Taylor Swift and the search for musical authenticity

The other week, I was doing that late night Youtube thing–you know, when you’re going to go to bed in a bit but see if there’s something fun to watch and then, crap, hours have passed, it’s 2am, and you’re watching a video of a chorale version of Smash Mouth’s great single All Star. Somehow, in one of my more sane Youtube black hole nights, I came across the below video. It’s a live performance by Taylor Swift of her top-ten single Wildest Dreams from her 6x platinum album 1989. It’s just Swift, an electric guitar, and a microphone, on stage for an intimate concert for a small audience at the Grammy Museum in December 2015.

Even if you’re not a Swift fan, this is the kind of performance that commands begrudging respect. There’s no pomp and circumstance, no fancy lighting, no backup dancers, no backing band, no random feuding with other pop stars, and is as exposed as a performance can possibly get. It’s a great version of the song, with the electric guitar rather than an acoustic guitar serving as an inspired choice–as is the decision to slow down the song just a tick or two.

 

Now, I’m a classically trained musician. I play multiple brass instruments and sing in a respectable choral ensemble. My college degree says ‘music’ on it. I once played a passable piano (passable enough to pass my keyboard proficiency, which is to say not very much but I at least did that). The point is: I’m not the key Swiftie demographic.

And yet: I quite enjoy listening to Swift’s music, much to the chagrin of my wife. There’s a reason for that, but we have to step back a little bit to get to an explanation.

Swift and her career is a fascinating case study about celebrity, the modern music industry, feminism, and even class. There’s so many routes of her success to explore, and what that success means. If you want to therefore launch an inquisition into the creation and implosion of Hiddleswift, for instance, go for it.

But the most fascinating part about Swift’s success is how she achieved it. From an extra-musical standpoint, there are two big assisting factors. First, Swift is gorgeous. Being pretty is a huge leg up; that’s just life. Second, Swift has an extraordinary ability to adeptly navigate celebrity without scandal, which is an underrated tool in a celebrity musician’s arsenal. There is a musical factor, though, and that’s the biggest one.

Theodor Adorno, German philosopher and critic, was born in 1903, a year where air flight was science fiction. Gustav Mahler, Charles Stanford, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Dvorak, and Camille Saint-Saens were all alive at Adorno’s birth. Adorno died at the age of 65 in 1969, one month before a quartet of nerdy Brits who named themselves ‘The Beatles’ released some album called Abbey Road and half a century after the first transatlantic airplane flight. As with most things at the start of the 20th Century, music was changing rapidly. A new, simpler, more accessible type of music was growing, fueled by the dual powers of globalization and recording technology.

Adorno witnessed the rise of this ‘popular music’ or, as an average teenager might think of it today, ‘music.’ Regardless, like your cranky old grandpa who refuses to consider to bestow the title of music to anything written in the last thirty years, Adorno was having none of the ‘pop music’ thing. In his essay On Popular Music, Adorno lays out why art music (or ‘classical’ music to some of you) is so much better than popular music. Adorno’s 1938 essay also expresses his distaste for the commercialization of music. Check out this quote, which seems like it was written yesterday, as opposed to 79 years ago:

Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures. Most important is the following requirement: To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. The actual criterion by which a song is judged worthy of plugging is paradoxical. The publisher wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them.

To save you a whole lot of effort in reading the rest of Adorno’s thick prose on this subject: Adorno thought popular music was inherently and objectively inferior. According to him, it relied on extreme standardization and lacks meaningful musical development, its songs slaves to the churning money-making machine. Everything it does, ‘serious’ music can do better.

But there’s something that Adorno misses, either because 1930s music is indeed a different beast than 2010s music or because Adorno’s noggin is stuffed awfully far up his gluteus maximus. That is this: writing and recording a successful hit pop song is difficult precisely because it must check off so many boxes and adhere to such a strict formula. Writing a hit song necessitates operating within a constrictive box; it’s like trying to cook an entire three course meal utilizing only a microwave. The song must be between three to four minutes, fit into some version of a verse/chorus/bridge format, stick to a small collection of chords, and yet still invoke an emotional response and be catchy and/or memorable.

