Posts Tagged ‘Gaming’

 

Fancy a listen? Click for the Tomb Raider soundtrack or composer Nathan McCree’s Soundcloud

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I’ve waited two decades to hear the original Tomb Raider score played by an orchestra. Imagine my disappointment when it didn’t feature on the Anniversary remake (a game I still loved but nobody bought) or when the soundtrack to the 2001 movie adaptation consisted of Bono shouting about a mole living in a hole. Did Tomb Raider: Live in concert deliver on twenty years’ worth of high hopes? Yes – it was everything I’d dreamed, and more.

 

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Nathan McCree

The soundtrack to 1996’s Tomb Raider is nothing short of a masterpiece. Composed by Nathan McCree, the score is evocative of forgotten worlds and the journey of an intrepid explorer as she gazes upon the lost landscapes. Hearing it immediately whisks us away to the Peruvian mountains, Greek temples and Egyptian tombs. The elegance and beauty of the main theme perfectly embodies our heroine Lara Croft as she uncovers the mysteries of the ancients. The score also comes loaded with moments of heart-pounding terror as Lara narrowly escapes the jaws of death. Remember looking down from St Francis’ Folly, leaping over spike traps and running from the T-Rex? Of course you do!

 

Let’s not forget the second and third instalments in the Tomb Raider series, which were also composed by McCree. These games took Lara across the globe to exotic new locations, so naturally her adventures needed the soundtracks to match. Some stand-out musical moments included the skidoo chase across the Tibetan foothills, the sitar-infused trek through the jungles of India and the Vivaldi-esque Venice theme – perfect for crashing through gondolas while riding a speedboat. Presented together as the ‘Tomb Raider Suite’, McCree’s work is ambitious in scope with many clever variations of its own classic themes.

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Shelley Blond

At the Eventim Appollo Hammersmith, I finally got to hear my favourite game music played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and conducted by Robert Zeigler while images and footage were displayed on a giant screen. But the event had more than a few surprises in store. Our host was none other than Shelley Blond, the original voice actress of Lara Croft. As well as hearing the official world premiere of the ‘Tomb Raider Suite’, we were also treated to a brand new Nathan McCree composition inspired by the original Tomb Raider trilogy titled ‘In The Blood’. The concert also featured Nathan himself discussing his work onstage, a compilation of clips from Geeketiquette’s thoroughly entertaining Tomb Raider playthrough and a familiar old butler who tottered on at the end of the first half. Presumably someone had to lock him back in the freezer before the show could continue.

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It’s okay – we all did this at some point!

 

Tomb Raider raised the bar not just in game mechanics but aesthetics, which the music was a huge part of. Those unforgettable first four notes have been forever etched into the hearts of gamers worldwide. To hear it done justice after years of listening to the synth versions (as anyone who ever popped the game disc into a CD player would have done) was truly phenomenal. It was the perfect way to celebrate 20 years of Lara Croft.

Few things will get me through a dull day quite like a good game soundtrack. It’s the perfect antidote to the crippling banality of office small talk.

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Office Space is class by the way

I thought I’d share a few of my favourite soundtracks here, starting with my current weapon of choice – an FMV horror/puzzle fest known as The 7th Guest.

(Click here for 7th Guest soundtrack via YouTube link. Or just look it up yourself – it’s all good)

 

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Philips CDi: Terrible Zelda games not included

This game came into my life via ‘The Sleepover’ – a different kind of game that you might have played yourself. It was set in a friend’s house and the sole object was to stay up all night (technically it was a local multiplayer strategy played in real time.) You’d need three things: 1 – Jammies (obviously) 2 – An obscenely large quantity of junk food and 3 – Entertainment, preferably videos or any available games console. My friend Kirsty had a Philips CDi – a curious gadget that played games and movies on compact discs. In those days, this was considered ‘witchcraft’.

 

 

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Bottom right: BBFC ’15’ age classification. Yes, we truly stuck it to “The Man”.

