The Well

I’m writing this in mid-November. In ten days, I will be self-publishing my sixth novel, Splatterfest. I published Conquest, my first novel, in March of 2019. That’s six novels in two years.

Ten days ago, I had my oldest cat put to sleep after a sudden cancer diagnosis.

Nine days ago, the US held the presidential election. Three days afterward, all major news networks called the election for Joe Biden. Our current President hasn’t conceded yet, most likely won’t, and is currently threatening our democracy.

In two years, I’ve written ten novels. Most of them will be released at some point. Some need extensive work. One or two will never be published.

I’m working on another manuscript. Rising Tide is the working title. I expect it to change. I’ve outlined it, and it’s ready to be written. I’ve written two chapters so far, in two days. This is the third day, and I’m having trouble.

Why am I having trouble? What are the possible reasons?

Anxiety about the state of my country? Certainly possible, but it has eased over the past couple days.

Grief over the loss of my cat? Also possible. I miss her dearly.

Normal, plain-jane self doubt? Quite possible. This is a constant companion. The question if this endeavor I’ve embarked on is worth it at all. That no matter how many novels I publish, no matter how hard I work, how much I plan, it won’t matter. That the path to even modest success is too difficult.

Has the constant onslaught of fear and anxiety in 2020 overwhelmed me? I know it’s had some effect. Writing horror can be difficult mentally, and being exposed to it in real life has certainly lessened my appetite for writing it.

Or has the well run dry? Is the place where all my words come from empty?

I have written more in the last two years than I have in my entire life put together. And that doesn’t even count all the editing, proofreading, and just regular thinking I’ve done on top of putting words on paper.

Let me say this. I don’t believe in magic, and I don’t believe in writer’s block, at least not in the classic sense. There are periods where I find writing difficult, or even impossible, but the block is not some mystical force. There is typically a concrete reason why I’m struggling, and it is never reliably the same reason. Any of the answers above could be the right one for today.

The real answer, for today, is a little of everything. If I drill down, this chapter is introducing the antagonist, a thoroughly unlikable man who wields power over a small town, and is going to torment my protagonist just for the fun of it. He’s loud, he’s brash, and he’s a member of a death cult, and today, I don’t think I want to be in that headspace. Want may not even enter into the equation. I simply can’t be in that headspace today.

But I don’t write in a vacuum. No one does anything in a vacuum. And I need to keep that in mind.

But the well hasn’t run dry. It never will.

Tomorrow I will write the chapter, and I’ll finish the damn manuscript this month.

Writing Log 5/18/20

Working on Death Rattle today. Vampire story with vampires as conquering capitalists. Protagonist is a crotchety old cuss, who doesn’t want to sell out to the bloodsuckers.

I’ve been mulling the story over for a while now, and in my mind, the protagonist has always been a Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino type guy to me. An old nasty bastard that won’t cede ground when he knows he’s right. And I had penciled in somewhere that maybe he’s still grieving over his dead wife. The story will focus a lot on death…the town he lives in is itself dying, and obviously vampires are immortal, and want to keep the town alive, etc.

But I don’t like going to the dead wife well too often, even if she died of old age. So my mind ran through the options.

“He’s never been married. He’s just too much of a bastard for anyone to grow attached to.”

“Maybe he’s divorced for that very reason.”

But finally, I had the idea of him being gay, and closeted. And he’s still mourning the loss of his best friend and lover, who had been married through most of his life to a woman, with a son.

His sexuality won’t be an important part of the story, which is mostly about vampires. Which, to me, is an even bigger reason to make him gay. I always try to write more diverse characters when possible, and frankly, him being gay is just more interesting. Clint Eastwood already exists. Gay Clint Eastwood is much more rare. A gay tough bastard is just cooler.

But the internal dialogue I had is why I’m writing all this down. Because the writer part of me went, “yes, do that, that’s a good idea.” But the business man in me told me “But will it help you sell books?” and the critic in me told me “Using the dead gay lover trope is just as hackneyed as the dead wife”.

The business man in me is a loud voice, and he gets louder every day. He tells me to write stories that are easily marketable. He tells me to make characters that are easily recognizable. Readers may say that they want things that are new and different, but they don’t. They want things they can recognize, and regular, hetero, mourning his dead wife Clint Eastwood is recognizable.

But I firmly believe that writing a duller version of a story will bleed through to the quality of the final work, and in the end, quality is king. I want to write something I’d want to read. And if you put the two versions next to each other, I’m picking grizzled gay Clint Eastwood as my protagonist, one hundred percent of the time.

The other voice is harder to dispel. Because I’m fully conscious of the trope of the unhappy ending for queer characters. Of the “tragic” nature of so many stories featuring gay characters. And I don’t want to perpetuate that, at least not without good reason. And this is a horror story. People will bleed, and suffer, and die.

So what do I do? Do I include the character because I think it’s more interesting, and will make a better story? And in the process of trying to be more diverse, perpetuate other tropes about queer characters, even if I do my best to make them rich, and nuanced, and awesome?

It’s muddy water, and it’s hard to navigate.

When I’m in doubt, I go back to the first question: What makes the best story?

I know which one I’d rather read. Which one would you?