So what makes a song different? There are hundreds of thousands of musicians writing their own songs. Yeah, most of those songwriters don’t have the strength of the industry behind them, and yeah, hit songs are often the result of a cultural or musical zeitgeist; in other words, timing helps, too.

What makes Swift so good is that she operates within the constrictive pop music box just like everyone else, but her songs still achieve greatness. One reason is that their construction is impeccable, and they can be scaled down to an acoustic level or blasted to arenas and maintain their integrity and meaning. But the second, most important reason is that they come from a sincere place that just can’t be faked, no matter how hard one tries to do so. Millennials are great at sniffing out what is fake and what isn’t, and true originality shines like a bright lighthouse.

Watching an acoustic version of Wildest Dreams is a fantastic reminder of Swift’s great talent from multiple angles. It shows off her musicality, proves the song can work without all the flashy touches of modern pop music, and shows off Swift’s personal connection with her art. Swift, if nothing else, is authentic, which is her greatest achievement.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t see the video in the first place, of course. Maybe we should all go on more Youtube adventures. We might find something exciting. Well, that, or more dumb cat videos and memes.

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Revisiting the Inheritance Cycle

Twelve years ago, as a wee high school freshman, I read the books “Eragon” and “Eldest.” “Eldest” had just been released a few months prior. One of my family members gave me the hardcovers for Christmas, thinking I would like them. I was hooked.

We’re outside the Eragon zeitgesit now, the prime dragons of modern pop culture being Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of terrifying tyrants instead of Eragon’s Saphira, but “Eragon” was the pre-social media young adult novel craze (non-Harry Potter category). “Eragon” sold a million copies within six months of Knopf’s wide-release publishing of the novel, the series going on to sell a few dozen million more worldwide in the following years. The film was a sad flop, but it existed in the first place, and it still made a bunch of money.

In many ways, Eragon was my Harry Potter. I remember checking fan boards and looking up theories and voting in polls on what we thought would happen. Two times I ravenously consumed the newly-released entry in the series. I began the first book while a freshman in high school, and I finished the last book a junior in college. Those intervening years were some of the most impactful of my life, and Inheritance was there with me the whole way.

Somehow, I’ve not re-read Inheritance, the last book in the series. And that means that I have never read them all the way through, from “Eragon” to “Inheritance,” without years or months of distance between them.

This summer will change that. After almost six years since I last touched the series, I’m now in the process of reading them all once more, together for the first time. In those years, I’ve become a significantly better writer and have read many more books. I’m excited to read them in a different light, and to see if what I remember about the books still rings true.

But mostly, I’m interested in spending more time with Eragon, Saphira, and friends. It’s been too long.

 

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

The wind sweeps past your hair as the sun shines down on you, the subtle crash of the royal blue surf lapping against the sides of your softly creaking ship. The sun shines as you lick some salty water from your lips. The ocean extends to the horizon all around you. Another ship floats lazily in the distance. Nothing is true, and everything is permitted. The world is ripe for your adventure.

There’s a reason why pirates are so popular in pop culture, and why every kid wants to grow up to be one (if they don’t want to be an astronaut, of course). Pirates convey freedom, adventure, and the promise for riches, wonder, and excitement. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise of dichotomy—Assassin’s/Templars, Past/Future, Stealth/Combat. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag leans on its existence as a pirate game, it soars to some of the series’ highest heights. Unfortunately, when the game emulates past Assassin’s Creed titles, the recurring errors and frustrations of the series hamper what could have been a truly special title.

Black Flag’s setting is a fantastic choice. Your character, Edward Kenway, is a mere privateer whose main goal is becoming filthy rich to build a better life for him and his estranged wife. As the game is titled ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and not ‘Pirates Creed, Matey!”, Kenway gets caught up in standard-issue Assassin v. Templars shenanigans.

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SWASHBUCKLE, MATEYS

Kenway’s approach to the epic conflict is not standard-issue, though, and is a fresh take: he just does not care in the slightest. Pillaging and booty (both kinds) are his goals, and his role in the conflict is mostly accidental. He happens to fight with the Assassins, though more due to ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ circumstances than actual philosophical alignment.

