james debate
james debate

Saturday 28 December 2019

debbie debbies end of year awards 2019 end of decade 2010s best films music
Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. It's The Debbie Awards, special end of decade super deluxe edition. Let's go.

As another year goes by it is worth taking a moment to consider the state of things. Despite the prevailing theory that we are going through an era of decline, darkness and regression, the facts make it pretty clear that there has never been a better time to be alive. We're living longer and healthier lives, poverty and hunger is on the decline globally, and for all the absurdity and chaos of the moment there is still ample reason for optimism.

As always, The Debbies serve as a record of all that is good and noteworthy. Artistic endeavours, technological accomplishment, the pulse of business and politics. This event is about celebrating the best that human creativity and ingenuity has had to offer.

So without further ado, let the curtain fall upon 2019 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months, and the decade as a whole:

2019 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Fleabag (BBC)
Runner Up: The Crown (Netflix)

best tv show 2019 fleabag bbc phoebe waller bridge andrew scott

In all my years of putting together the Debbie Awards, I don't think I've ever had a harder time picking a winner than for the two TV awards this year. 2020 has provided an absurd abundance of high quality TV shows, and before I announce the winners I want to give a quick shout out to the litany of fantastic shows, many of them brand new, which could easily have won these awards in another year. Shows like: The Politician, His Dark Materials, Sex Education, the Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, Stranger Things, The Expanse, For All Mankind, and The Morning Show.

Now, I can't believe it either, a year with a new season of Stranger Things and it doesn't win the Debbie for best TV series. That is not to say that Stranger Things 3 was not excellent, just that in this year of brilliant TV there were other series that were even better. In this most competitive of years, that coveted top spot ultimately goes to the second season of Fleabag, a series which has rightly earned near unanimous plaudits and awards. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is proving to be one of the more gifted young screenwriters around, and the work she has done for the BBC series is of the absolute highest level, surpassing even her work with Killing Eve. But while she may claim the headlines, a great credit needs to go to the supporting cast who really make this show what it is, in particular the spectacularly talented Andrew Scott.

In a hard fought second place is The Crown. There were a great many question marks going into this new season of arguably Netflix's greatest drama series. After all, this third season has seen the beloved and award winning cast of the first two seasons almost completely replaced - a bold move for a TV series, if nothing else. Fortunately, for any doubt that may have existed, The Crown's new season shows no drop in quality, and may even be the best season yet. The new cast does an impressive job in claiming the characters so ably played by their predecessors, while Peter Morgan's scripts are as pitch perfect as ever. The third season can also boast what may well be the single best episode of the entire series.

2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Russian Doll (Netflix)
Runners Up: Years and Years (BBC), Watchmen (HBO)

best new tv show 2019 russian doll netflix natasha lyonne

The same caveat as above: this was an astonishing year for TV and while I can only highlight a small number of series, I feel obligated to insert a mass plaudit to all the other very deserving shows that did not quite make the cut, but nevertheless deserve no small amount of praise.

But of course, there can be only one winner, and this year it is Netflix's excellent Russian Doll. To take a concept that sounds like a forgotten episode of the Outer Limits and turn it into an entire series that is not only coherent but wildly engaging is no small feat of writing, but really it is the tour de force lead performance of Natasha Lyonne that makes Russian Doll so watchable.

For runner up, I could not select just one. This year the honour will be shared. First up is BBC's memorable Years and Years, a modern commentary that is in equal parts terrifying and exhilarating in a way that TV rarely manages to be. A slightly atonal ending does not spoil what is otherwise essential viewing.

Finally we have HBO's adaptation of Watchmen, arguably the hottest show on TV right now. The celebrated graphic novel has always proven notoriously tricky to work with, and even Zack Snyder's ambitious cinematic attempt at adapting the original novel met with a somewhat mixed reaction. HBO's decision to instead craft a sequel, one that could largely be enjoyed even by those unfamiliar with the original as an independent work, has proven to be a shrewd move. The distance from its source material has allowed this series to craft its own identity, one that is no less complex or layered.

3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: The Irishman
Runners Up: Joker

best film 2019 the irishman scorsese netflix de niro pacino pesci

The signature of a Martin Scorsese film, to me, has always been the extent to which this seasoned veteran of the cinema still makes films as a hungry and ambitious twenty-something would do. Even at 77 years of age, Scorsese eschews tradition in favour of the stylish and bold. The result is a film that feels every bit as fresh and alive as anything coming from the new generation. The Irishman might just be the most "Scorsese" film ever made; an epic gangster film of the sort that simply does not get made anymore, complete with a large ensemble cast featuring frequent Scorsese collaborators and, most notably, three of the all-time great actors in Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and particularly Joe Pesci. But while The Irishman revisits many themes of Scorsese films past, it also goes places that few of the genre ever have, the autumn years of a gangster, and a more introspective reflection on a lifetime gone by. A film truly deserving of praise it receives.

And for runner up we have Todd Phillips' Joker. Phillips is, in the nicest way possible, a filmmaker of limited pedigree, best known for raucous male-fantasy comedies such as The Hangover and Road Trip. The character of the Joker is, of course, a Batman villain. Yet the combination of the two has produced something quite remarkable. The source material may be DC comics, but the result could almost be mistaken for a lost Scorsese film. Joker is a raw, often terrifying, and surprisingly complex character study. It is a study not just of a comicbook character, but of a society as a whole. Joker brilliantly twists the Joker character into a reflection of the modern world, the anger and disillusionment borne of societal injustice and wealth inequality that has given us mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and xenophobia. In London recently a teenager was charged with throwing a small child off a building, his motive? "I wanted to be on TV". That's what this film is about, the warped and horrific extremes to which a person can be driven by desperation on the margins of society. It may not make for easy watching, but it is something that everyone should see.

4. The Debbie for Variety Show Host of the Year 
Winner: Stephen Colbert, The Late Show

Stephen colbert late show daily show talk show host of the year 2019

If anyone has benefitted from the rise of Donald Trump, it has surely been Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show. Colbert's brand of political satire honed on Comedy Central had an initially rough time translating to the baseball and apple pie role of major network talk show host. The increasingly political tenor of a post-Trump America has permitted Colbert to draw on his strengths, and establish himself as one of the most important voices on American TV.

Indeed, as Colbert grows into his new position, even his non-political work has become stronger - his recent travel series in New Zealand has been a particular highlight of this year's show, both informative and hugely entertaining. Incredibly, this is Colbert's first Debbie Award win, and it is deserved. Increasingly the face of American late night TV.

5. The Debbie for Hollywood Rising Star of the Year 
Winner: Awkwafina

awkwafina breakthrough star of the year 2019 crazy rich asians farewell jumanji

One name you are sure to be hearing more of in the coming years is Awkwafina, stage name of American actress and rapper Nora Lum. 2019 has been transformative for Lum, rebranding herself from fairly forgettable rapper to an acclaimed and bankable movie star.

The past year has seen Awkwafina star in major commercial hits from Ocean's 8 to Crazy Rich Asians and the new Jumanji. But it is her star turn in the critically acclaimed The Farewell, which has earned Awkwafina a Golden Globe nomination (and has her tipped for a potential Oscar nod), that is set to send her into the upper echelons of stardom.

2020 will see her co-star alongside Oscar winner Meryl Streep in the new comedy from Ryan Murphy, and Oscar winner Allison Janney in the new film from The Help director Tate Taylor, and one gets the impression that might only be the start.

6. The Debbie for YouTube Channel of the Year 
Winner: Yahtzee's Dev Diaries

debbies youtube channel of the year yahtzee dev diary zero punctuation 2019

Yahtzee Croshaw has become something of an internet institution for his Zero Punctuation series of videogame reviews. Lightning quick, cynical, and usually hilarious, the series deservedly has a significant following. 2019 has seen Yahtzee take on something a little bit more intriguing with Yahtzee's Dev Diaries.