When we weren’t sliding down stairs in sleeping bags or attempting to get through a few seconds worth of Dragon’s Lair 2 (borderline impossible, especially with the CDi’s weird remote control device), we’d be pulling an all-nighter on The 7th Guest. And oh, how that game intrigued us! It gave us a pre-rendered 3D haunted house to explore, real humans acting out dramatic scenes (albeit terribly) and – best of all – a ‘15’ certificate on the box, which meant there HAD to be something rude in there if we looked hard enough.

 

 

 

The game turned out to be a bit of a let down in the smut department (I’m sure anyone who played Night Trap experienced similar disappointment) but it still had plenty on offer for a trio of excitable youngsters high on sugary snacks. We got a cool story about a creepy toymaker called Mr Stauf (geddit? It’s an anagram of Faust), the thrill of unlocking and exploring new rooms and numerous bits that were simultaneously unsettling and hilarious. Red Balloon man, we salute you!

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I’ve often wondered what this guy has been up to since. Sod all, according to IMDB

 

Here’s where I finally get around to discussing the soundtrack, which was supposed to be the point of this post anyway. This was the very first game score I heard on CD, which allowed for ‘proper’ songs with lyrics and singers and shit. The fact that the soundtrack came on its own separate disc meant something else too – people wanted to listen to the music, even when they weren’t playing the game. As a kid who’d already put several game soundtracks on tape using a portable cassette recorder, I felt validated. Apparently there were people out there who were as weird as me.

 

 

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Fun fact: I once baked a replica of this cake puzzle. Because that’s how I roll.

The CD starts with a classic gothic horror overture complete with pipe organs, bells and the foreboding tones of a Latin choir (at least I think it’s Latin. I don’t speak Latin so I’m not sure.) The rest is bookended by two full songs, both enjoyable in their own ways. The first is “The Game”, which has a wonderful brooding/grungy feel to it. Would you believe this was made in 1993? The lyrics retell the in-game story while conveying the mood, almost like a precursor to the channel Miracle of Sound (highly recommended). “The Game” uses a melody that’s heard in various forms throughout The 7th Guest, most memorably in a Simon-style mini-game (a.k.a. “That Bloody Piano”). There was no margin for error during this 18 sequence-long puzzle – screw up once and it was straight back to the start with you. Curse you, Mr Stauf!

 

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That Bloody Piano

 

The closing number is “Skeletons In My Closet”, which played over the end credits (or so we believed – try as we might, we never actually got that far). It’s a camp, jazzy little ditty that fits nicely with the 1930s/40s setting in which the action takes place. Actually, that should be “took place” – the actors appear as ghosts reliving moments from the night they died while the players controls a disembodied spirit trying to make sense of the events. Cool, huh? Dig those backing vocals too – they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

 

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90s FMV acting at its finest. Imagine Tommy Wiseau directed video games.

 

The in-game music does a fantastic job creating an air of suspense, mystery and spooky goings-on. I think it’s a real testament to the game’s score that it managed to keep us going through the puzzle sequences because, trust me, some of those took an age to solve. The CD soundtrack provides a nice sample of each track peppered with a few dramatic music stings and (oh joy!) voice clips. Fans of bad FMV acting are in for a treat. You can practically taste the ham.

 

Maybe it’s the nostalgia bug or maybe it’s my undying love of cheesy horror but The 7th Guest soundtrack is one I’m glad I revisited. It was composed by George “The Fat Man” Sanger, whose other credits include Wing Commander, Zombies Ate My Neighbours and… what’s this? A sequel to The 7th Guest called The 11th Hour? I might just have to check that out…

… and a fan-made third game in the works called The 13th Doll? My cup runneth over!

The Quarian & the Geth

“Does this unit have a soul?”

Tali1Legion1The backstories and development of these two races are intrinsically linked, so it only makes sense to review them together. The Quarian machinist Tali’Zorah nar Rayya joins the Normandy as part of her pilgrimage. Geth are the most frequently encountered enemy in Mass Effect. Together their unfolding story serves as a microcosm for the theme of Organic versus Synthetic lifeforms that runs through the series.

