Archive | December 2013

MONDAY (THURSDAY) MORNING MATCH ROUND UP: STUFF I WATCHED

So it turns out I’m pretty bad at resisting the urge to write about this stuff.  MOVING RIGHT ALONG:

ALLIANCE vs. DIGNITAS

GAME 1: ALLIANCE

            This was hard to watch. Dignitas couldn’t have asked for a better team composition, with Qtpie getting Sivir, Shyvana and Olaf together, and Scarra on one of his signature champions mid with Gragas. Alliance let all of these picks go through and then proceeded to totally smear every single one of them all over the map.

            Crumbzz got completely outclassed in jungle presence, Scarra gave up every single one of his blue buffs to Froggen, and the security of Zilean’s ultimate meant that the Olaf/Shyvana blitz never really came to fruition against a priority target the way it needed to.  Alliance completely controlled this game from the outset, and by the end of it, Wickd was able to virtually solo the entire Dignitas lineup inside their own base.  Just a total mismatch. Kiwikid definitely needs to work on his synergy with QT and every member of Dignitas needs to step up their game if they hope to be able to compete outside of NA.

GAME 2: ALLIANCE

            Still a decisive win, but not nearly as one sided as the previous game’s was. Getting rid of Zilean in the ban phase meant that there was at least a bit of a stopgap in the insane jungle bullrushing from Shook, and Kiwi definitely managed to get more mileage out of Karma this time around. Karma and Shyvana is a very potent combination if it gets going, as Shyvana synergizes really really well with anyone that can give her a jumpstart in movespeed (Orianna, Zilean, Karma, etc.) 

            Alliance was still definitely in control here, though. Wickd still manages to make the Malphite pick work, and his build managed to get around Shyvana’s defenses thanks to the Sheen procs on his Triforce doing physical damage instead of magic.  Wickd likes tanky champions that let him dictate when fights start, and so Malphite still fits the bill perfectly.

            Bot lane was pretty evenly matched this time, and Crumbzz was able to influence the lanes far, far more than he ever did in game 1.  The only obvious folding here was again in mid, where Froggen more or less took Scarra to school in Gragas 101 and showed why even the nerfed Gragas is a frighteningly versatile pick.

Team Solomid vs. Lemondogs (nominally)

            This match was a pretty good show of the flaws in the current way the LCS is structured. This was envisioned as a #2 NA vs. #2 EU throwdown, but given the fact that the Lemondogs roster has undergone massive changes, this turned out way more one sided than it should have been.

GAME 1: TSM

            And that’s why you don’t give Bjergsen LeBlanc if you’re not really sure of your ability to beat him in lane. Bjergsen just completely owned the mid lane here, getting first blood extremely early in a straight up 1v1 assassination, and it enabled TheOddOne to command the other two lanes at will.  I was really impressed by the improvement in TSM rotations in this game; Bjergsen gets the kill mid lane, and INSTANTLY thereafter, a tower is being pushed top. TSM cleanly moved from kills to objectives, and it really showcased improvements in their communication since Worlds.

            Bjergsen is a natural fit for this team and it shows. He has a similar champion pool to Reginald and similar aggression, but he’s more skilled than Regi and his champion pool goes a bit deeper. On top of that, I have a feeling he’s easier to work with than Regi and his playcalling skills are probably more honed as a mid laner after his time in the EU LCS last split, a region dominated by talented mids.

            TheOddOne really shined in this game as well, showcasing improved mechanical skill and a great sense of map awareness. Oddone’s Elise play showcased a new level of mechanical prowess that served to complement Bjergsen’s aggression; Oddone missed almost no Cocoons and was able to pull off some great escapes with timely use of his abilities.

            In general, a very one sided game, though not as much of a stom as Alliance vs. Dig’s game 1 was. TSM showed why they’re such a consistently great performer in LAN events, and the inclusion of Bjergsen seems to have done wonders for the team’s communication.

GAME 2: TSM

            A closer game, but ultimately LD’s awful Sion pick came back to bite them and TSM hugely outscaled them into late game. I really don’t think there is any scenario in which Sion is a viable option; he has to work too hard for results that can be achieved much more easily by other champions, and his scaling is total garbage. 