This series sees Yahtzee, a somewhat minor indie game developer before he was a world famous game critic, take on a challenge to design an indie game every month for a year. Even for those who are not coders or so technically inclined themselves, there is something fascinating about watching the creative process play out, and the thought that goes into all the myriad aspects of design that a game requires. Not to mention a thrill in seeing whether Yahtzee can manage to keep up with the challenge. Great watching.

Music, Art & Theatre

7. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: Sweat (Donmar)
Runner up: Rutherford and Son (National Theatre)

sweat donmar trump best theatre 2019

2019 was not exactly a landmark year for theatre, but there was one notable exception. The Donmar's production of Sweat forms a timely and nuanced account of life among America's "forgotten people", in impoverished rust-belt country. Economic displacement, the loss of blue collar jobs, and a fear of immigration and trade. While the play wisely never mentions Trump by name, this tale nevertheless makes for essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand his appeal, or the desperation which has motivated many to buy into this type of rhetoric. One of the best plays I have seen in a long while.

Our runner up this year is the National Theatre's new production of Edwardian classic Rutherford and Son. This story of class, gender, and generational divide is as timely as ever, and made notable by a memorable performance from the great Roger Allam.

8. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: Kiwanuka - Michael Kiwanuka
Runners Up: Miss Universe - Nilüfer Yanya, Father of the Bride - Vampire Weekend

michael kiwanuka third album best album 2019

In the space of a few years Michael Kiwanuka has gone from a relatively obscure musician dabbling in an array of genres somewhat unsuccessfully, to one of the hottest names in British music. The debut album was folksy and charming, and the follow-up layered and brooding. His third album Kiwanuka continues the evolution of the singer-songwriter with an album of much wider ambition, and a quality of production to match. Key tracks include You Ain't the Problem and Piano Joint in an album full of memorable tunes. As with his previous work, Kiwanuka here sounds timeless without feeling dated. Crucially, the songwriting is as brilliant as ever, and with producer-to-the-stars Danger Mouse at the helm, it sounds as a tight and fully realised vision, with barely a detail amiss.

We have a tie for runner up. First is newcomer Nilüfer Yanya. This is a name that has been bouncing around blogs like mine for a couple of years now, and her eventual debut LP Miss Universe did not disappoint. Tracks like Angels and In Your Head are, in the parlance of the day, "certified bangers". A very promising start from an artist with some considerable songwriting talent, not to mention a great voice.

Our second runner up is the latest from Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride. Indie darlings though they may be, Vampire Weekend are nevertheless one of those bands who manage to fly under the radar for all the quality work they produce. This newest LP displays a mature evolution of their preppy roots, expanding their subject matter whilst remaining sonically familiar. Harmony Hall and This Life typify an album of refreshingly breezy, but extremely adroit pop gold.

9. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: Miss Universe - Nilüfer Yanya
Runner Up: Good at Falling - The Japanese House

nilufer yanya miss universe best debut album 2019

Not surprisingly for a debut album which managed to break into the top three of all albums for the year, Nilüfer Yanya's first LP Miss Universe will claim the crown for best debut album of 2019. For this artist to show such mastery of her craft on the first attempt lays down a marker that she is not just another ephemeral pop starlet, but a truly original voice. This is by no means a perfect or groundbreaking album, but it is a bold and fascinating statement from an exciting new talent.

Another veteran of multiple Hot Lists, and a perennial "up and comer" of the Internet's music blogs, Japanese House also finally released their debut LP in 2019, Good at Falling. My one concern with this band is that they have a particular sound, this dreamy, layered synth pop, and rarely seem willing to stray from that one formula. Fortunately it is a sound that they deliver with great aplomb. Check out Maybe You're the Reason and You Seemed So Happy for a taste. They've arguably had better songs in their EPs (see Clean), but I've seen enough to suggest that they are going to produce some fine music in the coming years.

10. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: You Ain't the Problem - Michael Kiwanuka
Runners Up: Arabesque - Coldplay, April - Caravan Palace 

michael kiwanuka you ain't the problem best song 2019

This is always a tricky one to call, but this year's winner has to be Michael Kiwanuka's excellent lead single off the new album, You Ain't the Problem. Bold, energetic, and a wonderfully bizarre mishmash of influences and eras coming together into an unforgettable album opener.

Next is none other than Coldplay, with one of their most divisive singles to date. New album Everyday Life didn't make it into the top three albums of the year in my view, but Coldplay nevertheless deserve great praise for their willingness to experiment outside of their usual milieu. While these adventures may not all have landed effectively, one track where it does is Arabesque, a mesmerising journey of a song with influences in jazz and world music.

Finally we have what has to be the standout track from what was a fairly divisive new album from electro-swing maestros Caravan Palace. New album Chronologic has been criticised by some longtime fans for straying too far into more mainstream pop, but tracks like April show that they can still be as eclectic and brilliant as ever.

11. The Debbie for Live Performance of the Year 
Winner: Gizmo Varillas

gizmo varillas best live performance 2019

Often a memorable live music experience comes from the experienced showmanship of a well-traveled star, but this year I wanted to go for something a bit different. Of the various bands and performers that I have seen over the course of 2019, the one that has made the most surprising impression on me was a small support act by the name of Gizmo Varillas.

Blessed with bright textures, and warm melodies, Varillas has a great ability to meld both light and dark into his tracks in a way that I find quite effective, and his tenderness comes across doubly on stage. See Cysgod dy Gariad and Freedom for a Change for great examples of what he can do. Seeing him this year has definitely established Varillas on my list of acts to watch, and with a new album on the horizon, there is much to look forward to in 2020.

12. The Debbie for Art Exhibition of the Year 
Winner: Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods at The Beyeler Foundation

picasso blue and rose period beyeler foundation basel best art exhibition 2019

A return to the top spot for Basel's Beyeler Foundation, who excelled once again with a memorable exploration of Pablo Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods. These crucial works of a young Picasso are not always the pieces we immediately associate with his name, but in focusing on them, this exhibition provides us with a valuable insight into these formative years. The Beyeler's ambitious collection assembles the most complete array of these works ever seen in Europe, and makes essential viewing for any art lover.

13. The Debbie for Book of the Year 
Winner: The Secret Commonwealth - Philip Pullman

philip pullman secret commonwealth book of dust dark materials lyra golden compass best novel book 2019

Philip Pullman is back in vogue all of a sudden. Not only has the BBC put together a cracking adaptation of his original Lyra trilogy, His Dark Materials, but we have also been treated to the second instalment of his newest, The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth. Pullman's earlier work is considered a seminal piece of young adult literature for a generation, and I am pleased to say that he appears to have lost none of his edge in the intervening years. This is another novel of big ideas and concepts.

His latest is the first true sequel to the original trilogy, and follows a now grown up Lyra and Pan as they unravel a new mystery regarding the Magisterium. The writing pulls no punches in criticising the establishments of power and corruption in the world, and delivers another excellent adventure that deserves to be read by any fan of his work or of deceptively thoughtful and complex fiction.

Business & Technology

14. The Debbie for Scientific/Technological Breakthrough of the Year 
Winner: Event Horizon captures first ever picture of a black hole

event horizon black hole telescope best important technological breakthrough 2019

Sometimes a year gone by gives us some great new technological concept or breakthrough, something that will change the world and lives of its denizens. Sometimes it just gives us something completely new, something that no one has ever really seen before to remind us at just how clever we really can be.

