Ben

Sep 282014
 

We have hit a critical period in the online gaming community, which happens to overlap with a similar discussion going on within the internet community and even the world at large. That conversation is about the rights of female gamers and members of online communities to feel safe and comfortable with their fellow gamers. We have increasingly seen “battle lines” drawn, with videos such as the ones by Anita Sarkeesian calling for equal rights to be then viciously attacked online; with female celebrities accounts broken into and nude photos released; and finally with the Emma Watson United Nations address last week calling for men and women to stand up for equality. There has been no better time to examine where we are and where we would like to see our community go. There is a vocal minority of men online who are fighting these changes, and who are feeling attacked in turn, and we need to understand that we are in this together, regardless of sex, and together we can improve and grow this hobby.

The fact of the matter is, roughly half of all gamers and internet users are women (surprise, right?). For so long gaming has been seen as a male-dominated hobby, and maybe in it’s infancy it was, but the facts no longer support a male-dominated scene. In spite of this, many if not most female gamers have given voice to many sexist practices and deep-seated biases still visibly present. This is seen in real life as well, but most acutely from the gaming sector. The anonymity of the internet and most online lobbies creates an atmosphere where it is easy to look down upon, be dismissive, or even angry at, a perceived minority. I think that it is likely a majority of male gamers have witnessed this happening, and would be willing to admit it is a problem and would like to see change, but don’t know what to do or even think it’s being “overblown”. There is also a very vocal group of male gamers who fight against calls for equality, saying it is merely feminist attacks on men, and tend to become increasingly hostile with any and all recommendations for change.

Of course some of what we hear is extreme, from both sides. What should be very clear however, is a majority of female gamers have seen or experienced this sort of behavior, some many times over. I know that I have heard accounts from friends of treatment they have received, or how a specific games portrayal of a female character was poor or even insulting. This is often exacerbated by long-standing sexist practices women start seeing from childhood. Drawing lines in the sand and pointing fingers is simply causing each to grow farther and farther apart. We have to be able to take these accounts seriously, and have to be willing to see what we can do to help fix them. All this takes is respect and understanding, accepting that there could be a problem and be willing to listen to alternatives, and standing up to those who are creating the problems. This can lead to more inclusive, and realistic, gaming experiences and communities, which is in everyone’s interests.

Of course this is all coming at a crucial transitional period for male gamers as well. Our generation has started questioning what traditional ideas of masculinity and “maleness” actually are. Gaming is central to this discussion, as it is only recently becoming more accepted that gaming is a healthy and fulfilling hobby for adults as well as children, while many still scoff at such an idea and look down upon our hobby. With all the changes men are facing, it can be extremely easy to be dismissive when viewing problems faced by women, as we are already defensive about gaming in general. Just remember, we are all facing problems and overcoming hurdles, and we can get through them faster by helping one another with our problems. Gamers have more in common with other gamers, male or female, and we have to understand that fighting amongst ourselves only weakens our position to the “traditional” world view. Gaming moves incredibly fast, and it’s time we agree that there is no place for hatred, bigotry, sexism, racism, or any other -ism in such an important aspect of our lives. For gaming to grow and gain mainstream acceptance, we have to fight against these ideas and fight for equality, for every gamer and every person.

I know for many of you this will be preaching to the choir. For the others, who will be apt to say that I have been “taken in” or am overblowing the issues, please reconsider the accounts of your friends and family, and examine your own behaviour. We can only move forward by admitting that we may have to change and accept other groups, no matter how hard that may seem to be. If men and women together can fight for equality and understand one anothers troubles and differences, we can create a lasting community that is filled with realistic and relatable characters, and maybe learn something about ourselves in the process.

 

Sep 022014
 

Well, this is embarrassing…  it turns out that I and the majority of the web pegging YouTube/Google as the probable buyer of Twitch.tv were perhaps a tad premature. Instead, a surprise offer from Amazon came from out of the blue, and they have been officially confirmed by Emmet Shear, CEO of Twitch, as having purchased the company for a cool $970 million . Surprise!