Yet as so often happens in Assassin’s Creed games, this strength is accompanied by a related weakness. Kenway’s plight and character development remain stinted for a long, long time; though developer Ubisoft tries to make Kenway a multi-faceted character, his single-minded search for riches doesn’t make for a very captivating narrative. Piecemeal flashbacks to Kenway and his wife mostly fail to form a grounding for character building or plot development, though it could have and is probably the biggest missed narrative opportunity.

But, lest you forget that Kenway is a pirate, let me repeat: he’s a pirate. And Black Flag nails the Being A Pirate thing so extraordinarily well. In the course of the story, Kenway gets access to his own personal cove that you can upgrade to build structures, shops, and services. Kenway meets pirates along the way, including Edward Thatch—more famously known as Blackbeard.

You can’t be a pirate without your own ship, though, and ship combat and traversal is what truly makes being a pirate fun. Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw, very quickly becomes a favorite place in the game (and arguably its own character). Black Flag’s locations are spread out in the Caribbean, and you must traverse to these locations with the Jackdaw before establishing fast travel points. Roaming the high sea is a blast, as your shipmates sing shanties, it’s never far to an interesting location, and enemy ships are plentiful.

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At sea on the Jackdaw

Ship combat is every bit as exciting, jarring, and terrifying as you might think. The ocean is filled with all kinds of vessels; some are teeny-weeny gunships you can destroy in one or two volleys, and others will eat you alive by themselves. Unlike in hand-to-hand combat, where a quick finger on the counter button can almost lend invincibility, choosing what battles in which to engage is a part of ship combat that is refreshing and challenging. At first, I found myself charging into a small group of ships, valiantly attempting (and failing) to strong-arm a trio of larger frigates into submission before the game forced me to take a more holistic approach: ship combat encourages using your entire arsenal and to heavily prioritize targets.

Importantly, defeating ships gives very real benefits. Defeated ships can either be captured or destroyed, and each ship contains varying supplies that can be sold or used in upgrading your own ship. Upgrades are varied, and each upgrade changes you how play in meaningful ways. In addition to your own ship, you can add captured ships to your fleet, which you can use to send on battles and trade routes of their own. Battles for your captured ships are bare-bones turn based strategy minigames, requiring minimal input but some forethought.

Since this is an Assassin’s Creed game, the majority of it is spent on foot. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; the core parts of traversing, exploring, and assassinating are as fun as ever, and the beautiful setting makes it feel quite different from the sprawling cities of earlier games in the franchise. But frustratingly, the same kinds of mistakes that have been plaguing the series for years are still here. When going quickly, Kenway has a propensity for leaping to random areas, which can be fatal. Tailing missions are still boring and feel like attempts to game-ify plot. The stealth system is spotty and the AI ranges from idiotic to genius. Curiously, Black Flag doesn’t even explain the stealth system at all, assuming you know what a yellow sign over an enemy means as opposed to a red one and how to escape and become incognito. Thankfully, the graphics, music, and sound effect are all very good and help with immersion. You can’t help but be joyful and invested when your crew sings your favorite shanty on the high seas in preparation for an epic battle with a Man O’ War.

Black Flag truly shines when it melds its two main gameplay elements. In order to capture a ship, you need to swing over to the opposing vessel and accomplish a set of objectives on foot. In order to take down a fort, you must destroy its various battlements with your ship and then dock to assassinate the fort’s captain. There’s a brilliant mission halfway through the game that involves tailing an enemy ship through a river, making stops every so often to leave the Jackdaw and take out the watchmen, culminating in an Uncharted-esque setpiece to make an assassination.

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Climbing Away

The 18th century story, unfortunately, is framed by a 21st century story. After Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft could have taken a different path, framing the story better or making the overall story more minimalist. Not so. Though you are given free reign for a significant portion of the early game, you are soon (and often) yanked out to present day, your character a voiceless and nameless protagonist in a world full of voiced and named people. Whereas the Desmond Miles story at its best helped to give your explorations of the past additional weight as well as a reason to enjoy when you’re pulled out of the animus, the modern-day story here doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and I spent my time in present day just wanting to be left alone as a pirate.

Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag makes meaningful strides in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It fills a grand open sea with places to explore, from a treasure island to underwater excursions to bustling towns like Havana or Kingston. It successfully uses the Assassin’s Creed action as a fantastic base to make a great pirate game. The converse though, is not true: a great pirate game doesn’t fix the Assassin’s Creed series’ problems. Still, it’s a fantastic example of a game taking a core idea, making it a blast, and giving you the freedom to do with it what you will. It’s a pirate’s life for me.

The eight best women in gaming

 

Today is March 8, which for some of you just means ‘Wednesday.’ That’s ok though, because it can mean something new for you: it’s International Women’s Day today!*

*If you’re hunched over your screen and sneering, “BUT WHERE IS THE INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY?”, I would like to shoo you away to read a list of American Presidents and another list of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and you may return as soon as you find a woman in either list.

Games have traditionally been about dudes doing dude things, which generally include dude violence and man strength. One of my favorite pictures is this collage of the standard middle-age, gruff, brown-haired white guys who are the heroes of their game.

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I like the one with the short hair

Some of those characters are really well-written characters! I even love some of them. But there sure are a lot of similar looking ones.

So today, let’s highlight some women in games. These women are awesome in a collection of ways, but they are all awesome. They are listed below by an extraordinarily scientific ranking system (read: MAH BRAIN) from #8 to #1. Eight characters for the eighth of March. Let’s do this.

#8: Elena Fisher / Uncharted series

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Uncharted is a series about Nathan Drake doing the most ridiculous things possible, repeatedly, and living through it. Drake is, basically, modern day Indiana Jones, replete with desert adventures and supernatural forces. Uncharted is tied to Drake and his adventures.

But that’s Drake’s thing. It’s not Elena’s thing. And yet…Elena perseveres, and she selflessly assists Drake in his adventures, which involve a lot of dirt, climbing and killing of bad guys. Unlike Drake, Elena thinks before she leaps, and is worried about what the type of work Drake is into does to him when he doesn’t. Still, she’s always there for Drake. Always. There is no Nathan without Elena, and their relationship helps drive the poignant final chapter of the series, Uncharted 4.

#7: Zelda / Legend of Zelda series

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There are a lot of versions of Zelda, coinciding with the many Legend of Zelda games. Let’s start there, actually. The playable character in those games is a green-clad elven man-child named ‘Link.’ Notice: Link is a different name than Zelda (citation needed). It is not the Legend of Link. Rather, it is Zelda’s legend. It’s about her.

So which Zelda do you prefer? Do you prefer the one in Ocarina of Time, who disguises herself as a literal ninja? Do you prefer the one in Wind Waker, who is a legit pirate captain before learning her royal lineage? What about Twilight Princess, where an archer Zelda helps take down the evil villain hand in hand with Link?

Pick your poison. Zelda will always be a legend.

#6: Liara / Mass Effect series

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For those of you who are particularly astute scholars of Mass Effect lore, you may disagree that Liara is specifically a woman. The Asari race, after all, is a single-gendered race, and ‘woman’ is not a term that can be used to specify one Asari (though they usually do adhere to female pronouns). I would offer a counter-argument that you are missing the spirit of the ranking, and would also like to give you a five yard penalty and a loss of down.

Liara’s journey from the first Mass Effect to the third is one that is rarely seen in gaming women. That journey is one of extended and multi-faceted character development.

In the first Mass Effect, Liara is a talented and brilliant scientist whose view of the world is narrow, her steps tepid. As the series progresses, Liara begins to aggressively pursue what needs to be done in any given moment, expertly leveraging her mind and skillset in order to achieve her goal. But she does so in a way that never feels contrived, and she stays true to herself even as she changes.

She’s also an excellent soldier and can cause mini black holes with her mind, so. There’s that.

#5 Ellie / The Last of Us

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Let’s say you are born in a post apocalyptic world. What would you be like if your entire life was devoid of a greater hope that your parents and elders grew up with?

You’d probably be cynical. That’s Ellie. You’d probably be deeply troubled. That’s Ellie. You’d probably do whatever you needed to do to survive, even if you didn’t or couldn’t think you could do it. That’s Ellie, too.

In the third quarter of The Last of Us, you play as Ellie for the first time. It’s a sobering, fascinating deeper look into her character as she cares for Joel like he cared for her for the months prior. Ellie is probably the most raw, real character on this list. That’s no small feat.