This year the Event Horizon telescope managed to produce the first ever image of a black hole, something that not too long ago was still only a theoretical concept. This is not going to change our lives tomorrow, but it does remind us just how quickly technology advances, and provides a tantalising promise of discoveries yet to come. It is equally remarkable that this (admittedly blurry) image so closely mirrors the expectations of what such an object would look like, reminding us additionally that human beings also possess incredible theoretical minds.

15. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: PC

PC computer windows mac best console for gaming 2019

Ok, technically not a console, but in 2019 a good old fashioned PC computer showed itself to be the best place to play games, and here's why. The choice of PC vs console for me has always come down to the flexibility and power of a PC vs the more polished delivery and features of a console. Increasingly this disparity is becoming a non-issue.

Publishers like Microsoft, Bethesda and EA are bringing console-style seamlessness and business models to PC. Indie games and the mod scene are becoming increasingly mainstream and integrated into official gaming products, meaning that the ability to take advantage of PC's increased potential is no longer as reliant on significant effort and/or technical knowledge. Consoles, by contrast, have had a relatively modest year when it comes to innovation, with new systems on the horizon that have little to offer aside from fresher hardware.

16. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: Disco Elysium (PC)
Runners Up: Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch), Sunless Skies (PC)

disco elysium pc game of the year 2019

Two months ago I felt pretty sure I knew what was going to win 2019's game of the year, then Disco Elysium came along. This game is a true original and one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had in years. Its creative innovations create a remarkably robust set of RPG mechanics, brought together by some of the most exceptional writing I've ever seen in a game. While the game has some flaws and is way too short an experience, every minute of that experience is unforgettable.

Console gaming's greatest moment in 2019 has to go to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the latest essential exclusive for the Nintendo Switch. With this title, Nintendo has come close to perfecting the turn-based strategy genre, but what really stands out is its world-building and the surprisingly compelling cast of characters.

Honourable mention goes to Sunless Skies, the latest in Failbetter Games' series of macabre, vaguely lovecraftian exploration roguelikes. Sunless Skies refines and improves upon the formula that has proven so successful in the past, allowing players to explore, trade, and adventure your way across a truly unique setting.

17. The Debbie for Company of the Year
Winner: Salesforce

salesforce company of the year 2019

Salesforce has become ubiquitous in modern business. The product is strong, an elegant and versatile solution to networking and sales management that has quickly risen to be one of the essential apps. But it is the progressive and people-focused culture of the company that impresses most.

Recently voted the world's best place to work by Fortune, and with a CEO in the news for being outspokenly philanthropic almost to the point of fault. Increasingly there is a trend in global business to do good for the community as much as the shareholder, and Salesforce are fully embracing that shift. All of this makes for great publicity, and builds a brand that most companies would do anything to replicate. It's been a strong two years for this company.

18. The Debbie for Startup of the Year
Winner: Banjo Robinson

banjo robinson small startup company of the year 2019

The children and education sector is ripe for technological innovation. It has been pleasing to see so many startups looking towards this field over the past year, and this year my proverbial pick of the litter is Banjo Robinson. The concept here is for a subscription learning service, utilising fictional mascot and magical cat Banjo Robinson. The company sends personalised letters detailing Banjo's travels around the world, complete with activities and materials for children to explore, and encouraging children to send back responses.

A charming concept that promises a rewarding, entirely bespoke experience for customers, with the potential to teach valuable, reading, writing, and general knowledge skills to young children. I stated above that there is a trend in global business to do good for the community as much as the shareholder, and Banjo Robinson's aim of engaging with children for educational purposes rather than pure monetisation is a prime example of that mindset.


19. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Virgil van Dijk - Liverpool

virgil van dijk liverpool best footballer player in the world football 2019

There is a tendency in football to overvalue attacking players whilst not giving defenders their due. This is the only reason I can conceive of why John Terry never won the Ballon D'Or. Virgin van Dijk may not dribble like Messi or score goals like Cristiano Ronaldo, but he reads the game better than anyone alive, and his formidable physique and instinct makes him one of the most unbeatable defensive players on the planet, not to mention a deceptively capable technical footballer. It is true that goals win games, but preventing goals also wins games, and in 2019 I don't think there is any single player who makes so significant a contribution to winning games on a consistent basis as this man.

20. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Erling Håland - Red Bull Salzburg

erling håland red bull salzburg best young footballer player in the world 2019

Yes I am aware that Kylian Mbappé has not yet turned 22, but this award, and indeed all football player awards, are not supposed to simply be "who is the best player", but rather which (in this case U21) player has had the best year. This year, that award goes to Erling Håland, the hottest footballing talent to come out of Norway for a generation.

This has been a breakout year for Håland, whose goalscoring record this season (28 in 22 games, including 8(!) Champions League goals) is incredible for a 19 year old. But it is not just the number of goals, as the manner of his play - that combination of power and explosive pace. His ability to turn and run on a sixpence is as good as any player I've seen. A move to a larger club is inevitable, and if he can produce this form on a bigger stage, as his form in the Champions League suggests he can, then he will be a major world star.

21. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year 
Winner: Jürgen Klopp - Liverpool

best football manager in the world 2019 jurgen klopp

It would be easy for me to add to the chorus of praise that has been directed towards Jürgen Klopp, but the man really does deserve it. His work with Dortmund was impressive, but the way in which he has turned Liverpool from perennial underachievers into arguably the best football team on the planet will become the stuff of legends. Certainly, it is a victory for proponents of giving a manager time and years in which to pursue his vision (this transformation did not happen overnight), but even given all the time in the world few managers would have been able to execute this project so successfully, and many had tried.

22. The Debbie for Football Club of the Year 
Winner: Liverpool FC

football club of the year 2019 liverpool

Every club has its day, and right now Liverpool FC is having a glorious day. Champions of Europe (having been runner up the year before), runners up of England (and likely champions this year); there is a good claim to say that Liverpool are the best football team in the world today, and its an accolade that is earned not just by their on-the-pitch performances, as much as the extensive work that has been done to turn what was, until recently, a pretty old fashioned kind of outfit into one of the best run clubs in the business. Profitable, an academy producing world class talent, and a brand that makes them one of the planet's sporting icons. I am not a Liverpool fan, but it is a good time to be one.

Current Events

23. The Debbie for Politician of the Year 
Winner: Nancy Pelosi

nancy pelosi politician of the year 2019

It has been a year of elections in Europe, Presidential primaries in the US, and an increasing celebrity-politician culture the world over. Yet this year, this award for the standout politician is going to someone far less glamorous, and far more opinion-splitting. Nancy Pelosi made history more than ten years ago as the first woman ever to become the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

That first spell as speaker proved to be as divisive as it was legislatively productive. 2019 might just have been her outstanding year in politics, a series of battles that began with the unlikely reclaiming of a House majority, in spite of extensive anti-democratic gerrymandering, and ended with the historic impeachment of President Trump. In between those two milestones, she has had to battle to reclaim her Speakership amidst a rebellion from the ideologues of her own party, and resist overwhelming calls from those same factions for impeachment following the partial release of the Mueller report.

That impeachment has proven to be a largely popular move (an accomplishment in itself) is largely down to the restraint and discipline that Pelosi has shown in choosing the right battle. And despite claims to the contrary from her opponents, the House under her stewardship has been historically productive, producing an impressive array of legislation on healthcare, international trade, and anti-corruption, most of which has died in the Senate. No mean feat considering the divisions and increasing rancour in the House.

Like her or hate her, Pelosi has proven herself to be one of the most competent and capable politicians in the country, outmanoeuvring President Trump (not to mention the increasingly vaudevillian opposition in the minority) at every turn, carefully shepherding her legislative body through difficult and divisive moments, all while remaining easily the most productive branch of Government in 2019. She may not win popularity contests, but history will show Pelosi to be a towering figure in Congressional politics, whose dignity in office is matched by an outstanding legislative record.

