event takes place, Satoru doesn’t know what the trigger is. He finds himself yanked back, déjà-vu-ed a few minutes to the past, the needle skipping back. The moment he notices the jump, he frantically searches for a sign of something wrong, something he can affect, something he can fix. It resolves quickly, cause and effect apparent the moment he spots what’s wrong.

Until the time where a catastrophic shock sends him back eighteen years, to the time when he was in school, and somebody murdered three kids his age – two of them his classmates.

That “somebody” officially was an older friend of Satoru’s. Satoru never believed it. He sets to not only clear his friend’s name but also to prevent the murders. Yet he barely remembers the case, because adults at the time did their best to hide the grisly details from children like him. How can he act, trapped in a 10-year-old’s body, stuck in school, unable to explain to anyone what little he knows?

Erased avoided easy plot solutions, confounded my expectations. Not entirely, mind you. They only have so many pieces, and only a few of them would fit some areas. You can glimpse the edges of a pattern emerging, but like Satoru, you can’t always see the whole design.

Yes, I tend to favor shows that surprise me, but surprise is a quality that’s in short supply when you’ve watched as much stuff as I have.

That by itself would be enough to recommend it, but *Erased *’s characters grow on you, become something more than puzzle pieces for you to fit. And when they do, you start worrying about them, concerned about how Satoru’s actions to save one of them might pinball around and affect the others.

Everybody wants a do-over. Satoru gets one. He may not like the effect of the choices he has to make.

There is a grasping at father figures, rediscovering friends through your older eyes, the nostalgia for those innocent days when everyone was in sync. Yet Erased also has something else on its mind, which we glimpse as we see Satoru stumble and gasp and stutter when he is in his much younger body: we grow upwards, but not always up. A lot of us are just children, stuck in older bodies, never having figured out what happened in the time the age counter increased and expectations piled up. Satoru, looking at his friends again, has to realize that age doesn’t imply maturity and that he can’t succeed by himself.

There is a striking amount of tension in watching children doing child-like things to help each other escape an unseen threat.

#anime #erased #kadokawa

Safe poster

Safe is Jason Statham against the Chinese and Russian mobs, hounded by corrupt cops, punching people in the trachea, vaulting over tables, and shooting bad guys in the head, before going in for a multi-million dollar heist, all to protect a genius girl.

And somehow, it manages not to be that much fun.

Some directors couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat. Congratulations, Boaz Yakin – it's a select club.

#safe #action #jasonstatham #boazyakin #jameshong #chrissarandon

Cora Tanetti's police file from The Sinner

The Sinner is an atypical murder mystery.

We know who killed young Frankie Belmont, as he goofed around with friends at a beach: it was Cora Tannetti, thirty-something mother, who on weekdays helps her husband and father-in-law run a home repair business. We know how: she stabbed him repeatedly, on the chest and neck, with a paring knife, exploding upon him like an angry mountain lion with no warning whatsoever.

Those two are indisputable. Not only Cora admits to it, but dozens of people saw her, including her husband and son.

What we don't know is why.

It's not that Cora isn't telling – she doesn't seem to know herself. She looks as shocked as everyone else by her actions, is eager to confess and declare herself guilty. Still, she can't speak to what possessed her to murder Frankie. She'd never met him before. None of Frankie's friends knew her. He was a doctor who used to play in a band; she was a mousey housewife and former waitress. They'd never crossed paths before.

She admits to it. She wants to pay for her crime and be done with it.

Detective Harry Ambrose, one of the two assigned to her case, thinks she is almost too eager. He takes a paternal liking to her, believes they are missing something. There could be some extenuating circumstances, some trauma, something that caused her to act this way. He wants to make sure they aren't overlooking anything before her arraignment. Her behavior is unjustified, strange. Nobody just up and does something like this, is his take.

So he's got his theories, and viewers do too. Part of the reason people watch murder mysteries is to see if they can figure out the solution before they hear the answer. That carries you through a couple of hours, but for an 8-episode series, you are going to need to have characters people want to spend time watching.

It can't be just Cora. Jessica Biel does a decent job, but Cora is a cipher, and as much a puzzle box as the reasons behind her actions. Her husband is a simple man, doing his job, buffeted by events. It's all on Bill Pullman's Harry Ambrose.

