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What a Blast! A Review of '60 Seconds!' and '60 Parsecs!'

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Title art. Image courtesy of Robot Gentleman.

Is 60 seconds enough time to prepare for a nuclear apocalypse? Polish indie developer Robot Gentleman tries to give players the tools to answer that question—but you'll have to choose between saving your daughter and saving three cans of soup. 60 Seconds! is a dark comedy atomic adventure game that puts players in the role of a suburban dad. Much like the title suggests, players have 60 seconds to collect as much supplies from their homes as they can and evacuate to an underground bunker before an incoming nuke hits the ground. It’s a dark-humored game that contains interesting mechanics, unique characters, and plenty of groundwork for its follow-up, 60 Parsecs!

60 Seconds! opens with a fascinating blend of apocalyptic music and flashy animations. It’s a title sequence with multiple variations, all which fit the mood of the game quite well. The fun only continues from there in the tutorial, where a strict, yet humorous military general commands players through the basic mechanics of the game. Essentially, players have 60 whole seconds to run around their house and grab as much as they can. Players only have four open inventory spots, meaning that they have to make multiple trips from the entrance of their bunker to the rest of the house. One minute might not seem like a lot of time, but like the military general assures, it’s a very advanced warning system.

The intro sequence gets harder when certain objects take up more inventory space than others. A can of soup or bottle of water only takes up one space, but the gun on the wall takes up double. There’s also the factor of family members. Players, being put in the role of the dad, can choose to save their wife, daughter, or son. They can take all of them, take some, or leave them all to die in the blast. One might think it’s an easy choice, but that’s just more food players have to share. Plus, choosing to grab a family member means players have less inventory space to grab other things. Those three cans of soup could ensure survival for at least a few days, and the overweight daughter and her tuba might become a burden.

The opening sequence is fun in the way that players have to make a lot of quick-second decisions. However, the game also finds itself burdened by clunky controls. Moving around the house feels particularly awkward, and the constant maneuvering around random barricades certainly doesn’t help. This may easily frustrate players, and when they only have 60 seconds, every step counts. The animations for this part of the game also don’t suit the rest of the experience, subverting to 3D graphics over the rest of the game’s 2D visuals. It puts a damper on immersion and breaks consistency between different parts of the game. Players might even choose to play a different game mode where they start in the bunker with a randomized selection of supplies, just so they can skip this clunky first part. On the bright side, however, if players do choose to stick around for this first section of gameplay, the house randomizes its layout every playthrough, making sure memorization is never an unfair advantage.

Once the timer counts down, and the players are safe in their bunker, the real fun begins. Playing out on a day-to-day cycle, players get to watch their family slowly descend into madness as randomized events determine their future. It’s a bit awkward at first. When players start the game, they’re put in the role of the dad. However, once the players get into the bunker, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how they now have control over the entire family. Despite this, what follows is still a lot of fun. Going forward, it’s up to the player to ration the family’s food supply, make important decisions, and send family members out on scavenging runs. There’s also a daily journal that keeps players updated on events and the family members’ thoughts and feelings. The best way to describe this part of the game is with only one word: hilarious. Does the player want to grow a mutant fern, worship a bunch of cats, eat his kid’s hamster, explore a crashed spaceship, play with a sock puppet, or all of the above? Just when you think you've seen it all, your daughter mutates into a giant purple monster and beats up a gang of raiders. It’s always entertaining, and always wildly unpredictable.

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Screenshot of gameplay, inside the bunker.

The bunker survival is definitely the meat of the game. Not only do each of the different characters play out their own stories in surprising ways, but the game is riddled with funny visuals that let the player know just how much their families have descended into madness. Day by day, players can watch as characters physically degrade, their eyes growing weaker and their faces going paler. Players will even see odd, yet disturbingly cute pictures being drawn on the pages of the daily journal. This part of the game also keeps great track of your collected items, letting players know when family members need food or water. It also tells players what items can be used in certain events, as well as what items could have saved them if they had only chosen to grab that from the house instead of their tenth can of soup.