24. The Debbie for Scandal of the Year 
Winner: Trump-Ukraine Scandal

ukraine russia impeachment zelensky donald trump scandal 2019 pelosi schiff nadler giuliani

There can only be one winner here. The impeachment of a sitting President is a rare and historic moment. Prior to Donald Trump, only two Presidents had been impeached (Nixon resigned before articles could be voted on), and while his militants may rave about conspiracies and point the finger at everyone else, there can be no doubt that this extreme measure has been thoroughly deserved.

For those less politically inclined, the story here is that Donald Trump threatened to withhold vital military aid from Ukraine unless Ukraine's President announced a fake criminal investigation against Joe Biden, considered at the time to be Trump's most likely opponent in next year's election. It is absolutely beyond contention that using the office of the Presidency for so nakedly self-serving a political purpose represents a serious abuse of power, if not outright bribery/extortion. This is before one even considers the implications of denying military aid to an ally in active conflict with Russia, one of America's primary geopolitical foes, with whom Trump already has a disturbing history.

And it's one of those scandals that just gets dirtier every time you look at it. Why in the world was the President's personal fixer Rudy Giuliani (not a Government employee) conducting apparent state business in Ukraine? Why was EU Ambassador and Trump loyalist Gordon Sondland involved, rather than the actual Ambassador to Ukraine (against whom Giuliani later waged a personal campaign of disinformation)? Why has the real transcript still not been released? Why has the administration gone to such lengths to hide the detail of this supposedly "perfect" call? It doesn't take a genius to smell when something is fishy, but it takes a complete fool to ignore when it's slapping you in the face.

Many have likened this scandal to Watergate, but in truth this clearly goes way, way beyond some petty political espionage. This threatens the security of America and Europe, irreparably damages the diplomatic reputation of the US, and all for a personal political ruse that is, to put mildly, insultingly transparent. Noah Feldman, Harvard law professor and Presidential historian, put it best when he said simply, "If this is not impeachable conduct, then nothing ever is."

25. The Debbie for Cause of the Year
Winner: Independence of the Press

corruption independence of free press media fake news republican trump brexit nazi fascist autocracy authoritarian most important issue 2019

It might seem lazy, but I am going to go with my 2017 cause once again. We live in increasingly troubling times with all the stories of corruption, fake news, and authoritarianism creeping back into mainstream western politics. But all of this concerns a central theme: the independence of the press. We have taken for granted the importance of this topic. The only way to combat these insidious forces is to ensure that the general public is well informed and has access to verified, peer reviewed facts. The corrupt powers know this, which is why they exert so much energy on trying to censor information, discredit reputable and independent sources, and when that doesn't work, drown it out with an overload of fake information.

Unfortunately we have seen even more of this in 2019, be it Boris Johnson threatening political repercussions against the BBC and Channel 4 for unfavourable coverage, or Trump's continued vendetta against any and all media source that isn't outright propaganda. The sad truth is that the credibility of the press is at a low, and much of that is their own fault. But we need real journalism now more than ever. We need robust fact checkers, and widespread access to that data. Reality is not a matter of opinion and facts do matter. We are witnessing a concerted effort to turn western democracy into a Russia-style propaganda state. We all need to start paying attention now if we want to prevent this slide into Orwellian dystopia.

26. The Debbie for Person of the Year 
Winner: Greta Thunberg

greta thunberg environment person of the year 2019

It may seem an obvious choice, and one that will prove controversial with a certain segment of the population, but Greta Thunberg deserves this. To become a global icon at so tender an age, to inspire millions to a movement, is a remarkable feat borne of passion and commitment.

As for the message itself, I know we all groan a bit when environmental protestors block the train on our morning commute, but the truth is that it is a cause worth supporting, albeit through a more productive outlet. Thunberg's impassioned pleas to world leaders is the ideal example of that productive outlet. Let's be honest, you're only going to make so much progress on environmentalism by convincing people one at a time to switch the lights off, for example. Real change will only come at the national level, by persuading those with real power to affect real change, and that is what Greta Thunberg is doing better than anyone else right now. It is right to apply this pressure to world leaders, and I wish her nothing but success in doing so.

Social & Lifestyle

27. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: The Harwood Arms
Runner Up: Chai Ki

harwood arms london best restaurant 2019

An old favourite, and a restaurant that year after year continues to impress. The Harwood Arms became famous as the first Michelin starred pub in London, but in truth its solitary mark undersells the quality of its food. The concept is British cuisine, done very, very well. So you might get Cornish crab on toast, or fallow venison. Meats, fish, winter vegetables, and with a wide selection of British sparkling wines. It is mystifying that this myth of the inferiority of British cuisine still persists, and the Harwood Arms provides ample proof that the cliché is not deserved.

Our runner up prize goes to a newcomer. Chai Ki, the excellent new restaurant under Canary Wharf's Crossrail station from the same people who brought you Roti Chai. Chai Ki is essentially two restaurants in one, the more casual street-food bar in the front of shop, and the fancier dining room in the back. Both are excellent. Some of the dishes in the main restaurant present mouth watering Indian cuisine in a way you will never have seen, with a high-end finesse borne of European food culture. Chai Ki stands out by doing something fresh and different with a well established cuisine, and doing it very well indeed.

28. The Debbie for Club/Bar of the Year 
Winner: The Pulitzer Bar

Pulitzer hotel bar Amsterdam best bar club nightclub 2019

A return for The Ephemeric's old club/bar of the year prize, which took a break in 2018. This year this highly coveted award goes to The Pulitzer Bar of Amsterdam, a stylish and cosy cocktail venue from the hotel of the same name. Adorned with books, classic leather armchairs, and frequently rotating cocktail list themed after great literary figures, there is certainly no more whimsical a setting to enjoy a good snifter in 2019. But this is no mere novelty bar, far from it. It is the high quality of the setting, and the creativity of the drinks that makes Pulitzer a standout establishment, and somewhere that everyone should visit in Amsterdam.

29. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

amsterdam netherlands holland best holiday destination 2019

You know a town is nice when you visit three times in one year (with another coming up in January). Amsterdam is blessed with beautiful, romantic canals that would make a Parisien swoon, world class museums, and generous, laid back locals. For those who like to indulge, Amsterdam offers a good variety of local products from chocolate, to cheese and pancakes (I hear there are other things too). An impressive array of shopping, culture and late night life makes Amsterdam a great place to visit for a solo-traveller, a couple, or just a group of friends.

30. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs
gusbourne blanc de blancs best wine 2019

We are ringing the changes with these last two awards. You will note that the wine and champagne prizes have been consolidated into a single Debbie, in order to make way for our new event closer: the "Tipple" of the year Debbie, intended to celebrate the finest in non-vinous drinkables. From here on out, sparkling and non-sparkling wines will be considered together. For 2019, we are stirring the pot even further and awarding this prize to an English wine, Gusbourne's excellent Blanc de Blancs. The British restauranteur's go-to sparkling wine of the moment, Gusbourne is currently the pick of a very good array of wine coming from the Kent countryside.

31. The Debbie for Tipple of the Year 
Winner: Brockmans Gin 

best tipple liquor alcohol 2019 brockmans gin

And finally to inaugurate our first ever Tipple of the year Debbie, I bestow this accolade on the very finest of Britain's great gins, Brockmans. Produced in Liverpool, this small producer is quickly becoming a mainstay of the country's more selective gin-serving establishments. The unique blueberry botanicals make this a standout selection, one that can work well with most types of tonic, and ideally with a little fruit. A perfect choice for those who like to have a festive gin and tonic over the holidays.