GOTY 2017

2017 was a terrific year for videogames, and a horrible year for basically everything else. Still, games provided solace for me, and many others, and there is value in escapism, in comfort. My top ten list follows. It’s spoiler free.

 

Games I Played That Were Totally Alright But The Hype Made Me Hate Them

  • Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Nier: Automata

 

You can read my full thoughts on Zelda here. It did a lot of novel and fun things in a game that bogged me down with tedium that I didn’t appreciate.

Nier: Automata seems to be the dark horse darling this year and I. Can’t. Understand. It. I put 30 hours into it. I tried. I tried. But it’s not fun. I kept waiting for the story beats that are supposed to break my heart, but every twist only reinforced how much I HATE these characters, these sad robots in this world that looks like its from a PS2 game, the fan service garbage that I’m supposed to dismiss because it’s a Japanese game. It fails in dozens of ways. It’s fine. Like BOTW, it has a lot of novelty, but buries them in tedium.

 

The Game With Stunning Art Design and Style That Was So Brutally Difficult I Couldn’t Beat It That I’ll Probably Come Back Too When I Have More Patience

Cuphead

 

Cuphead is spectacular to look at. The animation, the sound, everything about it is fully realized, a homage to classic animation that truly captures the look and feel of it. It is fun to play. It is also incredibly frustrating, difficult to the point of absurdity at times. I will beat it, it just may take me a few more years of banging my head against it. It may have made the list, but I haven’t seen most of it.

 

My Top Ten

 

  1. Localhost

Localhost is a bite sized game on itch that surprised me when I played it. It’s SOMA meets Papers, Please, where you’re a low level employee tasked with cleaning up some old hard drives that just happen to have live AIs in them. They’re old, they’re useless, they’re garbage, and they need to be cleaned out. They are also alive, and definitely don’t want to be dead. They are also not reliable. Do you save them? Or do you do what you’re told?

 

  1. AC Origins

Assassin’s Creed needed a change. I’ve been detached from the series since 3, and even Black Flag’s fun ship combat couldn’t bring me back for long. It’s stagnant, and open world video game design had passed it by. Origins is exactly what the series needed. It brings in influence from a half dozen open world games, adding depth and flavor to an absolutely beautiful world. It is simply fun to explore Origins Egypt, and Bayek is a tremendous protagonist, full of charm and compassion.

 

  1. Tacoma

Tacoma is Fullbright’s long awaited follow up to Gone Home, a game that basically invented a genre, the often used as a pejorative “walking simulator”. Tacoma is not Gone Home, but is audacious and the logical iteration in the genre. Tacoma gives you run of a space station that has had…problems. And you need to figure out what happened. It gives you access to all perspectives, lets you dig into the environment, into all of these people’s lives. And it succeeds, both in execution and idea.

 

  1. Hollow Knight

There are so many Metroidvanias. So many of them, and it’s easy to miss any one of them. This feels like this year’s Ori and the Blind Forest. Neither break genre conventions, but they both take influence of Dark Souls, dialing up the difficulty while creating frankly beautiful and fully realized worlds to explore. Hollow Knight drops you into a dying land as a small bug-dude who needs to make things better. Confining themselves to a simple aesthetic, the creators wring a ton of variety out of a bevy of environments, and I felt myself having to continue, to dig deeper and deeper into the dirt.

 

  1. Prey

I love immersive sims, and Prey is the best one since Bioshock Infinite. Set in a space station beset by…something…you have to figure it out. You shoot the problems in this (unlike Tacoma). It shifts tones multiple times as your power level curves. The story is interesting and the depth of the station and world impressive. I will read emails from co-worker’s computers all day, and then shoot monsters.

 

  1. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade keeps echoing in my head. It’s a strange thing, a purposely small game made by a big studio, that tries to conquer the difficulty of mental illness with hard combat and hidden object puzzles. As strange as all that sounds, it largely succeeds, and has kept me thinking about it after I beat it. It’s a dark story, one that I wasn’t adequately prepared for when I sat down, but is unbelievably beautiful and heartbreaking. Senua is an amazing character, and Hellblade is a game you shouldn’t sleep on.

 

  1. Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil 7 left me flabbergasted, and is an impressive return to form in a series, much like Assassin’s Creed, that had stagnated, turning into a bad action game, losing all semblance of the horror game it once was. 7 changed all that. It is FULL of shocking moments that hit you with punch after punch to the gut. It lags a bit over the last couple hours, but the first few are the most gripping single player experience of the year.

 

  1. Horizon: Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn would be my number one game in any other year. It is the best open world game ever. Aloy is a great character in a beautiful world. The main gameplay loop was incredible, tracking and hunting robot dinosaurs deeply rewarding. The story and world are intricately crafted, and for one, I pushed for the end of the main storyline in an open world game, something that rarely works for me. It is a great game, a ten out of ten that only managed third on the list.

 

  1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

It is the game that has consumed 2017 for me. I’ve played it for 200 hours, and watched people stream it for probably twice or three times that. The battle royale game was unpolished, janky, but challenged what I thought a video game could be. It’s tense, exciting, thrilling. The final circle is nerve-wracking and exciting in a way I’ve never felt in a game before. The first time I won felt like the biggest victory I’ve ever achieved in a game. Each type of gameplay feels different from each other, and the amount of stories from sessions I’ve played is numerous. It’s the best shooter I’ve played in years, the best competitive multiplayer experience I’ve ever had. It’s amazing.