The only major struggle with the bunker portion of the game is a clear end goal, at least in terms of story. There are hints dropped along the way that certain endings might happen, but the game makes itself so wildly unpredictable that finding a clear pathway can sometimes be tough. There also isn’t much given between the family members themselves. Players might think the mom character would be upset when they choose to leave the daughter behind, but the mom could hardly bat an eye. While there’s plenty of conflict in the world, characters have little conflict between each other, which is a bit of a missed opportunity when such diverse family members are thrown in an underground bunker together with zero privacy.

Despite the missed potential in story, the game does still propose an interesting conspiracy. Sprinkled throughout the game are clues about "Astrocitizens," people that may just have survived the atomic blasts from the far reaches of space. Did these people abandon Earth, or steal its supplies? All this theorizing finally pays off when it gets to 60 Parsecs!, the thrilling space-bound sequel to 60 Seconds!

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Title art. Image courtesy Robot Gentleman.

60 Parsecs! takes the formula of the first game, gives it a new setting, and fixes a lot of problems along the way. It starts with the very Astrocitizens themselves. Living on a space station in the orbit of Earth, players, now in the role of space captain, have only a minute to grab their crew and flee to the escape pod before nuclear devastation contaminates the Earth and erupts the station. From there, it’s up to players to pilot their crew across the galaxy and find a new home. Only, it’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that simple to begin with!

The first major difference with 60 Parsecs! is that players are now free to choose which character they want to play as. Rather than be forced to play as the suburban dad, they can choose to be either a male or female space captain. The captains, as well as the rest of the crew members, also vary in their races and ages, bringing some much-needed diversity to the series. Also, this game always makes it clear who the player character is. Unlike the first game, player characters can’t be sent on scavenging runs. As captains of their crews, it’s up to them to stay back and make sure everything on the ship remains operational. It brings a new level of immersion to the game now that players know it’s their character that is always making the decisions.

If 60 Seconds! does a fairly good job randomizing events to keep each playthrough fresh, 60 Parsecs! does a spectacular job. Not only is there an assortment of diverse crew members to take along on your journey, there’s also several different alien planets you can end up on, none of which are doing any better than Earth and its nuclear apocalypse. So, while one playthrough has players on a ravaged, stormy planet, another has them on a robot alien homeworld. And, as expected, each planet has its own assortment of events. For example, if players find themselves on the ravaged, stormy planet, they’ll also find themselves dealing with two alien groups battling for power. Because there are so many different scenarios that can play out, there’s also a lot of different endings. Much like the first game, some of these endings are good, some are okay, and some are downright horrible. It’s that diverse experience that keeps players always coming back for more.

With all the different planets and scenarios, there’s also a lot more story. Unlike the first game, the goals are more clear. Each planet seems to have a different main event line that gives players a clear end goal. This end goal takes a while to achieve, but it gives players something grounded to work towards. There’s also the aspect of crew members. Unlike in the first game, the different crew members must deal with conflict between them. Some of them might grow to hate each other, and others might grow to love each other. This also carries into the player character. Players might often find themselves with a crew member that has fallen in love with them, or a crew member that no longer wants to be their friend. So, even with the unknown dangers of space lying just outside, there’s still a lot of conflict going on inside the ship.

60 Parsecs! also fixes arguably the largest issue in 60 Seconds!, which is the awkwardness of the opening scavenging portion of the game. Like mentioned before, 60 Seconds! has the players running around their homes grabbing supplies in the first part of the game, a segment often weighed down by clunky controls and an odd 3D landscape. This segment always worked on a basic scale, but 60 Parsecs! improves it in many ways. To start, it switches the graphics from 3D to 2D. Not only does this make running around a lot cleaner, but it also keeps this portion of the game more consistent with the rest. The animations and graphics match the remaining parts of the game, allowing the entire experience to be more immersive. In addition, the new 2D layout makes the controls a lot smoother. Running around is no longer a frustration of walls and rooms, but rather a coast from one part of the space station to the other.

60 Parsecs! also changes up a lot of the base mechanics from the original game. Now the player has the option to romanticize and befriend other characters, allowing for a more personalized experience. It also includes a crafting machine, making sure players still have a way to get that one important item they may have forgotten on the space station 30 days ago. There’s also still the option to send characters out on scavenging runs. Only this time, players can choose exact locations to send them to, letting them weigh the risks and rewards of each area. It also adds more to the story, making it exciting and interesting whenever a new scavenging location is discovered.

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Screenshot of gameplay, inside the ship.