2010s: Best of the Decade Awards

The Top 10 Films of the Decade:

  1. The Social Network
  2. La La Land
  3. Whiplash
  4. 127 Hours
  5. Gravity
  6. Blackkklansman
  7. Chef
  8. The Irishman
  9. Inside Out
  10. The Artist
The Top 10 TV shows of the Decade:
  1. Master of None
  2. The Crown
  3. Stranger Things
  4. The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel
  5. Parks and Recreation
  6. American Crime Story
  7. Fargo
  8. Black Mirror
  9. Breaking Bad
  10. Fleabag
The Top 10 Videogames of the Decade:
  1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  2. Red Dead Redemption
  3. Stardew Valley
  4. Portal 2
  5. Disco Elysium
  6. What Remains of Edith Finch
  7. Kerbal Space Program
  8. Mass Effect 2
  9. Mario Odyssey
  10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Top 10 Albums of the Decade:
  1. Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes
  2. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming - M83
  3. Wildflower - Avalanches
  4. Love & Hate - Michael Kiwanuka
  5. The Desired Effect - Brandon Flowers
  6. Reflektor - Arcade Fire
  7. Gossamer - Passion Pit
  8. The Next Day - David Bowie
  9. WITHDRAWN - the previous holder of this spot has had their Debbie accolade withdrawn as a result of anti-Semitic behaviour.
  10. Plastic Beach - Gorillaz
Breakthrough of the Decade: AI Assistants - Much more to come from AI, but their increasing influence upon our daily lives and routine suggests the early stages of one of the more significant technological transformations since the creation of the Internet.

Company of the Decade: Netflix - If you measure the success of a company by the global impact of its product, then Netflix has to be the winner. The streaming giant has forever changed the way in which we consume media, to the point where its business model has become the mode for just about everything else. TV, music, even gaming are all switching to streaming, subscription based models.

Footballer of the Decade: Lionel Messi - Surely the greatest of all time.

Person of the Decade: Bill & Melinda Gates - It says everything that one of the world's wealthiest people, creator of something that truly did change the world, is likely to be remembered as much for his philanthropy and commitment to combatting illness and poverty all over the world. Has taken flak over the years for his business practices, but the latter age Bill Gates has shown himself to be a selfless who has contributed much to this planet.

Well there you have it. How will you remember the 2010s? Here's to the next decade being even better!

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Genre Folk Rock
Label Polydor
Producers Danger Mouse

michael kiwanuka best new album 2019

In the space of a few years Michael Kiwanuka has gone from a relatively obscure musician dabbling in an array of genres somewhat unsuccessfully, to one of the hottest names in British music. The debut album was folksy and charming, and the follow-up layered and brooding. His third album Kiwanuka continues the evolution of the singer-songwriter with an album of much wider ambition, and a flawless quality of production to match.

As with his previous work, Kiwanuka here sounds timeless without feeling dated. The music is more polyphonic than ever, with complex orchestras of instrumentalists bringing his vision to vinyl. The lyrics, too, elicit a contemporary sense of angst that evokes as many memories of mid-century revolution as it does modern-day tensions. Kiwanuka has often been topical (without being overtly political) and here he delves deeper still into racial anxieties, self-doubt and spirituality. Crucially, the songwriting is as brilliant as ever, and with producer-to-the-stars Danger Mouse at the helm, it sounds as a tight and fully realised vision, with barely a detail amiss.

If I had one criticism of the previous album, Love & Hate, it was that it was relentlessly dour. Kiwanuka manages to add a bit more variety to the tracklist, and nowhere is this clearer than in the opening track and lead single You Ain't the Problem, a remarkably catchy, upbeat number which simultaneously manages to blend the spirit of retro soul with a fresh digital veneer.

The delicately orchestrated Piano Joint (This Kind of Love) and its mesmerising intro track provide one of the album's most atmospheric moments. Understated and raw, it is classic Kiwanuka. The album then offers yet another completely different flavour with Hero, a funky slice of classic rock that pays homage to the civil rights movement and brings to mind sounds of Jimi Hendrix in his heyday.

These different moods and styles keep the album fresh without feeling disparate or disjointed. It is a testament to Kiwanuka's talents that he can bring together all these different influences and make them all sound distinctly like a Kiwanuka song. Kiwanuka looks a likely album of the year contender, and marks another fine addition to the discography of one of the world's most talented musicians.

Must Listen :
You Ain't the Problem
Piano Joint

Monday 25 November 2019

secret cinema stranger things london 2019

Let me begin by asking you a hypothetical. Would you pay £70 per person to attend a film screening where you dress up as a character in the movie and spend an hour or two hanging out in an interactive environment themed after the movie? If the answer is yes then Secret Cinema is probably something you would enjoy.

But let me ask a follow up. Would you pay the same price for the above product but without the film screening? The answer, of course, depends on how well they've executed the rest of the experience.

I am a fan of Secret Cinema, and this is the fifth of their productions that I have attended. I love the concept of immersive entertainment and enjoy the addition of interactive elements to these worlds. It's safe to say I am an even bigger fan of Stranger Things, a show upon which I have lavished great praise on this blog, and is very much in the running for 2019's best TV show. Despite these favourable predispositions, I unfortunately have to report that this is the first Secret Cinema production that I have attended and felt that it was simply not worth the money.

Secret Cinema presents: Stranger things represents the company's first foray into television. The usual Secret Cinema formula is this:

  1. Create an atmospheric location themed after a movie
  2. Dress up and spend an hour or two hanging out at said location, eating, drinking, dancing, and partaking in various themed activities/missions
  3. Watch the film in a comfortable and atmospheric setting full of inebriated, like-minded people who are really into the whole experience.

It is reasonable to wonder how they would adapt this formula to a TV show. After all, a whole season of Stranger Things might last some ten hours or so. Do they just show the finale? The first episode? Some mash up or remix of the season? The answer, it turns out, was none of the above.

To their credit, Secret Cinema have done a fine job in creating their atmospheric location. This production's converted warehouse is broadly divided into two sections: Starcourt mall and the July 4th town's fair. Both areas have been lovingly and lavishly recreated from the show, and filled with various shops, bars and other curiosities containing references to the show. You can get an ice cream from Scoops Ahoy, or a burger from Benny's Burgers. You can try your luck at the videogame arcade, or get a coke float at a bar playing 80s music videos. And then for some reason there's a Coach shop selling modern handbags. The food was actually pretty tasty.

There are various activities throughout the venue including fairground games and dancing. Every now and again the cast members will hold a dance-off or science quiz to break things up a bit. In addition, each attendee will receive a mission to seek out one of the cast members and do a little sleuthing to solve a mystery. This is a good idea in theory, but the missions are themselves very simple and superficial. My contact just told me to look someone up on a computer and... that was it. The results of that search didn't have any more clues, there was no more puzzle to solve, they just referred back to it at the end of the evening, "You remember that guy you read about? I found him!". It was a five minute task made longer by the fact that you have to queue for 20 minutes to speak to the contact, and then another 20 minutes to use one of the only two available computers.

This highlights the first problem with this production, which is increasingly an issue with Secret Cinema. They clearly aren't making any money on these lavish, but brief productions and the best idea they seem to be able to come up with to solve this problem is to cram an ever greater number of people into a room with little regard for comfort or experience. That and a Coach sponsorship, apparently.

You will find actors floating about the venue performing as characters from the show, and the casting here is actually pretty remarkable. The likenesses are very impressive. The guy playing Alexei I'm still not entirely convinced wasn't the actual actor from the show. They have a script and storyline that they follow throughout the show, and from what I saw they do a good job of it. The storylines themselves are pretty forgettable and derivative, more references and callbacks to the show rather than actual stories. It's also very difficult to get involved or follow what's happening due to the fact that every cast member will invariably have about 100 people gathered around them at all times, and they don't wear microphones. If you're short like me, then you might as well just not bother.