            The Vi build here was also just pure soloqueue. Got fed? Better build a bunch of expensive damage so I can carry! Without a tanky build, Vi just got blown up whenever she tried to initiate into the late game, like every glass cannon bruiser will at a professional level. This game really was just a matter of very poor decision making on LD’s part; they had the skill to hold their own against TSM, but their lack of experience and bizarre choices in terms of team comp and item builds really hamstrung them in the long run.

RELEGATION

 

Ninjas in Pajamas vs. Kiedyś Miałem Team: KTM 3-0 NiP

            This sure was a shock, wasn’t it? I’m not sure what the hell the team that showed up was, but it sure wasn’t NiP. Even with a fresh roster composed of a bunch of EU’s most talented players, NiP just totally lacked any kind of cohesive strategy or confidence at all.

            I’m not even going to go into the individual games here because NiP’s failure was so consistent on a strategic level.  They completely failed to adapt their team comps to any of the strategies that KTM showed, and while KTM were inferior mechanical players, they simply starved the games out to the late game point and then won on better teamwork and team compositions.

            As much as I love hyrqbot, his Amumu pick in game 2 after it failed so much in game 1 showed that NiP’s ability to change tactics was just nonexistent.  On top of that, the stress of the relegation process really showed; NiP had everything to lose, KTM had everything to gain, and NiP played the entire set like they were scared.

            In the end, their lack of confidence and strategic flexibility was their downfall, and they weren’t even able to take a single game off of the up and comers. The irony of this all isn’t lost on me; NiP’s roster is composed of teams who all left organizations that were guaranteed entry in the LCS next split in favor of what they undoubtedly assumed would be an easy requalification.  Oops. We’ll see if that same sort of punt pays off for the Evil Geniuses in the NA promotion tournament.

 

Remedial Dungeoneering: Molten Core

            In addition to putting Monday Morning Mid-Laner on hiatus for the time being, I’ve decided to take a break from the Feeding Log and ranked LoL in general until Season 4 gets a little more settled in and I have some time to sit down and really figure out what the hell I’m doing.  In the meantime, I’m going to focus on learning Dota 2 behind the scenes and will hopefully be able to deliver some content on that in the coming weeks. 

            For now, though, I’ve been playing a lot of WoW and looking for a way to write about what I’ve been up to in Azeroth, and the idea came to me to do a temporary column about my favorite thing to do in MMOs: shameless tourism! In this case, it’s the old raids and dungeons that are getting my attention, and so for the next stretch of time I’ll be writing articles here where I go into some of the lore, gameplay history, and current impressions of the places based on my own experience and research.

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Uh, I’ll just show myself out.

            Given that I’m doing this in order, then, the first and most obvious destination is the granddaddy of all traditional raids, the long storied Molten Core (40).

            Molten Core’s lore is rather simple. Ragnaros is the Firelord, and this is where his slaves essentially call him into the normal world from his home plane. Majordomo Executus is his chief lieutenant, and is required to call Ragnaros out in order to beat him up and take his lunch money. The players invade Molten Core, bully Executus into summoning Ragnaros, and then give Ragnaros a black eye, forcing him to retreat back into the Firelands.

            At the time, this dungeon represented the pinnacle of PvE in World of Warcraft. Featuring general mob design that required an enormous amount of stacking of a particular stat (fire resist), a 40-player requirement, incredibly powerful loot and bosses that required a heavy degree of coordination, Molten Core was everything that a high end raiding guild wanted out of an endgame dungeon.

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Bad move, Executus.

            The loot in particular remains somewhat legendary and difficult to obtain to this day. Chief among the items to be gotten by running Molten Core were the two legendary weapons Sulfuras and Thunderfury, ridiculous and garish looking items that will provide a player with a degree of nerd cred to this day if obtained and transmogrified onto the appearance of current level weapons. The quests involved in obtaining Thunderfury in particular remain very onerous and time-consuming, and at the time, having one of these weapons may have been the greatest accomplishment in swag acquisition in the game.