Most of Bill Pullman's recent characters come across like current-day selves of his Serpent and the Rainbow Dennis Alan. Dogged but damaged, survivors of terrible things, barely getting by and coping 30 years later. Ambrose is smart, with a work ethic that engulfs his personal life, but he is no Hercule Poirot. Pullman doesn't play him like a misunderstood genius fighting police apathy. Instead, he is hesitant, like a just-recovered alcoholic, unsure of himself and his standing in the group. He might be right, more often than not, yet his main hurdle is not the system's indifference but his inability to communicate.

Being right is not enough. You need to be able to make it clear to others and win them to your cause. Ambrose's stubborn I-know-better-ness doesn't help him, personally or professionally. The tension comes not only from if he'll find the pieces he needs, but if he'll be able to get others to even look at them.

Cora's actions are a tincture spreading across the community, staining, revealing cracks. Ambrose claws at these with his blackened fingernails, pries them apart, trying to find anything that can help Cora. Pieces drop out of almost everything he cracks open, but Ambrose (and the viewers) need to figure out if they belong to the right puzzle.

Would this be the one bit that would flip a woman from a quiet mother to a violent murderer? Why would this have started that rumbling in the back of her self, the hateful drone that she had kept down, chained, so that it wouldn't come out, and that even now, covered in blood, murder weapon in her hand, she doesn't dare look at?

The why is all that matters.

#thesinner #thriller #tvseries #billpullman #jessicabiel

Adam Driver, Scarlet Johansson, and Azhy Robertson on the Marriage Story poster

Gary Oldman was terrified of playing George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. When pushed to talk about it, he said it was for the same reason that the part almost drove Sir Alec Guinness to a breakdown: it had no artifice, no flashiness, nowhere an actor could hide.

That should be the only thing going through your mind when watching Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Noah Baumbach's harrowing Marriage Story. If Oldman was terrified of Smiley, he'd be paralyzed at the thought of Charlie and Nicole.

Anyone familiar with Baumbach's work (particularly The Squid and the Whale) should expect the endearing poster and positive title to be as related to the contents as Deadpool's Valentine's day ads were. Baumbach takes that assumption as his starting point, runs away with it, and vaults over any expectations of unpleasant, cringing moments you could have had.

No, this is not about the relationship, back when it worked. This is about how two people, having drifted apart, aiming to keep some distance, overcorrect and don't just push their former partner away, but punch and stab and maim the other every time they come close.

This is a couple whose stated wish is to resolve things in an amicable manner, without getting lawyers involved, who decide to go against their agreement and proceed to trample all over each other. They step, stomp, scream, mangle. We grimace and cringe and try to get out of the way.

And it's all on Driver and Johansson. Their parts as Charlie and Nicole allow no tics, no mannerisms, none of the easy outward markers that fit well in 10 second Oscar clips. They are just there, on screen, nothing but confused feelings swirling up and emotions lashing out, all frustration and resentment and pain.

It is still not the most uncomfortable relationship movie I've seen.

(Pipe down, In the Realm of the Senses fans).

It is a more straightforward relationship than that in Polanski's Bitter Moon, in a way. In Marriage Story, we know we enter at the point that enough threads have come undone, and our job is to watch the whole construction unravel. In Bitter Moon, we know from the start that things went south at some point, we just don't know when, and we have to keep waiting, watching the instability build, wondering if this is the nudge that will make the emotional card castle topple.

That does not make Marriage Story any easier to watch. There is a scene where things start uncomfortable, before getting tense, then increase in intensity, then keep running past the point you'd expect, a terrifying escalation, to horrendous extremes where you want to step in and beg them to stop, push each into separate corners, or wish that at least one of them would make it end by strangling and castrating the other, just to make it stop. But it doesn't, nowhere near as easily, not until they've gone well past the point they should, where Baumbach has made sure you are feeling as dejected and drained as they are.

All of it just the two of them, in a room, talking. With no artifice.

The supporting performances are impeccable as well, particularly Laura Dern as a carnivorous spider in red stilettos (with a personal agenda to boot). Everyone has you assigning blame. How much of this is the lawyers? How much her, given her own admissions of insecurity, her breaches of agreement, her apparent shallowness? How much him, given his actions, his dissatisfaction, his manufactured authenticity?