 

  1. What Remains of Edith Finch

WROEF is heartbreaking, beautiful, funny, affecting, and intricate. As Edith, you visit your childhood home, and explore it, visiting the death of family members through vignettes. Each one is special, bespoke. And every single one shows someone dying. But it never wavers into maudlin territory, imbuing each vignette with charm, humor, and joy, even with each character doomed. The design is wonderful, and every playthrough leaves me with more than I had prior. It’s gorgeous, well written, stunning in its depth. It’s relatively short, but dense with material, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is a game I will be revisiting for years, much like Edith.

Games That Almost Made The List

The Evil Within 2

Steamworld Dig 2

Dead Cells

 

Games That May Have Made The List If I Had Played Them In Time

Mario Odyssey

Night in the Woods

Wolfenstein II

Wrestlemania 33 Predictions!

Overall, I’m fairly interested in this Wrestlemania. I’ve seen a lot of negativity about the built, but I think since I’ve kept my expectations low, I’m still high on the possibilities. I’ll also be fairly drunk by the main event, so that should help. Some predictions:

Six Pack Challenge for the Smackdown Women’s Championship

So all the women on Smackdown are here, with a surprise return of Naomi in time for the event. They’ve compressed all of the women’s storylines into this match, which is both good and bad. Good that they all get a match on the card, bad in that I don’t expect much from a six person match.

What Should Happen: I don’t really know. My gut says they should put the title on Becky Lynch and let the heels chase it.

What Will Happen: Your guess is as good as mine. They could easily keep it on Alexa, give it to the always solid Mickie James, put it on their best wrestler Becky Lynch, or put it on the hometown hero Naomi, who was getting a big push and a good reaction prior to her injury. I’ll go with Naomi because they do seem very high on her right now. Feel the glow.

Cruiserweight Championship

With the WWE finally putting the belt on Neville, something they should have done from the get-go, the division has stabilized, and started to gain a little traction. Neville’s match with Gallagher at Fastlane was spectacular, and this match, given enough time, could easily be the best match on the card, pre-show or no.

What Should Happen: Aries should win. He hasn’t had any big matches yet, and giving him the title right now can extend this rivalry for a while, and give them some time to develop their other characters.

What Will Happen: Aries will win. I’ve never really enjoyed him as a face, but he can wrestle and he has a character the crowd recognizes. Neville hits the Red Arrow, Aries kicks out, locks in Last Chancery.

The ARMBAR

The match where guys with nothing to do are thrown. I’m glad it exists, because they at least get to appear. I really only think three guys have a real chance at it, and that’s Braun Strowman, Big Show, and Sami Zayn. All the others I expect to help sell their story.

What Should Happen: Honestly, Braun should probably win it. He needs some heat back after his loss to Roman Reigns at Fastlane. Big Show will get featured because he’s not getting his showdown with Shaq, but he should be putting other guys over at this point in his career. I want Sami to win in my heart of hearts, but I feel like him losing will be stepping stone to moving him over to Smackdown (I hope).

What Will Happen: Braun wins. He’s the clear favorite, and I suspect he’ll win so that he can jump right back into his rivalry with Roman. Last two are Show and Braun, with Braun dumping him in a show of force.

Triple Threat Raw Tag Team Championship Ladder Match

This match is going to be chaos, as most ladder matches devolve into. Strange choice to make it a ladder match the week before the show, especially with the buzz about the Hardys rejoining the WWE soon. It seems custom made for them to come back and crash the match, but Wrestlemania hasn’t really been the place for surprises lately, at least not drastic changes to the card.

What Should Happen: Enzo and Cass should win. They aren’t as good in the ring as either of the other two teams, but they are still over on the mic, and their first titles are long overdue.

What Will Happen: Enzo and Cass will win. They’ll hold the titles for a while, and maybe the Hardys appear the next night on Raw, although the WWE rarely does face vs face matches. Have to stick with it.

Intercontinental Championship

Despite how aimless Dean’s booking can be at times, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the former Jon Moxley. That being said, I think Baron Corbin is the most improved wrestler on the roster over the past year, and it’s about time for a championship run.

What Should Happen: Corbin wins. Ambrose is basically bulletproof, and Corbin needs the win and a title to give him some rub.

What Will Happen: Corbin wins. Ambrose does something crazy and loses, or Corbin maybe bends the rules a bit. Either way, Corbin walks out champ.

Mixed Tag Team Match

This match has had great build, mainly on the skill of The Miz and Cena. There’s long been a rumor of Cena and Nikki winning and then Cena proposing in the ring. Would be a great story and a fitting way to end Nikki’s career.

What Should Happen: Cena and Nikki win. Miz and Maryse were built to lose this match.

What Will Happen: Cena and Nikki wins, and Cena proposes in the middle of the ring. Miz and Maryse move on into another great feud, because Miz is straight up the best heel in the company right now.

Jericho vs Owens

The match with the longest and best build on the card, one that I don’t expect to be a great match technically, but one I do expect to have great storytelling, especially with these two in the ring.

What Should Happen: Jericho wins, finally getting revenge on his former best friend, redeeming himself in the process.