According to Mass Effect lore, the Geth were the invention of the Quarian. Originally built for manual labour, the robotic Geth were given a series of upgrades to enhance their intelligence for complex tasks. As an unexpected result, they became self-aware and began questioning their existence, purpose and the presence (or otherwise) of their souls. Horrified by the implications and suddenly fearing their creations, quarians began shutting down the units – a move that resulted in a full Geth uprising in which the Quarian were defeated. Driven from their homeworld Rannoch and denied amnesty due to their irresponsible actions, the Quarian became a nomadic race forced to live aboard their own ships. This story can be read as a space opera interpretation of the Prometheus myth or a large scale version of its most famous derivative work, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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What’s interesting about the artistic development process is that the Geth were designed first and Bioware artists then worked backwards to conceptualise the “creator race”. Geth are fully synthetic, constructed from durable metals and artificial muscle tissue. This grants them formidable strength and agility, particularly the “hopper” units. When damaged, they leak a white fluid that gives the impression of bleeding. Similarities were made in the Quarian design to reinforce the connection with the Geth. They share physical attributes with their slender builds, strong hips and bowed back legs. The two races also demonstrate a resourceful nature in their outward appearances. Salvaged materials are used by both, as seen in the variety of textures and patterns in the Quarian environmental suits and by the Geth unit Legion using a fragment of Shepard’s armour to “patch a hole.” Both races, it would appear, share a resourceful nature.

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One possibly symbolic parallel is that Quarian and Geth are both effectively “faceless.” A Geth’s “head” is substituted by a lamp light while the Quarian wear opaque, featureless masks. There are several ways we can read into these design choices. From a gameplay stance, a Geth’s “face” provides dramatic lighting when battling in dark quarters, plus it gives the player a shooting target. From a storytelling point of view, perhaps the Geth were built this way in an attempt to dehumanise (or dequarianise) the workforce and avoid facing the contentious issue of slave labour.

It’s thanks to the quarians’ subsequent actions that they were forced into wearing masks. By the time the events of Mass Effect are in motion, the Quarian have inherited a seriously weakened immune system – a result of generations spent living in isolation aboard ships – and must wear body suits with protective masks that obscure all but the faintest hint of a face. Losing their faces symbolises a loss of status – their fall from the image of gifted and respected inventors to social pariahs. It could also be a sign of their abandoned ethics and lost humanity in the act of creating a sentient race (labelled “True A.I.” in the game’s universe) only to enslave it and then attempt to destroy it.

Tali2Traditional science fiction uses aliens to convey themes of the Other in society and in Mass Effect the Quarian evoke a number of social, racial and religious groups that have been targets of Western prejudice. Since being denied amnesty, the Quarian have become reviled in galactic society and are dismissed as beggars and thieves. In the games, they fall victim to false accusations of theft and abusive slurs such as “suit rat”. Parallels might be drawn with real-life Gypsy and Traveller communities. Additionally the Quarian speak with a distinctly Eastern-European accent, possibly harking back to the Red Scare, and their veils and facial coverings might even be compared to the niqab or burka. It’s not a direct metaphor – a quarian’s mask and suit are worn for medical rather than religious purposes – yet the distrust and discrimination they experience feels rooted in real life.

As for the Geth, they are aware that their species is feared by organic races, many of whom don’t consider synthetics to be a species at all. Even the colourfully diverse crew of the Normandy have trouble adjusting to the presence of a Geth unit on board and the player is actually given the option to sell Legion to Cerberus for research purposes. Needless to say, this is a pretty hardcore Renegade option.

Eventually the conflict between the Geth and Quarian escalates into full blown war, the outcome of which is entirely down to the player. Shepard might take sides with either race, attempt to secure peace between them or decide that neither are to be trusted and simply use them as assets wherever it’s considered useful. I’ll admit… I messed this up horribly on my first playthrough and the consequences plagued me right through to the end. I had no idea a game could cause so much heartbreak and feelings of guilt – in fact, it’s one of the most powerful emotional responses I’ve experienced through any work of fiction.