It doesn't matter. It's done. They've made their choices, paid their prices, and have to live with it.

Watching it, you breathe out. At least it's over.

#marriagestory #noahbaumbach #adamdriver #scarlettjohansson #drama

Giri/Haji title poster

Giri/Haji is the rarest of creatures: a bilingual slice of life crime thriller series, like Kazuo Ishiguro doing a cops and mobsters story.

A Japanese executive is murdered in London. In Tokyo, a stern-looking man is shot to death at a restaurant, while he was examining the murdered executive's photo, the restaurant destroyed by the killers' automatic weapons. Kenzo Mori, a Tokyo police detective, gets a late-night visit from yakuza boss Fukuhara, who tells him that the London killer is Kenzo's brother Yuto, presumed dead years ago. Kenzo is a good man, an honest policeman, and he doesn't take orders from gangsters. Kenzo's boss arrives and confirms Fukuhara's instructions: he needs to get on a plane to London, ostensibly to attend a Crime Scene Management course, but in reality to retrieve Yuto and stop a gang war.

Kenzo can't defy an order, and he convinces himself that Yuto has a better chance of coming back alive if it is Kenzo bringing him back. He travels to London, begins his search, aided and hindered by the local fauna, getting glimpses of his brother's wake. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, their family and friends deal with the aftershocks.

The sins of the son reflect on the family. You often know when they are going astray. You always wonder if you should help, if you should let them fail now and face the consequences, deal with the sudden pain, or if all they need is one last push to clean up finally. You always wait too long. Things always get worse than you expected. You had expected that the impact for you could be harder the longer you wait, but you didn't mean for the blast radius to expand. Neither did Kenzo.

Takeshiro Hira plays Kenzo Mori as if he was a young Ken Watanabe in a Merchant Ivory police drama. Reserved, tentative, but determined to bring Yuto back. Yôsuke Kubozuka is Yuto, the brother he has to retrieve. The story revolves around the two as they move through London, and a trail of second-hand death blooms behind them. They both do a great job of conveying who Kenzo and Yuto are, their family dynamics, the stubbornness they share, the sins that bind them. They don't just carry the series by themselves, though.

Kelly Macdonald, who after a fiery introduction as Diane in Trainspotting seemed to have ended up typecast as the mousy Scottish girl, plays to both sides of her career here. Sarah, her constable, relegated to teaching after alienating her co-workers, is a reactor of righteousness wrapped in a shy schoolmarm, quickly exhausted but primed for mighty explosions.

On the other extreme, you have Charlie Creed-Miles playing Connor Abbot, a loud, unruly gangster. You want to lick Creed-Miles' scenery-chewing performance off your fingers, even if Abbot is mostly an amped-up, less self-aware version of his Peaky Blinders' Billie Kimber.

Then there is Will Sharpe playing Rodney Yamaguchi, the one who grounds us, the poor frog trying not to get trampled as the bulls fight in the mud around him, its poor impulse control keeping it too close to the fray. Rodney, son of a British and a Japanese, who could have been a two-note tragicomedic buffoon and walking metaphor. Sharpe's unsettled, frightened performance imbues Rodney with an inner life, aided by a script that insists on reminding us that even small actions can have outsized consequences.

Because everyone does a spectacular job with the parts they get, but it's Joe Barton script that deserves the most praise. It balances two countries and languages, a dozen characters, multiple parallel stories and motivations, and bundles it all up into eight coherent, thrilling episodes. And then, before it lets you go, it unleashes one of the most beautiful, lyrical, unexpectedly tense moments I have seen on a TV series, much less one with a neo-noir theme.

If only we could get more series like it: actual attempts at crafting the best possible story, not just another content hamster wheel to keep customers from canceling their streaming service.

It deserves to succeed, and I only hope its success ripples out.

#girihaji #joebarton #tvseries #bbc #takeshirohira #kellymacdonald #charliecreedmiles #willsharpe

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been out for about three years now. If you are interested in games at all, you've already read that it is yet another sensational outing by Nintendo. I had. I hadn't bought it, though, since I hadn't gotten a Switch because ... reasons. Too many games in my Playstation 4 queue for a few years, and then I was waiting for them to update the system. We've also had too many open-world games – I was a bit open-world'ed-out, to tell you the truth.

Ye of little faith, I can hear Satoru Iwata sigh.