            Mechanically, there’s a fair amount here that’s novel, if not a little blunt. Stacking fire resist has a kind of nostalgia to it in and of itself, as there are no fights in current content that require players to amass a huge amount of a particular stat. That kind of gameplay concept is as much a forgotten relic as this dungeon itself. Some elements of the trash design remain in raids to this day; mechanics like the Core Hounds’ revivals requiring players to really pay attention during certain trash fights are echoed in modern raids like Throne of Thunder. On top of that, the requirement of leaving Executus alive during his fight in order to keep him around to summon Ragnaros is a unique mechanic that hasn’t really cropped up in much content since this.  From a design perspective, Molten Core was the WoW design team’s magnum opus at the time, a creation of the sum of all their PvE sadism and cunning.

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Pictured: Pretty much everything you’ll see in Molten Core.

            If only the look  and feel of it were a little more interesting. Molten Core may as well be a jumbo-sized carbon copy of Ragefire Chasm in appearance, featuring nothing but brown caves and lava. Given that this dungeon is essentially the core of a volcano this kind of aesthetic makes sense, but as the pinnacle of PvE content, it was a bit disappointing to engage in a raid that was far less artistically interesting than many of the 5-player dungeons that preceded it. The Core Hounds at least are a very iconic looking enemy, and Ragnaros himself is still a fantastic model, but their surroundings simply don’t deserve them. For the first truly epic encounter of the game, they could have done a bit better than “fire cave.”

            Presently, there are still a few decent reasons to run Molten Core. Like all old raids, there’s an element of catharsis to running in and obliterating things that used to take hours and dozens of players to clear, and it’s pretty funny to go swimming in the lava, as its damage was a flat amount and doesn’t scale to modern health amounts. There are also three mini-pets that can drop from various bosses, added in patch 5.1 as part of the “Raiding With Leashes” achievement. The addition of transmogrification to the game has also made it useful to come here to accumulate pieces of Tier 1 gear for a visual set, and of course, there’s always the allure of assembling the components to the great Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker.

            Molten Core might not look like much, but it’s still the pinnacle of original raid content, and keeps a special place in many long-term players’ hearts. It can be found at the bottom of Blackrock Mountain, and is worth checking out for anyone above level 70 or so who wants to take a stroll through history.

Summary Judgment: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

             Going back into an Ace Attorney game after going through law school and passing the bar exam was a somewhat curious prospect. As the game’s release date neared, I found myself wondering if I would be capable of handling all of the ridiculous courtroom shenaniganry that transpires in that series now that I had been so thoroughly educated on the way that real trials operated. Would my love for the series’ manic courtroom drama be overcome by cynicism, causing me to look down my nose at the farce of a legal profession shown in the game?

            After playing Capcom’s latest entry in the series on the 3DS, Dual Destinies, I feel relieved to say that the answer was a resounding NO. Dual Destinies is a game that was only enhanced by my experiences in law school and feelings toward the legal profession, and on top of all of that, it represents a great self awareness and evolution in the series’ design and is summarily the best game in the series.

            The formula here hasn’t changed much. The player inhabits the law offices of the Wright Anything Agency as one of three attorneys who work there, depending on the case: hotshot Apollo Justice, precocious rookie Athena Cykes, or the veteran legend himself, Phoenix Wright. Throughout a series of cases, the lawyers piece together an impromptu defense for their deseperate clients using various means of investigation, ranging from simply examining areas for evidence to using magic bracelets to analyze facial movements.  All of this culminates in a courtroom battle, where the player matches wits with a prosecutor, utilizing cross examination to present the collected evidence in such a way as to reveal contradictions and inconsistencies in the witnesses’ statements and unravel the truth.

RAISING THE BAR

            What has changed, though, is that Capcom has learned a thing or two from Ace Attorney Investigations and has fixed quite a bit of the tedium and pacing issues of the previous games. Much of the investigation phase has been streamlined and smoothened out, making them a much more organic process of accumulating evidence rather than the drawn out march of trial and error they were in previous titles.  Often, the game will directly lead to where you need to be next, and there’s a convenient notebook in the Court Record that allows players to quickly reference exactly what it is they should be doing. It does, perhaps, make the game “easier” from a certain standpoint in its small increase in handholding, but when the “difficulty” of previous entries largely revolved around being made to throw evidence at the wall to see if it stuck, I have a hard time lamenting the relative ease of Dual Destinies’ experience.

