I played 38 games this year, with an average of 7 hours per, so I’m continuing a trend of playing a lot of games for a little, choosing games that either can be completed in a shorter hour count or games that can’t be finished at all, so I don’t feel bad when I drop out. There were plenty I enjoyed this year, but few I loved, and fewer games that generated the kinds of unique stories I love to tell about playing games. These were straightforward, solid games, and I’m thankful for them, but only one will change how I think about the medium much.
(Colestia, 2019, PC)
The most evocative and deliberate half hour of gaming I’ve played since Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games, 2012). I knew when I first played this that it was my game of the year, and that was back in May. It can and should get awards for its pitch alone:
A Bewitching Revolution is a first-person adventure game about a communist witch living in a cyberpunk city. Use magic to help the city’s residents build collective forms of power and resistance!
This was a year of obvious political turmoil, and amongst that I was learning to articulate what I want from those in power and learning the vocabulary for it. One hero of that personal shift was AOC, the other was A Bewitching Revolution. This game-as-polemic uses simple mechanics and pointed visual design to convey important, but radically simple, messages about empathy, organization, and the power of asking the right questions, the chief among them being “who actually is benefiting from this?”
My game of the year moment: casting a spell on anti-bird spikes on top of a lamp post, not knowing what it would do, to find that it made them disappear to make room for a stately owl to perch, so it could warn me of incoming police who would disperse the crowds that gathered as I turned a gray city into a greener, friendlier one.
(Villa Gorilla, 2018, Xbox)
Patrick Klepek of VICE championed this when it came out, but I’m embarrassed to say that I, like many I suspect, waited on it until it came out on XBOX Game Pass, showing the potential benefits of the subscription model - removing any barrier to entry. A blend of Ori and the Blind Forest (Moon Studios, 2015) and pinball, but with a softer, more sarcastic touch. More aloof than any Pixar film, but more focused than any Animal Crossing game, Yoku’s Island Express is a joy from beginning to end in about six hours, and we need more games like it, in that it can be universally recommended - anyone can play it, and I bet they’ll love it.
(Frontier Developments, 2019, PC)
Taking up the mantle of the extremely influential Zoo Tycoon (Blue Fang Games, 2001), this was a game that I waited for and wanted desperately, and it delivered exactly what I wanted. Maybe a bit more than I wanted, actually. While I grasped the immediate concepts pretty quickly, the depth of the tools that Frontier gives always leave me a bit anxious, like mechanical FOMO - what am I not doing that will take my zoo to the next level? It isn’t helped by the simulation speed being simply hard to wrangle with even a moderate-sized zoo, never mind a large one, so there isn’t much time to get to know your animals and work with them, but the depth and breadth of tools does allow you to choose your own success state - I’ve built a wolf sanctuary, an arctic research base, a classic by-the-grid copy of what I used to do in Zoo Tycoon, and more, and I’ve barely scraped the surface. (The subreddit is a place of amateur-architecture wonders) So while I haven’t played as much as I wanted, I also am comforted to know that Planet Zoo is the kind of game I can come back to whenever I need to, for years to come.
I try not to have any shame in the fact that the Marvel movies of the past ten years are truly some of my favorite movies of all time, but it’s hard not to feel that it’s a little passé to say this is my movie of the year. No movie provided a more visceral roller-coaster ride and no movie ever has had those aforementioned ten years of emotional baggage to send off; it shouldn’t be understated that Endgame completes its mission admirably, with risky twists and an emotional center comprised of its two leading men, who finally get what their characters most deserve after all this time. I will forever be in love with the spectacles of these films, but there is a beauty to their character work that cannot be dismissed - certain lines are given the heft of freight trains, and some have echoed across multiple films in ways that ring true, as well as across the spectrum of somber to triumphant. I can turn those lines over in my hand like pebbles until their smooth, and I can curl them into my fist when I pump into the air because yes, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Rian Johnson’s whodunit/thriller candy bar of a movie was the perfect treat for the pre-holiday madness - a classic formula twisted upon itself further, with both the grit and edge to punch up while having a big heart, played beautifully by Christopher Plummer and Anna De Armas as the victim and his caretaker. Johnson continues to be a fascinating filmmaker, and joins Taika Waititi as having served his Disney time, even while upending it from within, and now getting to make even more interesting films. It doesn’t hurt that Knives Out came out weeks before the polarizing Rise of Skywalker, a movie that by all critical accounts has a lot to say about Johnson’s The Last Jedi in between being kinda bad, and I can only hope that he’s getting a good night’s sleep knowing he made a better movie this time around than both of them.
