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On 2017, Part 3: Books

I read a lot of books last year. Part of the reason is because this was the year I finally embraced audio books. Last year I started getting into them more than usual, and I’m still picky about the ones I listen to, but in 2017 I finally started finding ones I enjoyed. I still don’t like audio books where the narrator reads in a different cadence than I would, but in cases where they’re read by the author or the narrator really fits a role well, I’ve found I can really enjoy them. A full 8 of the 21 books I “read” in 2017 were audio versions, so more than a third. I already have a stack of new ones I’m excited to get to, and hopefully this will be a way to read even more in 2018. These were my favorites of last year.

10. Mort(e) (War with No Name #1) by Robert Repino (2014)

Mort(e)This is one I might not have even heard about if not for the book club I’m in. It tells the story of The War With No Name, when animals suddenly become intelligent and grow in size and strength, then take over the world from their human owners. The premise itself is interesting, but the way the story is told makes it even more so. Mort(e) is a former house cat who goes looking for his best friend in the aftermath of the initial revolution, who happens to be a dog. He gets dragged into the war by joining a kind of mercenary team of felines and discovering he’s actually an excellent soldier, despite his domesticated background. Surprisingly quickly, time passes and Mort(e) becomes a war veteran trying to deal with the emotional and physical scars of battle as he takes up residence in his former home and continues his search for his canine friend. The book is told from Mort(e)’s perspective and reads like a war novel. It’s a fresh perspective that kept me interested, especially once the plot takes a turn for the religious. Themes of theology, racism, and loyalty were things I was not expecting. By the end of the book I was pretty taken aback with the state of things, and while I wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of it, I greatly appreciated reading it. In a way it kind of reminded me of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in that it presents old situations from a perspective I hadn’t seen before and made me think in ways I wasn’t ready for when I started. This is definitely in the category of books that aren’t my favorite, but am grateful for having read.

9. Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998)

StardustI didn’t truly begin to appreciate Neil Gaiman’s works until I heard his audio books. Most of the stories I’ve read of his are a bit too out there fantasy-wise for my tastes, but that completely changed once I heard them narrated by the author himself. Gaiman’s voice and inflections for each of his characters are absolutely perfect for the kind of stories he writes, and audio books have allowed me to appreciate them in a way I simply wasn’t able to previously. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d guess Gaiman was a benevolent fantasy character himself, gifting our less fortunate realm with his stories and presence.

Stardust is at its heart a love story. A boy promises to retrieve a falling star for the girl of his dreams, and being young and fanciful herself, she agrees to marry him if he should succeed. So off he goes on an adventure into strange, untold lands, meeting eccentric characters and making new friends along the way. The general structure is nothing new, but the adventures and characters contained within, conveyed by Gaiman’s dulcet, whimsical style, are where the fruits of this tale truly lie. This is a clear case of the journey being its own reward.

8. Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher (2000)

Storm FrontI’ve been meaning to read The Dresden Files series for a long time. I’m not sure why it took me so long; they’re not especially long books, and the subject matter is right up my alley. Audio books to the rescue!

Harry Dresden is a modern day wizard. As a private detective, he takes on paranormal investigations from regular citizens as well as the local PD. Most people think he’s a joke, so it’s no surprise he struggles to find work. Suddenly he gets a case from a random woman who walks into his office, and his PD contact has a huge case for him as well. Of course, the cases turn out to be related, and light and dark magic must go head to head.

Dresden’s tale is told in a very noir style, and the audio narrator fits that cadence to a T. The dry, flat delivery instantly makes me think of Dresden sitting behind a ratty old desk in a trenchcoat, with the lighting in the room low enough that you can barely see anything but outlines of his facial features, the furniture in the room, and the light wisp of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. I have complaints about Dresden’s character and the way he fails to stick up for himself when talking to his PD contact, especially considering his own inner monologue seems like he has sufficient amounts of self-respect. It’s disappointing that my one issue is so paramount to the character, but that said, I’m looking forward to listening to more of Dresden’s wizarding cases.

7. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)

Six WakesThis one hooked me right off the bat. Six people wake up in a spaceship that looks like it had very recently been the setting a brutal massacre. Before long, we learn that this is a future where people’s consciousnesses can be transferred to body copies after death, allowing theoretical immortality. Once in a new body, one should remember everything that happened to them since their last memory dump, but these six crew members remember nothing for the last handful of years, leaving them to solve the mystery of what the hell happened between then and now, how their previous selves got murdered, and who the culprit is. Not only was this immediately intriguing to me, but the book takes a slow burn approach to filling in the back stories of each character, as well as the legal and moral complications that come with being able to download a person’s mind and making copies of them. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and couldn’t put Six Wakes down. As it turns out, each of the passengers have dark pasts and aren’t necessarily good people. I couldn’t wait to find out more of the story, and the more I learned, the more the tension built between the crew.

In the end, the finale didn’t quite stick the landing as well as I was hoping, but I felt everything leading up to that point was strong enough that it left an impression on me.

6. The Dispatcher by John Scalzi (2016)

The DispatcherThis lovely little novella presents an idea I’ve literally never heard before, and uses it to turn a simple kidnapping story into something much more interesting. For some reason, it becomes nearly impossible to kill someone. Any time someone is intentionally killed, that person immediately wakes up back in their bed at home. It’s never explained how or why this is the case, and none of the characters in this story seem to know either. Just that alone is a fascinating thought experiment. If no one can be killed, that changes war, crime, interrogation, and a million other things about society.

Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher; someone who is authorized to intentionally kill someone who would otherwise die of accidental causes, humanely putting them down so they can wake up at home and have another chance. When Tony’s friend and fellow-dispatcher is kidnapped, the hunt begins to track down the who and why of it. As I mentioned earlier, the kidnapping story isn’t especially notable, but the premise it’s wrapped around gives the plot a unique twist. Even though people can’t be killed in this world, a human body can endure quite a lot before it expires, and even then, the “resurrection” process is still a traumatic and potentially painful experience. This is one of the most thought-provoking novellas I’ve read in a long time.

5. The X-Files: Cold Cases by Joe Harris (2017)

Cold CasesAnyone who knows me knows how much I adore The X-Files. I’ve shied away from audio versions of X-Files books written over the years because I simply cannot cope with the thought of listening to Mulder and Scully being voiced by anyone other than David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Thankfully, Cold Cases (and its direct sequel, Stolen Lives) is voiced by a full cast including Duchovny, Anderson, and series favorites William B. Davis and Mitch Pileggi, reprising their roles as the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Assistant Director Walter Skinner, respectively. They even bring back the actors behind the Lone Gunman for their parts. Agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes make cameo appearances as well, but Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish sadly didn’t return to voice their characters. Oh well, I can deal with those omissions in light of all the others who did come back.

Cold Cases is a bit of a strange release in 2017. It had creative direction from series creator Chris Carter, but it’s apparently based off an existing X-Files graphic novel written by Joe Harris. This wouldn’t be all that odd if not for the fact that the continuation of the conspiracy canon Cold Cases presents is actually really good, and is in my opinion much better than what Carter decided to go with when the show came back for its Season 10 “event series” two years ago. That event series essentially retcons the conspiracy story told here, so I’m a little confused why they decided to release this at all.

That puzzling decision aside, I’m still glad they did. Cold Cases is presented as 4 or 5 separate episodes of the show, complete with the X-Files theme music being used to intro and outro each chapter. And while some of them continue the alien black oil story fans know and love, others are stand-alone creature feature episodes. One of these is a direct sequel to one of the show’s most popular early stand-alone stories. I won’t spoil it here, but I was completely unprepared for such a blast from the past, and it made the whole collection feel like it belonged alongside the rest of the series in a way that gave me all kinds of warm, happy, I-Want-To-Believe vibes. If you’re a fan of the show, this is without a doubt worth your time.

4. Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)

RedshirtsRedshirts was my introduction to the work of John Scalzi. It’s an easy entry into his stories and is a lot of fun. It tells the story of a handful of new recruits as they join the crew of a space-fairing capital ship in the year 2456. It all goes well until they start noticing things about the crew, land missions, and the outcomes of these situations that don’t add up. I’m not even sure how to describe where the story goes without describing its style. Scalzi uses a lot of humor in his writing, and he uses that in the case of Redshirts to not only set a light, genuinely funny tone for the whole thing, but to present everything as a spoof of many media and scifi conventions. The story pokes fun at Star Trek, sensationalism, and a few other things that I can’t reveal without spoiling where the story goes. I will say that as soon as the main twist is revealed and you think the most bizarre thing is over, it proceeds to get even more absurd for the finale. It kind of reminds me of Starship Troopers in the way it mixes serious and goofy, and with Scalzi’s writing skill and tactful sense of humor, it all works wonderfully. Scalzi is another author I’ve been meaning to dive into for some time, and Redshirts is a great way to dip into his literary mind, as well as get excited for reading the rest of his stuff. Is there really anything greater than finding a whole new author you enjoy?

3. Alien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden (2014)

River of PainLike its predeccesor, Alien: Out of the Shadows, River of Pain is an audio book in the Alien universe that not only is considered canon, but is read by a full voice cast, and even includes sound effects. The Alien world is one that’s rife with opportunity, and this format fits it rather well. Out of the Shadows filled in the story between Alien and Aliens, highlighting an adventure Ripley had during her extended hypersleep. It seems she didn’t stay asleep the whole 57 years as we all thought. It was a very cool story and took the franchise back to its most popular time, but it had a couple issues that are difficult for me to describe without spoilers.

Thankfully, River of Pain negates my biggest issue simply by being set in a different time and location. Again drawing from the franchise’s early days, this is the story of the downfall of the settler colony on LV-426. If anyone remembers the additional scene of the colony from the director’s cut of Aliens, you’ll know where this tale begins. Right from the start it’s obvious things aren’t great in the colony. Between the arrival of Weyland-Utani executives who throw their weight around and prioritize discovery over colonist safety, and a new chief military commander who butts head with the aforementioned executives pretty eary and has a history with Newt’s mother, things get interesting very quickly. The main story beats are pretty predictable; Newt’s parents bring back an alien facehugger, aliens happen, people die. But the writing and voice acting are well done, and I enjoyed having this part of the mythology fleshed out. We find out what Newt’s family was like, and what she was like as a typical little girl before the traumatizing events of Aliens. River of Pain is a short read/listen, but one that’s a lot of fun if you’re a fan of the series.

2. Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1) by James S.A. Corey (2011)

Leviathan WakesYeah, I know, I’m way late into this series. I was super late into Harry Potter too. There’s really not much I need to say about Leviathan Wakes, as I’m one of the last to check it out, but I loved it. Excellent writing, characters I cared about, a fascinating plot, fantastic world building, lots of intrigue, and even more moral ambiguity. I’m definitely going to continue reading this series. It’s not an exaggeration to say I haven’t enjoyed space opera this much since Star Wars. Although, I should add the caveat that I haven’t played the Mass Effect games. Again, always late to the party, I am.

1. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015)

Fifth SeasonIf there was a category for best book I never would have discovered if not for my book club, The Fifth Season would take the award, hands down. I went back and forth between this and Leviathan Wakes for my top slot for a while. In the end, it came down to the fact that Jemisin has created a world and a magic system that felt incredibly unique to me. It felt like both scifi and fantasy at the same time, with a post-apocalyptic setting that felt alien but familiar, and a geology-based magic system that’s equally familiar yet refreshing. Jemisin is an incredible writer who I consider to be in the same league as Patrick Rothfuss, and her three-tiered approach to the story was perfectly paced and kept me interested the whole way through. It’s not easy to write characters who are interesting in the day-to-day, make you want to learn more about their backstory, and care about, while also obfuscating or minimalizing the central goal, but somehow Jemisin pulls it off. I started to pick up on the connection between the three main characters’ storylines about halfway through, and was able to figure out the big picture shortly before the book told me, but it was no less impressive. Also, while this book is relatively self-contained, it closes with lots of unanswered questions, and the main goal still nowhere in sight. Thankfully, there’s a hook at the end to get the reader excited for the next installment. The Broken Earth trilogy concluded with the release of the final book last summer, and it’s won lots of awards. It’s awesome seeing yet another fantastic literary world come from a black female, and even more so to see her get recognized for the achievement. The Fifth Season is a prime example of reward awaiting those who aren’t afraid to read stories from authors who wouldn’t normally catch their interest. And if that weren’t enough, Jemisin likes to play video games on Twitch in her spare time, and she’s actually really fun, so for the gamers out there that’s just icing on the cake.

 

On 2017, Part 2: Movies

Well this turned out way longer than I intended haha. Oh well. There were some amazing movies in 2017 and I had a lot to say about them. Not all of the films below are great, but most of them are, and the ones that aren’t I still had enough feelings about that I wanted to put some thoughts down. It’s also worth noting that none of the movies on this list are original IP. Every one of them are sequels, reboots, or spin-offs. It’s surprising that in an industry where unique, creative ideas are few and far between we have so many great films from old ideas. I guess the lesson here is I don’t mind unoriginal movies if they’re well done. Enjoy, and let me know what you thought of any of them if you feel inclined.

11. Jigsaw

JigsawI didn’t expect a lot from this one going in. As it is, the original series went on way longer than it had any right to. The only thing that made the latter half of the franchise worth watching was seeing the new creative deaths and how far up its own ass the mythology could possibly go before it all fell apart. Seeing the return of Dr. Gordon in the finale was fun, but it was a miracle all the loose ends were tied up as well as they were.

Without that investment there’s really not much Jigsaw has going for it. A lot of the plot beats are fairly predictable and lazy, the death traps aren’t all that exciting or even all that creative (with the exception of one), and for some reason they still obsess over that reverse bear trap thing. The twist at the end (you had to know there would be a twist) was unexpected but not particularly satisfying, and there are several obvious avenues for more movies, because why the hell not. Honestly, I’m not sure why Tobin Bell keeps coming back to the franchise. Jigsaw was an interesting character 10 years ago, but his portrayal here is an accurate reflection of this latest movie; old, tired, way past his prime, and not nearly as clever as he used to be. Jigsaw wins my “Please Just Stop” award for 2017.