The only base mechanic in the sequel that seems to have been changed for the worse is rationing. In 60 Parsecs!, players no longer have to care about rationing water. However, instead of one can of soup feeding a family of four for an entire day, like in the original, each crew member will eat his or her own entire can of soup each day. The game tells the player that each can of soup will last an individual crew member for several days, but, despite this, those characters can still be labelled as hungry just one day after feeding them. The revised menu system, although still an overall improvement over the original, also fails to let players know how many cans of soup they have left in a more convenient way. Despite all this, the soup humor in the game remains strong. Cans of soup can be found all across a multitude of planets, and even the captain will question how tomato soup is so universally widespread.

Speaking of humor, that’s yet another thing 60 Parsecs! amps up over the original. With all the different types of planets and aliens, there’s so much more potential for comedic encounters. One of the best examples that comes to mind is the Dancelord aliens, who abduct the captain and challenge him or her to an intense dance-off! There’s also the new journal system, which is actually a computer with a humorous mind of its own. And it would be a crime not to mention the ancient alien cow relic, which only raises even more conspiracy theories about the game and its wacky world.

Overall, 60 Parsecs! is definitely a worthy successor to 60 Seconds! Robot Gentleman did a great job of creating a series that combines simple gameplay with over-the-top humor and dangerous apocalyptic scenarios. While the first game explores life after a nuclear fallout, the second game journeys into the far reaches of space, diversifying the experience of each game in a multitude of ways. 60 Parsecs! also realizes the pitfalls of the first game, adding more diversity, smoother mechanics, and deeper story content. Really, the only question left is where possibly Robot Gentleman will take the series next. Give the games a try yourself, and you may be excitedly asking yourself the same question.

60 Seconds! Purchase Links:

Steam

Humble

Nintendo eShop

App Store

Google Play

60 Parsecs! Purchase Links:

Steam

Humble


Dragon Flower Farm Update: Honeysuckle, You Really Suck

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Beauty is not always nice.

First, I want to say thanks for your interest in our little farm project. I wasn't sure if this content would gain an audience, so when my last post on the Dragon Flower Farm basically BROKE THE BLOG, I was pretty pleased. Because that means I have a reason to keep writing about it!

In case you're all like "What is this business about a farm?," feel free to catch up by reading about our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, the aforementioned fence saga, or this inaugural post, just for funsies.

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Never-before-seen footage of the SE side, post-chainlink removal, and pre-fence install.

So last time we walked you through stage one, which was to remove an eyesore of a zig-zag fence, as well as some truly noxious weeds. I mean, invasive plants. That winter creeper was on the list of "thug plants" identified by the St. Louis Audubon during their site assessment this summer, and we don't miss it. I wish I could say that was the last of the invasives, but no... 

Wait. Maybe I should back up and explain what I mean by "invasives" and why we would label some plants "thugs," as if they're getting all tatted up (not that tattoos are naturally a sign of thug life) and hiding unregistered firearms under their mattresses (if you're doing this, I have no defense for you). There is literally a whole class of plants that don't play by the rules at all. They don't take turns, they don't share space, and they hoard all the food, light, air, and water for themselves. On top of that, they spread through any means necessary, proliferating more like a virus or a parasite than a plant.

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This wintercreeper was supposed to be a GROUND COVER. But it grew up through the fence and became a big, shaggy thug.

I know this is going to sound bad in a really un-PC way, but this invasion thing happens most often with exotic ornamental plants that aren't from here. Because they've been uprooted and set down in a foreign environment, they are no longer subject to their natural predators or other growth-stabilizing factors, such as climate. And they go insane, crowding out native plants, taking over whole forests, and becoming a general nuisance.

Yes, even the pretty ones.

Perhaps you were drawn in by the delicate, orchid-like petals of the flower in the photo at the top of this post: Japanese honeysuckle, AKA Lonicera japonica. It's quite lovely, this plant. In its native environment, I'm sure it makes for a wonderful garden vine. Its dark green, ovate leaves foreground the vanilla cream-to-pale yellow flowers that appear in May. The scent they give off is intoxicating, a heady, thick sweetness you can practically taste. In fact, you can taste it; pull the pistil out and touch its end to your tongue, and it's like a dab of sugar. In fall, the flowers give way to bright red berries.