And no, I haven’t talked about the “Tali’s face” controversy from Mass Effect 3. Let’s just pretend that lazy Photoshop effort never existed, okay?

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this series and want more Mass Effect musing (because who doesn’t?) then check out Five Out of Ten magazine, issue 14. Two of my articles are featured; “The Dirty Dozen” where I talk about the squad of Mass Effect 2 and “The Unnatural Evolution of Pokemon”, which was written to tie in with the theme of Nature.

Please support them if you can – they publish some fantastic, thought-provoking gaming articles and they really helped me improve my writing, plus the art design makes it look feckin’ awesome!

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The Asari

Asari are a mono gendered species resembling human females with blue skin. They are credited as superior intellects, possessors of natural telekinetic (or “biotic”) abilities and the first living race to discover interstellar travel. Shepard’s trusted ally, the Asari scientist and archaeologist Dr Liara T’Soni, sheds light on the past in the hope of preserving the future.

asaricommandoThe Asari are the closest species to humans physically as the race was fashioned with a potential love interest in mind. They can wear human armour and possess the most homo sapien faces (Liara’s particular features were based on the model Jillian Murray). However their relatability is balanced with their otherworldliness. In place of hair, Asari have tentacles. Skin tones range from teal to purple and emit a subtle glow. Facial markings create distinctions between individuals as can minor traits of that particular asari’s “father”, who may belong to any alien species.

There is a strong aquatic influence in the Asari design, most obvious in their blue colouring. In myth and folklore, water is a symbol of feminine energy, beauty and mystery as depicted in mermaids, sirens and water nymphs. The Asari scalp crest, which is shaped like a wave, was based on the image of a woman emerging from a pool with her hair slicked back. Up close fine, fish-like scales are visible on an asari’s skin. The motif extends beyond aesthetics as the fluidity and grace of their movement is also likened to water.

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The Asari are an abstract, almost idealised version of femininity. Though not technically female they use feminine pronouns, worship female deities and their life stages – maiden, matron and matriarch – echo the three phases of pagan womanhood. The inclusion of “blue space-babes” may sound cheap but it could be argued that Bioware were harking back to traditional iconography rather than conforming to cliché. Concept art shows the Asari in strong or contemplative poses, their allure coming from their inner power rather than their bodies. True, we see them dancing in seedier locales yet we’re just as likely to meet Asari diplomats, armoured commandos and, of course, Liara in her lab coat.

Liara T'Soni - "The doctor will pwn you now."

Liara T’Soni – “The doctor will pwn you now.”

The following was my contribution to a book on art in games. Unfortunately the project folded before it could be published.

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Mass Effect: Designing an Alien Race

After their success with the Star Wars based Knights of the Old Republic Bioware created Mass Effect – an original science fiction universe tailored to an action-RPG premise.

Set over a century into the future, the trilogy follows Commander Shepard’s mission to save organic life from the threat of the Reapers. The term “organic” applies to many advanced beings besides humans, each with their own history and culture. Members of these races join Shepard to become allies, friends and even romantic interests.

Alien designs were based on archetypes, visual metaphors and familiar forms. The majority were inspired by at least one real life species, for example the Salarian took cues from amphibians and the Hanar from jellyfish. Non-playable characters could take virtually any shape but game mechanics required the combatants to use firearms, have humanoid skeletal structures (symmetrical, bipedal etc) and no appendages that would obstruct movement. Shepard’s teammates needed to emote during conversations, which created the need for recognisable facial features. Even with these criteria in place and with so many real-world influences, the alien designs are still unique and varied. Additionally, there was a push to give each character an iconic silhouette for the Squad Selection screen.

In the first game, Shepard is joined aboard the Normandy by four aliens; a Turian, an Asari, a Krogan and a Quarian.

