This month, the AE team is continuing to bring you our Pop Culture Picks from our home offices. We’re focusing on the things that support our physical and mental health while practicing social distancing. Keep scrolling to find out what’s helping us through these challenging times – we hope they can help you too!

Annabel’s Pick

Annabel's Pop Culture Pick - Me Time

Annabel Youens, CMO & Co-Founder

Me Time

In Short: Find something just for you, that fills up your engine.

When I started writing this month’s Pop Culture Pick, of course I was going to write about the new season of The Great British Sewing Bee. This is not the first time I’ve posted about my adoring fascination and love of series.  But this year I find the Bee is filling a different need.

Many of us are still in lock-down, binge watching anything our wee hearts desire. I have bored myself scrolling through Netflix and Amazon Prime numerous times. With The Great British Sewing Bee I have to wait until Wednesday to watch the next episode of season six. I’m reminded of the “olden days” of Must See TV when I’d get my brother to tape an episode of 90201 if I was out with my friends.

Initially I resisted having to wait a whole week for a sewing fix, but I find I really enjoy looking forward to Wednesday night. It’s my quiet time to myself with Joe, Patrick and Esme, along with a block of chocolate and a cup of tea. It’s soothing to have a ritual that’s not tied up with work, my daughter, exercise or household tasks. It’s something just for me.

So that’s my pick this month for you. Go and find that thing that’s yours, and yours alone.

Jeff’s Pick

Jeff's Pop Culture Pick - The Long Dark

Jeff Mitchell, CTO & Co-Founder

The Long Dark

TL;DR: The Long Dark is a game about isolation and survival set in the stunning Canadian wilderness.

The Long Dark sits in the category of first-person survival games (not a genre I actually play very often), but I bought it a few years ago during early access because I liked the initial glimpses I saw of its art direction and due it it being a made by a local Indie studio, Hinterland Games, currently based in Vancouver. I tinkered with it a bit at the time, but didn’t go too far into the game as I got distracted with other things and it was still pretty early in the game development.

For some reason during this period of self-isolation I decided to revisit a game about surviving while very isolated in the rugged and brutal Canadian wilderness.  While the game shares many of the aspects of survival games such as exploration, collecting resources and crafting, it does not have a horde of zombies, mutants or other forms of post-apocalyptic marauders to deal with.

Rather, your main nemesis in The Long Dark is the wilderness and weather. For this reason I actually find the game very relaxing. Often all you hear are the sounds of birds, wind rustling through the trees or the distant and lonely (I hope!) howl of a wolf. The Long Dark apocalypse was a quiet one, a geomagnetic event that shut down electronics but left nature untouched.

The landscapes are beautiful, and done in an art style reminiscent of famous Canadian landscape artists. This really drives the exploration aspect of the game for me as I am always stumbling out of the woods half frozen and hungry, only to find myself pausing to take in a scene (and screenshot) of a beautiful frozen lake with majestic snow covered mountains in the background. Perhaps I should just lie down here and admire the view…

But my temperature is dropping fast and is that a cave I spy on the other side? I can make a fire, warm up… must… keep… moving.

You will find some traces of civilization – a snow covered highway, an abandoned road side gas station and perhaps a cabin to escape the blizzard from with precious old clothing and canned food inside. But you will also have to learn to craft clothing, medicine and tools.

The game has three main modes currently: a story mode (which is great), your classic open world survival mode (with various levels of difficulty), and a challenge mode (basically mini stories with specific objectives).

If you are already tired of isolation, then this game may not be right for you at the moment but I do recommend checking this out if you ever felt like escaping into one of those beautifully painted Canadian landscapes.

Check out some of my “snaps”: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Jason’s Pick

Jason's Pop Culture Pick - Seal Team

Jason Scriven, Head of Enterprise Sales

Seal Team

In Short: This hour long series on traditional network TV tells the story of fictional Seal Team Bravo and their leader Jason Hayes, played by David Boreanaz.  It stands out for tackling PTSD, faith, loss, family without being too jingoistic as some other American military shows.

The first season of this series was good, but not great, with solid back stories established for the Seals while they “spun up” for missions around the world.  In seasons two and three, more personal struggles were revealed as character changes in their home lives bled into their missions.  In his past series, Buffy, Angel, and Bones, David Boreanaz has not received much credit for his acting, despite being in a leading role for 23 straight years on TV.  As Bravo One on Seal Team, his character suffers personal and professional losses while contemplating his own mortality and the end of the only career he has ever know.

Mike’s Pick

Mike's Pop Culture Pick - FF7 Remaster

Mike Penhall, Senior Developer

Final Fantasy 7 Remake (PS4)

TL;DR: An exceptional remake of an exceptional game. Recommended for both fans of the original and beginners alike.

As the name suggests, Final Fantasy 7 Remake (FF7R) is a fully remade and remastered version of the beloved PS1 JRPG of the same name. As a concept FF7R is kind of unique — most remakes or remasters are a straight retelling with tidied up graphics. FF7R rebuilds the game from the ground up — what Hollywood might call a reboot, but with a 23 year gap between cycles – and expands, improves and builds upon the original story along with vastly improved graphics and audio.

So that’s the background. In many ways FF7R was destined to suffer from the same double edged sword of opinion that Star Wars The Force Awakens did: no matter how good the actual result, the end product could never possibly live up to the weighty expectations of its fanbase.

