The Video Games of 2011

Overall 2011 was a pretty great year for interactive media. I certainly didn’t have time for everything, most notably the eight-hundred ton juggernaut of industry might that was Skyrim, but I’m actually pretty happy with how much I managed to get in there. Alphabetically once again, we’ve got:

Arkham City– This game makes you feel like Batman, and what else could you possibly need? A lovingly designed slice of Gotham to roam around in? A really cool story? The greatest possible number of villains without quite going overboard? Well hey, it’s got all that too. Manages to be bigger and, yes, better than the already fantastic Arkham Asylum, and that’s certainly an accomplishment. The cast is great as well. Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight never disappoint, but the big surprise was Nolan North’s Penguin. This isn’t easy to say but: Better than Danny DeVito.

Dead Space 2– The first Dead Space was more or less the video game equivalent of Alien. Appropriately enough its sequel, like Aliens, is more action packed and takes place on a colony instead of a ship. It’s atmospherically spot-on and manages to maintain a fairly constant sense of dread. When it gets psychological it really shines. The highlight is a VERY effective bit that plays on a pretty base fear involving sensory organs and sharp things.

Ghost Trick– A DS puzzle game from the creator of the Ace Attorney series, featuring a recently deceased poltergeist who has one night to use his ghostly powers to save people’s lives and figure out why he was killed. If you like quirky puzzle games and/or pomeranian puppies you need to play this. The story is fantastic and you won’t see the ending coming. Really, you won’t.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword– A lot of people said this might be the best Zelda ever made. I have no idea why. The combat, when it works, is immensely satisfying, but literally everything else that this series is supposed to deliver- an enticing overworld, well-designed dungeons, brilliant puzzles, a sense of epic fantasy, great boss battles- fell short of every other Zelda I’ve played. Not that it’s bad, just disappointing when so much could have been done. I hear people saying the story, in particular, was told better than ever before, but I cared so much more about what was going on in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess than I did this time. Worst of all my favorite thing about the last console Zelda was how brilliant a companion Midna was. She’s replaced by Fi, a cold, deliberately emotionless, and spectacularly unhelpful crystalline-looking thing. I didn’t really think Link’s relationship with Zelda was anything special either. The villain was alright, but in typical Zelda fashion is upstaged at the last minute by his less interesting master. There’s one fantastic boss fight against a six-armed suit of armor, the time shift mechanic is gloriously fun, and the final dungeon is perhaps the most purely inventive in franchise history, but I can spend much longer singing the praises of previous series efforts. My only real gaming letdown of the year.

Mortal Kombat– Tasteless, idiotic, unrepentantly comic in its over the top violence and undeniably really fun, a Mortal Kombat game has no right to be this good. Weirdly enough, there’s actually a lot of care put into the single player story mode. But you’re here for the fighting and the fatalities, and on that front, yes, it delivers. If you like this kind of thing, this is the best it can ever be.

Portal 2– Utterly inspired. If you want an idea of what games can do as a purely narrative medium, look no further than this perfectly made puzzler that, without a single cutscene, tells a more compelling story than just about any video game ever made. It’s unquestionably a high water mark for writing in an industry sorely lacking in genuinely witty comedy. The voice acting from Stephen Merchant, Ellen McLain, and JK Simmons ties it all together brilliantly, and everything builds to a hugely satisfying ending. And before I forget, yes, it’s also really fun.

To the Moon– A four hour, sixteen bit story that’s basically the opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Instead of erasing memories so people can go on living, you play as a pair of scientists who create memories for people in their last moments so that they can die in peace. An intriguing concept, very well done, with a lot of humor and heart. Available to download for like $12.00.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception– The second Uncharted was a huge leap forward for gaming as a whole, easily the closest a game had ever gotten to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The worst thing I can say about the third in the series is that it’s about as good. Nothing to be ashamed of, but the innovation from Uncharted 2 was so refreshing that there was really nothing the sequel could do to come out on top technologically. The set pieces are as great as we’ve come to expect, my favorites being the chateau and the cruise ship, but it’s not like they’re noticeably a step up from the train or the collapsing building from the second game. The story, however, really shines, and in a few places manages to come off as the most polished in the series. Chapters 2 and 3, especially, are fantastic, and the game never quite captures that magic again. Ultimately I’d say if Uncharted 2 is Raiders, this one is very much Last Crusade (with the first one being Temple of Doom? Kinda…). Let’s just hope Uncharted 4 doesn’t have fucking aliens in it.

Best of the year was Portal 2, no question. Valve is the most reliable company in the industry right now, and this may very well have been there finest achievement to date.

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The Literature of 2011

I did a massive write up of all the contemporary media I consumed over 2011 and posted it to Facebook as a very, very long note for all to see. Here, I figure I might as well break it up by medium. So let’s start with the books, listed alphabetically:

Bossypants– Tina Fey’s autobiography offers further definitive evidence that she’s a fantastic, brilliantly witty person, whose name immediately comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase “positive role model for women.” The whole thing’s great, and I couldn’t get over the anecdotes about her impossibly badass father, Don Fey.

A Dance with Dragons– The fifth book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was massive enough to justify a good portion of the six years since the last one was released. He still hasn’t gotten back the brilliance of the tightly plotted first three installments, and indeed some of the storylines give the impression that his vision is spinning out of control, but when he’s on the money holy hell is it good. The characters are still wonderful and the world they live in crushingly brutal while still suitably believable. It’s already been worth the ride, let’s just hope the final two books really bring it home. And if they’re written sometime in the next decade, all the better.