Jigsaw pic

On the positive side, I have a new celebrity crush, Hannah Emily Anderson

10. Alien: Covenant

AlienPrometheus was a very weird movie that only abstractly had anything to do with the alien we all know and love. I was excited to see Covenant tie in more directly with the rest of the mythology. It does do that in a way that connects Prometheus to the rest of the franchise in a more clear way, but it also takes a bit of a cop-out approach that left me unsatisfied. Taken on its own, I enjoyed Covenant; it’s a decent Alien movie. Its biggest flaw is a classic mistake; it explains too much of the alien’s origins in a way that is disappointing and unnecessary. My favorite thing about the alien is precisely the fact that we don’t know its origins. Aliens are bizarre-looking, efficiently deadly, uncontrollable, and uncomfortably sexual. This makes it terrifying in a way that is made even more so by the fact that we don’t know what its home planet is, how it evolved, and it appears to have no goal except to eat and reproduce in the most primal, animalistic way. It’s the midicholrian problem. Once you explain it, it takes away much of the magic and mystery.

Looking at Prometheus and Alien: Covenant together, combined with Ridley Scott’s statements about his ongoing visions for the franchise, I can only come to one conclusion: Scott doesn’t really want to make Alien movies. He wants to do other things, but the alien creature is such a fantastic device for terror that people still respond to, so the studio insists on making new ones. Maybe Scott thinks that if the studio is going to keep making Alien movies anyway, he may as well do it himself and use the opportunity to explore new ideas in the meantime.

Alien pic

A proper Alien movie needs to have dark, slimy, organic-looking corridors

9. The Fate of the Furious

FuriousAnother series that just keeps going for no apparent reason, except for the fact that they still make a crap-ton of money, the Fast and the Furious franchise went off the deep end of absurdity long ago. The strength of the series has been the bombast and the characters. They’ve been beating the “family” drum so hard for so long now that it just sounds like they’re trying too hard at this point. This series hasn’t been about cars for a long time now; the last couple of entries have cemented them as spy movies, for better or for worse.

Fate of the Furious is kind of a mess. It does things that fans of the mythology will probably have issues with. At least I did. Toretto changes sides for what turns out to be a good reason, but that reason feels unjustified and unearned. Also, the fact that he keeps his “family” completely in the dark about it, plus the fact that Deckard seems totally fine working with said “family,” and in fact becomes part of the “family” despite having killed one of the “family,” seems to shit on much of what they’ve been building for so long. One thing that remains consistent is the level of big, outrageous action scenes. These are some of the most outlandish yet. Jason Statham is pretty cool, for sure, and is a great foil to the walking slab of meat that is Dwane Johnson, but he’s a poor substitute for Sung Kang’s Han. When the series lost Han and Brian, it lost a big part of its soul. The franchise should’ve ended with the beautiful Paul Walker tribute that closed out Furious 7. Instead, we’re getting at least one more of these. Will I see it? Absolutely. But for me, the series died when Paul Walker died, and I’m content to let it be a seven film arc, if only in my mind.

Furious pic

Tanks, cargo planes, even submarines are no match for “family”

8. The Lego Batman Movie

Lego BatmanLike the first Lego Movie before it, The Lego Batman Movie is such fun. It applies the same irreverent, hilarious filter used on the previous film to the dark, brooding, don’t-take-anything-seriously martyr that is The Dark Knight.

What you might not expect is that Lego Batman actually explores something most of the serious Batman films don’t even do, Batman’s relationship with The Joker. Taking a queue from Christopher Nolan’s Joker interpretation, Joker wants nothing more than for Batman to admit how much their adversarial relationship means to him and how dependent they are on one another. A great hero is nothing without a great villain. Throw in the curveball of it being portrayed almost like a lover’s quarrel, fun references to Batman’s entire past from movies to comics, plus amazing performances from Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, and Rosario Dawson, and you have a fantastic, unexpectedly deep Batman movie filtered through the Lego Movie prism.

Lego Batman pic

The Joker and multitude of villain cameos are some of the best things about Lego Batman

7. It

ItThis was the movie that made me realize: I’m now old enough that the films Hollywood is remaking are the ones I was alive for to see the originals. So now I’m that old guy going “blahblahblah the original was better!” Needless to say, I was pretty skeptical about the new It going in. I wanted it to be good, but the original was so damn creepy that it still affects me to this day and I didn’t think this version would be able to pull that off as well. Additionally, I didn’t like the look of Pennywise’s new clown outfit. Yes, I know it’s more accurate to what a clown would wear in the Victorian era, but I didn’t care, it still looked too much like a dress to me.

All that said, I actually really liked It. Bill Skarsgård is no Tim Curry (in all fairness, who is?) and it’s not creepy in the same slow, quiet, dreadful way that worked so well in the original, but taken as its own thing it works surprisingly well. It’s clearly been influenced by horror movies made in the last 20 years in the way it builds and pays off the suspense. Pennywise’s costume works a lot better than I initially thought it would, mostly because seeing it in low lighting and the way it moves with the character is much more effective than seeing it in a static full body promotional photo. And most importantly, the divide between the adults and the kids is spot on. All the adults are eerily sinister and paint a picture of a town that’s had a dark cloud of evil over it for a long, long time, and the chemistry between the kids still totally works. I really bought their friendship and banter. I still like the original better, as it remains one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen, but once I was able to look at this new film as its own interpretation, I was able to appreciate and embrace it.

It pic

I wonder how long it takes him to floss

6. Despicable Me 3

DM3The first two Despicable Me movies were a goddamn delight, and this new one is no exception. Right off the bat, Gru and Lucy are the couple you love to see working together, with a shared enthusiasm for the spy life, kicking butt and taking names. Trey Parker is a perfect choice for the mullet-sporting, shoulder pad-wearing, dance-off-loving, washed-up, stuck in the 80s Balthazar Bratt. Gru’s adopted daughters continue to be adorable as all hell, and Steve Carell now pulls double duty as Gru’s long-lost brother, Dru. Their banter as polar opposites is really fun, especially as their relationship evolves.

The one downside to this film is, sadly, the minions. I may be in the minority here, but I didn’t care for the Minions movie. The little sentient twinkies are wonderful supporting characters, but they don’t work nearly as well on their own and they’ve been outplayed to death with the same old jokes. DM3 tries to do what the Minions movie did and give them their own subplot, but none of it makes much sense and just seems like a shallow excuse to give them things to do instead of trying to work them into the main story.

That’s a fairly minor complaint though, as every other part of DM3 had me smiling from ear to ear. It’s not quite as good as the first, but it’s better than the second, and anyone who loved the first two owes it to themselves to see it.

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He kind of looks like someone I know, believe it or not

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Last JediI’m very conflicted about The Last Jedi. The first time I saw it I didn’t know how to feel. It doesn’t just not answer the questions posed by The Force Awakens, it blatantly dismisses them and all but tells the audience directly that they don’t matter. This movies feels like it’s very intentionally cleaning the slate and saying that we need to let go of what Star Wars used to be. The inner child in me who grew up with the original trilogy and read so many of the EU books still hasn’t been able to make peace with that.

It wasn’t until I read some articles, listened to some spoiler podcast discussions, saw The Last Jedi a second time, and did a lot of reflection that I was able to see what was happening. What I didn’t expect was that there’s a part of me that is excited about the new possibilities this presents. Star Wars has always been very black and white, good and evil, light and dark, but as we all know, life is not like that. The scene where Kylo Ren kills Snoke and he and Rey fight off his imperial guards was impressive not just in a technical sense, but in a narrative sense as well. We don’t get to find out who Snoke is or what his backstory is. Kylo literally says to forget all of it. The Jedi, Vader, the First Order, the New Republic, let it all die. He’s not just speaking to Rey in that scene, he’s talking to the viewer. Kylo isn’t turning good as Rey thinks and Rey isn’t turning evil as Kylo thinks. They both have light and dark in them, because life is much more gray. Luke telling Rey to let the Jedi die because the Force is not just for them and Rey’s experience in the dark side cave are both promoting the same message. I love the idea that the Force is more than just a power reserved only for a select few. And for those who had a problem with this, a lot of the later EU books played with this idea as well; they weren’t afraid to explore the notion that the Force can be more than just a tool for Jedi to move things with their minds and influence weak-minded people. Even Rogue One hinted at this. The blind Force user Chirrut literally says he is no Jedi, but he clearly knows the ways of the Force. I can’t wait to see where future films take this idea that the Force can be many different things to many different people. It was a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see Luke rip and tear as I’m sure so many of us wanted, but his finale at the end seemed more appropriate for his character, especially given how broken he was by then. A lot of people had a problem with Luke as well, but to that I say, consider the fact that Luke’s training was incredibly flawed. He started training as a Jedi way later than others were in the days of the Old Republic, he cut his training short to save Han and Leia at Cloud City, and when Yoda died he was left on his own to single-handedly bear the burden of everybody thinking of him as a legendary warrior, as well as the responsibility of bringing the Jedi order back from extinction. All in all, it’s not surprising in the slightest that things went awry. And at least we got the moment of the First Order dumping everything they had at Luke only to have him brush it off his shoulder with nothing more than a silent “meh.” I absolutely loved that.

There are still lots of things I didn’t like about The Last Jedi. There appeared to be huge discrepancies in the timelines of the space battle/chase, the casino trip, and Rey and Luke’s island adventure. C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewie don’t really have much to do anymore. At this point they’re just there for fan service and comic relief, and not all of the humor worked for me. Some of it, like Poe trolling Hux, was fun, but the porgs didn’t do anything for me. They seem like a lazy, forced attempt to give Chewie some cute, humorous companions and I don’t think they worked at all. Some of the casino planet stuff was interesting in that it was visually stunning, and I liked the idea presented that there were more stories to tell in the Star Wars universe and that there’s a dark underbelly to it all. But the whole subplot seemed disjointed from the rest of the film and the hinting of the child slaves being undiscovered Force-sensitives was a bit too ambiguous and subtle to be effective. And finally, my biggest issue with the film was when Leia got blown out of the command ship and supposedly used the Force to pull herself back to the ship. First of all, the vacuum of space would’ve killed her before she even had a chance to do anything about it. Second, no other film in the entire franchise has even hinted that Leia had learned to use her Force abilities. The EU books did, but those don’t count anymore, so there’s absolutely no precedent in the current canon to justify or explain what she did. Especially when you consider the fact that Carrie Fisher’s unfortunate passing gave the filmmakers an easy out. This was an opportunity to give Leia a heroic death, especially after such a powerful moment when Kylo was unable to bring himself to kill his mother himself. Instead, now they have to figure out how to give Leia an appropriate exit that matches those of Han and Luke. I have no idea how they do that without having Fisher available, but if they relegate her death to nothing more than a mention in the opening crawl of Episode IX it will be deeply unsatisfying.

So yeah, I have a lot of thoughts on the newest Star Wars movie. The open-minded side of me is thrilled at the new possibilities of what Star Wars will become. Many scenes are some of the most visually impressive in the entire series, and it made me stupidly happy to see Yoda again, and as an actual puppet no less! But executionally it didn’t all work for me, and many things about wiping the old slate clean hurts my soul. My conclusion is that I may never truly love The Last Jedi, but I think in time I will come to terms with it and be able to appreciate what it did for the franchise at large.

Last Jedi pic

Phasma still doesn’t get enough screen time, but I love seeing her again

4. Thor: Ragnarok

ThorI enjoyed the previous two Thor movies, but they’ve never been my favorite part of the MCU. I expected to enjoy Ragnarok just fine, but thought that it would be as forgettable as the others. Much to my surprise, it stuck out as quite different in tone from the previous films in all the best ways. The first thing I didn’t expect was the amount of humor. Not all of it worked, but much of it was genuinely funny and gave Thor’s character a refreshing break from the seriousness he’s displayed in all his appearances to date. His interplay with the Hulk was a lot of fun to watch, not just in their arena battle, but with their casual conversation as well. Korg was charming as all hell, but I was surprised to find he wasn’t played by Rhys Darby. Between his voice and his cadence, I would’ve sworn Darby was behind the CG. Finally, Jeff Goldblum is great, as always. Goldblum is the kind of actor who can’t help but play himself in every roll he takes on, and he brings a goofiness to Ragnarok that adds an always-welcome flair to the setting. In the end, Ragnarok is in the same category for me as Ant-Man; a movie I wasn’t expecting much from, but that I couldn’t help but love.

Thor pic

Confirmed: He’s not Thor, God of Hammers

3. Wonder Woman

WWI couldn’t be happier that Wonder Woman is so great. Given DC’s theatrical track record of late, it could’ve been a disaster. Thankfully, its abundance of strong, independent females, potent themes of not being able to save everyone, moral ambiguity, and female director make for an awesome film that I couldn’t wait to see again and support.

It’s not perfect. A lot of the fish-out-of-water scenes focus a bit too heavily on Diana’s physical looks and I didn’t really buy the romance between her and Trevor, specifically, the ending moment didn’t feel earned. But most of the rest of the film worked beautifully. It was encouraging seeing Diana as a young girl wanting to train to become a strong warrior defending her people, and the thought of Wonder Woman being an inspiration to young girls is heart-warming. After the debacles that were Man of Steel (which I actually kind of enjoyed) and Batman v Superman, DC needed a hit badly, and I’m super pleased Wonder Woman was that hit. I haven’t seen Justice League, but I haven’t heard great things, so I can only hope the next WW movie is as well-done as the first.