            The trial segments have been similarly improved. Gone are the irritating segments wherein the player would be required to present the proper evidence under threat of instant game over upon failure, and the general penalty for running out of your “lawyer health” bar has been drastically reduced. Again, this was never true difficulty to begin with, so the reduction in repetition resulting from failure is a huge improvement to the court experience and vastly reduces the amount of retreading necessary.  In addition, the court record has been trimmed, often times automatically removing unnecessary evidence as well as segmenting the “profiles” section away from the evidence, only allowing you to present people’s profiles as evidence when directly prompted to do so.

            The biggest gameplay addition to the courtroom segments is the introduction of Athena’s Mood Matrix, which enables the player to examine the way witnesses are feeling while they give testimony. This is a great addition largely in part due to the way the game conveys it, providing illustrations to scenes in the case’s story that change as the witnesses testimony is cleared up. It really helps to paint a picture of the events of a case, and it’s very satisfying to watch the truth unveil itself before your eyes as you point out emotional contradictions.

            The game is still an Ace Attorney game, though, and some of the flaws of the previous entries haven’t been dispelled completely. While the tediousness of failure has been minimized, there are still a few points where the logical leaps the game wants you to make in connecting the dots are a bit far fetched, and as a result, presenting evidence can still be a bit of a crapshoot as you throw evidence randomly at a statement, hoping it’s the correct answer. On top of that, I still think the Investigation/Courtroom dichotomy is a bit of a pacing issue; the courtroom sections are infinitely more interesting than the investigations in most places, and I think Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth had a solution to that problem in integrating them together that Dual Destinies regressed from marginally.

A WELCOME REMAND

            Another notable step forward for the series in Dual Destinies lies in the writing. The story of this entry shines as both a possible conclusion to the series and a Band-Aid that fixes some of the mistakes of the previous entry, introducing wonderful new characters like Athena and Prosecutor Blackquill while simultaneously bringing back many of the past favorites in ways that make sense without feeling like fanservice.

            Blackquill in particular represents a correction to one of the major flaws of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney by a presenting a prosecutor who is far more adversarial and challenging to the player than the rather oddly accommodating Klavier Gavin in the previous game ever was. Blackquill is clever, antagonistic, and efficient, cutting moments of poor reasoning or shaky evidence down like so much bamboo.

            The story itself is all a very well crafted mix of the old and the new, highlighting Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena fairly equally and never feeling like one character is the favorite over the others. Each of the game’s cases is well contained within itself, and none of the manic energy of past cases is lost.

            On top of that, the visuals are an astonishingly well executed transition from 2D to 3D, with carefully created cel-shaded models that almost perfectly evoke the 2D sprites of the past in their artistry.  Returning characters have animations and models that flawlessly mirror the art of their sprites in past games, and the new characters are made to have just as much quirkiness and vitality as ever before.  This is one of the cleanest 2D -> 3D transitions I’ve ever seen, and we gain a new level of animation freedom and visual cohesiveness from the 3D without losing any of the charm or artistry of the earlier games’ sprites.

            Dual Destinies is an excellent return for the Ace Attorney series and is easily the best game in the series when taken as a whole. Anyone looking for something that’s light on gameplay but heavy on charm, personality, and compelling story should give it a whirl. In my legal opinion, you won’t go wrong with it.

 

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is available in all its excessively subtitled glory on the 3DS’s eShop.

Mariology, Part One

A new Mario game just came out. Yes, it’s on the Wii U. Yes, it’s phenomenal. But when I look at the game, the truly compelling thing of its design is how it manages to be a homage to so many games in the series at once while still being its own thing. Mario games, more than almost any other series, are a genealogy. They inherit things from themselves. From the previous games, from the contemporary games, from the games that we forgot and the ones we’ll always remember. Mario is constantly reinventing itself, but in doing so, it’s looking at its history every time.

This week I’m going to be looking at Super Mario 3D World, in order to take close notes of what it is that this Mario keeps from his ancestors, what he left behind, and why he’s taken more from some games than from others.

NOT A SMALL WORLD

            The most obvious place to start on the most recent game is with the name. We see a World in there, obviously hearkening back to the SNES classic, Super Mario World. And it’s no accident that the game has that word in its title; there is a lot of Super Mario World here.

