Category: Annual Wrap-Up

Moving On from 2017

So, 2017 is finally behind us. Or, at time of writing, it’s about to be.

What a relief, right?

The year seemed incredibly long. News and events that occurred around Halloween or Thanksgiving feel like they happened years ago. It was exhausting, seeing the world get yanked unwillingly into a downward spiral perpetuated by a resurgent nationalist would-be oligarchy. Aspiring autocrats vied for power, and thankfully, the world fought back. Make no mistake, we are at war, with the stakes being the very future of our species. We have concerns that need addressing such as poverty, hunger, and climate change, but the unfortunate truth is that we can’t fully tackle those until we get rid of the power-hungry ignorant obstructionists.

2018, thankfully, holds the promise of us being able to do so. 2017 was a wake-up call, a year-long trial by fire in which common folk were called upon to rise up in the face of a new form of subversive, diabolical ambition. This may be less true for the world outside of the United States, but given the world-wide influence of the nation in which I live, it’s been difficult for me to see the rest of the world outside of the impact our current lackluster leadership is having. We’re in trouble, over here; we’ve tried to balance the bluster from our so-called representatives with a clarion call for help.

I spent a lot of 2017 wishing I could do more. I spent the first few months of the year focused tightly on self-examination: what I could change, what I needed to cultivate within myself, which parts of myself I needed to discard. As the year progressed, my attention grew more and more outward, being active in lending my voice to the resistance, and keeping my heart and mind open. It was hard at times, exhausting at others. I finally concluded that the start-up life was not for me, and in another instance of re-inventing myself, dedicated my time while unemployed to changing the focus of my dayjob career and trying to finish a manuscript that I’m eager to share with the world.

It wasn’t all trials and tribulations, to be sure. I rediscovered my deep love for Dungeons & Dragons. I made some new friends, and learned to appreciated quality over quantity for people in my life. I returned to therapy and balanced medication with meditation and writing. I took more measured, thoughtful chances, and was rewarded in wonderful ways. And I never, ever, ever gave up.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not believe in the no-win scenario. It can be difficult to see, clouded by the tumult of the world and rampaging egos of others, but there is always a way forward. Where there is life, there is hope, a chance for a better tomorrow. Leaving one’s heart open to possibilities isn’t easy in this world. People will exploit such sentiment, leverage feelings, manipulate one’s mind and perceptions. But without an open heart, one cannot find some of the greatest things this life has to offer — progress, reconciliation, self-discovery, courage, and love.

I’m still percolating my thoughts on The Last Jedi, but among many other things, the film illustrates not only many ways in which people can fail (at times spectacularly), but how we can learn from our mistakes, and turn the outcome of our flaws into steps towards a better tomorrow. It’s a lesson we all need to learn sooner or later; for me, I could have learned it sooner, but now that I have it in mind, tomorrow cannot help but be better than all of my yesterdays.

I had allies in my journey forward, friends and family and loved ones. To them I say: thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I did all of this for myself, as much under my own power as possible, but it would be uncharitable to say that I could have done so much without your love and support.

They say the best revenge is living well, and to be entirely honest, I’m going to keep living as well as I can, if only to spite my demons and failures and head weasels.

And, of course, I’m going to write as much and as often as I can. I have unfinished work that it worth writing, worth reading, worth sharing. Everything from unsent letters to that manuscript. I want to see what I can do when I really buckle down and make the words happen.

Thanks for sticking around; if nothing else, thanks for reading all of this.

See you in 2018.

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

2013: The Worst

Aura of Dark Might, by Nicholas Kay
Aura of Dark Might, by Nicholas Kay

To be honest, I totally avoided things I knew would be awful. I didn’t see any brainless comedies or pandering lowest-common-denominator action flicks. I didn’t play modern military shooters (other than the fantastic Spec Ops: The Line, which if you play video games, YOU SHOULD PLAY NOW) or sports games. It’s one of the advantages about blogging not being my main source of income. As much as I may envy the likes of Yahtzee or the Nostalgia Critic, I do have the advantage of not needing to experience any entertainment that I know isn’t for me. Not that I’m above it or anything – it’s just been a long time since I’ve had a donation.

Anyway, the worst thing I did entertainment-wise this year was read Word Bearers.

Oh, Word Bearers. There’s so much potential in a cadre of superhuman killing machines driven by faith instead of jingoistic patriotism. In the Warhammer universe, the Chaos Gods are real. I think it’s a lot easier to justify your faith when you can actually have conversations with your gods, even if they do tend to squabble and fight amongst themselves. The best thing about the Word Bearers, to me, is that they seek a unified, middle-of-the-road approach to Chaos worship. You may still have one leader who’s more inclined towards Khrone, and another who engages in Tzeenchian manipulations, but at the end, they’re all in one place, and their debates and schemes all occur within that place.

Want to know how to ruin all of this storytelling potential? Well, start with avoiding the mention of the Chaos God’s names. Make all the personalities of the bombastic, energetic, and at least half-crazy Chaos Space Marines flat and boring. Kill all of your incidental characters the moment after you introduce them. Repeat the same murder sequences ad nauseum. Make your main character’s struggles amount to nothing. And don’t let your plot develop, deepen, or go anywhere.