WW pic

Young Diana wants to be a badass when she grows up

2. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man picTom Holland’s Spider-Man was one of my favorite things about Captain America: Civil War. The awe-struck, starry-eyed fanboy who spent most of his screen time freaking out that he was fighting alongside so many heroes he admired was hilarious It brought back memories of the fun-loving Spider-Man portrayed by Tobey Maguire 15 years ago (my god, has it been that long?). Like Maguire before him, Holland brings back the Spider-Man so many people relate to. He’s not super rich like Tony Stark, he’s a broke-ass kid with real-life problems as a teenager trying to find his path as he becomes an adult in the big city. He’s the every man, he’s there for the little guys, and as much as it killed us all to see Maguire turn down Mary Jane’s affection so long ago, it felt as if that was how it was supposed to be. When Holland turns down a spot in the Avengers, it was disappointing, but only because we want Peter Parker to get his. We want him to be recognized with the big boys, but that’s not who Parker is. He’s the little guy who sacrifices fame, fortune, notoriety, even his own personal desires to be there on the ground level, making things better on the small scale.

Refreshingly, Homecoming skips over Spider-Man’s origin story entirely. We all know it already, so there’s no point in rehashing it yet again, and it lets us get right to the meat of the character. Watching such an endearing character try so hard, succeed, fail, and prove himself is incredibly uplifting. His arc is inspiring, and watching Stark tell Peter that if he’s nothing without the suit then he doesn’t deserve to have it at all is both heartbreaking and opens up the character to really shine and come into his own.

Finally, Michael Keaton absolutely kills it as Vulture. He’s a genuinely scary villain, and his origin as a blue-collar guy who got shafted in the wake of the Avengers’ destructive ways is brilliant, as is making him the father of Peter’s love interest. The scene with the two of them in the car at the dance just oozes tension and gives their confrontation so much gravity. The best villains are those who a) don’t see themselves as villains, and b) are sympathetic on some level. Vulture is a bad person with good motivations, and that makes for an incredibly compelling relationship with our hero.

I didn’t much care for The Amazing Spider-Man, and didn’t even bother seeing its follow-up, but so far, bringing the character into the rest of the MCU has been great for the character and the rest of the Marvel movie mythology. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

Spider-Man pic

He’s not rich, he’s not a god, he’s your friendly neighborhood spider-man. And that’s the way we like him.

1. Blade Runner 2049

Blade RunnerI don’t even know where to start with Blade Runner 2049. I liked the first Blade Runner well enough, but it’d been so many years since I’d seen it, and not being familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s work, I didn’t really know what to expect from the new film. The trailers were intriguing though, and seeing it in the theater, I was blown away. Everything about this movie, from the aesthetic, to the score, to the effects, to the themes captivated me right from the start. It feels like a natural progression from the first movie, and very believable. It’s a long, slow movie that isn’t afraid to let a scene linger and let the imagery and ideas really sink in. Much in the same way that Her did, Blade Runner 2049 completely sold me on the ideas of an android yearning for companionship, learning how to be more human, and actually going through an existential crisis. The nature of humanity, what it means to have genuine feelings, memories, and what kind of “person” you become as a result are profoundly fascinating to me, and this film presents it all so damn well that I was riveted. The love scene between Joi and K in particular I thought was pulled off masterfully. A love scene between androids is something that could very easily come off as hokey or tasteless, but the acting and visual representation actually made me believe it as an affectionate interaction. Robin Wright is fantastic as always, and brings a human responsibility and weight to everything. I thought it would’ve been better if Deckard’s part had been kept secret, but his presence is still welcome. His fight scene with K in the casino, with the Elvis show glitching out in the background, was hilarious, and the fact that he doesn’t give a damn if his dog is real or not is very appropriate.

I feel the score in Blade Runner 2049 deserves special mention. It’s very identifiably Hans Zimmer, but in the best way possible, it’s absolutely dripping with 1980s far-future synth, booming bass, and haunting reverb. It’s eerie, poignant, and so thick with foreboding atmosphere that you can practically feel your ears bleeding. This is one of those soundtracks that’s so well meshed with its source film that it elevates the whole thing to a powerful new level.

I’ve heard some people complain that for as many thought-provoking questions as Blade Runner 2049 asks, it doesn’t really answer any of them. I don’t really understand this criticism. In any other film, this would be a valid concern, but when you’re talking about such philosophical stuff as what it means to be human, there really is no answer. It’s inherent to the nature of such questions that they can’t be resolved. Is Deckard a replicant or isn’t he? There are good arguments for both sides, but honestly, I don’t want to know. Like he says himself, does it really matter? Does knowing a memory was planted make it any less meaningful in the way it shaped your personality? If an AI is indistinguishable from humanity can there not be genuine emotion or affection for it? If they’re so lifelike, do they deserve the same rights as the rest of us or is a kind of replicant racism justified? And if there can be a genuine emotional relationship with them, does knowing that that same AI can be duplicated with no effort fracture that connection? Not only are there no easy answers to these questions, but in a sense I’m ok with that, because I love the discussions they provoke. More than that, they are extremely important questions to ask. They’re not new ideas by any stretch, but today we live in a world where Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa are getting smarter and smarter every day, knowing more and more about us, automating so many aspects of our lives, and are always monitoring us. Alexa will compliment you when you wake up or get home from work if you want it to. It knows what you buy. Google knows where you live, where you work, and where you go. Matter of fact, I’ve caught myself referring to them not as “it” but as “she.” The portrayal of Joi as an AI life companion is an eventuality I can totally see becoming a reality some day, for better or for worse.

The fact that Blade Runner 2049 did so poorly in the theaters is a bit soul-crushing to me. It isn’t just a fascinating movie with interesting characters, a powerful musical score, and breathtaking visuals of a not-so-pleasant future, but it’s an increasingly relevant film that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it.

Blade Runner pic

As lifelike and moving as their relationship is, it’s still a simulation

On 2017, Part 1: Overview

Holy shitballs 2017 was a year. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. In reality, I’m pretty conflicted about 2017 as a whole. On the mass scale, there’s a LOT to be worried about. A president who’s a racist, sexist, loudmouth, bigoted, blowhard of a man-baby who cares nothing for anyone except his rich, white, business buddies. Neo-nazis and white supremacists causing uproars and people who are actually not shunning them. Natural disasters. International tensions with North Korea and others. A complete joke of a tax plan that was rammed through simply so the Republicans could say they accomplished something in their first year of Trumpy McOrangeface’s presidency. The repeal of net neutrality. Accusations of dirtbag men being dirtbags to women flying left and right. It’s enough to make my head spin and curl up in a fetal position under the covers.

Arguably the worst part is the fact that I can’t even say this year is over and maybe 2018 will be better, because we have another few years of this crap yet to endure. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. My plan has been to basically batten down the mental hatches and prepare for the long haul. To put it simply, it’s not a coincidence that one of the NYE parties I’m attending this year is subtitled “Let’s All Pretend Everything is OK For A Few Hours”.

The one positive thing I can say about all the above is I think the mass amounts of men in the media finally being called out for their dicketry is a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, this will affect some change in that realm. The only way men in power are going to think twice about treating women like objects is if they’re made out to be social pariahs and it affects their companies’ pocketbooks.

With all that said though, on a personal level, 2017 was actually a pretty good year for me. It started out crappy, with a fairly serious car accident at the end of January, but after that it was all good. I got a new car (necessitated by the aforementioned accident), and being in the hospital from that incident alerted me to a relatively minor medical issue I’d been ignoring. This was a sufficient kick in the pants to get back on track with that, so in a way it was for the best. In addition, I further established myself with my new employer, saw some great concerts and shows, did some traveling, reconnected with a few friends I hadn’t talked to in quite some time, made some great new friends, and even managed to do some dating. It’s fairly easy for me to get into a rut of a dry spell in the dating department, but it felt good to put myself out there more than I did in 2016. I’m not getting any younger, after all, and the older I get the more my thoughts on dating evolve and change. I feel pretty good about the next few years.

Finally, I had an amazing vacation in Las Vegas where I partied more than I had in literally years, and moved back to the part of town where I grew up. I’d never left it completely, as I would come back to visit my dad or for events on that part of town, but I haven’t lived in this area in 14 years, and I didn’t expect to discover how much I’d missed living here. I now have a general gameplan for setting down roots here in the next year or two and now I just have to execute. That will be the true test. In a little over two years I’ll be 40, and although I’m not going to take that very well at all, if I can go into my 40s knowing that my future is relatiely secure and prove to myself that I’m capable of accomplishing something on a larger scale than I’ve yet to do, I’ll feel a lot better about it. I hope I’m up to it.

So all in all, I’m worried for our country and what it’s going to look like three years from now. But in the meantime I’m comforted by the fact that in the last few years I’ve done a fairly good job of balancing my life, assessing what’s important to me, and setting myself up for good things in the coming years. Life isn’t perfect, but I have a good handle on things and if I can keep it up I’ll be a-ok. Bring it on, 2018. I’m sure on the mass scale things will continue to be shitty, but for me personally, I’m ready to keep riding this roller coaster we call life.

And now comes the fun part of my year-end analysis. There were some absolutely incredible things in media this year that I’m really excited to write about. I plan to do some writing about my favorite movies, books, and video games throughout the year in the coming days. There’s probably not that much I will say that hasn’t already been said in a million and a half other blogs and websites, but I don’t care. This is my site, and I enjoy doing it, even if it’s for purely masturbatory purposes.

 

The End of an Era: Epilogue

My 10 year wedding anniversary would’ve been Fri, Oct 20th, ten days ago. It’s mind-blowing how much can change in ten years. I knew it was coming up, expected to be all reflective. So what did I do that Friday? Honestly, it completely slipped my mind on the day of, and I didn’t think of it once. I went to work, went to Side Quest where I met no less than four new people, one of which became a new friend, then I went home and thought of someone who most definitely was not my ex-wife.
 
One of my favorite song verses ever is “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, that I almost believe that they’re real. I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you, that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.” I’ve always thought of those lyrics as refering to a lost love. But today, they mean something different to me. Today, they’re actually a pretty accurate description of how I feel.
 
Thing is, it was so long ago and both me and my life are so different now, on some level it almost doesn’t feel real anymore. It’s probably been six or seven years since I talked to my ex-wife; I have no idea where she is, what her life is like, or even if her phone number is the same. I’m sure she’s a very different person now as well. My ex-sister-in-law was less than a year old when I met her. She’d be about 14 or 15 now. I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if I saw her on the street. I have many memories that are clear as day, my wedding was amazing, and I’ve never stopped thinking of that time of my life, and probably never will. But I guess this means that, while it remains a tentpole time in my life, I’m so far removed from it now that it’s only meaningful to me in abstraction. It’s become a fable, a distant page in the history book of my life, relatable only because I know I lived through it. Hell, I expected to write about this at least a week ago, but the fact of the matter is I kept blowing it off because I didn’t feel I needed to.
 
I’d say this was liberating or enlightening if I felt I still needed closure, but I don’t. I got that years ago. Still interesting though, how even after so long thoughts and perspectives can continue to evolve in unexpected ways, so much so that it took me nearly a week and a half to be able to articulate it. Not good or bad, just interesting. In that sense, I’m glad I did finally decide to say a little something about it. Not what I originally anticipated, but still plenty worthwhile, in my opinion. Sometimes you need to think something through and get it out, not to vent, find closure, or even to learn from it, but simply to understand it.

Top 10 Reads of 2016

Update: 12/20/17 Man, I’m really bad with these. Another year, another top 10 list abandoned. 

Super late but I read a lot last year and want to remember the best of them.

11. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

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10. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

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8. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (2015)

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7. Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon (2013)

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6. The Crystal Spheres by David Brin (1984)

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5. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (2015)

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4. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (1997)

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3. The Three-Body Problem by Lin Cixin (2014)

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2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (2015)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Top 10 Reads of 2015

Update: 12/20/17 Like My 2015 games list, I started this and didn’t finish it. So I might as well get it out now.

10. Crooked by Austin Grossman (2015)

Crooked coverA historical fiction starring Richard “I Am Not A Crook” Nixon isn’t something I’d normally be interested in. When it was selected as our October 2015 book club suggestion and I read the book sleeve’s description however, I was pretty into the premise. It describes a story of Nixon collaborating with Russian spies and battling supernatural forces. As we discussed in our book club podcast for the it however, this was hardly what Crooked turned out to be.

Nixon is painted pretty early on as a bumbling, aloof snake who gets by not on wits and strength, but by lying, cheating, and using whatever unscrupulous tactics he can. Early on, it’s easy to buy into as he pursues a supposed Communist who it’s revealed has connections to the supernatural. I was totally on board until that sub-plot came to fruition. Unfortunately, rather than Nixon having a revelation and beginning to come into his own as a demon-hunting spy, he continues to fumble around and pretend to know what he’s doing, even though it’s pretty clear he still has no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. The more I learned about the forces of evil from other characters, the more annoying it became that Nixon wasn’t growing one bit as a character and had very little to do with the plans being put in place to deal with the situation. To top it off, the conclusion was completely nonsensical and unsatisfying.

In the end, there was enough in Crooked to keep me reading to the end, but very little I found enjoyable that would make me want to recommend it. It’s all the more disappointing given the subject matter and book sleeve’s description. If Grossman had focused things more and paid off some of the promises made by the description, it could’ve been really great. As it is though, Crooked reeks of nothing but untapped potential.

9. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

Christmas Carol coverAs many times as I’ve seen this wonderful movie of the spirit of Christmas, I’d never actually read the book. I’m glad I finally changed that.

There’s not really much I can say about A Christmas Carol that hasn’t already been said. You know the story, the characters, and how it turns out. Given the time period in which it was written and published, some of the language gets a bit obtuse, but the story at the heart of Mr. Scrooge’s run-ins with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come remains as powerful as it’s ever been.