But here in the Midwest, its beauty is a betrayal. It takes up valuable real estate, covering whole forests in dense vine, while offering very little to native butterflies and other pollinators in return.

In our back forty, or, um, quarter acre, it covered most of the remaining chain link fence, which means it spanned about 2/3rds of the property line. That's a lot of vine, and it ALL HAD TO GO.

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There was so much vine, it's going to take me three pics to show you all of it. This is 1...
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Here's 2...
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...And 3.

I'd had my suspicions about honeysuckle--but they were accompanied by fond memories of sipping that dab of sugar from the pulled pistils. I had associated honeysuckle WITH the Midwest. Yeah, that's how invasive it is. So when the reps from the Audubon Society recommended removing it, that was a lot to absorb.

Initially, we tabled its removal. But then we found out that the best time to rid yourself of honeysuckle is in the fall, once the native plants around it have gone dormant. 

Still. That's a LOT of vine to remove. We'd go out there and stare at it, scratching our heads... 

...and come up with no gumption whatsoever. And if there's one thing I've learned over four separate bouts of home ownership, it's that one must have gumption for this kind of task.

Lacking it ourselves, we decided to call in reinforcements.

Horstmann Brothers came to the rescue, with plenty of gumption to spare. I realize we're lucky not to have to deal with the dreaded vine ourselves and that not everyone can hire help like this. For us, it was worth it, as we didn't have any of the tools they had, and while we could have rented them, we believe there's a time and place to let an expert in to do the job better than you can, and this was definitely one of those times, and one of the most obvious places. 

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The incredible two-man crew from Horstmann.

That vine WAS A MO. And I'm not talking about Missouri here. It had apparently been planted back when Lonicera japonica had first been introduced to the Midwest in 1806 and had been given free rein to spread itself, unimpeded, ever since.

But it was no match for the awesome two-man crew from Horstmann. These guys had the tools, and they had the talent (yes, that was totally a Ghostbusters ref). I can't say enough good things about them, and I'm getting nothing in exchange for this praise. We'd tried out a different company (that will go nameless) prior to this one and WERE NOT IMPRESSED. These guys did twice the amount of work with half the staff. Seriously.

Horstmann removed the vine entirely, along with a lot of other sad-face-making plant situations, such as a diseased, dysfunctional willow tree that had been poorly placed directly under a power line and then aggressively cut back every year (please, for the love of God, site your plants appropriately, people). We treated the honeysuckle roots/stumps ourselves (i.e., my husband did it) with glyphosate, as recommended by everyone and their cousin in the plant business. My personal feeling, especially as someone who struggles with allergy/autoimmune issues, is that there are already more than enough chemicals in the world, but since we couldn't very well conduct a controlled burn here in the suburbs, where they won't even let us build a fence over 6 feet tall, we had to settle for chemical means. Even though Horstmann cut the vine down to the roots, it will of course spring back with vengeance if it's not killed. We will probably be fighting this foe the rest of our farming lives, even with the chemical intervention.

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You might look at this and see just a standard-issue flex pipe, but I see a dry basement. Plus, how cute are the original wooden spindles flanking our front porch? RIGHT?

While we had Horstmann on hand, we also asked them to create a drainage swale to move water from between our house and a neighboring building and out into the farmyard, where we'll plant a rain garden. This should hopefully solve a leaky basement problem. I like this approach, solving drainage issues using ecological solutions that are also cost-effective, as we didn't have to spring for an expensive sump-pump or basement remediation.

Here's where the water now drains, into a cache of rocks.  My niece, who's on the spectrum and has a delightfully unique way of viewing most things, sees this as a "rock nest." Last time she was over, she laid out a perfect pattern of twigs along the perimeter. Now I can't not think of this as a rock nest.

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The water drains away from the house, out to this "rock nest," which will one day be framed by a rain garden.

We found Horstmann on a list of landscapers recommended by the St. Louis Audubon Society. I know I keep mentioning this group, but they've really been helpful in getting the right plan in place for the DRAGON FLOWER FARM; I'm really impressed with their Bring Conservation Home program and want to shout it to the rooftops until every MO citizen participates. I feel frustrated much of the time about the loss of ecosystem and bird habitat and not just out of a love for birds, though how could you not love birds, but because we NEED birds and other pollinators to ensure our own food supply. I often feel powerless over climate change and environmental degradation, but here is something I can do in my own backyard. It's that simple.