 

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The Turian

When designing a galaxy on the brink of war we must ask what its ultimate military power would be like. With the Turian, Mass Effect delivered a regimental society renowned for their forcefulness and discipline. Despite past conflicts and bad blood between their respective races, Shepard forms a close bond with the Turian agent Garrus Vakarian.

turian.conceptBirds of prey, particularly eagles, inspired the Turian appearance. The pointed chin and mouth mandibles form a beak shape while a cartilage-based “head fringe” resembles feathers. Most notable are the sharp, beady eyes. Their hands and talons are like avian feet but with opposable thumbs. Turian biology wasn’t solely inspired by birds however; the exoskeleton that provides their natural armour is typically found on insects and crustaceans. It succeeds in making them appear both tougher and more “alien”. As a finishing touch, the war paint on their faces reinforces their militant heritage.

The eagle is symbolic of pride, honour and patriotism, particularly in the United States. Likewise, the Turian are a proud race and duty-bound to their people, placing great importance on civic duty and the greater good. They operate on strict codes of honour, to the degree that it is rumoured they physically cannot lie. The phrase “eagle eyed” can be applied both literally and figuratively as no minor detail escapes a Turian’s attention.  History names them as the race that secured galactic peace and so they work tirelessly to maintain order, dedicating their talents to administrative duties.

GarrusHis race may be mired in bureaucracy, but Garrus shows us the deadly hunter the Turian was evolved to be. The monocular visor he wears shows an affinity with his weapon of choice – the sniper rifle – which channels his natural precision into a lethal art. He also exemplifies the ideals of the militia and the justice system, being wise and compassionate as well as a force to be reckoned with. Garrus abandons his career as a law enforcer to join Shepard but his goal of protecting the innocent remains the same. The difference is that his notion of the greater good extends far beyond his own race.

Yep, it was only going to be a matter of time before I drew something Mass Effect related! Here’s one of my favourite faces (in a manner of speaking) from the Normandy crew – Quarian engineer, Tali’Zorah.

Keelah se'lai! Tali'Zorah - armed and dangerous.

Keelah se’lai! Tali’Zorah – armed and dangerous.

What can I say, except that I love this character and her background. Tali is intelligent and loyal with a real desire to prove herself. When she first encounters Commander Shepard, she’s on a rite of passage known as the Pilgrimage for which she left her birth ship to explore the galaxy and bring back something that will benefit her people. As the Quarian lost their home world Rannoch, they live about a Migrant Fleet of ships and, thanks to their weakened immune systems, they’re forced to wear protective masks and full body suits.

This was challenging to draw, thanks to all the textures in Tali’s suit. The Quarian race are all about salvage and pride themselves on their ability to mend and make use of items that other races would throw away. To reflect this, their suits appear to be constructed from various fabrics, possibly scrap materials. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn a character without a face either – I waited till the pencil went blunt to try and get the opaque look for the mask. Interestingly, the suit gives us an indication of Tali’s status and the timeline point of the Mass Effect series. The one I’ve sketched belongs to Tali’Zorah vas Neema or Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – the names she uses during Mass Effect 2 and 3. In the first game, her suit is a little more basic in style and she’s known as Tali’Zorah naar Rayya.

So, what’s with all the surnames? Well, “naar” indicates a Quarian who has not yet completed the Pilgrimmage and the Rayya is the name of the ship on which Tali was born. The ascent to Quarian adulthood is marked with the move to a new ship. By the time she meets Shepard in Mass Effect 2, she has adopted the name “vas Neema”, meaning that her Pilgrimmage was successful and earned her a position aboard a new ship called “Neema” as well as permission to modify her suit and veil as she wishes. Finally, Tali changes her name to “vas Normandy” to indicate that Shepard’s ship has become her home and that the Normandy crew are considered family. Aww!

It might not be a perfect likeness but I’ll wager that more effort went into this picture than the one of Tali’s face in Mass Effect 3. A poorly Photoshopped stock image? C’mon!