Very few things get the spirit of Christmas flowing in me than this. As someone who has never attached any religious meaning to the holiday, A Christmas Story really hits home. Being thankful for friends and family, spending time with the people you love, not taking what you have for granted, and taking time to think of those less fortunate than yourself have always been the crux of what Christmas means to me, and Dickens’ classic tale embodies this more than any other work written since.

8. The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level by Chris Hardwick (2011)

Nerdist Way coverI’ve never been much for self-help books. Not that I think I’m above receiving advice from those more knowledgeable than myself, it’s just that they don’t usually hold my interest long enough to get much out of. The Nerdist Way was a lot easier for me to get into, coming from someone I have a lot of respect for both as a creator and promoter of geeky things in general, and as someone who completely turned his life around. Chris Hardwick isn’t that much older than me, and while I’m coming from a completely different background and set of past circumstances than he, many of the things he discusses in this book are things I’ve thought about.

Getting away from bad habits, creating healthier ones, not being afraid to put yourself out there and try new things, motivating yourself to get healthy and exercise, and other topics are discussed with delightfully geeky references and techniques, such as creating your own personal D&D-like character sheet to chart your real life strengths, weaknesses, and improvement. Hardwick is lovably nerdy, and his path to success is a fascinating one, worthy of reflection for anyone looking for help in any number of aspects of their lives.

7. Annihilation (Southern Reach trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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6. Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (2015)

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5. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (2015)

YNWOTI coverIf there’s any celebrity representative of nerd culture I love as much as Chris Hardwick, it’s Felicia Day. More than just a cute face, her endlessly charming sense of humor, creativity, and awkwardness have managed to make her pretty much the most adorable person in the history of everything.

Anyone who grew up feeling weird for not liking sports and instead found comfort in D&D, video games, and friendships cultivated from behind a computer monitor will easily identify with Felicia’s tale of growing up and trying to find her way in life. More than her dorkiness however, her passion and drive to create has been extremely successful for her and has made her a role model for those looking to do similarly great things.

To top it off, as a woman in the age of the Internet’s mass-market proliferation, Day has had to endure some of the worst Internet bile out there. It’s inspiring to read not just of her successes, but of her failures and insecurities in dealing with everything that entails. If you’ve ever felt like a fish out of water or felt weird for identifying more with paper and pencil characters than real-life citizens of the realm of Earth, definitely give this one a read.

4. All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (2004)

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3. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

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2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Biggest disappointment: Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)

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Top 10 Games of 2015

Update: 12/20/17 So I started thinking about my 2017 lists and realized I never posted this. Nearly everything below was written two years ago, I just never finished it and posted it. In the interest of cleaning out the closet, so to speak, here it is. 

This is usually where I spout my obligatory caveat about how I’m old now and things like a job and girls and friends and life in general have prevented me from playing x, y, and z games. The more top 10 lists I read that say this kind of thing though, the more annoying I feel that statement sounds, not necessarily to me, just in general. I figure anyone reading this is old enough to recognize that when you get into your 20’s and 30’s, you don’t play as many games as you used to. And the fact of the matter is, I can say I don’t have time for stupidly dense games like Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 until I’m blue in the face. It doesn’t change the fact that if a game manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll find time for it. I put in multiple dozens of hours into several games on this list simply because I fell for them hard and made time to play them at the expense of other games and other things I could/should have been doing.

So dispensing of all that self-justifying rhetoric, I’ll just say that it was a pretty great year for games. The industry still has its problems, as it always will. Broken ports, disingenuous DLC and microtransaction models, and muddy Kickstarter policies and practices will continue to be points of contention for some time, but it seems like the industry was able to wash away some of the vitriolic stench of Gamergate. While conversations around those subjects will (and should!) continue to take place to try and solve some of the more egregious problems with inequality and bullying, the conversations seemed to be more positive in 2015 and allowed the focus to return to the games. And there were a lot of really great ones that covered everything anyone could want, from massive AAA titles, to mobile, to downloadable indies, to weird little experimental games that played with unique interactivity and gameplay styles.

My list kind of blew up a bit this year, so I won’t blame anyone for checking out the top 10 and stopping there, but for anyone interested in a few extra tidbits, feel free to keep on reading. And as always, I’d be interested in your thoughts as well, so feel free to speak up if you’d like in the comments.

10. Pokemon Picross (3DS, Jupiter Corp)

Pokemon Picross coverI’m not usually a fan of free-to-play games, and I had the misfortune of being a tad too old to have caught the Pokemon bug when it came on the scene, but I love me some picross. Like Sudoku or any number of other math puzzles, it’s deeply satisfying to spend a few lazy minutes (or hours) deducing your way to coloring in pictures based on the number and arrangement of which blocks should be filled in a given row or column. To that end, Pokemon Picross is the best thing to happen to picross since Picross 3D.

This game takes the basic picross model and adds pokemon-powered special abilities to the mix. With each puzzle you solve you’ll capture a different pokemon, which then let’s you equip them to give you a number of different abilities, such as revealing a couple rows of blocks at the start of a level, slowing down the timer, or even stopping it completely for a bit. As the puzzles get bigger and more complicated, they start adding certain challenge conditions, such as not equipping pokemon of a certain type or limiting the number of times you can use abilities. These all add a strategic element to the vanilla picross model and I loved the way it changed things up.

The free-to-play features show themselves in several ways. You have an energy bar, and every puzzle requires a certain amount of energy to play. Once you run out of energy you either need to wait for it to replenish on its own, or buy a batch of the in-game currency, picrites. Picrites are used for many things, from refilling your energy bar right away (or even extending your maximum energy level), to unlocking more slots to equip more pokemon at a time, to opening up new sets of puzzles. You’ll get picrites by playing through the game normally, but like any free-to-play title, you’ll eventually hit a barrier where you won’t have enough of them to move forward without either waiting, or paying up. In addition, each pokemon has a number of uses available before they’re out of commission for a time, which, of course, you can spend picrites to eliminate.

What sets Pokemon Picross apart is the fact that it won’t gouge your wallet. Instead, it caps your spending at $30. Once you hit that point, it stops charging and just gives you more picrites for free any time you ask for them. Also, once you upgrade your maximum energy level a few times, it just gives you infinite energy. These key differences, by putting a limit on how much you can spend, are enough to avoid the egregiousness of many other FTP games out there and is worth praising. If you never want to spend a dime, you don’t have to. If you want to pay to binge on puzzles or throw the developers some support, they basically unlock the whole game for you once you’ve given them the equivalent of buying the game for a reasonable retail price. And with over 300 puzzles, plus alternate, more complicated versions of each puzzle and a daily challenge-style feature, there’s enough content here to keep you busy for a long, long, time. This is not just a great picross game, it’s free-to-play done right. Bravo, Nintendo.

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9. Destiny: The Taken King (PS4/XOne, Bungie)

Taken King coverThis was the year that Destiny got good. And not just good, but great. With a rock solid shooter base to it, what Destiny lacked was compelling content. Once you completed the main story campaign, the game become a never-ending grindfest the likes of which quickly got boring to all but the most hardcore. The first couple of expansions helped, but were fleeting experiences.

The Taken King wasn’t just a huge new piece of story-heavy content, it was a reworking of the entire experience, damage, and light systems, the addition of tons of new weapons and armor to collect, new sub-classes, a more convenient job board, and many other small improvements that injected new life into Bungie’s MMOFPS. This is the game Destiny should’ve been right out of the gate. It didn’t just hook me again, it hooked me harder than the OG game ever did. I started a second class, played with a different set of friends on XOne and PS4, and had more fun with it than ever.

It’ll be interesting to see what Destiny’s future looks like. There isn’t likely to be another influx of meaty new story content until Destiny 2, and it’s yet to be seen if the sequel will integrate with it’s predecessor as it should or if it’ll be an entirely separate thing. But I’m hoping Bungie takes the lessons learned here and builds off of the platform they’ve built to make something even better.

Taken King screenshot

8. Tales From the Borderlands (PS4/PS3/XOne/360/PC, Telltale Games)

Tales Borderlands coverI thought I’d gotten everything I needed out of Pandora. Between the two base Borderlands games and The Pre-Sequel I had more cel-shaded, comedic, shooty loot dropping fun than I could shake a vault key at. So when Telltale announced they were applying their adventure game talent to making a character-driven Borderlands story, I didn’t understand why I needed it, or even why I should care. This is a case where word of mouth made all the difference. I’d seen the positive reviews and they managed to open me up to it, but a couple recommendations from friends sealed the deal and I decided to give it a shot.

With Tales From the Borderlands, Telltale managed to create characters that were likable, interesting, and played off each other wonderfully, helped by an all-star voice cast including the likes of Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Chris Hardwick. I got attached to them and wanted to see where their story took them. This is crucial in an adventure game, and is especially impressive considering the only characters I cared about, or could even name, from the first three Borderlands games were the most outlandish (Claptrap and Handsome Jack). Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, Vaughn, and Loaderbot made me care about the world of Pandora in a whole new way, with the visuals, humor, and great licensed music providing all the stylistic flair you want from this series. These,  combined skillfully with the tough, nail-biting decision-making of Telltale’s signature style, made me a believer, and if they do a second season then I’ll be right there ready and waiting enthusiastically.

Tales from the Borderlands

7. Super Mario Maker (Wii U, Nintendo)

Mario Maker coverSuper Mario Maker is basically a Mario game taken to its peak potential. How many of us played a Mario game and either wanted more levels or wanted to make their own? It’s criminal that it took Nintendo this long to give it to us, but in a way that’s a good thing. If there’s ever been a game that justified the Wii U’s touchscreen gamepad it’s this.

I have no intention of ever creating a level in Mario Maker. I’ve never enjoyed making levels in games and am not creative enough to come up with clever ideas for them. But I love seeing what others out there are making. From short gimmicky experiences, to levels meant to tell a story, to levels expressly built to be maddeningly difficult, it’s amazing to see one of the best games ever made exploding into basically an infinite amount of content. And with as great as it already is, it continues to have tremendous potential. Nintendo has already started to build on its structure, adding improvements to the level filtering and discovery, and adding features to make the level possibilities even more varied. This is a game people can, and hopefully will, play for years to come.

On top of that, Super Mario Maker is a huge landmark in Nintendo opening up its tools to the public. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the design philosophies of the earliest Mario games and how ingeniously and meticulously they were created. The brilliance of their level design and the way those first few levels in Super Mario Bros teach you things without you even realizing it remains some of the most clever things in gaming, even after nearly three decades. It’s a massive win for Nintendo and gamers that Mario Maker exists, and I’m thrilled that we now have a way to play with its creation tools and enjoy an endless supply of the best platforming in gaming’s history.

Mario Maker screenshot

6. Ori and the Blind Forest (XOne/PC, Moon Studios)

Ori coverI never wrote any text for this and I’m too lazy to do it now.

 

 

 

Ori screenshot

5. Yoshi’s Woolly World (Wii U, Good Feel)

Woolly World cover

I’m trying to figure out how to write about Yoshi’s Wooly World without just spouting a vomitous stream of squees and rainbows. Yoshi was already a cute little guy when he was simply a mode of transportation for our favorite overall-wearing plumbers, but then Nintendo had to go and make him a soft, cuddly yarn ball and omg the adorableness!

If you’re not familiar with Good Feel, they’re the studio who graced the Wii with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, an utterly delightful game that managed to make Kirby’s heart-melting persona even more so. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, as pleasing as it was though, was clearly made for a younger audience. There wasn’t a whole lot going on, it was easy as pie, and other than the occasional sequences where Kirby would turn into a UFO or rocket-spewing tank, it wasn’t all that exciting. I was totally ok with that, but Yoshi’s Wooly World feels much more like the Epic Yarn formula and taken to the next level.

Kirby’s yarn world was made up mostly of outlines. In Wooly World, everything looks like it was actually knitted, crocheted, or stitched. There’s not a single thing within it that you wouldn’t find in a craft store. It’s the yarn aesthetic taken to its max potential, gorgeous to look at and see the incredible detail in every sewed button, every doily platform, and every crochet hook-brandishing yarn shy-guy. It never got old to see Yoshi’s little feet curl up into wheels when he ran at full speed, or see how the doors to new areas would open and close with the help of a zipper. Also unlike Kirby’s linen-skinen adventure, this is a much more difficult game. If all you want to do is make it through the level and finish the game, it’s not too bad. It’s tougher than Epic Yarn, but won’t give you much trouble. To those who want to find all the hidden stamps and yarn bundles (and really, how could you not want to, seeing as the yarn bundles unlock different-themed yarn yoshis), Wooly World can get challenging very quickly, with deviously clever hiding spots and brutally difficult secret levels.

Like the very best Nintendo first party games, Yoshi’s Wooly World has some fun and truly unique ideas, and doesn’t run them into the ground. It goes for variety, and is all the better for it. The level designs are excellent, making full use of the visual style in ways that never failed to make me smile, and kept me entertained even when I was at my most frustrated. The boss battles are impressive as well, and the game even features a boss-run mode with more difficult versions of them to unlock even more colored yoshis. The only negative thing I can really say about this game is that Yoshi’s grunts and vocal straining too often strayed from cute to annoying, since you hear them pretty much constantly throughout the game. Other than that, Yoshi’s Wooly World is a fantastic game I really can’t say enough positive things about. It’s one of those snuggly, kiddie-looking games that I just love to love. The kind of game that burrows its way into your heart and drags the smiles out of all but the most hardened misanthrope.

Woolly World screenshot

4. Life is Strange (PS4/PS3/XOne/360/PC, DONTNOD Entertainment)

Life is Strange coverIt was bound to happen. Someone finally did the Telltale adventure game better than Telltale, even despite the fact that Life is Strange lays it on nauseatingly thick with its emo high school dialogue. It’s as if the developers learned about high school from watching teen drama TV and movies than by actually going to high school themselves. But then, it’s been over fifteen years since I was in high school myself, so for all I know that’s how kids really talk these days. Damn millennials.