The good news is that in almost every aspect the game manages to meet these expectations. Voice acting (the original was text based) is very well matched to the characters, and well performed. The magic and leveling system is retained but improved upon, making it familiar but updated to meet modern standards. The levels are vastly expanded – the game covers only the first disc of the original story-wise, so this is a necessity. For the most part, the levels are improved upon (e.g. climbing the Sector 7 wall and Shinra Tower) although occasionally they overstay their welcome (e.g. the Train Graveyard). The combat, which switches from turn based in the original to action based in the remake, is among the best I’ve encountered in any RPG. Overall the updates are so well done that they feel effortless — it’s easy to overlook how much pressure the devs must have been under to get things right.

Jenn’s Pick

Jenn's Pop Culture Pick - Exit, The Game

Jennifer Paul, Intermediate Developer

Exit, The Game

TL;DR: If you’re stuck inside with a spouse or roommate then this is a great game to creatively pass the time and get you thinking outside the box. 

This game is a board game that gained fame from how you play – you have to work with and destroy the pieces as you go, so you can only play it once! Each Exit game has a different theme which is weird and fun. The game comes with a booklet to work through, a deck of Riddle Cards, a deck of Answer Cards, a bunch of Clue Cards, and a couple other odds-and-ends. You start with the story at the beginning of the booklet, which tells you to grab the first riddle. Then you’re off!

The Clue Cards are only for when you get stuck, so try your best. The Answer Cards are funny – some are just big red X’s. If you don’t solve the Riddle properly then you’re bound to pick up one of these X cards and you’ll have to think outside the box a bit more. Some riddles are so creative and different that they just had me in stitches! There are some fun twists that’ll leave you feeling impressed at the sheer ingenuity of it.

“Exit: The Game” has a ton of games to choose from ranging from Level 1-5. I’d say I’m pretty good at puzzles and logic in general – that’s my job as a software developer and also I’m a big fan of events like Puzzled Pint (check it out sometime – if you like beer and games you will love this). That being said, these games are not easy. Trust me on this, you want level 2 or 3.

The Exit games also come with an optional app which I highly recommend downloading when you play. It gives you a timer and also has a unique background music soundtrack for each game. The specific game we played was “Haunted Roller Coaster” so you can only imagine the soundtrack to go along with that. Mood music for sure. ?

I’ve seen Exit: The Game being sold at lots of hobby and game stores, so get out there and support your local stores by buying a take-home game or two!

Grant’s Pick

Grant's Pop Culture Pick - Better Call Saul, Season 5

Grant Spychka, Head of Customer Success

Better Call Saul, Season 5

TL;DR – Better Call Saul is a relatively slow-burn crime drama with Bob Odenkirk as a sketchy lawyer with a good heart but poor execution. Season 5 is one of the best yet, helping bridge the gap between this show and Breaking Bad more than any other season, with some of the best performances from the entire cast in the series.

I’ve been a fan of Vince Gilligan’s work since the Breaking Bad days, but have become an even bigger fan as the Better Call Saul series has evolved. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Better Call Saul follows the life of notorious lawyer Jimmy McGill from the Breaking Bad universe, before Walter White and Jesse Pinkman hit the scene. While this PCP is about Season 5 in particular, what I love about the show is how well it portrays the complex emotions surrounding a troubled man trying to make a name for himself while struggling to get out of his successful brother’s shadow. It has the gritty and tense drama paired with dark humor that you’d expect from Vince Gilligan, but with a much more relatable human aspect than Breaking Bad (in my opinion).

Now, for what makes Season 5 special (spoiler alert, kind of I guess – but come on, it’s the name of the show)? Honestly, it’s that we finally get to see Jimmy become Saul Goodman. We’ve been WAITING for 4 seasons for him to become the infamous dirtbag lawyer, but the time has finally come! We see him transform from a man trying to make his mark in the world of law, to a man staking a claim in the seedy underbelly of the legal system. More than that, however, is that Rhea Seehorn absolutely steals the show in her role as Kim Wexler. She is the center of everything. She is more than just the title character’s partner and I’d argue that her storyline could stand on its own, given how well Seehorn brings Kim to life. Her performance is captivating and it’s amazing to watch her balance the devil and angel on her shoulders. I won’t say more about it because I don’t want to spoil anything, but seriously put this in your queue.

Roxanne’s Pick

Roxanne's Pop Culture Pick - Vacationland

Roxanne Baker, Marketing Magician

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

In short: Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches is a lovely read (or listen!) by the actor, writer, and podcast host John Hodgman.

John Hodgman is one of my favorite people that I don’t know. My first introduction to him was the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials that aired around the mid-2000s in which he played the very uncool (but, let’s be honest, kind of relatable) PC character. In the last couple of years, I became a fan through his podcast Judge John Hodgman where John, alongside his “baliff” Jesse Thorn adjudicate disputes between couples, family members and friends. John Hodgman is witty, wise, and most aptly, incredibly judgmental.

Though I knew John Hodgman had written a few books (5, to be precise), I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of them. However, now that I have some more free-time on my hands, I hit up my local library’s online audiobook catalogue to see what I could find. I landed on John Hodgman’s penultimate book, narrated by the man himself: Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches.

Vacationland is a collection of stories from John Hodgmans’s life, with a focus on him and his family’s many vacations to their summer homes in the state of Maine. From the anxieties around lying to the employees at the dump about which town he lives in, to the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, John explores the realities and eccentricities of his transition into middle age and his acceptance of becoming a “Weird Dad”.

Did you catch the plural in “homes” up there? John Hodgman has two summer homes. The privilege he has a well-off, straight, white male is one of many serious topics that John explores in this book alongside his comedic wanderings. Not only is Vacationland hilarious, it is poignant, though-provoking and deeply heartfelt.