#4 Samus Aran / Metroid series

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Also known as the OG Space Badass, Samus has been kicking butt and taking names since ‘bush’ was known more as a type of shrubbery than a duo of Presidents. Character development for Samus is light, but that’s no biggie. She does what she needs to, and then goes home and ostensibly takes a nice long shower, just like any number of male game heroes.

When it was initially shown that Samus was a girl, it wasn’t a huge revelation. It was like Nintendo said, “Yeah, she’s a girl. What of it? Go shoot some more Space Pirates and explore some crap. Those Metroids aren’t blowing up themselves. Find another missile upgrade before your mom gets home and you have to eat dinner.” The gaming landscape wouldn’t quite be the same without her.

#3 Commander Shepard / Mass Effect series

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Commander Shepard can be either male or female, and is totally customizable. But, honestly, was there ever any doubt? The female Shepard, or ‘Femshep’ if you have a fetish for portmanteaus, is the best one. Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is superb, and Shepard’s gravitas works seamlessly as a woman.

Mass Effect is all about choice (well, that, shooting robots, and banging aliens). Letting players play as someone they relate to as they save the galaxy through Shepard’s skill, poor dancing, and grim determination to defeat the Reapers at all cost is essential. Far too few big games from big developers give you a female lead with the amount of rope to play with that Bioware does with Shepard.

#2: Ciri / Witcher 3

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Ciri seems pretty high up in this list despite appearing in only one game, but you and I need to get one thing straight: Ciri’s existence not only drives the entirety of Witcher 3, which is no small feat in a game that sprawls almost grotesquely, but the entire Witcher franchise.

I’m not going to spoil the Witcher storyline, but let me tell you a few cool things about Ciri. She can use magic. She is the heir to a powerful empire. She befriended a herd of unicorns. She can move at will through time and space. She’s an expert, nay, a master at swordplay. She’s been the center of political power struggles since before she was even a teenager.

The brilliant thing about the Witcher is that Ciri is the Hero around which everything orbits. You, as Geralt, are merely witness to it, the Hero’s friend and father figure. For this to work, Ciri has to work both as a hero and as a believable character, an emotional anchor. She does it brilliantly.

#1: Lara Croft / Tomb Raider series

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Croft has been through a lot. She began her character life as a bit of a cheesy gimmick, but she has slowly gained realism and respectability. Tomb Raider is one of the few game franchises to gain popularity and fame in the non-gaming world, with an assistance from Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Croft in two Tomb Raider films in the early 2000s. Indeed, there is a reboot in the works, with Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander set to play the titular role in 2018 based off the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by developer Crystal Dynamics.

That 2013 reboot was, simply, an amazing game, and out-uncharts Uncharted. Its sequel, the 2015 Rise of the Tomb Raider, continued to do that on top of doing its best Metroid impression and wildly succeeding. The franchise is once again one of the biggest franchises in gaming. It does so through a realistic depiction of Lara Croft as a simple adventurer, hunter, and archeologist, with flaws and humanity.

There is simply no other female lead with as much history as Croft or as much industry weight. In a world where we still see so many more male names than female ones, especially as main characters in games, it’s heartening to see Croft’s success.

 

 

 

An ode to the perfection of Rocket League

I picked up Rocket League on a whim. It was one of the greatest whims I’ve ever had, especially game related. Some whims don’t work out. I decided to play Final Fantasy XIII on a whim, and that was a very poor decision. If you respect yourself, do not play that game. Some whims do work out. Twelve year-old me decided Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance just ‘looked cool,’ and then I became a Fire Emblem junkie.

But Rocket League? That was whim—whim powered by hype.

The internet has enabled some games to thrive in a way that could not be possible without it; it has a way of turning the knob from “success” to “hit” in a unique way. Flappy Bird the phenomenon exists because of the internet, for example, and there are countless other games that become sensations because of Youtube, streaming, or memeification. The internet collectively mourned a gorilla for six whole months last year.