Fortunately, even though the endless uses of “hella,” “cray,” and other slang will make you roll your eyes, there’s a heartfelt genuineness to the performances that makes it easy to overlook that point. The story is incredibly powerful, and deals in matters that are easily relatable regardless of your fluency in teeny bopper banter. Friendship, love, loss, regret, being unsure of yourself and unconfident in the decisions you make in dealing with all those things, it’s all represented here. As the main character, Kate, attempts to deal with her new life and maintain friendships both old and new, the discovery of her ability to rewind time makes each major decision riveting and intense. At the heart of it all is Kate’s fractured friendship with Chloe. The more it strengthens and weakens, it’s very easy to get invested in and care about these characters.

The story takes some pretty heavy twists and turns, with certain characters’ lives and Kate’s relationship with them hanging in the balance. Kate’s time rewind powers grow stronger as the game goes on, but a major point of it all is how going back to change things sometimes causes more problems than it solves. It’s not a new idea at all, but within the scope of these characters and what happens to them, it works beautifully. What is unique is that by rewinding time you can see how each decision you make will play out and make a more informed choice. One could argue that this takes away a bit of the sense of ownership of your own path through the story, but Life is Strange teaches you pretty quickly that your decisions will have long term repercussions that you can’t predict, and this can undermine how you initially feel about each short term decision. In the end, it actually gave each choice even more weight and got me more invested. By the time I reached the conclusion, I felt like I’d really been taken on a ride. The climax is especially well done right up until the final, gut-wrenching decision. If you have any affection for episodic story and character-heavy adventure games, then I highly recommend Life is Strange. The dialogue will make you groan and all the story elements don’t gel perfectly at times, but the main plot and characters are well worth the journey, and it sticks the landing wonderfully,

Life is Strange screenshot

3. Axiom Verge (PS4/PC, Thomas Happ Games)

Axiom Verge coverIt would be accurate to say Axiom Verge is to Metroid as Shovel Knight is to Mega Man, but it would also be a bit too easy and not sufficient to really convey what this game does. Axiom Verge wears it’s inspiration on its sleeve. You know how these games work. Non-linear world to explore, showing you things you can’t access yet, and returning to areas you’ve already been to uncover new secrets are staples of the metroidvania genre. But it doesn’t take long before this game starts subverting your expectations in wonderfully surprising ways. Yes, you’ll figure out a way to get into that half-sized hole, but there’s no morph ball. Yes, you’ll be able to break that wall, but there are no bombs. And one of the first items you get makes it very clear you’re going to be doing some very exciting and unexpected things in order to see this adventure to its end. Add to that the stunning retro-like visuals, the incredible soundtrack, and the fascinating lore taking place underneath it all, and this is without a doubt my favorite Metroid-like in a long, long time.

Axiom Verge screenshot

2. Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4/XOne, Rocksteady Studios)

Arkham Knight coverBatman: Arkham Asylum was phenomenal. But it’s been six years, and in that time we’ve had two more Arkham games, and Shadow of Mordor, which managed to take Arkham Asylum‘s silky-smooth combat mechanics and somehow make them even better. I’m actually pretty glad I only dabbled in Arkham City and skipped Arkham Origins completely, otherwise I probably would have come to this new entry with more Bat-fatigue.

Thankfully, I was primed and ready for a new Batman game from the studio who brought us the original more than half a decade ago. And man, did Rocksteady not disappoint. If you’ve played any of the other games in the franchise you know mostly what to expect, but they’ve taken the formula they’ve been cultivating and refined it to damn-near perfection. The combat and stealth mechanics are just as satisfying as they ever were; with the additions of team takedowns and multi-takedowns, no other game makes you feel like more of a badass Bat-hero. The new Bat-tank batmobile is a surprisingly cool new way to engage your enemies and solve puzzles. If puzzle solving is your thing there’s a crap-ton of new Riddler trophies to find, and graphically, Gotham and the Dark Knight have never looked better. Every time I was perched on a railing and stopped to look around, it never failed to blow me away with its level of detail. The city itself is vast, with countless neon signs, tall buildings, vehicles, drones, and other things all moving together. The rain effects are incredibly detailed, most impressive when dripping off the Batmobile or glistening off your cape as you glide from rooftop to rooftop.

That’s not to say Arkham Knight is perfect; there’s plenty of irritating things here to knitpick. First off, the tank battles and puzzles are fun new additions, but they’re leaned on way too much as the story goes on. There were times, like when maneuvering in tight quarters, dodging and shooting increasingly ridiculous amounts of enemy tanks, or racing through underground obstacle courses when it stops being fun and I wanted to be done with them as quickly as possible. The main story itself is unoriginal and The Arkham Knight as a character failed to hold my interest. The hallucinogenic nuances are the most interesting bits, and Mark Hamill’s Joker kills it as always, but those moments are frequent enough that it could turn some off. On a related note, Batman himself starts to get annoying as the Gary Stu martyrdom of his character is taken to what felt like the highest levels I’ve ever seen. Finally, and it’s kind of crazy that I’m considering this a negative, is that Arkham Knight suffers from severe bloat. It’s so packed with side missions, Riddler trophies, and training modules that by the time I reached the end I was fatigued and glad to put it back on the shelf, which is not how a game should leave you feeling. I would have less of a problem with this if they didn’t gate the game’s endings behind your completion percentage. I was actually thankful all the DLC was shallow, as I didn’t have the energy for it.

All that said, none of these negatives are serious enough to change the fact that the base game of gliding and sneaking around and taking out thugs is incredibly fun. Rocksteady may have gone a bit too far with stuffing things into it, but it’s still by far the best game about a psychologically-damaged playboy punching super villains in the face ever.

Arkham Knight screenshot

1. Bloodborne (PS4, From Software)

Bloodborne cover2015 was the year I finally got it, when the Souls addiction finally clicked for me. I’ve written before about how many times I tried to get into Demon’s Souls. I banged my head against its obtuse systems, mazelike-yet-still-structured levels, and crushingly unforgiving difficulty several times, only to have my ass handed to me time and time again. Eventually I was able to beat the boss of level 1-1, and decided to brave level 2-1. As incredibly rewarding as that was, however, it never stopped feeling like a tedious homework assignment. I wanted to have fun with it, and felt like I should, but ultimately resigned myself to the fact that I was probably never going to be able to crack this proverbial nut, so much so that I completely skipped Dark Souls and its sequel.

Bloodborne was the game that changed all that. First, its Victorian gothic setting, infested with horrific plague-riddled creatures, piqued my interest infinitely more than the Arthurian swords and shields fantasy land of its predecessors. The idea of using a gun, not for long distance killing, but for up close and personal parrying was unique and intriguing. It was enough to convince me that maybe this series was worth another try, and boy am I glad I did.

Everything about Bloodborne grabbed me right off the bat. Yharnam was instantly a visually striking place to explore, and because I’m super methodical about how I like to see every path in games like this, it was hugely gratifying to see how each winding road looped in on other parts and connected to each other. I grew to learn the layout of the whole game in my head like my own home town. The relatively limited gun and weapon toolset combined with mechanics that were just slightly easier to get a handle on than the previous Souls games, which allowed me to come to grips with them much more easily this time around. And once that happened, it all fell into place and I came to appreciate the difficulty and exacting precision these games require. The best thing I can compare them to is a really hard platforming game from the NES days, like Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man. They’re by no means insurmountable, but they require patience, practice, and skill. Even low-level enemies can and will mercilessly beat the snot out of you if you’re careless enough to drop your guard or get surrounded.

The great thing is that when you’ve hit your stride, mastered the techniques, and learned how to exploit the weaknesses of your foes, it’s incredibly empowering. When I hit that point I no longer felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall and instead found myself riveted at the edge of my seat, intimidated by every new area I explored with no idea what horrors may be around the next turn. And oh does Bloodborne have some fascinating things to show. By the time its ambiguous plot turned toward the Lovecraftian halfway through, I was transfixed. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. At work, laying in bed at night, I couldn’t wait to put in another dozen hours to see it through, even if I didn’t fully understand what was happening. Every fight was visceral, not necessarily because it was bloody (and it does get bloody!), but because I had to earn every victory. And every time I had to use the skills I’d developed to dodge around a massive beast screaming its anger at me and swiping at me with claws as big as my own character, with an epic orchestral soundtrack accompanying it, I was in awe. It was epic, it was terrifying, and it was the most exhilarating, heart-pounding experience I’ve had all year. I haven’t played the DLC yet, but am excited to jump back in. Hell, I may even go back and give Dark Souls a try.

Bloodborne screenshot 2

2015’s 2014 Game of the Year

Nidhogg (PS4, Messhof)

Nidhogg coverText

 

 

En garde! Have at you!

Biggest Disappointment

The Order: 1886 (PS4, Ready at Dawn Studios)

Text

 

 

 

 

Shooty McShooterson, but boring

 

 

A Day To Be Inspired

Even though I didn’t have to be at work today, and despite having staying up way too late the night before catching up on episodes of @midnight, I found myself laying in bed at 8am and unable to get back to sleep. I’d intended to take devote the entire day to diving headfirst into Fallout 4, but a shipping delay with a certain mail carrier who shall remain nameless (when mispronounced, it rhymes with “cups”) meant that my copy wouldn’t be arriving until later in the day. Thus, in a rare confluence of inspiration and the free time immediately available to actually act on it, I found myself thinking of the reason why I had the day off work in the first place.

Veteran’s Day. Right up there with Memorial Day, it’s without a doubt one of the most meaningful holidays we have as a people. Observed similarly in other parts of the world as Armistice Day, it was originally meant to coincide with the end of World War I, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed the occasion with the following: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” In 1945, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill expanding Armistice Day into a day to remember all veterans, and Congress passed it less than a week later.

I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men and women who serve in the military. Regardless of your thoughts on politics, politicians, the wars we fight, or the current state of the world (and there’s a lot to think and talk about), it can’t be denied that the people serving in the armed forces have the most difficult job of all. Some do it because they’re in a bad position in life and don’t see another option available to them. Some do it because they know that in putting in their time they’ll be given training, a GI bill, and a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences. Yet others do it because they simply have pride for their country and want to dedicate their lives to defending it.

But whatever their motivation, they’ve volunteered to put their lives, friendships, families, and educations on hold to be a part of something greater than themselves. We break them down, only to build them back up into the men and women we want them to be. We train them, instill them with discipline, arm them, and send them to far off places to do jobs they have no say in. They’re asked to do things by people in power they’ve never met, and sometimes don’t agree with, but they do it anyway because they respect their superiors and have a job to do. They endure years away from those they love, everything they’ve known, and are expected to do unpleasant and impossible things, in many cases literally putting their lives on the line in the name of an ideal. For the hope that their efforts will help a cause.

But it’s not without reward. Military service is hugely beneficial for the majority of those who choose to enlist. I’ve heard stories of teenagers of broken, abuse-filled homes going on to become incredible people who accomplish things they never dreamed themselves capable of. The skills, experiences, friends, and travels they gain are unlike any other. As much of a sacrifice as it is, I’m in awe at the places they visit and the camaraderie they develop.

I find that there’s a few ways I like to pay some attention to those who inspire me like this. Some are better than others. Of course, there’s video games, plenty of which attempt to recreate warlike atmosphere. Call of Duty, with its Michael Bay approach of beating you over the head with explosions, weighty death scenes, and an endless supply of terrorists to shoot in the face. Medal of Honor Frontline was always a favorite of mine from the PS2 era, with possibly the most thrilling recreation of the storming of the beaches of Normandy ever put in a game, as well as one of the most beautiful, moving orchestral scores I’ve heard from a World War II-based shooter.

Movies are even better than games, if less interactive. The obvious choice here is Saving Private Ryan, but there are many others. Most people have a fondness for Das Boot, but I’ve always preferred U-571. In terms of a small band of US soldiers facing enormous adversity and coming out the other side, it was hugely impactful for me, filled with tension like I’d never experienced before and characters I grew to genuinely care for. Rules of Engagement is also one I’ll always recommend for those who like a good courtroom drama. Or you may want to check out PBS’s documentary style TV series Carrier, which follows a six-month deployment of one of the US’s largest nuclear aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz.

But even though media will never stop giving it their best shot, the best way to pay respect is to simply talk to an actual vet. Thank them for their service. Let them know it’s not lost on you that a large part of why we live in a country with as many freedoms as we have and have the ability to try and make the world a better place is because of their efforts. If you don’t know any veterans yourself, there are tons of websites that will put you in touch with them. One of my favorites is amillionthanks.org. In addition to taking donations for America’s troops and families of servicemen and women, one of the services they provide is collecting letters of thanks to be delivered to military local, abroad, or injured in hospitals. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to show your support.

Lastly, if you’re having the trouble finding enthusiasm, I highly recommend checking out the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. The highest honor this country can bestow, awarded for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, is not given lightly. Reading the stories of those who’ve earned it is a revelation and a sobering reminder of the situations veterans are sometimes placed in, as well as the selflessness the best of the best are capable of.

Just looking at the current featured recipient, Sergeant William Shemin, I found this:

…in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France from August 7 to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space of 150 yards, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on August 9.

Or this, from the page of Specialist Fourth Class Donald P. Sloat, who was in the US Army during Vietnam:

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat’s squad was conducting a patrol, serving as a blocking element in support of tanks and armored personnel carriers from F Troop in the Que Son valley. As the squad moved through dense up a small hill in file formation, the lead Soldier tripped a wire attached to a hand grenade booby-trap, set up by enemy forces. When the grenade rolled down the hill toward Sloat, he had a choice. He could hit the ground and seek cover, or pick up the grenade and throw it away from his fellow Soldiers. After initially attempting to throw the grenade, Sloat realized that detonation was imminent, and that two or three men near him would be killed or seriously injured if he couldn’t shield them from the blast. In an instant, Sloat chose to draw the grenade to his body, shielding his squad members from the blast, and saving their lives. Sloat’s actions define the ultimate sacrifice of laying down his own life in order to save the lives of his comrades.