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This is the most recent and most obvious sign of what most feel Amazon is gearing up to do, which is take on Google and Netflix as a global information/content behemoth. Twitch, which didn’t even exist four years ago, has blown up into what has become a lucrative business streaming content from video games and the gaming scene in general. Amazon’s opportunity seemed to come about after Google hesitated on their deal out of fear of antitrust lawsuits (as YouTube fulfills a relatively similar service, albeit recorded).

So now the question will be what this means for Twitch. This is far and away Amazon’s largest purchase to date, which means they regard it as a very important part of their strategy moving forward. The fear with Google being the buyer would be they aggressively shut down anything remotely approaching copyright infringement. As with the last article, Twitch is very borderline as is with this. Streamers make a living posting live video of themselves playing games, which so far most game companies have embraced, even if it could technically be pursued in court, as it also brings great publicity (League of Legends). Furthermore, up until recently, many streamers would play music from their collection or from a separate streaming service while they played. This has more or less been shut-down with recent moves by Twitch. Whether or not this was in order to help facilitate sale is unknown, but as long as the game content remains untouched, this is a reasonable and very prudent move.

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Overall, I have to think this will be better for Twitch than if Google had purchased it. Most signs seem to point to Amazon not wanting to limit Twitch in any way, and more or less keep business as usual. However, I think in the next year we will start to see a much wider array of video content available in Twitch, especially with recorded video (as YouTube, now a direct competitor, has been the major place to store these recordings). Amazon most definitely wants to compete with Google to be the end-all be-all of content providers, and Twitch is one of the first and most important foundations to that strategy, so they will be taking extra care to continue providing the same quality of service. Google may not have had quite the same need to do so, as they already control a huge sector of the market.

So just like everyone else, we are waiting to see how this turns out, but I myself have a better feeling about the Amazon purchase than I would have with Google, and it sure seems to set up an interesting clash between two of the biggest names on the web.

 Posted by at 6:28 pm
Jul 022014
 

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I purchased The Wolf Among on a whim; I have not paid too much attention to Telltale games, the creators of the hit Walking Dead games, as I am not really into the show or comic, so I have passed on their games even with the hugely positive response they received. Now I am beginning to think I’ve made a huge mistake, because if they are anything like Wolf, it’s definitely another must play series for me. I happened upon a lets play video of Wolf Among Us while randomly perusing Youtube, got as far as the introduction, and knew I had to play this game. Luckily for me, it happened to be the last day of the Steam Summer Sale, and Wolf was available for a fantastic price, so I snapped it up. I have now finished the first episode, and started the second (as well as a second run through the first, with entirely different decisions), and I have to say I have been absolutely blown away by this game.

Set in 1980’s New York, and based off of a comic book series called “Fables,” we step into the shoes of one Bigby Wolf. He is the sheriff of Fabletown, where creatures and characters from fables and legends reside in secret. Each resident must purchase an enchantment called a “glamour” in order to remain concealed from the normal humans. Bigby Wolf is of course the Big Bad Wolf, now reformed and trying to maintain order within their community. It isn’t too long before fables (the characters that is) start to show up dead, and it’s our job as sheriff to unravel this mystery and find the killer.

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Like Walking Dead, Wolf is a modern take on the classic point and click adventure game. Interaction with the environment is mostly limited to checking out clues and the occasional quick-time event fight (which are AWESOME). Dialogue is where you are going to spend the majority of your time, and I’m happy to report this has been fantastically done by Telltale. The story is dark and gripping, and most of your decisions carry heavy consequences. Bigby’s moral compass is, at best, very grey, and it is left up to the player whether you want to continue on the reformed path and attempt peaceful resolutions and gain the respect of your fellow fables, or if you want to bring forward more of his darker side. With the darker story and the high stakes, it can be a difficult choice, and I often found myself jumping back and forth across the line as necessary, doing what I had to do to get to the bottom of events. This may have led to some justified hatred by many of the fables, but it’s for the greater good. Right? The only thing I would like to see removed is the rather silly windows that pop up reminding you of the effects of your actions. I don’t need to be told each time that this character will “remember” my actions, or that they noticed something I did. That should be up to the player to pick up, as it can break immersion a bit.