I realize I've been busy showing you nothing but REMEDIATION and INFRASTRUCTURE, and that you might be wondering when I'm going to get to the fun part, where we plant things. That's exactly what I've been wondering, too. But don't worry... fall's actually a good time to plant, so I'll have deets about that soon(ish). Thanks again for your interest in our farm!

By the way, you might notice I dropped "mini" from the name DRAGON FLOWER FARM. It was too cumbersome, and who's to say what's mini, anyway? This is our mighty farm!

Other farm stories you might like:

Why you should love bugs in your garden

The challenge: a privacy screen

Spring pics


The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon

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I'm always encountering people who think game development is like what we believe rocket science to be--extremely technical and difficult, not a pursuit open to anyone who isn't an Einstein. As someone who is decidedly less than Einsteinian, I'm here to tell you that it's not. 

I've developed a talk meant to demystify game design and get the average person of any age excited about it. I've used versions of this presentation in college-level introductions to game design and with general audiences, including families with young children. It's meant for my special brand of highly interactive facilitated discussion; after all, games are an interactive medium, so why should our talks be any different? And I always start by getting the audience to play a simple hand game: Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You can see this in action here:

The above talk was for the St. Louis County Library's "Science in St. Louis" series, and I don't think I've ever had as much fun with any audience as I did this one. Singles, couples, and families with kids showed up, enthusiastic about the topic and ready to participate, and not a single person wanted to know if I'd worked on Fortnite! A really cute thing happened at the end, too, when two young boys asked me for my autograph. I'm just thrilled that they've got an image of a silver-haired woman in their minds now associated with the phrase "game design." St. Louis County Library

What's your biggest takeaway from this?


Announcement: Industry Vet Elisa Mader Joins Brunette Games

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Elisa will design, write, and edit from her home base in Seattle.

I realize it's been the season of announcements here at Brunette Games, but I've got another one for ya, and it's a really good one.

Let it be known that Elisa Mader has joined the team as a writer/designer. I first met this talented woman when I worked with her significant other at Cat Daddy Games nearly a decade ago. Back then, Elisa was beloved by her coworkers in the banking industry, but she was looking for ways to defect to games. Since I'd taken a turn as an editor with a financial services firm in the past, I got where she was coming from. And I also understood how exacting financial services can be. I knew she'd be a crackerjack editor, so when I was in a position to hire freelancers at Big Fish, I brought her into the fold. 

I've been her unofficial mentor ever since, and it's been awesome getting to see Elisa rack up experience points across her five years in games. She recently finished a stint at AAA studio Bungie, working on Destiny 2. Which is way more impressive to my brothers and most other hardcore gamers than anything in my strictly-casual background, so there you go.

Among other projects, Elisa will be pitching in on Survivors: The Quest, ensuring that we don't go stale on a title I've been designing and writing for two years and seven locations, including an alien crash-landing, jungle insurgents, a case of parallel dimension twins, and a volcanic vortex. I can't wait to see where she goes from there!

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By the way, if you think her blue streak looks great, wait till you see her current 'Blue Level: High' 'do.

You can read Elisa's bio on our LLC page, but here are some questions I asked her to answer for you, by way of introduction.

How would you describe your writing voice--in games and elsewhere?

It's always slightly ironic, and I sometimes manage to keep the alliteration and wordplay in check (but not always).

I love banter between characters. I start by imagining my characters as real people, even creating character sheets with little details about their back stories (nanny turned cyberpunk hero!) and oddball obsessions (robots! an irrational hatred for chocolate!) that may never see the light of day. Then, with these personalities clear in my mind, I let them play off one another in situations ranging from the banal (where shall we put this lamp?) to the outlandish (why is my poetry bot trying to take over the world?). The quirkier, the better!

I also like parentheses.

What's your favorite game story, and why?

Must I choose just one? I played the heck out of Diablo II back in the day, and it remains a model of an epic linear story that built and built and built in excitement. Its fantasy setting felt large, wondrous, and worthy of exploration. My interactions with Deckard Cain convinced me I was unraveling a great mystery, yet smaller quests for ordinary people reminded me what I was fighting for. The saving-the-world scenario can be overdone, but this was the first time I saved the world!