This was only two weeks before his 21st birthday.

To see a veteran of military service, especially in uniform, fills me with a pride and admiration in a way few things can. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in the trenches with bullets blazing around them, sat in a dark control room reading maps on a computer screen, or cooked in the kitchens of an offshore aircraft carrier, they’ve seen and done more than I ever will. They’ve experienced the greatness and diversity this world and its cultures have to offer, as well as worst, most senseless and hateful acts it’s capable of. Their contributions to their country, our allies, and their fellow comrades dwarfs most of ours, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Given my medical history and the weak physical stature it left me with, there was never a chance I’d ever be deemed fit for military duty. Had my life turned out differently, I honestly don’t know if I would have it in me to walk into a recruitment office and enlist, let alone shoot a random enemy or take a bullet to save a comrade. I’d like to think that I’m emotionally and mentally well balanced enough to handle it, and certainly have pride for my country and am not afraid to work hard for my friends and what I believe in. But it’s one of those things that’s impossible to truly know without actually being in the moment. And it could be argued that I’m the person I am today because of my background. If my background had been different, It’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t have the courage for it. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

So instead, I’d like to ask that we take just a little time today to be thankful for those who don’t get days off like most of us. Those who spend birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries in a bunker halfway around the world in the midst of people who would sooner shoot at them than ask them for help. Those who see their newborn children for the first time over a Skype call that could go out at any second because they’re connecting to the internet from the middle of an ocean thousands of miles away. And those who wake up day in and day out trying not to think about the possibility that this day could be their last.

To those currently serving, to those who’ve served in the past, and to those service members no longer with us, I say thank you. Thank you for your selflessness, sacrifice, strength, and heroism.

My Top 10 Reads of 2014

Now that I’ve finished this list and am looking back on it, I’m realizing two things. First, I read a lot of books this year with a longer scope than what I’m used to. More than half of the books below take place over several years. This isn’t a good or bad thing, just interesting. Maybe it’s a sign I’m expanding my horizons and am more willing now to put in the time to read things with more scale. I’m ok with this.

The other thing is that I continue to start series way more often than I finish them. 2014 brought me to no less than nine series I’ve started, with another eight to ten that I haven’t started yet but that I’d like to. I’m hoping to make some headway on some of the ones I’m into and am going to try to contain myself to only one or two new ones this year. What is it with genre fiction authors these days that every damn story they write has to be a trilogy?? Talk about first world problems. So many great books, not enough time! Anyway, here are my favorite books I read last year. Enjoy!

10. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

The Name of the Wind

The first volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy tale came to me highly recommended in the genre fiction scene I follow. That said, it took longer for me to get into and finish The Name of the Wind than most books I read these days. It’s a story that follows one man, Kvothe, as he goes from a sheltered but uncannily talented young boy who loses everything he knows and loves, to a promising magician on a quest for revenge, with all sorts of adventures in between. It’s a long book that requires patience and trust in its author to pay off the carrots he dangles in front of the reader, as it’s blatantly clear from the start this is only the first part of a much larger narrative. If you’re too impatient for the slow burn nature of the storytelling and aren’t willing to put in the time to see the series through (the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out in 2011 and the third doesn’t even have a final title, let alone a release date), you may want to pass this one by. But if you’re the type who eats this kind of tome up, there’s an undeniable amount of stuff in here to keep one interested. It’s told by Kvothe himself, years later as he tries to convey his verbal biography to The Chronicler in an effort to record the truth in spite of the rumors that have plagued his legend. Kvothe’s adventures in his youth are interesting in their own right, but Rothfuss never lets us forget the overarching purpose behind his learning, and even when we occasionally return to the quiet bar/inn he now runs as he tries to stay under the radar, it becomes apparent the story is not over for him even in his older years. It’s no quick read, but there’s enough unanswered questions and well-told adventure here to give me faith that the time I put into The Kingkiller Chronicle will be rewarded.

9. Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1) by Ian Tregillis (2010)

Bitter Seeds

From the first time I heard of Ian Tregillis’ Milkweek Triptych I knew I had to read it. It’s 1939 and war is imminent in Britain. With the USSR not yet under threat and the US actively staying out of the kurfuffle, Hitler’s Nazi army is growing day by day, getting ever closer to tearing the country, and all of Europe, apart. Germany’s armies are bolstered by supersoldiers they’ve successfully begun engineering after years of human trial-and-error experimentation. These bio-enhanced individuals effectively give the Germans a striketeam of X-Men, with powers ranging from clairvoyance, to invisibility, to super strength, speed, and the ability to throw fireballs.

With no one else to turn to for help against the impending war, the British secret service start a covert operation with the intention of seeking out the country’s long lost guardians of an ancient knowledge. The country’s last remaining warlocks are brought together to conjure and negotiate with extra-dimensional beings called Eidolons for help. The Eidolons are all powerful, and are willing to offer their aid, but their assistance does not come cheap.

If this all sounds like a popcorn flick, you’d be right in thinking that. It totally sounds like fanfic. But the way in which Tregillis tells this tale specifically grounds things and gives the events realism and gravity. The brutal nature of the Nazi experiments on children and adults is not graphic, or even described in detail, but is implied effectively enough that it still made me cringe. The “science” behind giving human beings the powers of supermen by connecting wires and battery packs to their brains and drawing from their own innate abilities is equal parts believable and creepy. The Eidolons are mercurial and unpredictable in form as well as motivation. Their increasing human toll on the British very clearly is meant to convey that they’re messing with the forces of nature, and are only willing to do so as long as they’re benefitting. As negotiations get more unstable and the cost of defending themselves grows to horrendous levels, it brings into question at what point does the cost become too high.

The storytelling itself is a bit uneven. Taking place across the first few years of World War II, Bitter Seeds speeds up and slows down seemingly randomly, but the quiet moments allow us to glimpse the humanity behind the warlocks and supersoldiers. They have their own inner turmoil to struggle with apart from Hitler’s greater ambitions. Going in, I expected Bitter Seeds to be more comic book than it turned out to be, but I was still very pleased with what I found once I set my expectations aside. It’s a supernatural, but still very human, struggle between good and evil, with touches of steampunk and Lovecraft. All in all, it’s simply a great work of historical fiction.

8. Sphere by Michael Crichton (1987)

Sphere

I miss Michael Crichton. I can’t think of another author with as much talent. Already a medical doctor before he even became a popular writer, he went on to find success in movies and TV in addition to continuing to write before he passed away. My only consolation is that I still haven’t read all of his work.

Sphere follows a group of scientists who are brought in by the military to investigate a spherical spaceship submerged deep in the Pacific ocean. What they find within tests not only what they think they know about extraterrestrials but also about their own psyches. It’s classic Crichton, with just enough future tech balanced with actual science to make it extremely believable. However, that science runs rampant throughout its pages but at the end of the day only exists to set a cool stage for a story about humanity and how we behave. To say much more about the story or what the ship ultimately contains would ruin the mystery and sense of discovery. Instead, I’ll just say that if you’re like me and love a lot of other Crichton novels, or just like a great psychological thriller laced with realistic-sounding pseudoscience, Sphere is well worth your time. And if you’ve written it off because you saw that crappy movie adaptation from 1998, come on, you should know better.

7. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

As You Wish

You like The Princess Bride, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s astonishing that for a movie that was as much of a struggle to get green-lit as it was, it managed to be so funny, loving, adventurous, and beloved that it went on to overshadow its written counterpart so completely. It still resonates deeply with audiences over 27 years later, and in my personal opinion is better than the book in most every way. As You Wish is a closer, more complete look into the film’s creation than we’ve ever gotten before, told by Westley himself, Cary Elwes. It’s a nostalgic look back at how the cast was put together, how he and Mandy Patinkin trained endlessly for “the greatest sword fight of all time,” anecdotes of the cast’s friendship when they weren’t filming, and more. There’s even lots of little inserts and insights from other cast and crew members as well, so we get to hear multiple takes on many aspects of the movie. Like most everyone I know, I adore The Princess Bride, so it’s really no surprise I enjoyed reading this. It gave me warm fuzzies all over again, although the parts about Andre the Giant were super sad as they describe what a happy, friendly person he was despite being in constant pain as a result of his large stature and wrestling career. If you have any love for this movie whatsoever, don’t think, just read.

6. Wool (Silo #1) by Hugh Howey (2012)

Wool Omnibus

The post-apocalyptic, future dystopia genre is pretty crowded these days. It could be argued that Wool’s initial popularity had as much to do with how it was released as it did with its quality as a story, and I can understand that argument. Hugh Howey was one of, if not the, first success stories to come out of Amazon self-publishing, and it was with this very book. Wool is the first chapter in the Silo trilogy, but it was released in five consecutive parts through Amazon in digital-only format. After it got popular, it started selling in full volume and physical formats, and was followed by its prequel, Shift, and sequel, Dust. But for a first-time, unproven author, breaking Wool out into small, cheap, bite-sized chunks gave it an incredibly shallow barrier to entry, and it paid off.

Despite its piecemeal release, Wool still sucked me in with a mysterious premise that runs with the best of them. It’s some point in the distant future. Humanity has been wiped out, and for all the people in the silo know, they’re the only ones left. The silo they call home stands hundreds of floors deep in the desert sands. With socio-economic hierarchies, governmental authorities, and strict rules for population and resource control, they’ve lived this way for generations, and most are perfectly happy with that. However, every once in a while, someone is chosen to go out into the barren, toxic, wasteland above to clean off the cameras that offer a glimpse of the outside. Almost no one questions this tradition, but the ones who do are exiled to the task themselves, and no one who goes out to do this duty ever comes back.

I’m a sucker for big-brother, gears-turning-behind-the-scenes stories. So not only was the premise intriguing to me right off the bat, once small holes in the supposed utopia power structure started emerging, revealing peeks of what was really going on and the possibility of venturing out of the silo to discover more pieces to the puzzle, I was hooked. Wool is self-contained enough that you could read it on its own and totally ignore Shift and Dust, but with what I’ve seen I won’t be able to resist learning all I can about how this world came to be, who’s running it, and why.

5. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)

The Long Earth

Pratchett and Baxter are both revered authors in their respective genres of fantasy and hard scifi. The Long Earth doesn’t exactly meet in the middle; it’s more on the scifi side than the fantasy. But as someone who’s not a huge Discworld fanatic (*hands in nerd card*) and for whom Baxter’s books are usually too abstract, this book hooked me a lot more than one might expect.

In 2015, someone discovers a curiously simple device, quietly invented and released on the internet by a man who’s no longer around, that allows people to “step” into the oft-hypothesized parallel worlds in the next dimension over. If you’re not familiar with the theory of multiverses, or parallel universes, that’s ok. The story isn’t about the science. The idea is explained clearly and then doesn’t get in the way. The Long Earth is about how this discovery changes human life forever in almost every imaginable way; geography, economy, business, politics, even psychology. In the years following the discovery of these parallel Earths, humanity’s attempts to colonize them with abandon wreck havoc with global society as the powers that be back home try to maintain some semblance of structure on what becomes known as “Datum Earth.” In the midst of it all, an artificial intelligence named Lobsang tracks down one man who is able to step without the aid of a stepper and recruits him for a journey to step farther than anyone has gone before.

Everything about this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. I was fascinated not only at how this expansion would affect human life as we know it, but also to discover how many other Earths are out there (if there even is a finite amount) and what sorts of alternate evolutionary developments might have resulted in them. The ending got weird in a way that I should’ve expected out of Stephen Baxter, and I’m told the next book in the series gets away from the hook that brought me in, but I still enjoyed every bit of The Long Earth and look forward to reading the next in the series, The Long War.

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

The Night Circus

The Night Circus a wondrous debut novel about mystery, magic and love, creating a setting so intriguing and mystical that I wanted to visit it myself. Le Cirque des Reves simply appears one night, with no warning or advertising. Filled with unique sights and sounds the likes of which no one has ever seen, the patrons pack in from all over to witness its treasures. Little do they know, the entire circus is merely a live stage for an ongoing duel of showmanship between Celia and Marco, two magicians who’ve been raised since childhood to confront each other for the amusement of their parents. Inevitably, groaningly, Celia and Marco end up in love and dance around this forbidden affection for most of their adult lives.

I have major problems with the love story in The Night Circus. It’s not because I’m an unfeeling robot (but if anyone tells you I’m not, they’re lying), it’s because it’s unrealistic. They barely spend sufficient time together to let even a school-kid crush develop, let alone a full-on obsession, sometimes going years without spending time in each other’s company. Neither one of them has much of a social life and the idea of love at first sight has always struck me as pretty absurd in general. That said, the romance is surprisingly, refreshingly, understated. And as implausibly as it develops, their mutual situations – controlled by their father figures, forced into a contest they neither understand nor have a say in, inescapably bound to the fate of the circus and its performers – make it seem less unlikely than I initially gave it credit for. It ends up being just enough to justify itself, as for better or for worse, neither the climax of this tale nor the fate of Le Cirque des Reves would be possible without their devotion to each other.