Suitably, the art style is very obviously comic influenced, and it is beautifully done. The world is grimy and magical, with lots of color in an 80’s styling. Every character and location is perfect, and I would be quite happy to have a print of about any random screenshot from this game. If you are a fan of more of an artistic, hand-drawn look, this should be right up your alley.

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Any fan of The Walking Dead games should definitely check this out, as should anyone looking for a dark, story-driven game that would feel right at home with a Neil Gaiman novel. The beautiful art, awesome fights, and questionable morality all combine perfectly into a great noir fantasy/mystery game, and make Wolf Among Us is a no-brainer. There are a couple small things that prevent this from being perfect, but even still it is absolutely one of my favorite games I have played this year.

Wolf Among Us is available for almost all major consoles and PC. You can find it on steam here.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm
Jun 062014
 

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Has YouTube (and by extension, Google) done what so many rumors flying around the internet are reporting? Are they, as we speak, hashing out the details to a hefty $1 billion deal to purchase Twitch? At this point, all signs seem to point to yes, with the delay likely due to ongoing negotiations over just how independent Twitch will remain. What does this mean for the suddenly booming business of online game streaming?

Honestly, there is a large potential upside to this deal. Most seem to feel that Twitch was growing so fast that a sale was inevitable, as Twitch’s user base now numbers in the millions, across PC and next-gen consoles, as current hardware and internet speeds have made it easier than ever to stream content. YouTube has long been the behemoth of user-generated content, and with Google’s massive wallet backing them, it could open the door to streaming becoming a truly mainstream hobby.

Furthermore, rumors have also stated that there were several other interested parties, including Microsoft, before the supposed victor emerged. Google is far and away a better option, if a deal had to be made, to ensure impartiality among systems. Had Microsoft bought Twitch, Sony would have likely dropped Twitch to form their own service, splintering the community. Microsoft may have also attempted to drive use more towards the Xbox and away from the PC, as their general strategy has been to move away from gaming in the PC marketplace. So if a deal was truly inevitable, why not Google?

However, there are a lot of potential problems on the horizon, should Google/YouTube complete this purchase. First of all is the highly unpopular requirement of Google Plus forced upon YouTube users, and Twitch could very easily follow suit. Social media is, at the very best, a polarizing topic with many, especially amongst Twitch’s main users, and could cause some to drift away, frustrated by such requirements. Forcing additional services such as Google Plus in order to participate in Twitch is a huge pitfall to be avoided, and it is to be hoped Twitch is negotiating away from such a requirement.

Finally, what could be the biggest problem facing Twitch in the event of a Google purchase is YouTube and Google’s strict enforcement of copyright infringement. Video game streaming walks a fine line with videos that heavily feature in-game footage and often music. This sort of content has, rather famously, been relentlessly shut down at every angle on YouTube. Now, many video game companies will happily allow streaming in order to increase visibility and interest (League of Legends most famously), but it could become an extremely difficult area to navigate, depending on developer and publisher action. This is a very difficult problem, with no clear answer, and it is central to Twitch’s business model. How will YouTube and Google choose to navigate it? And could it bring about a drastic drop in interest, right as video game streaming seems to be taking off?

Many in the video game community, especially those whose livelihoods now depend on services like Twitch, await further news of a deal with bated breath. There are many areas which could cause a stumble and a setback, but there is also potential for improvement. It will all come down to how Twitch negotiates this potential deal, and how much Google and YouTube plan to interfere with an already successful model. In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, head over to twitch.tv and find out exactly what video game streaming is all about, and just how easy it is to get involved.  

 

 Posted by at 9:27 am
May 082014
 

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Nintendo made an exciting new announcement yesterday that they will be remaking Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire as Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the Nintendo 3DS/2DS. These were the third generation of Pokemon games, originally the first of the series released for the Game Boy Advance system in 2003. This is a somewhat expected announcement, as they have remade the prior generations already, and following their rather poor showing for the last quarter, Nintendo was expected to make some sort of move on one of their blockbuster titles, and Pokemon certainly qualifies.