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– the internet

Rocket League, developed by Psyonix, was one of those games. Its predecessor, also developed by Psyonix, was the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-esque mouthfull called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. That game, whose acronym of SARPBC sounds more like a devastating supervirus than a game acronym, came out in 2008 to cricket noises. It received mediocre reviews, but mediocre games can certainly gain traction—this one didn’t. It had fans. But if you remembered SARPBC as something super special, you were in the minority.

I did not play SARPBC. I didn’t even hear about it. But the internet hype machine, the one that makes games into Events and gorillas into Martyrs, had gripped Rocket League and would not let go.

And so my whim came into play. I convinced a few of my friends to buy it with me, and we spent the $20 to access the game. In the year and a half since the game was released July 2015, we’ve gleefully dumped hundreds of hours into the game like thousands, millions, of others.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Rocket League, and wondering why I just like it so darn much, and I think it comes down to two things.

The first thing is the hype. The internet doesn’t turn every game into a Game, but when it does there’s an allure to players, an allure that is from and through community. Games themselves are often discovery in and of themselves, and if you participate in a game that the internet chooses to be the Game, then you’re a part of something special. That’s why Pokemon Go was so big, and why it was so fun for the few weeks after its release. It wasn’t a game. It was a Game.

But there’s another thing at play here, the driver (no pun intended (I lied-pun intended)) of the hype. I was interested in Rocket League because everyone was enjoying it, sure, but I was primarily drawn to it because it looked fun.

Games are ultimately different than television or film because there is an interactive element. You play games, actively, which cannot be replicated by any other medium. Yes, the interactivity of games can yield impressive depth and immersion for a story. But modern video games came from Pong, from Mario Brothers, from Pac Man, where the only thing about the game was how you play it.

And, ultimately, Rocket League is just a blast to play. It could not be more simple, and yet its physics engine yields infinite creativity and possibility for those who have the skill or drive (AGAIN WITH THE PUNS) to utilize it. It can be enjoyed by on any skill level.

At its simplest, a game is supposed to be easy, fun, and accessible. Rocket League, a game about rocket-powered car soccer, is the video game’s video game. You either like it because you like the game it is, or you dislike it because you don’t have fun with it. It’s refreshingly pure. The internet is impossibly perceptive and staggeringly knowledgeable, and it chose Rocket League to be the Thing because it was special. And though Rocket League isn’t the Thing anymore, it’s still special.

Rocket League is a triumph. Long may its servers prosper. Long may I say aloud “Calculated” after doing something I did not, in fact, mean to do. Long may we enjoy the ridiculous bounty of backwards turtle goals. The game and its creators deserve it all.

My favorite games of 2016

Just a few weeks ago, I posted my favorite movies of 2016. I’m not a particularly big movie buff, as I said. The same isn’t true for games, as video games are still my go-to hobby. As a big fancy adult, I have a gaming PC and all three current-gen consoles: Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U (until March’s Switch release, that is). I think I like video games so much because they offer truly unique experiences, and interactivity and skill components allow for a much wider range of experiences than passive films, books, or television.

The thing with games is that they take a lot longer to finish than movies do–I played 2015’s Witcher 3 in 2016, and it took 70 hours to get to the end of the game, which is like sitting through a standard-length movie 35 times. And some games are open-ended experiences with no natural close; I’ve played 413 hours of Rocket League to date, another 90 of Overwatch, and I’ll play more of each.

I’ve played a baker’s dozen games from 2016, some big, some small. Here are my top games of 2016.

HONORABLE MENTION – Uncharted 4

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I’m of two minds about Uncharted 4, which is why it appears on list list but only as honorable mention.

On one hand, Uncharted 4 is an amazing, fabulous game. The combat is by far the best in the series, the puzzles are rewarding, the characterization deep and intriguing. In 2016, when all big games look great, Uncharted 4’s attention to detail and excellent art direction are unmatched, as is the music. Naughty Dog, the developers, took a hard look at what made Uncharted great and brought the best of what the competition had been doing over the last few years to Uncharted. Uncharted 4 is the best action/adventure game you will play in a long, long time.