Super Mario 3D World (SM3W) abandons the sort of inventory structure for items that the New series has, and instead takes the system from World of giving you a spot to keep an item in your pocket in case of emergencies. One item at a time, cycled when you pick up a new one, that you can call into the playing field at any time. It gives you essentially a nice “break glass in case of” kind of fallback to fix your screw-ups, and it can change the pacing of the levels by bringing in a single item from elsewhere in the game to approach things differently.

Also returning from Super Mario World is a lot of the enemy design philosophy. The SMW Goombas actually appear alongside their more recognizable counterparts, and still stubbornly refuse to die after being hopped on. That carries over to a lot of the enemies in SM3W; there is a difference in philosophy here in that Super Mario 3D World believes in making everything killable, it just might take a few hits.  The feel of the way you handle the enemies on the field is more akin to World or even Super Mario Bros. 2, the other major influence here; enemies can remain as obstacles in many ways after being dealt with.  Other recurring alumni like the Chargin’ Chuck and Pokey appear, albeit with some twists in some cases.

There’s also an emphasis on using powerups and lateral thinking to find hidden aspects of levels that the game shares with its namesake. The three green stars present in every level utilize the same sort of clever obfuscation that the old secret exits in SMW did, and the feel of the levels in general has that same sort of atmosphere of discovery that Super Mario World brought to the series.

THE MIDDLE CHILDREN

            Of course, there’s a fair amount to be taken from Super Mario Bros. 2 in this game as well, despite the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t even a Mario game in Japan on its release. The four character structure from that game has returned, at any rate, and the characters retain their abilities largely as they existed in SMB2.

On top of that, much of the game is owed to Super Mario Bros. 3 as well. When I looked back on Mario 3 in my Retrospection feature on it a few weeks ago, I remarked on how much the modern Mario games borrowed from it, and that’s no different in this entry.  The way the world map is put together is still far more 3 than World, and the varied situational powerups harken back to those days as well.

It gives the game a more sequential feel, a straight 1-2-3 progression that Super Mario World moved away from and the later games in the series nearly abandoned entirely in favor of open ended hub worlds.  The levels are a fusion of end-oriented challenges and exploratory sandboxes, but it’s pretty hard to say that the former isn’t more emphasized.

In this, then, the game retains the New Super Mario Bros. feel of segmented, discrete challenges, rather than explorable worlds. Nintendo seems to move the series toward this kind of pick up and play challenge, and it’s clear from the way the Miiverse is integrated into this game that they want specific levels, segments, and worlds to stick out in people’s minds as they share their experiences.

INTRAGALACTIC

            It’s interesting to see how much of the modern 3D Mario game is derived from the old days rather than the new ones.  With both the Mario Galaxy team and the New Super Mario Bros. team working on games that owe largely more to the old than the new, it leads us to wonder what the legacy of the grand 3D adventures of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy have left us.

Super Mario 3D World doesn’t owe much to its  pre-Galaxy predecessors, but when it comes to Galaxy, there is more here than meets the eye. I feel like a lot of the meat of the gameplay and the design of the levels themselves evokes Super Mario Galaxy in a very strong way. The way that each new challenge manages to be both completely fresh and reassuringly familiar at the same time, and the way that each level’s challenge becomes almost a game unto itself, these things are more Mario Galaxy than anything.

On top of that, the grandness and love for the experience is present in this game in a way that only Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel exhibited out of the past Mario games.  Like Galaxy, this new Mario knows what it is, and knows just how damn magical of an experience it presents to its players. The vibrant orchestral soundtrack, the pure beauty and joy expressed in each level, and the stark difference in design between levels are all pure Galaxy in the end, and prove that the legacy of the 3D Mario games is expressed here in a significant way.

Super Mario 3D World represents more of a fusion of old and new than it appeared, and its title is well thought out. The design of the Mario series evolves and shifts in new directions and old ones at the same time with each new entry, and no game in the series is more proof of that than this one. Next week, though, I’ll look at the contemporary in the series, New Super Mario Bros. U, and talk about how the pure sidescrollers carry more of the 3D into them than they appear to.