So this means that they will be updated up to approximately Pokemon X/Y graphics, as well as probably add some of the gameplay mechanics that X and Y pulled off so well, such as the online components and accessories like the skates to speed up getting around the world(please). Hopefully they will tweak the online trades, because the wonder trade feature was a bit… broken. But even without fixing those, just having them in place with one of the older games would be an awesome update.

Ruby and Sapphire are very well reviewed games, and probably two of the more popular entries in the series, with the major caveat being that they were very similar to the past two generations. So all Nintendo has to do to address those shortcomings is bring in some of the big changes they made for X/Y, update the graphics, and they should have a big-time seller, one that I am quite excited to try since I have not actually played the originals. It’s an easy formula, but only time will tell if it translates into a success for Nintendo when they so desperately need it. Pokemon is more than capable of generating the hype, all Nintendo needs to do is deliver the goods.

Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire will be released November of this year, final date to be determined.

 

 

 Posted by at 9:16 pm
Apr 272014
 

HalbertAndTempleKnight

With the recent PC release of Dark Souls II, I thought I would take some time to talk about the series, why I think it’s so damn good, and why you should be giving it a try (or maybe a second try… or third). Once you get past your initial learning stages, and accept the fact that you are absolutely going to die, and die often, you can start to appreciate just what an impressive achievement they are.

Dark Souls, like Demon Souls was before it, is an unbelievable experience. Every bit as difficult as you may have heard, it brings the difficulty level back to the levels seen in early generations of video games (before accessibility became all-important). While those games often could be unfair in their difficulty, Dark Souls rarely is (unfair). Controls are precise, and most enemies are quite fair, if absolutely brutal. Death is a learning experience, one you will go through quite often, as every mistake can cost you your life. But for those who persevere and accept this for what it is, an absolutely beautiful game series awaits.

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I’ll be honest, it took me several tries to really get into these games. I have had Demon Souls forever, and bought Dark Souls during some random Steam sale (of course). I had a hard time even getting through the first areas, and finally decided that I did not have the time to get good enough to really enjoy and appreciate what the game offered.

Once Dark Souls II was announced, I figured the time had come to give it another shot. I decided this time to spend a bit of time with a beginners guide, picking up some tactics and tips to ease up a bit on the initial learning curve. And honestly, if you have any issues getting into the game, I absolutely recommend doing this. The secret really lies in taking things slow, being deliberate with your attack timings, and above all… KEEP THAT SHIELD UP! Once I had started to get a taste of the world, and defeated a couple bosses, I was sold. I still died a whole ton, but I knew why I had died, and I was determined to fix that weakness. Which probably just revealed a second weakness… but after a few tries I would inevitably get the hang of things. Once you finally beat that boss, I don’t think there is a game out there that can match the feeling of total accomplishment.

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Beyond that feeling of accomplishment, these games are beautifully designed. Often this means the settings themselves, with each often having several jaw-dropping moments as you move to a new area (Anor Londo, I’m looking at you). But even more often, especially in Dark Souls, it’s how the world itself is designed. The layouts are amazing, and each area has tons of hidden items and locations that all seem perfectly natural. It’s fantastic just exploring (until you run into a new baddie).

Are they difficult games? Absolutely. If you do not think you have the time to really learn the system and how to play, then that very well may be true and they won’t be the game for you. But don’t let that stop you from at least giving it a try. Combat is fantastic, each weapon is well balanced and feels real, and every death can be explained by a lack of skill. This of course means that your skill will constantly grow as you play, which is a pretty rare occurrence anymore. If you are looking for an immersive and challenging action-rpg, I absolutely recommend picking one of these up and giving it a try.

 

 

Apr 102014
 

This is your only warning that there be spoilers ahead!

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It’s that time of year that we can all finally go back to fearfully wondering which of our favorite characters are about to be killed off, yet again. Well, except for those of us who have read the books that is, we already know who is about to die (can you sense the smug? Mwah ha ha). Except for where we don’t… because HBO likes to mess with our heads and occasionally kill some other character, because damnit, G.R.R.M. just didn’t take it far enough! A frequent criticism of his I’ve heard.