It is also completely unnecessary. This is the fourth one. We know what happens. Nathan Drake shoots, punches, and climbs in a valiant attempt to get to a legendary treasure. There are better-equipped bad guys who show up right when Drake finishes the next part of the puzzle to take his information. Functionally, this is like the other Uncharted games, except for the part that Uncharted 3 had a really nice, nonchalant, ‘ride into the sunset’ ending already, and it also did all the things that Uncharted 4 does (albeit less gracefully). Uncharted 4’s biggest difference is that it is ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic,’ both of which are ironic calling cards for a franchise whose main character is equal parts world-class climber, deadly commando, and invincible smartass. That Naughty Dog didn’t let it go is a disservice.

Thankfully, it’s a minor disservice, because the game is baller.

BRONZE MEDAL – Fire Emblem: Fates

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Fire Emblem: Fates is like Fire Emblem: Awakening, only not as good. Its characters are less consistently interesting, the marriage/child mechanics make way less sense, and though it changes things up somewhat, it doesn’t really introduce anything particularly new into the gameplay.

But you know what? Awakening is the best Fire Emblem ever and one of my favorite games of all time, so a lite version of that is plenty fine. Awakening is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Fates is his first–it’s not the best, sure, but it’s better than most other things. Besides, Fates does do something legitimately interesting, which is splitting the narrative into two sides of the same coin. You were raised by Kingdom B, but were born into Kingdom A. You can either decide to stick with Kingdom B, your adopted family you’ve known your whole life, or Kingdom A, the strangers who are your biological family. Either choice allows you to pursue justice, that being taking down Kingdom B’s evil sociopathic ruler, but from different paths.

The game is immense, and both versions of the story are technically their own game, with a third story available once you’ve beaten the other two. Still, they feel a part of a connected story–the varying versions of the game feel like expansion packs more than new experiences (remember when expansion packs were a thing and not DLC? oh, days of yore).

When I get into a Fire Emblem game, I get INTO IT. It consumes me for days, weeks at a time. Fates did that, too, for a long time.

SILVER MEDAL – Quantum Break

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There’s an awful lot of science fiction that deals with time, either time loops, time travel, relativity, or pausing of time. Quantum Break does all of that, and then it adds its own wrinkle: the End of Time, where time ceases to flow throughout the universe.

As a sci-fi geek, Quantum Break’s narrative premise hooked me immediately (not unlike Roadhog, HAHAHAHAHA #intergamejoke). It’s hard to present a new take on an old sci-fi standard, but Quantum Break somehow pulls it off.

From a gameplay perspective, you are Jack Joyce, who gets super time powers from a sticky situation involving a time machine accident. These powers add great flavor to an otherwise standard cover-based first person shooter. You can cause time explosions (yeah, I don’t know either), stop time to run over and punch someone, dash, put up a time shield (otherwise called an alarm clock), or place time bubbles around enemies.

I love Quantum Break for two reasons: these powers make the game fun, and that’s why you play games. But the narrative, a intriguing, layered, dense romp through and around time itself, adds more fun to the fun. Interspersed with the gameplay sections are honest-to-goodness live action TV episodes that flesh out the story, and the decisions you make in game will effect the show itself. Too bad the episodes are…bad. They’re bad. But the idea is interesting.

Look, Uncharted 4 is a better game. But I won’t apologizing for liking Quantum Break more. It presses all of the right buttons for me.

GOLD MEDAL – Titanfall 2

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Many moons ago, some of my friends and I were sick of playing the same things over and over again. That thing was, mostly, Halo 4, with some Minecraft thrown in. Then, this beautiful game called Titanfall came out, and it looked fantastic. So, we bought it day one, and we played it, and it was fantastic.

Then, two years later, Titanfall 2 came out, we played it, and it was even more fantastic. See, the first Titanfall was multiplayer only. Since it was multiplayer only, it was extremely polished, balanced, and fun. It did have this super bizarre ‘multiplayer campaign’ to simulate a single player campaign…but is was just a series of multiplayer games with longer intros before the game itself. The original Titanfall also split its player base by including paid DLC that nobody bought.

Titanfall 2 is a wholesale improvement on a great premise. Its multiplayer is just as good, and developer Respawn and publisher Electronic Arts wisely decided to follow the Halo 5, ‘all DLC is free’ model, so everyone will get the new things rather than a select few.