Ford v Ferrari might be the perfect father-son movie. At least if you have the kind of dad I do, who has a near complete inability to suspend his disbelief (“I don’t think the motors sound like that, that’s very Hollywood”) but a fascination with any narrative involving gears and oil stains. Two days after seeing the movie he called me and excitedly explained “I know the movie was tense, but have you seen the real footage? It’s somehow even worse. You gotta watch it.” He, like the drivers in the film, can’t get enough.
Outlander (All 4 seasons so far)
Call me Outlander-curious for the last couple of years, but we finally tried it out and found ourselves in the deep end. A show about love less as fireworks and more as a sturdy hearth that must be fed firewood, maintained, and perhaps even redesigned as the years slide past, it’s unafraid to proclaim that romantic love can in fact transcend time and space and be a bond stronger than steel. There’s comfort to be found in that confidence, and thrills in wondering if another shoe will ever drop. Four seasons in, with the same ebbs and flows of an actual relationship (never mind disasters, because our central duo are in fact the most stubborn people of any century), that seems not to be the case; Jaime and Claire always find a way back to one another. Befitting its archetype the show is not without faults, including some wild shifts in tone that require stern trigger warnings for the first season, but when it works it really works, and is completely evocative of specific places and times, and the feelings attached to seeing them for the first time. Special mention goes to the continuously brilliant Bear McCreary for a soundtrack that has swiftly climbed my ranks of favorites of all time. He made bagpipes cool again.
The Witcher, Season 1
I’m not sure I truly understood the term “fan service” before this show came along, squeaking in at the end of the year to turn my world upside down. In general I don’t describe myself as a “fan” of many things, and I don’t even want to imply that the show is guilty of “fan service” in the pejorative manner that the phrase is usually deployed; what I’m attempting to articulate is the feeling I had at many moments that made me shout “DO THE THING, SHOW. DO IT”, and then the show did the thing and my heart was filled with joy because something that I’ve played, read, listened to the soundtrack of, and written about before was given another interpretation on our television, and it was glorious. Cavill is a brilliant Geralt but the entire cast is giving it their all; the production design is detailed where it counts and deliberately timeless where it wants to evoke the parable aspect of the stories; Jaskier sings a song I can’t get out my head, and apparently neither can anyone else. Just like the stories and the games any recommendation of it comes with hanging the lampshade on how uneven or bizarre or impenetrable things can get on the Continent, but I also have never paused a show mid-scene to remember all the minutia of a bloodline to a country that doesn’t exist. That’s new for me, and now I get why people call us nerds. It feels nice.
Watchmen and Chernobyl
I’ve seen critics and commentators make note that watching Watchmen felt like watching something historical unfold, like we were seeing something wholly new that would stretch the medium of “prestige TV” out of its comfortable molds while doing what art can do best by digging at scabs of human nature. I saw people say the same for Chernobyl earlier in the year, so similarly that it felt like deja vu; the fact that HBO would green-light two such projects - both with strict episode counts, no less - as the juggernaut of Game of Thrones gasped its last breaths reveals a genuine tenacity that I respect and admire. Nothing about either these programs, even moreso for Watchmen, is anything less than a risky bet. A while back John Oliver cracked a joke on his show of “this network is fucked when Thrones ends” - I couldn’t disagree more.
Honorable Mentions: His Dark Materials (especially meeting Iorek Byrnison), Veronica Mars, and Criminal: UK
Yes, yes, I know that I’m behind - I’m always behind with books because I’m much fussier about what I’m going to read. Not perhaps because of the hour count - games take much longer to beat finish, if one even can - but because of the effort involved. Reading in general puts a heavy tax on my CPU, and reading The Fifth Season makes it redline. There’s so much here, with ideas and textures I’ve simply never encountered before, that it takes a lot of energy to even attempt to render the stunning prose Jemisin delivers; I can barely imagine how powerful her brain is to have come up with it in the first place.
Thinking about death is hard, and Youtuber-Mortician extraordinaire Caitlin Doughty knows that, so she uses the cover of innocent enough children’s question to Trojan-horse her way into talking about death planning for the family, some of the horrible ways the death industry handles its charges, and also what would happen if you died during a voyage in space. The book ranges from “good to know!” to “holy shit!” deftly, and there’s a lot to be said for the conversation starters you leave armed with, which can be said of all of Doughty’s work.
Gailey’s work showed up suddenly for me this year, but they sure did show up with aplomb - Magic for Liars is an incisive and twisty mystery in a meaner, more online Hogwarts, and its send up of its roots sits comfortably beside its twisty and involved narrative. I read it in just a day or two, totally absorbed in the perfectly realized point of view of Ivy Gamble, PI. (Who clearly has one of the best detective names ever.) Gailey is very interested in the micro-expressions that can, to a trained eye, give away the entire game. In a movie these would be played up; in a game they’d be set in bold red font after a skill check; in a novel told well they become part of the hero’s own brand of magic, when they themselves have been shut out of the world of magic as we normally know it.