Anyway, where was I? Oh right! The fourth season of Game of Thrones has officially kicked off, breaking the viewership record for the show in the process. This introductory episode changed the tone somewhat from some of the prior seasons, as we are starting to get to the part of the series that has slowed down and focuses more on exposition. Not a bad thing at all, but definitely a different direction than the first three seasons, and we get a bit of a taste of that here. Definitely a very solid episode, but nothing yet that really sets the bar for the season.

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The majority of the episode took place in King’s Landing, where Jaime has returned to his family, albeit missing a wee bit of his hand. The scene where Tywin melted down and re-forged Eddard’s sword to create two new ones, one of which went to Jaime, was a very cool scene that was definitely overflowing with symbolism. Followed by Tywin demanding that Jaime give up his spot in the Kingsguard in order to rule at Casterly Rock. Jaime flatly refuses this and leaves (and of course then suffers the spite of both Cersei and his-probable son Joffrey). Jaime has quickly become one of my favorite characters, and even considering his pretty evil deeds in the past, it’s hard to not feel compassion for the guy, misguided though he may still be. Oberyn Martell also made his triumphant entrance, demanding satisfaction for the brutal killing of his sister and her children at the hands of the Lannisters. He is going to become one of the more intriguing storylines in this season, looking forward to that!

I thought the bits with Daenerys and Jon were the flattest of the episode. The scene with the dragons was pretty badass, sure, but it’s hard to disguise the fact that she is pretty much just wandering around in the desert, not taking back her throne like I want her to. I do like the new Daario, but we didn’t really get much of a chance to meet him, so looking forward to seeing him in future episodes. Jon had to deal with some of the repercussions following his little escapade beyond the wall, but nothing really has come of this yet.

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My favorite parts of this episode was the scenes with the Hound and Arya. Arya has long been one of my very favorite characters, in book and show, and her relationship with the Hound is a pretty interesting one. The Hound himself has become a bit of a fan favorite, which I think is mostly due to Rory McCann’s excellent portrayal, but he and Arya form quite the effective team. This culminates in an excellent fight in an inn with some Lannister men, where Arya is able to retrieve her sword and kill Polliver, the man who murdered her traveling companion Lommy in the last season. Arya is out for revenge, and this was a big move from her character, as her method was quite deliberate and cold-blooded. She is out for vengeance, and Polliver wasn’t even on her list! I can’t wait to see what this odd duo gets into in the next few episodes.

 

 Posted by at 9:56 pm
Apr 032014
 

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I was recently introduced to The Dresden Files series, by Jim Butcher, after hearing it mentioned several times watching the Day[9] Daily (show on Starcraft II, it’s pretty great). Mystie and I also went through his Codex Alera series early last year (another very good read!), and I am about halfway through the fifth book now. It has quickly become one of my favorite book series of all time, and I can’t wait to get further in, as each book seems even better than the last.

You may see a lot of posts regarding some of the similarities the series shares with the Harry Potter series. Dresden is a wizard, working in a modern-day Chicago as a private investigator, dealing with crazy, supernatural beings that are generally unknown to the public. This of course raises a good few difficulties for him, as there are few characters who are willing to take his career and abilities at face value, to say the very least. Oh and they share the same first name. However, from here the stories are quite different. The Dresden Files function as a well-crafted mix of mystery, fantasy, and light horror, told in a first-person perspective by Dresden.

Speaking of the perspective, it really is what makes these books shine. Harry is a fantastically interesting, hilarious, and sympathetic character. His asides to the reader and himself, as well as his banter with the secondary characters, is top-notch. It perfectly nails the idea that Harry is equally parts lucky and talented in his encounters with the villains (except for the rare times that he just kinda, well… kicks-ass). He isn’t some perfect, all-knowing wizard. He has flaws, many of them in fact, and we as readers get a very intimate portrayal of them all.