The Heroes– Joe Abercrombie is the most cutting edge writer in the fantasy genre, and I’m not sure anyone’s noticed yet. His fifth book (since 2006, the gloriously speedy bastard) takes place in the same world as the others, and devotes its entire length to one three-day battle. It’s not quite as bleak as his last effort, but that’s not really saying anything. If you like dark, funny, violent, thrilling, thought-provoking, morally-complex, and all around well put together stories, I can’t recommend this man’s work highly enough. Read everything he’s done now so you can say you were a fan before he was huge, because there’s a good chance he will be one day very soon. At the absolute least he deserves it.

House of Leaves– The strangest thing I’ve ever read? Maybe. If I fell in love with it I’d make an effort to describe it here, and probably fail. As it stands, I found it…yeah, really strange. Pursue at your own risk.

Kraken– The only China Mieville book I’ve read, and I really have to fix that. It’s a very weird take on urban fantasy (think a more bizarre Neverwhere, if that means anything to you) about various factions in London’s semi-magical community fighting over a giant squid for reasons many of them don’t understand. It’s hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, and has a few of the most creatively designed bits of pseudo-fantasy I’ve ever seen. The time spent on a few characters isn’t proportional to the payoff they’re given at the end, which is a bit annoying, but the book as a whole is so unique that it’s definitely worth the read. Oh, and it somehow pulls off a tasteful Holocaust pun.

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest– Fantastic title, awesome cover, enticing description on the back, and yet it managed to be a total letdown. Especially unfortunate since, like House of Leaves, I got it at Shakespeare and Company, possibly the world’s greatest bookstore.

The Postmortal– A terrifyingly real look at what would happen if humanity discovered a cure for aging (i.e. immediately realize why it’s a terrible idea, then use it anyway). If you want a very well done take on the human race living itself to death, here you go.

I read plenty more in 2011, but for this list I was only including books that were released somewhat recently. These aren’t ranked, but I’d say Kraken, Bossypants, and The Heroes are the three I’d most heartily recommend.

My Internet Haunts

In the interest of spiraling gradually outwards (and because I may or may not have to write this up for a class) I figure I should discuss my most-frequented blogs from around the web and why I consider them worthwhile.

For my movie news I rely pretty heavily on /Film, a nicely designed site that gets right down to it: Scroll through the story headings to get a sense of what’s going on, open up the full stories in tabs if you want more, and you’re good to go. Their layout is visually pleasing yet straightforward and the writers give you a pretty good sense of what’s going on. They’re actually somewhat terrible at integrating trailers or set photos, but I still read it every day. It probably helps that I listen to their podcast, so I feel a definite connection to the site. Other film blogs I check out include CHUD and Film School Rejects, the former for the quality of their reviews and the latter for their features.

IGN has been the most popular game site out there for a hell of a long time, and I use them a lot now as a reliable one stop sort of media hub. In the online community it’s usually good to know their take on something. Destructoid, though, is definitely my favorite video game blog just by virtue of their fantastic staff, laid-back approach, and highly dedicated readers. I used to be far more active over there than I am now. Their site still really holds up, though, and has a damn fine design.

In terms of blogs that have a special regard for fiction, Mark Watches stands out for the way it offers nothing but one very particular man’s reactions to television and literature. The following he’s gathered through his (frankly adorable) writing is pretty great. Then there’s All Leather Must be Boiled, which shows tremendous and in-depth reverence, analysis, and insight into George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. That he keeps it interesting with such a narrow scope is notable, especially considering that here I plan to talk about…well, everything I feel like.

Famous folks who keep great blogs are, not coincidentally, two of my idols, Neil Gaiman and Roger Ebert. Their sites are more about content than form (although Neil’s looks great) and I’ll certainly talk more about these two plenty in the future.

And finally there’s Topless Robot, a blog that covers everything nerdy with a style and enthusiasm that makes it an absolute pleasure to follow. It’s hilarious and very casually done. Lots to learn from that one.

So basically, there are a bunch of blogs you could read instead of this one. But hey! I’m just getting started, here. We’ll see if we can’t make this worthwhile.

Once upon a time…

…Someone tried to explain something. And just like that, storytelling was born. Myth and religion were close to follow, forever solidifying things people make up out of their heads as part of the human experience. Then there was agriculture and so forth, expansion, migration, blah blah blah, civilization, war, art and all that good stuff, philosophy, science, genocide, nations, industrialization, and then things progressed very quickly leaving us more or less where we are now: Globalized, plugged in, strung out, and no less in love with those stories than we were when walking upright was still pretty novel.

That must make them pretty important. I certainly care about them, at least, so I’m doing that which countless others have done before and many more will do after: I’m Starting a Blog. So help me.

The subject will be that which I most enjoy discussing, and genuinely think I have a worthwhile perspective in regards to: Story. Narrative. Fiction. Whatever you call it, wherever it is, however I happen to be experiencing, creating, or thinking about it, that’s what I’ll discuss here. So yes, a lot of this will be geeking out about things that I have a nerdy interest in. I’m more than a little aware that I’m not the first person to discuss such things on the internet. I’m starting this blog anyway, though, because I care so very much about our culture and the stories we tell. They’ve mattered to me my whole life, and will matter until the day I die. I love it all, and consider our stories hugely important to who we are as a people. I hope very much that my devotion shines through and makes this little offshoot of a site into something special. We’ll see what happens.

Who knows? Maybe this will be one of those beginnings that people look back on. Maybe it’s the start of something.