Then the finale. For the first time in Secret Cinema history, there is no screening. Instead there's a 20-30 minute theatrical montage, loosely following the events of the three seasons of Stranger Things. There isn't really much to follow here, it's mostly the actors miming while various out-of-context sound clips of the TV series are played in the background. Notably there isn't even any seating for this performance, the audience is entirely standing (I can only imagine that this is so that they can cram more paying customers into the venue). As before, this makes it very difficult to actually see much of what is happening, especially if you're short. And... then it's over. That's it, there's no payoff at the end, not even really a goodbye. Just get the heck out and maybe spend some more money at our bars before you go. I couldn't help but feel like I had just spent £70 as a cover charge for an 80s themed bar.

The theatrical performance, as it is, is not terrible, it's just... nothing substantial. There are moments of fun, like briefly breaking out into Never Ending Story, but those moments are far too brief (in fact they only play the opening one or two lines of the song - licensing reasons maybe?). There's nothing there that justifies that finale over, say, watching an episode of the series instead.

At this point it is worth remembering the history of Secret Cinema. Initially, the concept was just: watch a movie in a themed room, with some limited interaction for flavour. The company did not start off as this immersive theatre company, that only came recently. I love immersive theatre. There are some companies that do it very well indeed (see: Punchdrunk). Secret Cinema currently is nowhere near that level. They've done a decent job at recreating a few scenes from Stranger Things, but when you look closer there's surprisingly little detail and not all that much exploring to be done.

Whereas other immersive productions might have you explore fully-realised, lived-in settings full of interactive items and flavour providing clues as to the larger story, Secret Cinema's settings still far too often just feel like the bare essential props on a fold-out table. The theatrical efforts feel more like rehashed references than anything worth paying attention to, and the interactive activities remain largely pointless and superficial busywork.

In the past this wasn't so much of a problem, since these immersive elements were merely garnish for the screening. But in a show like this where the interactive elements are the actual meat of the experience... it's just not sufficient. It's not deep enough or interesting enough to form the central focus of a production, it doesn't feel like anything more than a superficial knowing wink to the fans. It still feels like garnish, only now there is nothing at the centre of the experience to be garnished.

And then there is the price. The £70 (or more) entry fee is comparable to previous productions, only now the core of the experience (the screening) has been removed, and seemingly replaced by nothing. This might not have been a problem had they substantially improved the interaction and other immersive elements of the experience, but they haven't it's largely the same as what we have seen from them before.

So I am a bit torn on how I feel about this production. On the one hand, I did have fun. Of course it is fun to dress up as an 80s stereotype and hang out in a themed bar doing various themed activities based on an IP that you love. But it all feels so insubstantial. On the balance I would say I enjoyed the experience more than not, but the pricing makes it difficult to recommend. If the £70 per person ticket fee for a film screening with interactive elements was already unpalatable to some, charging the same price for those same interactive elements but no screening is crazy.

Ultimately I think this is the big takeaway here. Immersive entertainment can, of course, be done without a film screening. If Secret Cinema want to produce shows that focus solely on the other elements of the production, they need to significantly improve the quality of those elements, or significantly reduce the price.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Developed by ZA/UM
Published by ZA/UM
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC

disco elysium pillars obsidian kurvitz zaum best game 2019 sequel no truce with furies

The videogame industry in 2019 is worth $120 billion. It is the largest entertainment industry in the world, more lucrative than film, music, or television. As with other forms of entertainment, this rapid growth has seen an incentive towards products that are safe, marketable, and mainstream. It's an increasingly rare pleasure to come across an original title that is willing to try something a bit more experimental, and Disco Elysium is definitely a true original.

Set in the fictional city of Revachol, Disco Elysium sees you play a somewhat eccentric cop waking up from what appears to have been an excessive bender that has induced retrograde amnesia. You don't know who you are, or even at first that you are a cop, but there is a dead person hanging outside from a tree, and you are here to investigate his murder.

Disco Elysium is based on a home-brew pen and paper RPG developed by lead writer Robert Kurvitz, and it is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into the world-building. Revachol is not from our world, but it is rich and believable enough to happily immerse one's self. Players will recognise many themes the world around us, racism and class inequality, political dogma, sexism and corruption. This is one of the keys to Disco Elysium. While the setting is fictional and contains occasionally fantastical elements, it always aims to create a somewhat grounded experience and is the more powerful for it. The characters are fleshed out and feel like real people with believable motivations. The game world that has been created is not the largest you will see in this genre, but it is so dripping with history and personality that you could spend hours just poring over every detail and believe it was a real place.

The game plays out in an isometric RPG format that sees the player explore the (mostly) open environment searching for clues, talking to suspects, and learning more about the world around them. It features standard RPG tropes such as inventory management, branching dialogue trees and skill checks, but this is pretty much where the similarities end.

Notably, there is no combat system in Disco Elysium. That is not to say that there won't be occasion where the player needs to get into a scrap or use deadly force, but it is realistically rare and always executed through the dialogue system. Whereas other RPGs will typically see the player rack up kill counts in the hundreds or even thousands, in this game it's more likely to be just a handful, if that. It is a design choice that plays into the game's grounded tone, and makes those moments of action all the more effective for their rarity. This is indicative of the game as a whole. Pretty much all the gameplay is carried out through the dialogue and skill checks system, which makes the skills system itself absolutely key to playing this game.

Most RPGs feature a skills system, where players earn experience points and level up skills to varying effect. In most games, these systems are fairly basic: add a point to strength to increase your attack power, add a point to charisma to increase your ability to persuade people, etc. Disco Elysium does things a bit differently. This game has some 24 different skills, each one essentially a different component of the player's personality. Add points to the "authority" skill to increase the player's forcefulness, or "interfacing" to improve their dexterity. Others are more intangible in nature, for example the "espirit-de-corps" skill which represents the extent to which the player embodies the spirit of the police force, or the "Inland Empire" skill which represents the player character's mastery of their own instincts. The Disco Elysium skill system somewhat uniquely also combines elements of a traditional "party" system, with each skill essentially being its own character. Dialogue will frequently feature a back-and-forth between the different skills and personalities, bouncing ideas and feedback around, representing the inner-monologue of the player character.

The other significant addition to gameplay comes in the "thought cabinet", essentially Disco Elysium's equivalent of a perk system. Various actions, events, and chance occurrences will introduce you to certain "thoughts", of which there are 53 in the game, only 12 of which can be used in any single playthrough. These vary quite radically in content and effect, from various political beliefs and artistic musings, to the belief that your character may secretly be an ageing rock star. These thoughts start off as vague concepts, the effect of which will not be immediately clear until you spend in-game time to "internalise" them.  These can ultimately have both positive and negative consequences, which vary from skill and stat modifiers to opening up completely new dialogue and gameplay options.

These two systems are extraordinarily robust. Rather that merely conferring a particular stat boost, they fundamentally affect the identity and personality of the player character in a way that allows for some very unique and deeply customisable playthroughs. From the numbers above, you can probably infer that there are a staggering array of different combinations, ensuring that no two characters are likely to be identical.

So Disco Elysium presents an RPG experience that is quite different to what most players will be accustomed. It is a very "talky" game, slow-paced with only brief spurts of action. At the same time, it is not the sort of game you can really "lose", and failing skill checks simply takes you down a different story path. The focus is very much on the story and the choices that you make. The reason this all works is the exceptional quality of writing. Disco Elysium features some of the finest writing I have seen in a videogame, tackling big, complex ideas with depth and sensitivity and an impossibly sharp wit. This game is often laugh-out-loud funny and I was surprised by how often I had to pause and take a moment to get the laughs out of my system. The amount of care that has been put into the dialogue is really remarkable, reacting to big and small decisions, the items equipped, and even just dumb luck (like wearing a particular item at a certain time of day).