Honestly I have no problem recommending this to any fantasy fan. If you loved Harry Potter, I think this is the perfect step into more of an adult version of that type of story, even better if you like a good mystery. But it’s the character of Harry himself that makes this such an easy sell, as he is easily one of my favorite-written characters ever. I can’t wait to see where the series goes!

 Posted by at 1:07 am
Mar 292014
 

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I have played the Elder Scrolls Online beta for a while now during a couple of their weekend beta events leading up to the April 4th release (Or sometime in June for you poor plebs). Overall, I think the game holds a lot of promise, but whether it can deliver on that will very much depend on whether you are looking for an MMO-first approach set in the same universe as the other Elder Scrolls games, or if you are looking for an Elder Scrolls game that you can play with your friends.

If you are willing to buy into the MMO experience, this game should absolutely be on your radar. While the graphics aren’t anything amazing (most MMO’s are not), this game manages to look pretty gorgeous in parts, certainly one of the best looking MMO’s I have played. As a player, you are given much greater freedom to just explore the world, which is something they absolutely needed to nail as exploration is a signature of all Elder Scrolls games. They don’t really do much to revolutionize the genre, but I think they have done enough to refine it and create a game that could gain a pretty massive following.

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However, if you are like me, and are not really a fan of MMO’s and what they offer, this is going to be a much harder sell (Kind-of obvious I know but…). Many people, myself included, still want a core single-player game, that adds a cooperative option, maybe along the lines of what you can do in Borderlands or Torchlight. If that is what you are looking for, this will probably not satisfy that desire. So many other people running around, chatting, doing the same quests I was on, all too often killed the immersion for me. Quests are pretty varied, but still have difficulty getting out of some of the tropes established by the genre, and again are so plentiful that you can go almost nowhere without finding some sort of “kill this many things” quest.

This also led to me very rarely feeling the same sense of accomplishment or discovery that I often would with the single-player games. I didn’t really get invested in many of the quests to allow for that feeling, and it seemed so much harder to just wander off and find some deserted cave or crumbling structure hiding some unknown monster or loot. I’m sure these things exist in the game, but again with all the other players running around, they are much harder to find, and a lot of that thrill is diminished.

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So for MMO fans, this game is definitely something that is shaping up to be something special. For many others though, we are just going to have to wait for the next game in the series to be released, which maybe, if we are lucky, will include some-sort of cooperative option with a few friends. Hint hint Bethesda.

 Posted by at 2:11 pm
Mar 222014
 

Episode two of Cosmos aired last Sunday, and built upon the successes from the first episode and delivered an excellent and very important message. This show is really coming into its own, with Tyson excelling as a replacement to his predecessor, and really tailoring the themes to some of the modern issues that have become major conflicts.

This weeks episode focused mostly on evolution, and the various mechanisms by which it is carried out. Evolution has become an incredibly touchy subject in parts of the world, which seems to be a common theme with new ideas and changes. This issue was just recently highlighted with the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, which really seemed to just further entrench each side.

I believe that Tyson is much more effective than Nye was (and a lot of this is the format) at delivering this message and explaining the simplicities and brilliance of the theory of evolution. His segment on the evolution of the eye is especially interesting, as this has become one of the major bastions for those who believe evolution to be a falsehood, and Tyson quite simply and eloquently breaks down how it is that natural selection could bring about something as complicated as the eye (like many things with evolution, the concept itself is actually quite simple, which is what is so brilliant about it).

It is hard to say whether this will make much of a difference, as it remains to be seen whether the majority of viewers have already been convinced, or even if those who haven’t been will allow themselves to be. The key is the facts are being presented, in a rational and thought-provoking way. Tyson is proving to be a masterful host, breaking down what may seem to be unbelievably complex ideas into their most basic concepts. As he points out at the end of the program, there is no shame in not knowing everything. The real shame is not knowing everything, but pretending that you have all of the answers anyway. I cannot wait to see where the next episode goes, and if you haven’t started watching yet, get to it!

 

You can watch the latest episode of Cosmos here.

 Posted by at 4:04 pm