What Will Happen: Jericho’s post-Mania plans only include Fozzy, so I expect KO to win, maybe with some help from Samoe Joe, in pretty brutal fashion. Either way, this is the last of Jericho we see for a while, until his next run. Still staggering how good he’s been this late in his career.

Shane McMahon vs AJ Styles

Much snark has been uttered about this match wasting AJ Styles, but frankly I’d rather see him wrestling Shane O’ Mac than nobody at all. If anyone can pull a good match out of Shane at his age, it’s Styles.

What Should Happen: AJ wins when a crazy dive from Shane fails.

What Will Happen: AJ wins, and appears on Raw the next night, a fresh signing from a new GM.

Women’s Fatal 4-Way Elimination Championship

I’m much more intrigued by this match with it being an elimination match. It allows for more interesting booking and lets the final two shine more than if there were a couple other wrestlers laying on the outside. I’m a fan of all of them, even Nia, and I’m excited for this match.

What Should Happen: Sasha wins, with Bayley tapping out. I’m tired of Charlotte in the title picture, and Nia isn’t ready yet.

What Will Happen: Hard to say. All signs point to a Bayley/Sasha post Mania feud, calling back to the same in NXT, but how they execute it is all up in the air. Bayley wins, and Sasha beats her down after taking the pin. The Raw Women’s division hopefully gets Emma back, because it certainly needs fresh blood.

HHH vs Seth Rollins

The Destroyer and the Kingslayer. Rollins’ injury complicates this match, but ultimately the “non-sanctioned” stipulation (I guess it means No-DQ?) means they can play to Rollins’ limitation with his knee, and hopefully he won’t reinjure himself. I expect either Samoa Joe or Kevin Owens to play a part in this.

What Should Happen: Rollins wins, at the end of the day, and HHH disappears for a while. Rollins can feud with Owens or Joe.

What Will Happen: Rollins wins? It doesn’t really give them anything for HHH to win, but of course that hasn’t stopped them in the past. Maybe Finn Balor comes back and evens the odds, considering his appearances vs Hunter on house shows. It makes zero sense kayfabe wise, but whatever.

WWE Championship

Bray Wyatt, finally a champion, finally overcoming the horrible booking he’s faced for years. Randy Orton destroying the Wyatt family from the inside. I’ve liked the sometimes goofy build for this match, and think this will be the best match of the “main events”. Bray is a singular talent, and Randy is among the greatest when motivated.

What Should Happen: Bray wins. I feel like he’s had a terrific run lately, and should have a long run with the title.

What Will Happen: It feels obvious that Bray should win this, but I keep having doubts about them not putting the title on Randy and letting this rivalry run until Summerslam. I feel like it’s been paced relatively well, and I hope it ends here with a decisive Wyatt victory.

Roman Reigns vs Undertaker

Ugh. I’m not opposed to this match in theory, but the build for it has been atrocious. ‘Taker can barely move, and if I hear “my yard” again I’m going to tear my hair out. If Roman can pull even a good match out of a hobbled Undertaker, it proves his ability. I’m not holding my breath.

What Should Happen: Roman wins, decisively. He should destroy the Undertaker. What has bothered me most about Roman’s booking is his wishy washy morality. If he truly is the big dog, he should overwhelm the Undertaker.

What Will Happen: Who knows? This is by far the most interesting thing about this match, in their meta-narrative choices in how they book it. ‘Taker seems to be on his last legs as a performer, and if he’s finishing up his career, he should at least put over one wrestler from the so called New Era. But what do you do with Roman’s character after this? Is he just an unrepentant ass-kicker? The next Cena, where they feed him Strowman, and then Lesnar, and then whoever else is next? I hope not, but that’s what I fear. Roman wins, probably in a boring match that makes me feel bad for ‘Taker.

Universal Championship

Who cares? This match feels much like their last ‘Mania match, when both were heading out of the company. Brock will still be around after this match, but I expect this thing to be a hot pile of garbage.

What Should Happen: We travel back in time and Goldberg decides not to wrestle again. The title stays with Owens, or he loses it to someone else who could actually use it.

What Will Happen: Brock wins. Goldberg sweats a bunch, probably bleeds as well. Brock loses the title to Roman at Summerslam. I watch Smackdown exclusively.

Great Puzzles and Tedious Systems in Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best puzzle games ever created. It breaks the formula of past Zelda games, taking cues from A Link Between Worlds, and gives the player all the tools they need right at the beginning. The player has tremendous freedom, sometimes exhilarating freedom of solving problems the way they want. The open world is beautiful and full of secrets. Breath of the Wild is one of the best puzzle games ever created. Unfortunately that game is buried inside a slog of survival game elements that are tedious, frustrating, and most importantly, not fun.

Calamity Ganon is your enemy in the game, your first and last quest, to save the Princess Zelda from her 100 years of capture alongside him. Shrines, however, are the true driving force of the game because they hold the key to the fun in the game. Each is a puzzle. Some have clear themes, but most give the players several options about how to solve them. Most of them are fun, smart, and sometimes challenging. There are some where the challenge itself is getting to or finding the shrine. Others are simply combat challenges, which are the worst simply because they reveal the shallow nature of the combat when taking place in a staid environment. They also provide you with one quarter of either a heart container or a portion of a stamina bar, meaning every four shrines you receive an upgrade to your health or stamina.