Yet there are some aspects of this game that leave a sour taste in my mouth. Primarily: the game is just way too short, particularly compared to what has been widely advertised and discussed in pre-release previews. I completed my first playthrough in just under 25 hours, with all side quests completed and, quite frankly, taking my time to enjoy the setting and explore. When you consider that other RPGs (eg Pillars of Eternity, Skyrim) can run a hundred hours or more, it really puts the slight scope of this game into perspective. Pre-release hype had described Disco Elysium as a massive open world adventure, full of memorable characters, and a play time of 90+ hours, but it is clear that this grossly stretches reality. This game really just has you solve the one case, in one fairly modest-sized map (divided into three areas). Most characters you really only meet the one time for one quest and then never see again. It is clear that the 90+ hour estimate is supposed to include multiple playthroughs, making it a highly misleading claim at best. Even with that, it's hard to see how you could get four or more playthroughs (for 90+ hours) of unique content.

Now don't get me wrong: what is here is quite excellent. I just wish there was more of it. It is far more limited in scope that you will probably be expecting, and certainly nowhere near as grand an adventure as has been advertised. Ultimately it is what it is, but it's important that you know what to expect before you buy, especially when it is being priced the same as a AAA blockbuster game, rather than the more modest indie game that it is.

It's less of a concern, but Disco Elysium also commits some grievous RPG sins, including time-limited quests (without warning), and whole areas being closed off after certain quests (again without warning), rendering some quests inoperable. I've also encountered a small number of bugs (some of which required a restart). Not a massive issue, but can be very frustrating for completionist players who don't make regular backup saves.

Disco Elysium is undoubtedly one of the more memorable gaming experiences I have had in years. The slower, more thoughtful gameplay makes for a welcome change of pace from the more obsessed games in the genre, and some of the better written scenes will live very long in the memory. I found myself frustrated with the game at times for the reasons above, but ultimately just disappointed that the whole experience was as short as it was, rather than the grand, world-spanning adventure that had been billed. I sincerely hope that future expansions/sequels are in the offing, and look forward to seeing what this talented team come up with next.

Thursday 3 October 2019

Once again we find ourselves living through historic moments. Following the revelation that Donald Trump has been using his position as President to solicit (and potentially coerce) election interference from foreign leaders, the outrage in America has reached a fever pitch. At this point there can be little doubt that we are witnessing the end of the Donald Trump presidency. This latest scandal appears almost certain to result in Trump becoming only the third President ever to be impeached, leaving Senate Republicans with a clear choice to make between country and party.

trump ukraine impeachment biden 2020 mueller russia putin

We are now in the midst of an official impeachment inquiry, triggered by a whistleblower accusation that President Trump had repeatedly pressured the President of Ukraine to open an investigation into his likely election opponent, Joe Biden, over baseless and widely debunked claims. The President admitted to the conduct, and then provided a White House call summary which appeared to confirm the accusations. Making matters worse were the apparent efforts by the White House and Department of Justice to cover up the existence of this complaint, blocking the document from reaching Congress, as would ordinarily happen under whistleblower statutes.

A few quick notes on this particular episode:

1) asking a foreign leader to interfere in a US election is clearly wrong and clearly illegal, even without any further detail. It is, at a minimum, a campaign finance violation. The Mueller investigation cleared members of the Trump 2016 campaign for this very offence on the basis that they couldn't prove specific intent, ie that they knew what they were doing was a crime. Following the Mueller Report, this defence can clearly no longer be relied on.

2) while a "quid pro quo" is not required in order for this incident to be a crime (much less, impeachable), the existence of such an arrangement could be evidence of bribery/extortion, a completely separate crime (and explicitly impeachable in the constitution). The White House's own "transcript" quite clearly contains a quid pro quo, depicting an exchange where Trump discusses providing military aid to Ukraine, followed by "I need a favour, though".

3) it probably goes without saying, given how brazenly corrupt and political this whole scheme appears prima facie, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Joe Biden has done anything wrong in this incident. The Ukrainian prosecutor on the case has described Trump's allegations as baseless and without any evidence, and there has never been any fact that has come to light which indicates that Joe Biden has done anything which would warrant investigation. Indeed many of the "facts" that Trump and his militants cite are easily disproved and have long been debunked.

4) it is often said that it is the cover up, not the crime, which matters. In this case it's both. The conduct itself is clearly illegal, and clearly impeachable. The cover up is obvious and shockingly corrupt, including ostensible collusion with Bill Barr and the Department of Justice.

So from the off this story appears devastating for the President, and that's just based on the contents of Trump's own (edited) summary of events. The actual whistleblower complaint (unsurprisingly) turned out to be even more damning, directly accusing the President of attempting to solicit election interference from foreign governments, and accusing both the President and his administration as a whole of engaging in a massive cover up of the conduct.

The story just seems to get worse every day, with more recent allegations that Trump engaged in similar conduct with other world leaders, and the revelation that potentially dozens of similar whistleblowers were out there, and had been stymied by the administration. Trump, predictably, is making matters worse, openly describing efforts to unmask and punish whistleblowers (highly illegal and anti-democratic), ostensibly endorsing execution of said whistleblower, and seeming to imply that his impeachment should trigger a civil war.

This is an unbelievable mess. It is clear that the White House has lost control of the narrative and is spinning out of control. It has reached a point where we are even seeing Republicans speak out against the President and in favour of impeachment. There is a sense of inevitability that, at this moment, we are witnessing the end of the Trump presidency.

But the truth is that this should have happened a long time ago. The corruption and amorality of this President has been a matter of public record since before he took office, and has only become more apparent with each successive crisis.

The Mueller Report should have been the final nail in the coffin, revealing a dizzying web of misconduct and a brazen disregard for both the rule of law and the integrity of American democracy. Mueller outlined some ten instances of potential criminal obstruction, even going so far as to specifically suggest that Congress take action. The release of this report was followed by the now famous letter signed by more than 1,000 Federal prosecutors asserting that, if not for the DOJ rules against indicting a sitting President, Trump would have faced criminal charges.

The report, along with numerous other instances of apparent wrongdoing, has led to months of investigation and scandal, and yet none of it appeared to reach the required critical mass to actually cause an existential crisis for this administration... until now.

And let's be clear: this is an existential crisis for the President. Ever more damning revelations seem to appear by the day. For the first time of his presidency, a majority of the country supports impeachment. That number has increased by 10% in less than a week, and is increasing by the day. The critical mass has been reached, and the point of no return has been crossed. Donald Trump will not recover from this crisis.

Even Republicans are starting to realise this fact. The comfortable Republican majority in the Senate should mean that any effort to remove Trump from office is dead on arrival, but amid a growing public outrage we are finally witnessing the first cracks in the unified front. It appears likely that there will be Republican defectors in both the House and Senate, the question is whether it will be enough to reach the two third majority required to convict and remove from office. It seems impossible, but make no mistake: if the polls continue to turn against Trump, Republicans will eventually drop their support. Their political futures may depend on it.

And so Congressional Republicans face a defining moment. Will they put country first and uphold the rule of law, or continue to debase themselves with the increasingly wild and nonsensical fantasies and conspiracy theories espoused by the President and his supporters?

Numerous prominent Republicans have stated that were the vote to be held in secret, Republicans would certainly convict Trump. So let's make no mistake, their reticence to do so is based entirely on electoral concerns, rather than the merits of Trump's defence of the indefensible. But this obsession over short term gain may well hurt them and the party as a whole in the long run.

The irony is that this mess could probably have been avoided had Republicans not given Trump a free pass on his previous transgressions. Throughout every scandal and instance of misconduct, Republicans have marched in lockstep and denied reality. The result is that Trump was emboldened to think he could get away with this brazenly corrupt act. In hindsight, I suspect Congressional Republicans wish they had taken more of a stand, and at least censured the President as a means of deterrence. They would do well to learn from this mistake before Trump drags the whole party down along with him.