I never thought that picking up this book would leave me so bored. As a reader, I was deeply disappointed. As a writer, I was incredibly frustrated. It was easily the worst entertainment experience I had in 2013.

What was yours?

2013: The Disappointments

Man of Steel by Rudyao
Man of Steel, by Rudyao

2013 was a year that was mostly populated with sequels, and sequels are a double-edged sword. You have an established world and characters to work with and build upon, and an audience already interested in what you’re doing. However, you also run the risk of undoing good work done in previous installments, watering down the message previously established, or alienating the audience, or at least some of it, when you move in a new direction. The two movies that disappointed me this year demonstrate these pitfalls extremely well, and I’m going to take some time to detail what I feel went wrong in both cases.

Let me clarify something, however, before we begin. I enjoyed watching both of these movies. I will admit there’s great stuff in both of them. At no point during either one did I throw up my hands and storm out of the theatre, feeling I’d been spoken down to or that the filmmakers had pulled an untoward bait-and-switch. These are high-quality films with great casts and interesting ideas. But I’ll be honest: both of them really disappointed me.

When JJ Abrams took the helm of Star Trek, I was curious. After the first movie under his command, I was intrigued. A fresh new cast inhabiting the classic characters in a new timeline with new aesthetics had me highly anticipatory of the direction they’d go in. Unfortunately, the direction they chose was back to the past. Star Trek Into Darkness did quite a few things right in executing one of the best-known storylines from the classic era, but as well as those things were done, they could have been done just as well with new characters unconnected to the previous tales. What’s disappointing to me about this is that its demonstrating a trend towards pandering and fanservice. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but when they’re the core of your creative endeavor rather than a fringe benefit, the entire work can suffer for it. I know this creative team is capable of better. I’m cautiously optimistic that they will learn from their mistakes and give us something new.

More than Into Darkness, however, I was deeply disappointed by Man of Steel. Again, we have a very talented cast working within a fascinating aesthetic that breathes new life into a world we already know. However, rather than utilizing these high-quality tools to provide a counterpoint to Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman, as Superman is almost always Batman’s counterpoint, I can’t help but feel like these characters have somehow become virtually one and the same. Where Star Trek leans towards pandering, Man of Steel was more concerned about Superman’s messianic overtones and the tendency lately of superheros being dour, grim, stoic miseryguts rather than concentrating on using their abilities to help people. The titular character in Thor: The Dark World acts more like Superman than Superman does in Man of Steel, a clear indication that something’s gone wrong with our friends Nolan and Goyer. There are moments in the film where something truly exciting in the world of Superman can be glimpsed, but it gets overshadowed by the darkness and seriousness that dominates the film. It smothers the fun we could be having, it undercuts the talents of the cast, and just leaves me feeling irritated and frustrated. This could have been so much better!

What disappointed you the most in 2013?

2013: The Surprises

Courtesy Fox

There was a lot that took me by surprise in 2013. Some surprises were good, and others were not so good. Rather than dwell on the negatives, I’d like to look back on some of the things that came along in both an unexpected and pleasant way, at least in the realm of entertainment.

In all honesty, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by Sleepy Hollow. I had already plowed through all of Supernatural, so I’ve already galvanized myself towards television dealing with all sorts of fascinating scenarios dealing with the unknown, the strange, and the mythical. It’s especially been proven that this works even better for me when the characters are interesting and the storylines decently written. So, Sleepy Hollow fits that bill pretty effectively. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, really: the level of camp in the show is nowhere near as high as I thought it might be, the use of practical effects and sets is actually incredibly endearing and unique in a world inundated with CGI, and the diverse and talented hero cast keeps everything coherent and thoroughly watchable.

On the other hand, I really have no idea where Almost Human came from. Cyberpunk certainly hasn’t gone anywhere, and while the show does seem to call back to the likes of Blade Runner and Deus Ex, it has an aesthetic and realization all its own. Like Sleepy Hollow, the core of the show is an excellent hero cast at the top of their game. The future envisioned by the show doesn’t seem ridiculous, and many of the cool gizmos simply exist in scenes, instead of getting lengthy technobabble explanations. It feels like a living, breathing world, and the fact that it’s populated with complex, interesting characters makes the show a must-watch for me.

However, I think the biggest surprise to me in 2013 was Pacific Rim. I knew the film would be a fun time at the movies, but I was thoroughly surprised at how good it is. Gulliermo del Toro probably could have skated by merely by virtue of the hook: giant robots fighting monsters with modern aesthetics and technology. However, Pacific Rim explodes with imagination and color, wrapped in the drive and atmosphere of classic supernatural disaster flicks like Independence Day or any given Godzilla movie, and features characters that aren’t as one-note as they easily could have been. It tells a coherent and well-paced story, it has a killer soundtrack, it informs its characters through action instead of exposition, and yes, it appeals to the basic child-like desire to pilot a robot just as big as a giant monster so you can punch said monster in the face. I know it isn’t perfect and I know it’ll have its naysayers, but when I think about Pacific Rim, I can’t help but smile. It’s just too damn fun for me to dwell on its flaws, and I really can’t wait to see it again.

What surprised you the most in 2013?

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