Stamina is the most important resource in the game. More important than any of your abilities, more important than your Master Sword, and only somewhat more important than your map. It is important because stamina is your climbing currency. It is also your swimming and gliding currency, but swimming never felt incredibly vital, and gliding is incredibly generous with its exchange rate, so it never felt particularly tiresome. Stamina is the most important resource of the game because climbing is the most important part of the game.

There is more climbing in Breath of the Wild than in any other game I’ve ever played. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft could combine their franchises and they wouldn’t stand a chance. It is a double edged sword, one I felt cutting too deep, too often. On one hand, it is incredibly freeing, because you can climb most things in the game. There are very few artificial boundaries, allowing you to scale almost any object. On the other hand, the mechanics of climbing, for something you do SO OFTEN are incredibly monotonous and unfun. You push up, and watch your stamina meter drain. You slowly climb a surface, and hope your meter doesn’t run out before you reach the top. You do this over and over and over again, each stamina upgrade allowing you to go further. For a traversal action you’re using so much, it is incredibly boring. As you move through the game, you find ways to make the climbing easier and faster, all of which I used as often as possible. And all of this only applies if it isn’t raining.

Weather is one of the interweaving systems of Zelda, and again, it is inventive and impressive at times, and then it rains and stops you dead in your tracks for ten real world minutes while Link clings to the side of a mountain and you wait for the rain to stop so you can continue to climb, because it is simply impossible to climb when it is raining. It is also impossible to carry open flames when it’s raining, so multiple quests involving fire also require long moments of staring at your phone until the weather clears. That is definitively not fun.

Breath of the Wild subverts a lot of accepted open world design elements, avoiding the map clutter that often clogs up your map in similar games. It relies on line of sight from the towers that dot the map, and physically marking the map with elements you think are important or interesting. It’s a fun inclusion, because it lends itself to the mystery of the game. You have to go hunt down every shrine, and investigate every corner of the map if you want to find everything. It also clearly demonstrates the weakness of Nintendo’s hardware, as your vision is severely limited to only major landmarks. There is no recon of enemies, no real foresight available because the systems simply aren’t able to load all that detail in at the same time. It is not the only technical shortcoming of the game (I had sometimes severe slowdown, freezes, and even screen tearing at one point) but it is the most vital to gameplay.

Elements from survival games intrude in the game in almost every regard. Weapons degrade at unbelievable speed. Cooking is essential for survival and it is a tedious mess. Your inventory will be full of dozens and dozens of ingredients that you never really need to engage with. Of all the food you can make, you for some reason can’t craft arrows (most likely because you’d be unstoppable if you could). You are constantly grabbing plants and mushrooms and hunting animals to cook food to refill your health.

You will need to refill your health constantly, because you will take lots of damage in combat. It is difficult, but it didn’t usually feel difficult because I was overmatched. It often felt difficult because your combat controls are limited, your weapons break almost constantly, and rewards for even the most challenging combat felt terrible. Why should I engage the group of roaming moblins? Why should I fight the Guardians at all? I could just run away from them, and get back to the fun puzzles. Encounters could sometimes be beaten by using the numerous systems in the world to find emergent solutions, but too often I found myself equipping my most powerful weapon and wacking the enemies in the face until they died or the weapon broke. The lock on system is directly from Ocarina of Time, and was mostly useless, especially when facing multiple enemies.

The lack of fun combat made me mostly avoid combat encounters, and that adequately describes my experience with the game, which is avoiding a lot of the tedious systems so that I could get back to the puzzles. I engaged with every Shrine I saw, and beat each of the four actual dungeons in the game. I found and retrieved the Master Sword. The only main quest I didn’t finish was unlocking a series of memories that told the events that led to the decrepit state of the world. For a game that punishes you unless you are constantly exploring, there is no penalty for not engaging with the story whatsoever.

My favorite games make me constantly engage in their systems because they are inherently rewarding, but so much of Breath of the Wild is rewarding me for finding ways to not engage with their systems. There is so much of the game that I will never see because getting to it was tedious and unrewarding. Zelda is grand adventure and solving puzzles, and that Zelda is still in Breath of the Wild. You’re just going to have to slowly climb for a while, wait for the rain to pass, and then continue to slowly climb to get to it.

Top Ten Games of 2016

This was a great year for games. This is my top 10. The order might shift if you asked me tomorrow or next week, but all of them are terrific.

 

dark-souls-3

10. Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls, as a franchise, are games that I’ve always respected a lot, but have never really enjoyed playing. I’d get ten or fifteen hours in, and then give up in frustration, after getting tired of the purposeful grind and obfuscation. Dark Souls 3 changed that. It is accessible in simple, small ways that make it much more playable, and kept me going all the way through to the end. I enjoyed the simple storytelling and world building so much more in this installment, even as I died over and over again to some of the bosses. By streamlining the accessibility of the game, it allows the strong core mechanics to shine.

firewatch-2

9. Firewatch

The old “walking simulator” title has been used as a pejorative for a while now, but Firewatch is the evolution of that genre which focuses on two things I love: exploration and story. It does what so few games can accurately portray, in truly making you feel alone and vulnerable. Your relationship in the game is only heard in conversations, as two flawed people try and make a connection. The acting, writing, and art are all top-notch, and the simple addition of an in-game disposable camera truly lends authenticity to it. You can even order prints after you finish the game.