Here’s  something I’ve been meaning to dig out for a while now – a series on Game Heroines I wrote for the (sadly defunct) Pixel Nation magazine. I’ll be posting the rest piece by piece over the next week or something (I don’t do too well with self-imposed schedules!) So here’s the intro and the articles on Chun Li and Tifa will follow shortly-ish. The original article on Lara Croft that was the basis for this series is already on the blog. I’ve also got a second batch that includes Samus Aran, the Williams sisters from Tekken and some other round-ups of classic characters.

I might do more of these in the future if I feel inspired – suggestions are more than welcome! Also I’ll be returning to The Femshep Experiment (yeah, it’s been a while!) and looking at one of my favourite characters in the series, Thane Krios.

“Confessions of a Girl Gamer” (originally written for Pixel Nation, 2012)

I’ve been a gamer all my life. From platformers and arcade shoot ’em ups to text adventures on the BBC Micro (“It’s okay” I’d tell my teachers, “It’s educational”) I was into anything and everything. It took me a while to realise that I was actually a bit of a freak – video games had been declared “boy’s toys” and somehow I’d missed the memo. Most likely I was too busy racking up a high score on Galaxian to notice. The judgemental looks I got from boys, girls and grown-ups alike didn’t put me off but something else bothered me. Somewhere on my umpteenth effort to help Mario save the princess I started asking myself some questions. Why did the girls always need rescuing? Why didn’t they have their own adventures? Why couldn’t the princess save Mario for a change? After all, the Eighties had given us heroines in other media like She-Ra, Cheetara and Ripley (even if I wasn’t supposed to be watching Aliens at my age). Games were still in their relative infancy and it would take a little while to catch up.

Chun Li

One Friday afternoon on an after-school arcade trip with my Dad I tried out a new game, Street Fighter II. My world changed that day – imagine my delight when, lo and behold, I saw a girl on the character selection screen. After picking Chun Li my Dad gave me a few words of advice. “You’re not the strongest but you’ll be the fastest” he said. “Try to take them by surprise, give a few quick hits then get out of the way.” Wise words indeed as I won two fights in my first go. What a revelation! Not only did I have a new favourite game, it had a girl in it and she was awesome. Using my guerrilla tactics I found I could defeat almost anyone. I’ll never forget the baffled faces of teenage boys as a skinny nine year old in pigtails stepped up to the machine, nor will I forget the look of shock and humiliation after Chun Li and I had given them a right good thrashing.

Lara Croft artOther female characters came and went over the next few years but none of them made quite the same impact. Then along came Lara Croft – her face was everywhere you looked and she seemed to be enjoying A-list celebrity status despite the obvious drawback of not actually existing. Bizarre as the whole ‘Cult of Lara’ thing was it still put her game in my radar. Tomb Raider blew me away with its 3D worlds and I remember thinking that this was the future of gaming. While I still found the pin-up image to be tacky and a bit pathetic I made my peace by disassociating it with the in-game character. “You can keep the Lara who poses for calendars and sells Lucozade” I’d say. “My Lara goes treasure hunting and fights dinosaurs.”

Later in my teens, I fell in lTifa Lockheart artove with RPGs. I’d never realised that game worlds could be so richly detailed, not to mention the stories and the characters, many of whom were female. I’d seen a lot of cool girls do a lot of cool stuff but with games that weren’t exactly dialogue heavy there was only so much you could read into their personalities. RPGs delivered the goods in terms of stylised fight moves but you’d learn just as much about the characters off the battlefield. I’d even feel emotionally connected, seeing them through their highs and lows and relating elements of my own life to their abstract, often surreal experiences. The line between games and art was definitely blurring. Not being much of the ‘hearts and flowers’ type I’d feel more at home with the tomboyish characters and there was one who I particularly admired. She was down to earth, emotionally mature and showed strength and bravery that I found genuinely inspirational. Put it this way, whenever I’m renaming characters in Final Fantasy VII I always give my own name to Tifa Lockhart.

Times have changed and it took more than a few kick ass chicks and warrior maidens to break the mold, so here’s a tribute to some of the greatest. They may not be perfect (who is?) but their impact on the gaming world and beyond can’t be denied.