To turn that question on its head, though, I have a special love for games that let me imagine my own story as I go: the Civilization games, Stardew Valley, Subnautica.

But if we're talking about a game story I wish I'd written, there's Until Dawn. So. Many. Choices.

What drew you to game writing?

It was a slippery slope from editing! And it was more or less a precipice after my first experience writing for a game, crafting some branching dialogues and Shadowland BBS posts for Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

My job was to flesh out an already robust and fascinating world in a futuristic, cyberpunk Hong Kong, and I set about asking myself, "What ground isn't being covered by the main campaign and missions? Let me tell those stories."

So I wrote long, meandering dialogues inspired by real life sources: Filipinos I'd seen in Hong Kong (I'm half Filipina, holla), Craig's List, poetry slams.

Then the developers at Harebrained told me, "Yeah, you've got to make all of that much shorter."

But that's where the collaborative magic happened: when we cut up my ideas, they became more playable. Punchier. Richer with Shadowrun lore and Easter eggs that others added. Game writing isn't a solitary endeavor, but I feel like my best work is both very much mine and the product of interactions that I can only call galvanizing.

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the industry?

Do the thing. Apply for the gig. Write for yourself when you don't get the gig. Talk to people and convince them that you can do a gig when they hadn't planned for one. Seriously.

There's no reason I should have found a niche in gaming. I'm an introverted woman of color with a background as an academic (French medievalist! Holla?) and a paper-shuffling real estate analyst. But the video game industry embraces all kinds of backgrounds. You can become a huge success without formal education, if you can prove you can do the job. I worked hard and I played well with others, though I failed plenty lots. But I believed that my weirdo background and my chops could make games better, so I kept doing the thing.

And now I get to share my stories with the world.

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Elisa's motto is, "Go blue, or go home."

Join me in welcoming Elisa to the team with some supportive words below, especially if it's not about her hair. 

 


Giving Thanks for Great Stories: A Brunette Games Roundup

Gratitude

Here at BG, stories make our world go round. But I think that's true for everyone, every day. Imagine what it would be like to live on a planet with no stories, no fiction; the concept of make-believe is utterly non-existent. That would be a sterile world, in my opinion. We need stories like we need air. They tell us who we are every minute, they help us make sense of the world, they connect us with our own emotions, and they foster empathy for our fellow humans.

With that in the background and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer this roundup of the stories we're most grateful for right now. No doubt in anticipation of our official office closure this week, all of us gravitated toward binge-watch shows. 

Dexter’s Fascination with Fear

When it comes to popular TV shows and their spinoffs, it’s always hit or miss, with the vast majority being miss. However, one has astounded me ever since its debut: Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff of the popular zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

The pilot premiered in August 2015. Unlike its parent show, which derives directly from comic book source material, Fear the Walking Dead strives for originality, often portraying elements of a zombie apocalypse never seen before. This is quite a feat, especially considering just how played the zombie genre is at this point.

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Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, in Fear the Walking Dead.

While Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was a bit rocky, it did get one very crucial thing right, which was its lead character. In a survival genre dominated by men slashing and bashing their way through hordes of the undead and the living, Fear the Walking Dead offered a lead unlike any other in Madison Clark, a middle-aged mother whose story is one of the most realistic, grounded I’ve ever seen. She’s not a veteran survivor. She’s not a trained killer. She’s just a former guidance counselor trying to protect her children. Played by Kim Dickens, Madison never fails to steal the scene. 

With its phenomenal writing, Fear the Walking Dead grew to become a truly exceptional show that often falls under the radar. Madison remains compelling as she leads viewers across the crumbling landscape of California, through pirate-infested waters, over the desolate lands of Mexico, and onto the barren, apocalyptic landscape of Texas. If you're looking for a strong, well-developed female lead, look no further.

Tamsen's Penchant for Pirates

The most compelling narrative that I’ve binged so far this year is Black Sails (available to watch on Hulu). The series is a Treasure Island prequel that has a very addicting storyline and lots of character development.

Though not for the faint of heart, the story follows the more political aspects and power struggles involved in the pirate lifestyle. There are definitely plenty of scenes riddled with sex and violence, but it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as many other shows. The pace never drags, and the pilot episode sets up the course of the entire series quite nicely.