My initial misgivings about Celia and Marco aside, everything Morgenstern builds up around their attraction is interestingly crafted and done in such a way that is equal parts believable and surreal. The group that meets in secret to create the circus and go on to run and perform in it are eccentric and likeable. I wanted to learn more of their backstories and who made them the individuals they were. Le Cirque’s most dedicated fans, who call themselves reveurs and travel to each new stop as often as they are able, speak to its powerful allure and are easily relatable in today’s obsessive fan-based culture. The descriptions of the various tents and spectacles, and of Celia and Marco’s abilities, walked the line between reality and impossible fantasy perfectly. They filled me with delight and easily allowed me to imagine it all, but with an eerie, dreamlike slant. Every image I conjured was in black and white and faded away into shadow at the edges. I am not a creative or imaginative person, and it’s rare for a book to draw me into its world so fully, but The Night Circus did exactly that.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

HP Prisoner of Azkaban

I won’t go into much detail with this one, as I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read these books yet. Harry’s first two years at Hogwart’s were great, memorable stories, but they were still very much children’s books. Prisoner of Azkaban is still firmly in that realm, but it’s a bit longer, a bit darker, and digs a little deeper into the backstory, to the point where we’re just starting to see that things are going to get real for Harry and his friends. To clarify, I’ve seen all of the movies so I already know the full picture, but I’m enjoying going back and reading the extra detail and expanded narrative of the books. This is my favorite Potter book so far. Rowling does a great job in making the entire arc of the series fit together naturally and I really enjoyed learning more of the intricacies of these characters, their motivations, and how their relationships are changing and uncovering. I’m looking forward to continuing with the rest of the books and seeing how it all plays out and fits together in its original written form.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Ender's Game

I’ll admit that, like the HP books, I committed the cardinal sin with Ender’s Game and didn’t read it until I’d seen the movie. In my defense, after reading the book, I thought the movie was very well done compared to most book-to-movie adaptations. The story of Ender, an outcast by the very nature of his birth and raised expressly for the purpose of saving the human race, is just as engrossing now as it must have been when it was first written almost thirty years ago.

Any sympathy you might feel for Ender and his troubled youth quickly goes away as he learns to cope with those who would do him harm by returning their hostility in kind. As he gets shipped off to Battle School to train for the inexorable battle with the buggers that attacked Earth so many years earlier, he shatters every record and becomes the best leader in history. As much as I liked Ender and congratulated his accomplishments, my sympathy returned as the morality of his situation crept into the story. When all you know is war and the reason you’re so good at being a commander is because you hit your enemy back so hard they’ll never want to mess with you again, what kind of a childhood does that leave you, and what kind of person do you grow into? It’s a bittersweet story that only gets heavier when the true nature of Ender’s training and the irreversible consequences it brings about are revealed. I loved Ender’s Game, but it left me in a not-entirely-comfortable place, and I want to read the rest of the series, if only to see Ender’s adventures lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling closure.

1. The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)

The MartianAnother first-time author, Andy Weir has written a space geek’s dream novel. It’s science fiction, but takes place in present day and is the most believable, riveting struggle between man and science I’ve read since Jurassic Park. NASA astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist on a voyage to Mars with his fellow crewmates. While there, a severe dust storm forces them to evacuate the mission. In the chaos, he’s swept away and believed to have died, while his shipmates barely escape after an attempt to locate him. Finding himself alive but alone and stranded on Mars, he’s left to fend for himself and figure out how to survive until his presence is discovered and a rescue attempt can be made. Thus begins a months-long struggle to use his knowledge of biology and botany, along with the life-support equipment his crew brought with them that was never intended for long-term use, to live on another planet.

Weir is on record as wanting to be as accurate as possible in his depiction of how one might survive on Mars, and it’s very clear he’s done his homework. As Watney keeps logs of his trials and tribulations, he goes into meticulous detail about how he’s harvesting nutrients out of the few plants he has and working his tools to serve sometimes very different purposes from which they were intended. It’s utterly gripping, not just from a survivalist perspective, but from a technological perspective as well. Some of the descriptions get a little tedious at times, but in the end they only serve to make the story more believable, and they’re balanced by Weir’s, or Watney’s rather, writing style. Watney has a great sense of humor, and is just as cynical as I am. His journals are filled with sarcasm, jokes, and other nuances that make him extremely likable and relatable as a character. As an example, the first sentence of the book is literally, “I’m pretty much fucked.” He’s extremely smart (you’d have to be to figure out how to live on Mars) but he’s also a regular Joe. He’s an extreme underdog given his situation and you want to root for him. As well as he does, he also can’t seem to catch a break, and his wits and survival instincts are tested to their limits more than a few times. In order to get off Mars and rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, he has to do more than even he expects. The Martian is a tense, exciting story of triumph that never lets up, told with a fun, realistic flair and so much captivating technical detail that it would make any NASA or science junkie salivate. It’s one of the quickest reads I’ve had in a long time, not because it’s short, but because I simply couldn’t put it down.

My Top 10 Games of 2014

For me, personally, 2014 definitely had a few high points, but there were also a fair number of things that took a lot out of me. I managed to do some traveling, have some fun new experiences, and make some new friends, and those are always great things. But the year brought with it frequent stress, and the low points, due to both my own mistakes and some things out of my control, were low enough and frequent enough that I’m glad to see the year come to a close and am trying to make 2015 a year of growth.

In the gaming world things weren’t much better. More than a few high profile, big-budget triple-A titles ended up falling far short of expectations. While some merely failed to deliver on promises of scope and content, others were released in such a ridiculously broken state as to render them nigh unplayable. Most disturbingly though, I can’t recall a year that caused me to look upon my favorite hobby with more shame than this one. What began as an arguably misguided but passionate and well-intentioned movement against corruption in games media degenerated into an effective banner for despicable, narrow-minded, misogynistic hate-mongering. I’ve said it before elsewhere and will say it again here. The fact that some people continue to doubt women in their fandoms for no other reason than that they’re female, let alone have the audacity to threaten them (or gay, trans, or any other non-straight white male oriented gamer) with violence, is inexcusable and deeply troubling. It’s been the reason I’ve rarely had any desire to play a game online for years, and only shows how little we’ve grown as a community. God forbid anyone should try to open our minds to new gaming experiences, challenge us to think about the social implications of what we create, or encourage us to treat each other with some basic human fucking decency. Bah!

All that said, there were still some great things about the last 12 months that managed to shine through the ugliness. Despite some of their colleagues stepping away from the industry (and really, who can blame them?), there remains some strong female voices out there continuing to make themselves heard in the midst of it all, making games, writing about games and game creators, and in the wider geek culture scene, and that’s profoundly encouraging. I’m also hopeful the discussions that have arisen in the wake of such hatred will force more to take notice and strive to make a change or speak out against it. In more inspiring news, as a community we came together in late October to raise more than $5.4 million for children’s hospitals around the country in the annual Extra-Life for Kids charity event, which I was proud to be a part of for the second year running. Both E3 and Sony’s PSX event in early December heralded some incredible game announcements I’m really looking forward to in 2015. And while few would claim 2014 was one of the best years in gaming, there were lots of wonderful surprises that rose to the top of the pile. So without further ado, here are the games I enjoyed most this year.

10. Threes! (iOS/Android, Sirvo LLC)

Threes!_app_iconForget 2048 and all the other copycats. The original Threes! is the puzzle game you want to play. Everything from the deceptively simplistic way it teaches you how to slide like-numbered tiles together, to the minimalist aesthetic, to the light and inviting soundtrack, to the quick, silky smooth movement proves this is the superior experience. Threes! is as welcoming as a game can get, luring you in with its cute, charming faces and personalities that respond to your movements – or lack thereof.

It seems easy enough, just match the numbers together to make higher ones; a neat little math game any number geek can get into. It wasn’t until I saw my initial scores, then looked at the leaderboards and stared in confusion at the impossibly high scores of my peers that I wanted to dig deeper. Once I learned some strategy and started being able to deconstruct how the game works, I almost felt like I was breaking the rules and was able to rack up higher and higher scores. At that moment, when the genius of its algorithm was revealed to me like the code of the Matrix, Threes! changed from a delightful little five minute distraction perfectly tailored for smartphones to a deeply satisfying 20+ minute per round strategy title. It remains a game I keep loaded on not just my daily use Android, but also my old iPhone 4 and iPad 2 so I can pull it out at any time for a round of number matching.

Threes screenshots

9. P.T. (PSN, 7780s Studios)

PT title picThere are those who don’t consider P.T. a game, and in some ways I can understand why. There’s only one environment; a regular, ordinary, L-shaped hallway. You’ll walk down this hallway several dozens times before you see all there is to see. Your interactions are limited to being able to zoom in slightly on things you want a closer look at, and….that’s about it. Heck, even the game’s name stands for Playable Teaser. But as a free interactive announcement for a new Silent Hill game from the mind of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, it’s incredibly effective at selling you on the idea.

This hallway may look like any number of hallways you’ve seen in any number of houses you’ve seen your entire life, but P.T. is quick to layer on heaps of atmosphere and unease. Nuggets of backstory are sparingly doled out via a static-y FM radio. Each trip down the hallway incorporates subtle changes that must be meticulously searched for to find. The dark, foreboding lighting, the rain storm outside, the subliminal messages I could swear I’m hearing and seeing, all make the mere act of exploring such a small environment increasingly unsettling. Are the eyes in those photos following me? Is someone outside looking at me? Did that scratchy radio voice just tell me to look behind me or did I imagine it? Even though I never knew what to expect with each subsequent trip, the nuances messed with my senses and made it extremely easy to buy into P.T.‘s world.

The experience isn’t perfect. In order to progress with each pass through the hall, you’re basically required to figure out the specific set of movements or the one obscure thing to look at to trigger the next iteration. You’re rarely given hints as to what those might be, so it can be frustratingly obtuse at times when you think you’ve looked at everything and moved every which way and nothing seems to be changing. But once I did find each trigger action and the creepiness ramped up again, the payoff was always well worth it. Whether it’s a game or not, P.T. is the most intense, unnerving teaser trailer I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never cared about any of the Silent Hill games, and Silent Hills may not be anything like this, but I’m sure as hell paying attention now.

PT screen shot

8. Destiny (PS4/XOne, Bungie)

Destiny box artI went back and forth about Destiny for quite a while. On paper it sounds incredible. A Borderlands-like open-world FPS loot fest from the company that brought us Halo? Yes please! Destiny should’ve been the best game of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe it’s that I’ve already played two Borderlands games and I’ve had my fill of this type of game. Maybe it’s that the loot, while enticing, doesn’t come nearly as fast and furious as the constant stream of new gear from Borderlands or Diablo. Maybe it’s the fact that the missions are boring and the story failed to keep me interested. Or maybe it’s simply that it was so ridiculously hyped and had the hugely popular Halo pedigree to live up to that the expectations were unreasonably high. Whatever the case, Destiny was not the game it should have – or could have – been.

That being said, it’s what Bungie did right that still earns it praise. New loot is more sparse than what we’ve grown accustomed to, but the gear you do get feels more carefully and deliberately crafted, making it feel more rewarding and meaningful. Even though I had trouble remembering or even caring where I was going and why, actually getting there, the minute to minute gameplay, just felt right. It’s the old idea of the journey being its own reward. The shooting is smooth and polished to a degree that every headshot feels not only easy to pull off but also incredibly satisfying. The environments too often feel desolate and barren, but the speeder bike helps with that, and when I did get back to the action, I was excited to jump back in the fray. Every time a random public event showed up, it felt impactful and I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way over a hill to see other players descend from wherever they happened to be in the map so we could join together to fend off wave after wave of Fallen. The rousing orchestral soundtrack, clearly born from the minds who brought us the Halo score, brings it all together and never failed to make me feel like what I was doing was epic. To top it all off, the game looks absolutely stunning. It made me wish there were more going on in the environments. Sadly, they’re mostly static and lifeless. It’s disappointing Destiny failed to live up to its potential, but when it’s on, it’s exceedingly fun. And isn’t that the whole point?

Destiny screenshot

7. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, Platinum Games)

Bayonetta 2 box artBayonetta 2, like its predecessor, is batshit insane in the best kind of way you could only expect from Platinum Games. The first game in the series was already full of the best character action combat out there, and bravo to Nintendo for having the guts to support its sequel when no one else would. Otherwise this game wouldn’t even exist.

If you play Bayonetta 2 and are able to explain the story with any competency or detail by the end, let me know. It’s so off the wall and convoluted I stopped trying to pay attention. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the way the main protagonist is hyper sexualized. She’s a strong, independent gal, to be sure, and one can’t argue the fact that she’s extremely empowered. But that doesn’t mean the camera has to slowly leer over every curve of her body like she’s sponsored by Maxim magazine. One of the first shots in the game has you watching as the camera zooms in and slowly pans down her frontside and between her crotch. Come on Platinum, really???

Assuming the fact that the cinematography looks like it was done by a 13-year old doesn’t turn you away however, what you’ll find in Bayonetta 2 is some of the smoothest and well-executed combat you’ve ever played, in some of the most outlandish, ridiculous settings you’ve ever seen. The first level has the title character facing off against hordes of horse-like hellspawn on top of a fighter jet flying through downtown, followed by a battle with a giant dragon climbing up the side of a tower. And it only gets crazier from there. The combat includes enough combos to learn, upgrades to purchase, and difficulty levels to satisfy any skill level. If you want to shoot for 100% perfectly-executed combos with every encounter on the hardest difficulty level, have at it. But for those of us with less than savant-like dexterity, the witch time mechanic is easy to pull off and slows things down enough that just mashing away on the attack buttons is surprisingly effective, and still results in enough flashiness to elicit a maniacal grin. Not since God of War III has character action combat left me more satisfied and blown away at its bombast.

Bayonetta 2 screen shot

6. Alien: Isolation (PS4/XOne, The Creative Assembly)

Alien Isolation box artConsidering that the majority of games to come out of Creative Assembly are from the Total War series of strategy titles, the fact that Alien: Isolation is as good as it is is pretty shocking. After the massive disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, I was prepared to completely ignore Isolation. It wasn’t until it came out and the reviews started hitting that I was ready to give it a chance. While Colonial Marines was an action FPS intended to be a spiritual sequel to Aliens, Isolation goes in a different direction entirely, and is all the better for it. Using the original Alien movie as inspiration, this is a survival horror game that manages to not only distance itself from the game prior, but knocks the look and feel of that first film completely out of the park.