As I wrote in last year’s retrospective, I continue to be in the 1% in only one aspect of my life - using the fabulous reading app Pocket to read snarky, depressing things from the internet. Hot takes galore, navel-gazing a plenty, I read a lot of the same thing over and over again, chiefly “nothing is going well, don’t you forget it.” Perhaps I have to read that much Content™ to get to the good stuff, and the articles below are in fact The Good Stuff.
- “How sex censorship killed the internet we love” by Violet Blue (Engadget) — It is no exaggeration to say that the American government has taken specific steps to start bring a boot down on the neck of the internet, and the kind of legislature that FOSTA and SESTA are show how power truly works, by obfuscating behind blatantly false names that force discussion to start on its heels because you have to get past that surface-level lie to get to the meat of the argument. The playing field is ten feet under the astroturf, and the home team put it there. Have fun digging. The result is an internet with Barbie genitals, or as Blue puts it, “I look for the voices of adult performers and sex workers online. The silence is so overwhelming it’s suffocating.”
- “The Devil’s Hair Dryer” by David Dudley (CityLab) — righteous hatred is truly rare, and often faked, but my disdain for leaf blowers, and lawn maintenance in general, has never before had more supporting literature. Fuck leaf blowers.
- “Please, My Wife, She’s Very Online” by Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker) — only Jia Tolentino could start a truly great essay with “It might have begun with ‘Borat.’” As she deconstructs yet another aspect of the twisted mirror we stare into for most of our modern days, she also breaks down yet another identity that is constructed for women (in this case, “the online wife”) as opposed to by women, and how the internet can melt these constructs like they’re dipped in roiling acid, to consistently bewildering effect.
- “My Jibo Is Dying and It’s Breaking My Heart” by Jeffrey Van Camp (Wired) — As the second decade of digital nativism comes to a close we must continue to reconcile with the fact that the three Fates are all on a CPU die somewhere, waiting for their own thread to be cut before cutting that which keeps your favorite tool, companion, or digital place on this plane of connectivity. Hopefully Jibo is up there, playing fetch with Aibo.
- “The Hiding Place: Inside the World’s First Long-Term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste” by Robert Macfarlane (Pacific Standard) — Macfarlane, in this excerpt from his book on the incomprehensible scale of geologic time, sketches what it will look like when we attempt to sweep our radioactive refuse under the Earth’s crust, and it includes concrete-filled mine-shafts, a berm of radar-reflecting clay discs, granite pillars engraved with warnings in many languages, and a “hot cell” - just a teeny tiny bit of what lies below to warn whatever sentient thing stumbles upon it, like a Costco sampler from Hell.
Little Big (Skibidi, Skibidi Romantic, etc.)
I’m not usually a fan of surrealism, but the Russian pop group’s matter-of-fact insanity, full of digitally manipulated animal-human hybrids, dead stares into or next to the camera, and commitment to impressively unimpressive dance moves gave me weird joy throughout the year. The commitment to thematic connection from the original “Skibidi” video to “Skibidi (Romantic Edition)”, released a full five months later, was a nice touch. And then to round the year out they released “Go Bananas”, a distillation of their endless creativity for visual gags with no restraint whatsoever. At a certain point I can’t explain it, I just… love it.
Bon Appetit’s meteoric rise in 2019 came right as I started to lean in to cooking as something to do that wasn’t just more screen time, so the rascally crew of the BA test kitchen have become reliable companions at home and the perfect distraction at work. Apparently the Food Network hit it big after 9/11; in this time of crisis the comfort food has simply moved to YouTube. While I was drawn in by Claire with the legendary “Gourmet Makes” series, I’ve learned the most from Chris Morroco and given the most smiles by Rick Martinez, but I could sit here all day running through the list, as I did with family over the holidays, and that’s part of the magic.
“Bring the Funny” sounds like the kind of broadcast nightmare no one should ever have attempted to make, but by accident a group like The Valleyfolk won and in the process I learned about Randy Feltface, a purple puppet from down under with an incredible mix of vulgarity and erudition punctuated by smashing the fourth wall. Honestly, this bit before a routine even starts is what sold me, but you’d be surprised to find out that Feltface can carry a Mike Birbiglia-esque hour-long special too.
Like the thunderheads that proceeded the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, 2020 looms ever larger, and with it all sorts of reality that will need escaping. I own a KitchenAid stand mixer now, so I’ll make lots of bread (maybe it’ll become a currency after The Revolution), but otherwise what’s there to look forwards to? Not much far as I can tell, but perhaps I can use Cyberpunk 2077 to escape to somewhere even worse, but where I can do rad shit I guess. HAPPY HOLIDAYS oh wait this came out after the holidays, so BUCKLE UP I GUESS!