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There are countless overarching plotlines, but the entirety of the show deals with holding on to their lifestyle in a rapidly-changing world.

I admire the interconnected, separate plotlines feeding into a larger story in Black Sails. This could be a valuable example to game designers who wish to create more open-world games, as many of the small plotlines seem to parallel the plot of a side quest. While sometimes side quests feel unnecessary and unrelated, the way the creators have everything feed into each other makes it more rewarding for the viewer. As a side note, I want to make a pirate version of Red Dead Redemption, so the inspiration is real.

Elisa's Fascination with World Building

Possibly the best sci-fi TV series I've ever watched almost came to an end this year. But it didn't.

After three riveting seasons on Syfy, The Expanse (based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey) got cancelled, but after fans mobilized on social media to #SaveTheExpanse, Amazon Prime picked it up for a fourth season. Thank goodness!

So what's the excitement about? For me, it's how the series draws on science, sociology, and even linguistics to create three compelling cultures inevitably drawn into conflict. The Expanse takes place in our solar system, in a distant future where Earth and its rival Mars depend on mining in the Asteroid Belt for precious basic resources. The Earthers, Martians, and Belters coexist uneasily until a devastating alien "protomolecule" threatens them all.

Expanse

Much as you might despise Earth's scheming UN deputy undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the peerless Shohreh Aghdashloo), you can't help but admire her ardent defense of her beloved planet. I choked up when tough-as-nails Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) sought her first glimpse of water on Earth after a lifetime on a waterless planet.

But it's the richness of the Belter culture I love most. The Belter underclasses have long supplied ice and minerals under duress to Earth and Mars but are themselves starved for resources. Living in low gravity has altered their very physiology; Belters' long, brittle bones and weaker muscles can't endure Earth's gravity. Yet, the Belters possess a fierceness and identity all their own. They speak a creole—based on languages as distinct as Chinese, Bantu, and English—that actors such as Jared Harris and Cara Gee (who play Belter leaders Anderson Dawes and Camina Drummer, respectively) convey so convincingly. Even Belter tattoos have messages behind them.

There are whole series to be written just about the Belters. Ultimately, that's the hallmark of robust world building: that the stories you write give rise to yet more stories.

Lisa's Obsession with 'Reality' Stories

I've written before about my guilty-pleasure HGTV binges... which is part of why I have not had cable since 2005, when I ditched the TV and its connections. That hasn't exactly stopped me from bingeing, but without the stream of cable I have considerably more control over my addictions. The current drugs are house-hunting and home improvement shows from the BBC on Netflix, starting with "Sarah Beeny's Selling Houses."

On this show, rival homeowners are each given a thousand pounds to bring their pads up to snuff, vying for the attention of one buyer, who will view them all. Beeny herself swoops in to plant key criticisms and advice for how to spend the thousand pounds, but of course many of them ignore her and head off the rails, usually both breaking their budgets and failing to solve the problem that drove buyers away in the first place. As someone who's on her fourth owned property, I find this entire process enormously entertaining.

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Absolutely, I was #TeamFrankie.

My obsession with British lifestyle doesn't end with the home but extends to all the "homely" (in the UK this is a compliment) things you can do in a home. Even though I can't eat flour, eggs, or sugar, when a new season of "The Great British Baking Show" drops, I have to watch it. But my favorite of them all is "The Great Interior Design Challenge," where a handful of amateur interior designers compete with one room and (again) a thousand pounds to prove their competence with the color wheel. Fantasizing about moving to the English countryside and renovating a "chocolate box" cottage with a thatched roof is just an itch I can't scratch enough. 

Luckily, all of this binge-watching is useful in my work on games. Consider it "research." I've used my deep, TV-acquired knowledge of home decor in my design and writing on Matchington Mansion. There's a whole premium scene in Choices: Veil of Secrets centered around the magnificence that is the English savory picnic pie. And for the interactive novel I'm working on now, I draw inspiration both for the settings and the characters I design from the stream of real people and their homes as they come and go on these shows. I enjoy the quirky texture of the average Brit, having his or her 15 minutes of fame.

What binge-watch story gets your gratitude--not to mention your screen time--this week? Tell us in the comments.

Other roundups you might like:

The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

Something Mysterious: December Reading Roundup