And: single player. Titanfall 2 has a proper single player mode. It plays as if Nintendo designed an FPS campaign. That is, more or less, perfection. It’s the best FPS campaign I’ve ever played, Halo and the original Modern Warfare included.

Of all the games I’ve played this year, none like Titanfall 2 made me say aloud, “Wow, this is amazing” as many times. That’s why it wins the Michael Phelps Medal (aka: Gold).

 

 

My favorite movies of 2016

Look: I’m not a film buff. My knowledge of film-making is superficial, I’ve never made a creative film, and my bar for enjoying movies is very low.

That being said, I like lists, I like good entertainment, and while I don’t have any film training, I have an analytical mind that can’t stop thinking about the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of something. So…I’ve a list!

I self-select for movies a lot, meaning I don’t go and see something I might like; I value my time and I am risk averse when trying new things. That being said, I still saw a dozen movies released this year, all in the theaters. Doing a top ten would be silly with that number, so I’ll stick with the tried-and-true method of assigning differently-colored metallic alloys to my top three films, with an honorable mention because this is my blog and I have that power.

Lacking ados of the further variety, etc.:

HONORABLE MENTION – Rogue One

Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars movie, but you get the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really believe that. There are an awful lot of sly references to the other movies, some of which are pretty neat, and others of which are the equivalent of a kid in school boasting about how his uncle knows Kevin Bacon (said uncle actually just ran into K-Bac one time at Denny’s).

The film also can’t really decide if it wants to be spy thriller, buddy comedy, or action movie, and it juggles some great characters (Jyn, K-2SO) with some that just sort of feel like they are just there because why not (everyone else).

If it feels like I’m harping on this a lot, since this is a Star Wars movie, I have to explain why it’s not one of my favorite movies and not the other way around.

I still like it a ton, of course. The music is fantastic and surpassed all my expectations (it’s the first and hitherto only Star Wars film without the legendary John Williams at the helm). It ends brilliantly. It’s fun and exciting. Darth Vader is in it and does things. It is consistently beautiful, not in the “nice CG” way but the “wow, this is fantastic art direction” way.

It’s a Star Wars movie. But it’s not a STAR WARS MOVIE.

BRONZE MEDAL – Arrival

Arrival is the rare science fiction movie that’s also a critical darling – it’s got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a pair of Golden Globe nominations (one for Amy Adams for Best Actress, the other for Johan Johannsson for Best Original Score).

You know why? It’s amazing, that’s why.

To elaborate: it’s thrilling despite a lack of use of violence, thought-provoking without being haughty, personal at the same time as grandiose. It’s got an excellent score and, most importantly, feels unique, an extraordinary achievement in the land of big-budget science fiction glut.

Science fiction, at its best, offers a glimpse into humanity in a way that literally nothing else can do. Arrival is science fiction at its best. It’s a beautiful movie, too, on a micro and a macro level. It’s never cheesy, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and presents bizarre circumstances in believable ways. Go see it.

SILVER MEDAL – Zootopia

There was a moment in Zootopia where I sort of looked around the theater and thought to myself, “Gee, Disney, this is awfully on the nose.” The film tackles themes like prejudice, racism, redemption, and adjusting to a place where you are completely on your own and nobody believes in you.

At this point I would like to reiterate that, yes, Zootopia is an animated movie and, yes, it’s still a hilarious blast.

Zootopia has a great world filled with interesting characters and a story it needs, and wants, to tell. It’s funny when it needs to be, serious when it has to be, and is always charming.

It’s so confident of itself that its main trailer (embedded above) was just a clip of the movie. That was, in and of itself, a brilliant move.

Zootopia is so good, I hope it never gets a sequel. It will. But one can dream.

GOLD MEDAL – La La Land

Why do we watch movies? To get away from it all? To see spectacle? To emotionally engage with relatable characters and get swept off our feet?

La La Land does it all, a modern musical movie where that just doesn’t happen in live action film anymore. La La Land, or L3 if you want to be really annoying and hipster, wins the Gold for many reasons. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic. The music is superb. I’m a sucker for unconventional and/or bittersweet endings, which the movie provides.

The biggest, though, is that it captivates and it never lets go. It reaches for the stars, knowing full well that reaching for the stars is impractical and impossible, but it does so anyway. It succeeds.