Link fights a bokoblin on horseback

Even with three more years of open-world game development, with bigger teams trying new things on what are probably larger budgets, Breath of the Wild still impressed me. The gorgeous simplicity of its systems, its characters, how it embeds details into the environment – it packs many improvements over its competitors into an impressive experience.

It starts with you as Link, waking up in what looks like a tomb, from what you learn has been a long slumber. It all went wrong, a hundred years ago. We lost. The world has been living in the ruins of our last failure. Now we need to fix it.

So its genre is action-adventure, but that's not the core of the game. That's about discovery, exploration, the delight of figuring things out, finding new people, unearthing a new area. Its fun is in your interactions with not only the environment but the people you meet, with quests that are thrilling, adorable, humorous, poignant – often simultaneously.

Let's talk about the systems and world first.

A lesser game would need tutorials everywhere, and we would be talking about how well-spaced or info-dumpy those are. Breath rarely needs a tutorial for anything other than timing-related controls.

For instance, there is a cooking system. You can prepare ingredients by themselves, or combine them to make a recipe. The game doesn't explain how to right away, but neither does it stop you from trying. I kept picking apples. Their description read that the health effects would be more potent if cooked. I didn't find any cooking options, anywhere on the menu. But then I found a campfire and decided to throw some apples into it. The apples caught fire, briefly, then they turned into baked apples and me into a delighted, clapping six-year-old.

Its distinctive visual designs enhance the discovery factor, letting the game afford choices it otherwise couldn't. The game doesn't just set waypoints for your next objectives, or give you a route on the map. Instead, it gives you a description of a place, maybe a general direction, and lets you figure things out for yourself. You pick your route, whether by road or climbing or paragliding or any combination, finding new areas and places and secrets along the way.

For this to work, you need the environments to be distinctive and memorable, and by Hylia does it work. It is a vast open world, with areas that you can approach in (almost) any order. Yet, after you have been there for a while, it feels like you can remember every area of it.

“Ah, those jagged peaks. I remember them being by a river, with a cave behind the waterfall. That's probably ... here.”

“Hmm, the snowy, jagged peak. One of these three, up north.”

“Of course, the land dragon! That's the sculpture I saw two weeks ago!”

And what an expansive world it is. I am not sure how many hours I put into the game. Still, even near the end, when I was looking for a missing temple or exploring an area I didn't remember well, every so often I happened to make a left turn that I somehow had never made and run into a completely new vista.

That's an achievement by itself.

Then there are its people, cute, colorful, charming. You don't have to spend time on most of the side quests, grinding to make Link stronger, as they rarely add anything ingredients you can't just pick up by wandering. But you do get to interact with the people who are living in this world you are trying to save, get an idea of why your actions matter, at the individual scale.

In just one small town, I met:

A girl, trying to find her mom, who I played hide-and-seek with; and her sister, learning how to cook, who taught me recipes when I brought her ingredients.

A woman, afraid to go out in the forest where she used to play with fireflies, who missed them, and who was delighted when I caught and released some for her to see.

A painter, who had traveled the world and help me find some places I wanted to visit.

An elderly woman, who I'd met over 100 years ago, who was waiting to deliver a message from the past and to guide me to the future.

A stern guard, worried about his prized roosters having run off everywhere, who need help retrieving them.

A man, being blackmailed by evil from his past, killers who had murdered his wife (the two girls' mothers) and now threatened to do the same to the entire village.

That's just one small village, one of your most likely stops along the way, with some connections to the main quest. There are places that exist just to round up the world – from a sleepy fishing village to a town you help build up yourself – all just trying to cope with a swirling threat that literally looms over the horizon.

Because yes, there is an ultimate evil to defeat, Ganon's latest incarnation, this time coming back as a force of pure malice, the Calamity. Link is light fantasy's Eternal Champion, fated to fight Ganon over and over. You have to defeat him here one last time before Princess Zelda's own strength fails, and she can no longer hold him back.

It's a gargantuan, epic closing to a game made of moments large and small. When you get there, after all you have overcome, the final clash feels like the crowning achievement of everything that happened; a blow struck for everyone you have met. You haven't just toppled a monster, stopping a calamity from expanding and removing a menace that has hung over the kingdom for a century. You have made all these people's lives better.

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