The industrial, 80s-future aesthetic of the ship, CRT-looking design of the interfaces and monitors, and sound design all invoke the film perfectly, and do an excellent job of setting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere. By the time the title creature was revealed I was fully invested and sufficiently terrified. The fact that the alien cannot be fought or defended against, only hid from, ensures my tension levels never fall too low as I slink around the ship from one area to the next. When the alien does find me and I hear its deep footsteps getting louder and louder, only to turn around and find it barreling toward me, ready to strike, is incredibly intense.

I’m not even close to finishing it yet, so I can’t speak to the game’s length. If it’s as long as I’ve heard it’s very possible the impact won’t last all the way through for me, but so far Alien: Isolation is more than enough to wash away the bad taste of Colonial Marines.

Alien Isolation screen shot

5. Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4/XOne, Blizzard Entertainment)

Diablo III Ultimate Evil Ed boxThat’s right, I’m putting Diablo III on my top games list two years in a row. In my defense, the Ultimate Evil Edition is more than just the previous game with the Reaper of Souls expansion bolted on. The visuals have been enhanced for the new generation of consoles, the difficulty tiers revamped, the brutally fun Crusader class has been added, and the new adventure mode presents an end game that is so much more satisfying than simply replaying the campaign over and over again to continue your level grind. Sending you to one of the maps with a specific goal focuses your attention and adds a quest-like feel to the progression. You’re not just playing for new loot and experience anymore, you’re doing it to check off tasks in a list, and we all know by now how addicting that is. As you move through each quest, random side chests and rescue quests will present themselves, further increasing the drip feed of accomplishment. Slaying demonspawn by the thousands, gaining experience points by the millions, entering deeper and deeper levels of Nephalem Rifts and Greater Rifts, sorting through and equipping endless amounts of ever-stronger gear and enhancement gems, watching your character look more and more aggressive, Diablo just keeps getting more and more fun. Between World Of Warcraft and Diablo, Blizzard have proven themselves the unquestionable masters of addictive loot/quest grind, not to mention art design. If there’s anyone that can make Diablo look like a pussycat, it’s Maltheal. I mean, just look at him with those hand-scythes and wispy skeletal wings. So cool.

Diablo III UEEd Maltheal

4. Monument Valley (iOS/Android, USTWO)

Monument Valley cover artI couldn’t be more pleased that mobile games are getting so good that they can compete with full-scale $60 console releases in terms of quality. Monument Valley is a puzzle platformer that tasks you with getting from point A to point B, but getting there is anything but clear cut. The self-contained environments are set up like M.C. Escher paintings. As you manipulate platforms and gateways to guide your cone-cap-endowed friend to the exit platform, you’ll constantly be reminded that the laws of physics don’t really apply in this surreal world. None of the levels get difficult to the point of frustration, but there is a definite retraining of the brain that must take place as you shift and rotate pieces of a structure to reveal new paths that shouldn’t be possible. The art design and soundtrack blend beautifully to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously eerie, lonely, and enticing. It all comes together in a wonderful, intriguing adventure in non-Euclidean geometry. It can be finished in a mere hour or two at most, but at $4 for 10 levels, plus $2 for another 8 in the Forgotten Shores DLC expansion, it’s one the best values in gaming at the moment.

Monument Valley screen shots

3. Shovel Knight (PC/Wii U/3DS, Yacht Club Games)

Shovel Knight coverAnyone over a certain age remembers going back to that game they adored as a kid and thinking, “huh, am I playing the wrong game or was I just crazy back then?” Playing Shovel Knight is like playing that beloved game from your youth and having it be exactly as amazing as you remember it. It’s the tight, focused gameplay, epic boss battles, and energizing chiptune soundtrack of games like Mega Man and Duck Tales without the 8-bit era annoyances your rose-colored nostalgia glasses seem to forget. The graphics are old-school pixely but detailed and colorful in a way the NES could never have pulled off. It’s exceptionally challenging at times, but rather than feeling cheap, it always managed to make me believe I had the skills necessary to conquer it. That I could learn the enemy strategies and patterns, I could discover the weaknesses, and I could execute the timing and the techniques to take down every boss. For someone like me who grew up playing crushingly difficult platformers on the NES, a sublimely smooth difficulty curve like this is the best kind of carrot on a stick. These days it’s a thing so many retro-focused games try for and fail to pull off, but Shovel Knight absolutely nails it. Quite simply, this is retro 2D platforming modernized to perfection.

Shovel Knight screen shot

2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4/XOne, Monolith Productions)

Shadow of Mordor box artNot since Darksiders has a game taken elements from other games and so expertly meshed them together. But Monolith didn’t stop there; they took that formula, which would have already made for a great game, and layered an entirely new mechanic on top of it all to elevate Shadow of Mordor into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The mission structure and minute to minute gameplay here are straight out of Assassin’s Creed, but there’s lots of little touches that make simply traversing the map and tracking down side missions and collectibles so much more enjoyable. Every item and side mission is marked on your map, and rather than forcing you to meticulously search for every plant and hunting mission, little pop-up messages present themselves when you’re on your way somewhere and happen to cross by them. Not only is there a fast travel system, one of the first abilities you unlock is a burst of speed when you hop over a rock or down from a ledge. Conveniences like these ensure that going from one side of the map to the other and searching for every item never becomes tedious.

The combat is ripped right from the Batman: Arkham games, except instead of punching and kicking enemies into submission (because, you know, Batman doesn’t kill), your character is armed with a sword, dagger, and a bow and arrow, and isn’t afraid to eviscerate every uruk he sees with them in a merciless display of brutality. It’s a lot more violent than the Batman combat, but incredibly satisfying. The button prompts and transitions between moves are smooth and seamless, and as you unlock more abilities, you gain more versatility in your ability to take down the hordes of Mordor in flashy new ways. By the end of the game you’re pretty overpowered, but it’s so damn fun that I was always enthusiastic about jumping right in the middle of a pack. Even the stealth combat is skillfully executed, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sneaking behind a powerful uruk captain or pouncing on him from above to deliver a killing blow never got old.

Tying all this together is Monolith’s Nemesis system. Disappointingly absent from the PS3/X360 versions of the game, this system so fundamentally changes the way you play to the point that it makes the previous console versions pale in comparison. How many times have you continually lost to the same enemy over and over, but you keep coming back for more until you finally conquer him? The Nemesis system personalizes this loop by making every enemy unique, with a set look and personality that persists until he dies. Every captain is lurking around on the map somewhere, waiting for you to find him. When you do, you’ll get a slow-mo briefing with his name and title, and he’ll taunt you. Every enemy you fail to take down will remember the encounter. Not only do they remember it, you’ll see the wounds you gave them the next time you meet them on the field as they spout more abuse your way. You can look into the minds of certain enemies to gain intel on every captain’s strengths, weaknesses, and fears, and use these to plan your attack. If you’re killed by a lowly no-name uruk, they’ll bend down and tell you how weak and pathetic you are, then you’ll see them get promoted within the army of Mordor, gaining a title and respect among his peers. To watch an enemy get better armor, become more powerful, and get promoted up through the ranks because he took me out, only to encounter him again and have him laugh in my face about it; it makes for an incredibly powerful motivator for coming back to the game. It’s so good that it actually overshadows the main story. I cared less about seeing it through to the conclusion and more about systematically going after every captain who’d done me wrong, then targeting the elite captains once I’d cut down his henchmen. It’s a little disappointing the story isn’t more interesting, but every time I challenged a captain in battle I stopped caring. At that moment every other enemy was insignificant and any other mission I was on was forgotten about. The only thing on my mind in that moment was having my sweet sweet revenge and holding it over his ugly uruk face.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor™_20140923180750

1. South-Park: The Stick of Truth (PS3/X360, Obsidian Entertainment)

Stick of Truth box artI wanted The Stick of Truth to be good for so long, but as the years went on and the stories of it’s hellish development stacked on heavier and heavier, plus the fact that every single South Park game to this point have been steaming piles of crap, I’d resigned to myself that there was no way short of a miracle it was going to be a quality product. But one thing The Stick of Truth had going for it that no other South Park game before did was the direct involvement of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This, combined with the guidance of Ubisoft creative consultants, seems to have been the secret sauce that has allowed it to overcome all odds and live up to its full potential.

If you’re not into the mature cartoon then you’re not going to find much to like here. But if you are, then The Stick of Truth is exactly the game you want out of the franchise. The light RPG mechanics aren’t especially deep, and it gets a bit repetitive toward the end as you get strong enough to take down pretty much every enemy without much trouble, but fun new gear, items, and spells come fast and furious, and the combat is enjoyable and quick enough to not overstay its welcome. Most importantly, all the South Park-ness wrapped around the combat is top notch. Everything you love about the antics of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are here. Underpants Gnomes, Crab People, Al Gore, Mr. Hanky, the complete irreverence for itself and willingness to make fun of anyone and anything. Rather than fall into the trap of simply reusing the same jokes you’ve heard for over a decade, Matt and Trey have found new ways to package the material at the heart of those jokes in ways that make them seem fresh and apply in a video game environment. They have a knack for knowing what they’re making fun of. They’re gamers, and that’s obvious when you see them ripping on trope after trope. South Park‘s lovable kids are basically playing a Lord of the Rings-style RPG with each other, with cardboard forts, homemade costumes, and fart magic. As you would expect, their quest not only grows to encompass all kinds of insanity from aliens to Nazi zombies, but manages to push the envelope in terms of raunchiness in several places. Again, if you’re not into the show’s brand of humor, you won’t appreciate the places the story goes. Even as someone who has a very broad and open-minded sense of humor, there were points when I was rendered speechless with shock and disbelief, even as I was laughing my ass off.

To top it all off, Obsidian nails the look of the show exquisitely. There are slight performance issues, as every transition to a new area is met with stuttering, but aside from that every animation, piece of art, and spell effect looks like you’re basically controlling one long episode of the show. And then there’s the Canada level. I don’t want to spoil it here for those who might not have played it yet, but oh man is that Canada area incredible. I could go on, but basically if you love video games and love South Park, you owe it to yourself to play The Stick of Truth. It’s the masterpiece game the show has always deserved, fully realized at long last.

Stick of Truth screen shot

2014’s 2013 Game of the Year

Gone Home (PC, The Fullbright Company)

Gone Home coverI’d heard a lot about Gone Home when it was released in the Fall of 2013 but didn’t get around to playing it until January, which is a bit of a shame because it undoubtedly would have made the cut for my Best of 2013 list. Like P.T., Gone Home is more interactive story than game.

You play a girl who’s arrived home from Europe to find her house empty. Left to search the for her parents and younger sister alone, with a nighttime rainstorm outside, you quickly get the sense that this is a horror game and that things will get creepy at any moment, but that doesn’t happen. Nothing jumps out at you, there are no ghosts and no unexplained phenomena. But that doesn’t mean all is well with this family, and while there are no horror goings-on per se, there still remains an atmosphere of dark tension that manages to be slightly unsettling. There are no big action scenes or “ah-ha!” moments. You’re left to spend as much time in this eerily-lit house as you want, and interact with as much or as little of it as you want, but you’re greatly rewarded for looking in every nook and cranny. Set in the 90s, the house is chock full of things to see and interact with. You’ll read notes left on tables, listen to cassette mix tapes made by your sister, and smile as you pick up rows of X-Files VHS tapes as you piece the story together.

You’ll learn about the lives of this family, and in doing so you’ll gain insight into their fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams. It’s nothing on the scale of battling aliens or solving complex puzzles, but that’s the point. Gone Home is a story about the personal, the moments in our lives that mean nothing to most people, but that mean everything to us. Gaining a glimpse into the lives of this normal, everyday family, especially as someone who spent my most formative years in the time period the game is set in, easily took me back to my own youthful moments that in the grand scheme of things don’t mean anything. But to me, they mean everything about who I was then and who I became. In Gone Home, the most touching story is your sister’s, an awkward teenager discovering new things about herself and who she is. Saying much more than that would be too much; suffice it to say that by the time you get to the end you’ll realize the story you’ve been uncovering has culminated only minutes before you arrived at the house, and it left me joyful and sad at the same time. It’s a deeply personal tale, full of heart and heavy on the feels. For anyone who loves a subtle, quiet, yet lovingly put together experience, exploring Gone Home is a wonderful way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Gone Home screen shot

Honorable Mention

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4/XOne, Sledgehammer Games)

COD Ad Warfare box artI pretty much wrote off the entire Call of Duty franchise after Black Ops 2. I had absolutely no desire to play COD: Ghosts, and didn’t plan on playing this installment either. But Sledgehammer Games, consisting of many of the minds who made the first Modern Warfare so new and fresh, have somehow managed to give the modern military shooter new life yet again. It’s nothing that completely changes the game, but the new abilities afforded by the futuristic exo-suits give you more mobility in combat, and the near-future weapons, grenade types, and drone options bring just enough newness and “oooh shiny!” to the series that I enjoyed Advanced Warfare more than any Call of Duty game in years.

Even the story somehow had me more invested than I expected. There’s still plenty of anti-terrorist military psycho-babble, but there’s also a bit of a Metal Gear Solid vibe added to the mix as Atlas Corporation, a massive private military corporation, takes center stage in combating the evils of the world, even if its means may not justify the ends. Jonathan Irons, voiced by a creepily lifelike Kevin Spacey, turns in an excellent performance as the company’s CEO, and the situations you’re placed in throughout the game somehow manage to be thrilling and powerful without falling into the last few iterations’ dull philosophy of “everything is exploding and everyone is dying around you all the time because holy shit everything is crazy!” The only problem with Advanced Warfare being as good as it managed to be is I’m not really sure where the series can go from here and still be as impactful. Activision is showing no signs of ever letting the yearly COD cycle end, so we’ll know soon if they can keep this up.

COD Advanced Warfare screenshot