Every month at the AE offices, we choose our Pop Culture Picks. It could be an album, a band, a book, a movie, a TV show, a podcast, or anything else we enjoyed over the previous 30 days. Keep scrolling to find out what caught our attention this month!

Annabel and Jeff’s Pick

Jeff & Annabel's Pop Culture Pick is Australia

Jeff Mitchel and Annabel Youens, Co-founders


Spoiler Alert: Jeff and I are going to Australia for Christmas! 

Yep, we chose an entire country as our Pop Culture Pick. It’s really just an excuse to share some things that we love about Australia! This isn’t our first trip down under, and won’t be our last…Here’s what keeps us coming back:

1.Flat Whites – some of the best coffee in the world is made in Australia. It’s a bit of an obsession down there and one we can totally understand.

2.Violet Crumble – this chocolate bar is a thick slab of honeycomb (a.k.a. “sponge toffee” in Canada!)  covered in chocolate. They’re only available in Australia and there is something so satisfying about this crunchy, dense combination.

3.Beaches – those long sandy beaches you see in the promotional videos are legit. Not only are there thousands of beaches, but they’re also well organized. Most have paths carved through the dunes to protect the flora and fauna that live there. And quite often there is a shower near the parking lot. After a day in the sand, sun, and surf you can rinse off before hopping in the car to pick up fish and chips for dinner!

4.Pies – in Australia and neighbor NZ, pies are not filled with fruit. These pies are thick meat pies with flaky pastry. Jeff’s favorite is steak and cheese. Mine is mince and cheese. A gas store staple, you can find a pie just about anywhere in the country. Top tip – don’t try driving and eating a meat pie from its wrapper. It’s a disaster.

5.Friends – this is my number 1 reason for loving Australia. One of my best friends from Kindergarten lives there and for 37 years we’ve kept in touch by letter, recorded tapes, emails, and visits. When I see her it’s like we were hanging out yesterday, even when it’s been years between visits. She’s the type of friend I scream with joy when I see. What is better than that!

Jennifer’s Pick

Jenn's Pop Culture Pick is Stardew Valley

Jennifer Tigner, Intermediate Developer

Stardew Valley (App)

TL:DR; Stardew Valley is a warm, leisurely, and wholesome role-playing game that fills you with a sense of accomplishment.

I started playing this game on my iPhone and I just. Can’t. Stop.

Stardew Valley is a relaxing, go-at-your-own-pace roleplaying game in the old 2D pixel style. The game is reminiscent of the beloved Harvest Moon. You play by planting a garden of crops, taking care of your barn animals and your farm property, fishing, mining, and forming relationships with the other folks in Stardew Valley.

The game starts on the first day of spring and cycles through the year, with 28 days (4 weeks) per season. Each day passes in about 20 minutes of real time, and then I have to bring my character back to my house to sleep each night. One time I forgot to do so and I ‘fell asleep’ outside around 2 am. A doctor brought me home and kindly emptied my wallet along the way! ?

It is oddly fun and satisfying seeing my work on the farm come to life as time passes. Here’s a taste of how the game plays. I wake up, see if the ores I mined have turned to bars in my furnace, water my plants, feed my animals, and head to town for 9 am when the woodworking and blacksmith stores open. From there it’s a choice of making friends and bringing them gifts, foraging for items in the forest, or ax-picking rocks down in the mines (among other things). I particularly enjoy visiting the beach and hunting for seashells. It’s the daily routine that gives the game a real sense of purpose and leaves you feeling content.

Stardew Valley originally came out in 2016 (2018 on iOS) with rave reviews. IGN gave it an 8.8/10 and Metacritic, an 8.9/10. That’s pretty darn good. Plus, the graphics and colors are stunning on my iPhone X’s OLED screen.

If you want a game that is both fun and relaxing to play, give Stardew valley a try!

Mike’s Pick

Mike's Pop Culture Pick is the game Ys VIII

Mike Penhall, Senior Developer

YS VIII (Video Game)

TL:DR; Lightweight action JRPG with a difference.

This one’s been out for a while on various systems (PS4, PS Vita, Steam) but it’s reasonably new to the Switch, my preferred console for Japanese role-playing games (JRPG). The Ys series (pronounced ‘ees’) has been around since the NES days, but admittedly this is the first of the series I’ve ever played and I’m enjoying it a lot.

In many ways Ys VIII is a pretty standard action JRPG. Heroes with big swords, magic, talking animals- you know the drill. But there are a few points of difference as well. Unlike most JRPG series that see a new world and characters with each sequel, the Ys series has followed hero Adol Christen since the very first game. The combat is also seamless and takes place in the overworld – no switching back and forth between exploration and battle mode. This works so well you wonder why it isn’t used in more games!

The scenario and game world are great, with the protagonists shipwrecked on a mysterious island, and Adol searching for any remaining survivors to return to the ever-evolving Castaway Village. It’s also refreshingly fast moving for a JRPG with just a short prelude episode before dumping you into the game proper. Highly recommended.

Odette’s Pick

Odette's Pop Culture Pick is the movie Free Solo

Odette Jacquet, Precision Marketer

FREE SOLO (2018) (Movie)

In short: Free Solo is a documentary about climber Alex Honnold and his journey up El Capitan without the use of any ropes. While easy to sum up in a sentence, this film captures one of the most impressive, challenging, and dangerous athletic feats ever achieved.

El Capitan is a 3,000 ft vertical face of granite in Yosemite National Park. The smooth rock offers very little handholds, making it quite a challenging climb. Naturally, it has become a longstanding favorite of rock climbers, with thousands scaling it each year.

In 2017, Alex Honnold, an American climber, made it from top to bottom in under 4 hours. This in itself is no big deal. While most do the climb over the course of a few days, the speed record at the time was around 2 hours.

What made it absolutely *insane* was that he climbed the whole thing with no ropes. I repeat. No. Ropes.

Imagine being on the side of a sheer cliff of granite over 2,000 ft in the air with nothing keeping you there except your two hands and feet?!

There were times in the film when Alex only had one hold and it was his big toe on ⅛” lump of rock. Not to mention the vertical crack near the end of the climb that he ascended by jamming in one arm above the other…I’m no climber but witnessing Alex’s strength and fearlessness was dang inspiring.  

Free Solo has that classic National Geographic feel. It is full of breathtaking shots of El Capitan and the surrounding Yosemite National Park. You also get to see how the film was shot- drones and a film crew made up of professional climbers did the trick!

The film isn’t just about Alex’s climb up El Capitan. We also get to learn about his daily life, early years, and family. This provides a lot of context for why he was almost uniquely qualified to attempt the climb. My one critique is that there was just a little too much fluff about the impact of climbing on his romantic relationships…It had me thinking: let’s get back to the dizzyingly gorgeous cinematography already!

With a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you can’t really go wrong. But if you’re still not sold, check out this 360 degrees snippet from the film (click and drag the screen to rotate your view!). You can also watch the trailer here.

A few words of warning: I am not afraid of heights, but this is one heck of a nerve-wracking film. Be prepared to sweat a little, especially if you see it in IMAX like I did!