This could well be the Republican Party's last chance. The party's future might depend on them doing the right thing in this moment. Otherwise, they risk being forever saddled to the legacy of a disgraced administration, consigned to the ash-heap of history's judgement.

Saturday 31 August 2019

Developed by Intelligent Systems
Published by Nintendo
Genre Tactical role-playing
Platform Switch

fire emblem three houses awakening switch nintendo smash brothers marth claude edelgard dimitri

The Fire Emblem series of games has enjoyed something of a checkered history. Some thirteen games have been made since the early 1990s, only half of which have seen release outside of Japan. Other than a few cameo appearances in the hugely popular Smash Bros franchise, Fire Emblem had barely made an impact in the worldwide markets, and as recently as the early 2010s it was rumoured that developer Intelligent Systems was on the verge of shutting down.

That all changed in 2012 with the release of Fire Emblem Awakening for the Nintendo 3DS. The success of that title pretty much single-handedly revitalised the series. Now with Fire Emblem: Three Houses the franchise is making its return to home consoles, and continues the upwards trajectory of recent years with what is by far the biggest release that Fire Emblem has seen, and probably the best game.

Concept and Setting
As with most entries in the series, Three Houses establishes an entirely new setting with new characters, locations and lore. This entry takes place in the world of Fódlan, a continent divided into three nations united by a common religion. Players take the role of a professor at a prestigious academy on neutral ground, where they must choose from one of three Houses (each of which is affiliated with a particular nation) to lead. Later on the game war breaks out, pitting the three Houses against one another, and you against whichever former students were not in your House.

What ensues feels a bit like a JRPG version of Harry Potter. Everything, from House colours, to the school uniforms, and various inter-House games and competitions, effectively captures that winning blend of English public school tradition and magical fantasy.

The quality of the storytelling jumps out right from the start. Fire Emblem has always been a story-focused series, but the quality of the writing is considerably higher in Three Houses than it has been in the past. The dialogue in particular shows far greater maturity than in any previous game, with fewer trope characters and much more realistic personal interaction. These characters are actually shockingly well written. Even the ones who initially seem one dimensional turn out to be fully fleshed out and worthwhile. I struggle to think of a recent game where I have liked a cast of characters this much.

The core story itself is also more compelling than the standard Fire Emblem fare. The usual tropes are here, cruel empires, noble lords, secret bad-guys, but it's all layered on a surprisingly competent commentary on the insanity of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour. The fact that the game's second act sees you forced to take to the battlefield against your former friends and students highlights this fact to often devastating effect.

But it is the world-building and attention to the small details here that impressed me the most. Usually in Fire Emblem (and most games really) you have your kingdoms, you have your characters, and then you have some story, with basically no further context. In Three Houses there has been such a great effort put into fleshing out the world itself, with continents and nations all of whom have fully thought out histories and cultures. Each month is bookended with a documentary-style cutscene (accompanied by wonderful medieval-style artwork) that provides background on the cultural context of the month, including how the changing climate affects flora, fauna and the people of Fódlan, as well as the traditions that emerge from this context. These kinds of small details on the minutia of life in Fódlan might seem superfluous in what is essentially a turn-based battle simulator, but it's the kind of detail that adds richness to a setting. It all adds up to make Fódlan feel like a fully realised world, and one that is all the more immersive for their efforts. If anything, I came away from this game wishing I could have seen even more of this world.

At its core, the Fire Emblem franchise is a series of tactical roleplaying games. Turn-based battles from a top-down view, with RPG style items and special abilities. This remains the meat of the gameplay here, but with Three Houses the developers have added so much more to the formula.

The core gameplay loop is essentially as follows. The game proceeds through a month of the calendar. At the start of each week you set a lesson programme for your students, and on the last day of each week you get a choice between engaging in battle, delivering a seminar to students (to help them level up a skill), or exploring the academy. Sidequests generally take one of two forms: battles or fetch quests that you complete in exploration mode.

The battles are your standard Fire Emblem fare. But for the most part, and particularly during the early game, you will be choosing the explore option. This is the first time that a Fire Emblem game has featured a fully explorable open map, and they have managed to pack an impressive amount of content in there. Exploring the academy allows you to participate in various House games and academy activities such as gardening and fishing. It also enables you to bond with your students, or engage in some extra training. The caveat is that you only have a certain number of activity points that you can use each week, meaning that you will need to prioritise how you spend your time.

One of the unique features of the Fire Emblem series is the social aspect, where players develop the bonds between characters. This can unlock additional story scenes and side quests, but here it is also a mechanic for recruiting students from other Houses. While each House begins with a handful of students, it is technically possible to develop your relationship with the other Houses' students to the point where you can recruit them to your House, and this can be done with any student other than the House heads and deputies. It is technically possible to recruit everyone in a single playthrough (as I did), but it can require a lot of grinding.

While the natural instinct is to try and recruit as many as possible, it is also arguable whether this is even a good idea. After all, you can only deploy 8-12 units per battle, and splitting your training efforts between more units inevitably means that none will reach as high a level as they would otherwise if you had focused on just a small core team. Additionally, I can imagine that recruiting everyone also takes something away from the emotional impact of the main story. One of the crucial themes of this game is the pointlessness of war, pitting neighbour against neighbour, and the idea of having to fight and kill your own students to whom you have become emotionally attached forms a key part of that emotional gut-punch. Personally I found the characters all so loveable that I felt compelled to recruit as many as possible to get the maximum amount of story, but in hindsight I can see that this may have detracted from the experience, turning the story from something weighty and impactful, to something resembling more of a traditional good vs evil videogame story.

This all works well at first, but the core gameplay loop somewhat falls apart later on. For all the content and storytelling in this game, there are surprisingly few sidequests. Given that your core reason for exploration (recruiting students) dries up about half way through the game, there comes a point where really there is not all that much to do between missions. More than 80% of my playing time was spent on the first half of the game, where I would often spend hours between missions developing the bonds between characters, leveling up skills, completing sidequests and searching for the various hidden items around the Academy. About three quarters of the way through the game I hit a point where there was no more recruiting, no more sidequests, and my characters were already so overpowered that I didn't even really need to worry about leveling up. I ended up pretty much just skipping through the last few months of the game because there really wasn't all that much to do.

This speaks to the game's second act weakness in general. That first act, teaching the students in the academy, is magical, memorable, and bursting with interesting things to do. The second act (the war), by comparison, just feels dry and monotonous by comparison (which I guess is kind of the point). One has to question whether it really made sense to continue the same gameplay loop in this second act, which really doesn't have the content for it and never quite feels right.

I also have to say, I am generally not a fan of these types of games which make you pick a path for the entire game, cutting off significant amounts of content and forcing you to do multiple play-throughs to see everything. I don't like the feeling of having to retread stuff that I've already done, and particularly for a game of this length, one good play-through is probably all I'm going to have time for. It is a shame that there is so much interesting content here that you can't see without playing the same story multiple times. Of course, this is only a half criticism, as the reason this is even a problem to begin with is because all the content is so compelling and well done.

Despite these minor criticisms, the game is a joy to play. The new features mark a bold new direction for the series, one that substantively adds to the experience.

Despite some second act weakness, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a delight, and one of the Switch's best games. The world of Fódlan is one of the best examples of world-building I've seen in a videogame for a long time, and the characters comprise one of the most compelling casts of characters in recent years. Three Houses represents a significant step up for the series in just about every regard, one which for the first time establishes Fire Emblem as a bona fide blockbuster home videogame franchise right up there with Mario and Zelda.

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