Key Signature: Ace Attorney

            In keeping with my ever-present need to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to be writing a new column for a bit that will replace the Monday Morning Mid-laner segment until Season 4 of the LCS gets rolling and I won’t just be fanboyishly writing about how sick the Koreans are every week.  Go watch OGN.  www.twitch.tv/ongamenet.  Go on.

This new column, titled “Key Signature”, is a look at the soundtracks of various series and games, highlighting my favorite tracks from each one and going into why I think each of these tracks really accomplishes the narrative or tonal role that it’s been made for.

So this week, I’m kicking it off with a series that’s heavily reliant on its music as a tone-setter, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, specifically the original trilogy starring only Phoenix himself. I’ll look at what I feel is the most prominent track from each game, and explain why I think they excel.

            What else would I have started with? This one sets the stage for this kind of moment in every game in the series after it, and they’re almost always some of the most memorable tracks on the soundtrack.  This track is the one the game saves for the true moments of excellence in court, where you’ve nailed the party you’re cross examining and are pushing them towards the series’ trademark guilty mental breakdowns where the true culprit implodes on his or herself.

“Pursuit ~ Cornered” represents the exact “turnabouts” that the series was named for in Japan.  The track’s upbeat, confident tone matches the way Phoenix changes when it plays. Phoenix spends most of his time in court winging it, figuring things out as he goes and hashing together theories out of thin air, but the moment things come together, he changes and starts to aggressively, brutally dismantle the person on the stand, and this track perfectly captures that feeling.

When this track is playing, it doesn’t matter how many OBJECTIONs the prosecutor throws out or how much extra evidence the judge wants. The player and Phoenix are in the zone, and each new prompt for evidence is just a chance to drive another nail in the guilty party’s coffin. It’s the iconic theme for the courtroom climaxes in the series, and it pops up again and again in subsequent entries in the series for a reason.

            Ah, Edgeworth. At the end of the first game, he’s not in a great place, having narrowly squeaked by a murder conviction, relived all of his worst memories, and then been defeated in court four times in a row by a rookie with ridiculous hair. So when you roll into the second game and Edgeworth isn’t present, his absence becomes quite a lingering concern; what happened to him in his defeat? With his values severely shaken, one expects an Edgeworth that’s a broken man, or at the very least, a deeply questioning one.

When he comes back in the game’s final case and this theme plays, though, we know exactly what Edgeworth’s been doing: bouncing back. This is a noble, striding, proud theme, a theme that immediately paints the returned Edgeworth as a new man and a more compelling rival than ever. Throughout the first game, Phoenix had the high ground morally in every case, and Edgeworth seemed a hair away from doing the same uncouth nonsense that his mentor Von Karma did in order to get a guilty verdict. Now, he’s like you: convicted, full of integrity, and dedicated to finding the truth.

It’s worth noting that this is the first time Edgeworth has a theme at all. This song sings proudly of an Edgeworth that has found himself, and as such, he finally gets the kind of musical motif that he lacked in the first game due to his internal conflict. The theme stays with him the rest of the series, and rightfully so. Edgeworth is reinvted, and “The Great Revival” makes it immediately apparent.

            Of course, while we’re on the subject of themes for prosecutors it’s almost impossible not to mention Godot’s. Godot’s theme here is a perfect summary of the character, and its lilting, melancholy tone actually changes meaning the more you learn about the character throughout the game.

This is the kind of song that would play in a dark, smoke-filled lounge at one in the morning on a Thursday. It’s very relaxing, methodical, and heartfelt, and it gives you a sense of mysteriousness that goes hand in hand with the strange masked prosecutor who presents such a stark contrast to the prosecutors from the previous games. Edgeworth and both Von Karmas are very showy, loud prosecutors who take a great amount of enjoyment from flashy grandstanding, but Godot is more subtle. It’s like being faced with a teacher or professor in the courtroom, knowingly smirking at all of your arguments as if he expected them all along. This theme sits right alongside that, making it seem as though there isn’t anything in the world that could faze Godot’s murky enigma.

By the end, though, the real tragedy of Godot’s backstory becomes evident and the sadness of this song really shines through.  I can’t hear it anymore without feeling a bit wistful, and the way it changes meaning throughout the game’s narrative is remarkable. Godot is the first prosecutor I felt sorry for, and it’s in no small part thanks to this wonderful theme.