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8. Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is the most understated of the games on this list, and yet it is probably the one I had the hardest time putting down. As I working my way through it, it is the game that most dominated my thoughts away from it. An amalgam of Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and a slew of other farming and slice-of-life games, it managed to hook me in a way that so few other games of that ilk have. It has charm, something that many games try to capture but most don’t. You come to like all the characters in Stardew Valley, and the weird quirks, and the hidden depths at the edges of the game. That it is the work of precisely one man makes it all the more impressive. It feels like a game I’ll play all the way through once a year.

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7. The Witness

The Witness landed early in the year with a lot of mystery and questions. The long awaited project from Jonathan Blow finally arrived, and it captured my obsession early in the year. The seemingly simple puzzle game did something that so many few games do, and that is make me look at the world differently. The simple tracing puzzles add complexity and depth as you explore the beautiful island the game takes place on, and you learn that the world itself is a part of the puzzle. After playing, I found myself looking for similar puzzles in real life, and in other games, just as an example of how it changes your perception. It is much less directed than Braid ever was, but feels to be saying so much more.

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6. Hyper Light Drifter

I feel like this game didn’t receive proper credit through the year. It is everything I want in a 2D action adventure game. Amazingly beautiful pixel art, great soundtrack, and super tight mechanics. Combat is challenging but rewarding. The world feels lived in and exploration always feels rewarding. Everything about the game feels bespoke and purposeful. Progression is meaningful, and everything you unlock feels earned. A love letter to Zelda, but more intricate and subtle. The story is purposefully obscured, a mystery you unlock as you play, left up to the player to interpret. Absolutely worth a play.

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5. Overwatch

In a year with so many excellent shooters, Overwatch might actually be the greatest achievement, in that it made me play a team-based shooter, and kept me coming back, over and over again. It seems like a simple structure, one laid out most popularly by Team Fortress 2, but then added layers of character, style, and complexity to it. With what is now a cast of 23 different characters, all of which have unique abilities and playstyles, along with a completely different feel, and most importantly, feel balanced. Each character is injected with attitude and style in very simple and easy ways that have inspired a rapid fandom. D-Va main, btw.

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4. Titanfall 2

I have not played a military shooter since Modern Warfare. After hearing so many rave about it, I dove back into the genre and could not have been more pleased about choosing this game as the re-entry point. The single player campaign is fun and action packed, and the multiplayer is addictive. Both are built on the foundations of exciting fast gameplay predicated on wall-running, grappling, and moving quickly. Shoot, wallrun, jump, slide, shoot, call in a titan, and then roam the battlefield as a giant mech that changes the gameplay dynamics again. All of this is further varied by choice of loadout, titan, and play style. It is hard to go back to other games after, just because of the speed. Of all the games on this list, so very few others makes you feel so bad ass after you get a ridiculous kill or make an incredible play.

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3. Doom

How do you successfully modernize Doom? You make a fast, tight shooter that embraces all the goofy horror of demons and hell. You make levels are that fun to explore and fight in, and take advantage of verticality that so many shooters don’t, and reward the player for doing so. You make the story take the right blend of cleverness and irony, and then dial it up. It is violent, it is over the top, it is fast. It is Doom.

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2. Hitman

When it was announced that Hitman would be released episodically, I almost dismissed it completely. I had never really been interested in the Hitman games, and episodic games almost never hold my interest, at least not until it’s released as a complete season. That was a mistake, because Hitman is perhaps the perfect example of how episodic releases can and probably should work. By giving the players the time to truly explore each level, unlocking new items as they go, they can really savor the depth and quirk that is lovingly crafted for each main location in the game. The game doesn’t take itself seriously, and it lets the truly absurd situations of mayhem develop organically. Ever wanted to walk the catwalk as a fashion model and then drop the stage itself on your target? Or kill a dictator by dropping a toilet on him? Or push a Yakuza lawyer off a cliff while disguised as a yoga instructor? Each level embraces the freedom of open world games and gives the players an amazing toy set to play with.

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1. Enter the Gungeon

This has become my favorite twin-stick shooter of all time, and favorite roguelike (or roguelite) of all time. I bounce off a lot of both, but this has a perfect sense of challenge and skill, and I very rarely feel cheated when I die. With the wide array of weapons borrowed from other properties (there is one that shoots the shark from Jaws, another is straight up a proton pack) the combat is always fun and new, and every run truly does feel different. Even on failed runs there’s always a sense of discovery and freshness that kept me coming back. There’s even a semblance of a story, of which most roguelikes and schmups kind of forget about. The cute art style, tongue-in-cheek humor, and pun based gun villains are icing on the cake. So much fun.

 

A post script: I didn’t play everything. Here’s some games that could have cracked the list if I had played them. They’ll have to wait until next year.

Superhot

Obduction

Inside

Dishonored 2

Watchdogs 2

Owlboy

Tyranny

A Timely, Scathing “Review” of Drive

There was a Twitter meme floating around yesterday about hot takes on movies. My hot take is that Drive, from 2011, the critical darling, loudly praised as a masterpiece, is hot garbage. A garbage fire. An “ephemeric splash of blue/orange/Gosling colored sewage” I replied to Andrew Bloom when he asked for some slack cut because of Albert Brooks’ presence. I’m going to try and explain precisely why I hate that movie so much, but please forgive me because I’m going off my memory of one viewing and a plot summary from wikipedia.

The long and short of it is style over substance, but I think even that understates it, because the style in and of itself is borrowed from a dozen other films. The Driver, a man with no name (do you get it, remember, Clint Eastwood, right?), played by Ryan Gosling is ostensibly our protagonist, but I don’t know why I’m supposed to like him, or even find him compelling. He’s handsome, he has a mysterious past, he wears a cool jacket. That’s all we get, and when he meets the new neighbor, his love interest for the movie, she knows even less about him. She likes him, as far I can tell, but it seems to be because they glance at each other a lot. If this was a set-up for a relationship in a romantic comedy, it would have been thrashed, but because it’s a neo-crime-thriller or whatever nonsense genre people want to ascribe to it, it’s suddenly permissible?

Love Interest also has a husband in prison, and everything devolves into chaos and crime where we finally see The Driver unleash his ultraviolence on some dudes. I guess this is when we’re supposed to feel shocked and stunned, much like Love Interest, but showing a man willing to commit crime is not interesting to me. Mysterious handsome silent white guy who dispenses murder is a thing I’ve seen before many times, and having it over synth pop does not distinguish it to me. “There’s neon!” cries the critics, and I reply “Yes, I remember the 80’s as well.” Why do I care about any of these people? Why do I care that The Driver is relapsing in violence? Because he’s pretty and he’s nice to his neighbor’s kid? At the end of the day, it felt like I was supposed to care because about these characters because of memories I have of other characters like them, from other movies. Yes, archetypes are an essential part of film vocabulary, but this archetype is the most boring, most used. Making it “arty” doesn’t suddenly make it interesting to me.

The movie looks really nice. It is the most blue and orange thing I can remember. It’s well shot, and I like the soundtrack. The actors are good-to-great, but I couldn’t even remember that Ron Perlman’s character was named Nino, when one of my best friends from college also had that relatively unique name. Every character is a trope from an older and better movie. I don’t care about any of them. It’s critique that I also have of the recent Netflix series Stranger Things (although I actually enjoyed Stranger Things). Arranging tropes I like in a slightly new and different way does not make something good.

This movie is nothing. It is tissue paper painted neon with synth pop playing around it. It is fifty films collaged together into an illusion.

The night I saw Drive my then-girlfriend and now-wife and I considered walking out, but because we were with a group, we stayed. I consider it a hallmark of our compatibility.

Money in the Bank 2016 Predictions

It’s been a while, but a nice wrestling prediction post is a good thing. So here are my thoughts for MITB 2016.

Golden Truth vs Breezango

Oh Tyler Breeze. You became exactly what we all expected. I’ve heard that this is a good low-card angle, but I can’t muster up any excitement for it. Golden Truth wins?

Winner: Golden Truth

The Dudley Boyz vs The Lucha Dragons

Is there a story to this match? The Dragons should win this, as the Dudleyz are clearly in the nostalgia heel team that puts over younger teams role now. The Dragon wins, and Kalisto gets a nice warm up for his spot in the ladder match.

Winner: The Lucha Dragons

Baron Corbin vs Dolph Ziggler

How is this still happening? This feud has gone on and on and on, with entirely too much amateur wrestling headgear involved, with entirely too many DQ and non-DQ stipulations involved. Big Banter wins, convincingly.

Winner: Baron Corbin

Rusev vs Titus O’Neil

I’m glad to see Titus in anything meaningful, but there is a 0% chance that he wins this match. Rusev is being built back up as a monster heel, and is doing a great job. Rusev crush!

Winner: Rusev

Charlotte & Dana Brooke vs Natalya & Becky Lynch

Seemingly a placeholder women’s match, with no title implications. Seem like they’re treading water until Summerslam, and despite reports about Sasha Banks’ injury bug, I still don’t see how they don’t get her involved soon. Since this is a match with a heel champion with no actual implications, Nattie and Becky win.

Winner: Natalya & Becky Lynch

New Day vs. Enzo & Big Cass vs. The Vaudevillains vs. The Club

This match should be really entertaining, with a lot of nonsense and mayhem. The New Day certainly don’t need the belts, and taking it off of them in a four way certainly protects them from the loss, but I don’t see them losing the titles. If and when they lose them, it’ll be something more meaningful. I hope.

Winner: The New Day

The Money in the Bank Ladder Match (Alberto Del Rio vs Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens vs Chris Jericho vs Dean Ambrose vs Cesaro vs ?)

The Ladder match rarely disappoints, and I fully expect this match to be another barn burner. Anyone could theoretically win this match, but most are narrowing it to either Owens or Ambrose. Owens has been consistently great, but I think to predict this match you have to look down the line to what the Wrestlemania plans are. Considering the Shield triple threat was the plan for ‘Mania this year until Rollins got hurt, I fully expect them to push it to next year. I also expect a Zayn/Owens match in what will probably be a life-long blood feud in the WWE. I fully expect Ambrose to win, because it’s the simplest thing in the world and the potential for those three in the same story will always be compelling. They can’t screw that up, right?

Winner: Dean Ambrose

John Cena vs AJ Styles

AJ Styles is the best wrestler in the world. John Cena knows that, but I don’t think he understands it. Styles wins, no interference, no Club, no Finn. Just Cena losing because he’s not prepared, and still recovering from his injury. He’ll probably get his win back at either of or both of the next PPVs, but Styles wins the first.

Winner: AJ Styles

Roman Reigns vs Seth Rollins

All of that history, and this is where it ends? No one expects it to, and I expect we’ll see some nonsense DQ ending. Or Roman wins and Rollins weasels his way into another match. Whichever happens, these two are going to be fighting long enough for the new MITB holder Dean Ambrose to get involved at some point.

Winner: Roman Reigns

Creating Space For Conversation: Why I Podcast

I have been podcasting for just over two years now, first doing the Handsome Boys Comics Hour, and then starting The Simpsons Show (a year ago on this date). I want to do more of them, but adding more to my workload would probably strain me to the point of breaking. Juggling a full time job and two podcasts is hard enough when trying to get a social life and some video games in. However, I would make one exception for sure, and that is any kind of podcast project with my wife. Now, she included in one of her marriage vows to do at least an episode with me, so I have witnesses that she would participate, but still, I feel like that is out of some kind of obligation. When I asked her the other day what she’d be interested in talking about, she asked me, why? Why do we need to record our conversation, and release it? Why not just have the conversation?

Podcasts are near and dear to my heart, even with me being a relative newcomer to a medium that’s been around for over a decade, but is now just gaining real traction with the general public. Why podcast? The obvious first answer is that it’s fun. You get to create a freeform radio show of your own devising, and stretch your creativity. There is no one telling you what you can or cannot do. You can create whatever type of show you want.

I think that’s the most obvious answer, however. The true reasoning of why I podcast, and why I love podcasts in general is that starting a show, of some kind, about something, creates a space for conversation to exist. In our modern world, it’s rare to just sit down and talk about a specific topic with someone, even a close friend or spouse. Even if you do, do you really analyze it, do you really look at it with a critical eye? And even if you do, do you really explore the topic? Do you really cover every angle? Probably not. We talk, we share ideas, but anyone you would converse with at such a level would probably already share a lot of your sentiments. Just with the act of exposing the conversation to the public, you open it to the idea of other opinions, for good or ill.

As well, by creating a rigid schedule, by giving yourself a responsibility to create this show, you now have an appointment to have a conversation. And that is a wonderful thing. You are forced to look at something with a critical eye, to think about it in different ways, to even expand your opinion at most. The simple act of recording it, and showing it to the world makes a normal conversation that much better. That, mixed with the ability to create your own unique take on the medium, and the fellowship of recording something, of sharing the experience, truly makes podcasting a extremely unique medium, one that is still growing.

Gimme Shelter: First Thoughts on Fallout 4

I stayed up for the Bethesda conference, watching Giant Bomb’s stream of the event, waiting anxiously for Fallout 4. The trailer release two weeks hinted at a lot of things, but the official news from last night couldn’t have me more excited.

New stuff:

  • Voiced characters
  • House and community building
  • Mass Effect style conversation wheels
  • Faster, more true FPS style combat, with true iron sights
  • Pipboy App

Old stuff, but better:

  • A dog
  • Weapon crafting
  • Facial customization
  • Colors! Plants! Animations!

First things first, a lead character that talks is the biggest change from previous games. Frankly, I’m all for it. The acting sounded great in the trailer, and should serve to add more emotion to the story. The house building seems obvious now, especially that it was added into Skyrim. But letting you create entire settlements from the ground up is literally the thing I wanted most in Fallout 3, and now is a reality. Building the dystopia back into something seemed like a goal of the first game, and this is letting you do that. It has so much potential. The crafting system as a whole is fun and deep, and should allow for all kinds of possibilities.

The conversation wheels are a shift, and although I had no problem with the previous conversation system, this is cleaner and faster, and makes more sense with a talking main character. Only potential flaw is the sin that Mass Effect sometimes committed, which is a misleading descriptor of what your character will say. Hopefully they’ll be clear enough to make the intent obvious.

The combat looks leagues better. True iron sights, sprinting, and a more dynamic VATS should make what could become systematic in FO3 more interesting and varied. The customization of weapons should also let you identify a weapon that you really like and really feels like you as a character. Not to mention the airlifts and jetpacks and custom power armor. Just so much stuff. With all the stuff they showed, there’s still so much there left unsaid. Is there still a good/evil dynamic to it? How big is the world? How many quests? With the depth of FO3 and Skyrim, and them trumpeting this is their biggest game yet, it seems like there’ll be a massive amount of ground to cover.

Not to mention the Pipboy app for your phone or tablet. Of all the gimmicky things to include, it is the one that I’m the most stupid excited about. Will it be any faster than just using the game? Probably not, but just having it is a cool touch that they didn’t have to do, but did anyway.

Speaking of, I’ve been playing the Fallout Shelter mobile game all day. I’ve gotten into a pickle by overextending myself, and leaving myself defenseless by sending out my only gun into the Wasteland, but I’m starting to get my feet under me again. Having a lot of fun with it, and it’s scratching that itch, for now at least. 148 days!