It’s that time of year again! Read on for the best and worst of 2014. Accolades are given to A.M. Homes, George Saunders, Tim Kreider, Sheri Fink, Joe Ollmann, Gabrielle Bell, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Stern talking-tos are given to Scott Bradfield, Jonathan Miles, David Sedaris, Mark Singer, Jesse Reklaw, Jeff Smith, and Wes Anderson. Apologies for any typos; I’ve been working on this all day and I can’t stand looking at it anymore.
My recommendations are marked with stars (★) because god forbid I use the same system two years in a row.
Over the course of 2015 I intend to switch to a new format in which I review things throughout the year and drop this annual post format, which has gotten to be unmanageably large. Check back every now and then for more reviews, and we’ll meet here next January to sort out the winners.
★ Pessl, Marisha. Night Film.
This book was a pleasant surprise for me, an engaging thriller written with decent style and characters. The mystery has plenty of twists and turns, and, happily, two separate resolutions, allowing the reader to choose to believe whichever answer they prefer. While not a perfect book, this is about as well-realized as anything in its genre. I recommend it.
★ Palahniuk, Chuck. Rant.
I picked this up because I wanted to read one of Palahniuk’s books and it was the only one the library had. Palahniuk’s style is here in full force, and he displays remarkable skill at characterization and voice. The story is both surreal and solid, bizarre and believable, somewhere between Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. It was a good introduction to Palahniuk.
Barnes, John. Orbital Resonance.
Barnes is one of my favorite science fiction writers due to his attention to style and character. This is one of his earlier novels. It follows the story of a group of adolescents who live on a station made from an asteroid. Strong character voice and motivations, though the plot is a bit thin. All in all, it was lim koapy, pos-def.
Dick, Philip K. Ubik.
A fairly typical entry for Dick, predictable to me but probably full of mind-bending twists for PKD newcomers. I think my favorite thing about it was the outlandish costumes that his characters wear. Not my favorite of his novels, but there are worse places one could start.
Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I only read this to take part in the SCBWI illustration challenge, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. If you’ve never read it before it’s definitely worth a look.
★ Saunders, George. Pastoralia.
I first read this collection of George Saunders’s short stories several years ago, and it was high time to read it again. Highly recommended for its wit, surreality, satire, and simply all-around excellence.
★ Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club.
Still an ingenious book, but compared to Rant, it’s evident that Palahniuk’s style has matured considerably since it was written.
Walter, Jess. The Financial Lives of the Poets.
If you’ve read my book on fiction writing, this title should be familiar to you. There’s nothing technically wrong with this book, but it tends to come off like a pale imitation of Breaking Bad.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies.
This was my first time reading this one, and I rather enjoyed it, as much as it makes sense to say you “enjoy” a book like this.
Bradfield, Scott. The History of Luminous Motion.
Bradfield manages to be surreal without managing to make sense or create believable characters. This book was a disappointment to me, especially when compared to Palahniuk’s work.
Coville, Bruce. Aliens Ate My Homework.
This is a book I really liked as a kid. As an adult I now see that many of its science-fictional ideas are nothing remotely original, but it still has charm and enthusiasm.
Miles, Jonathan. Want Not.
If a time traveler visited you and asked for an example of a completely typical 21st-century literary novel, Want Not would be a strong contender. This is a book always rises to the level of passable without ever being excellent in any way. It’s not that it’s bad, it just has little to nothing to distinguish it from a million other decent but ultimately forgettable novels that fill much of the “literary fiction” genre today.
Zarr, Sara. Story of a Girl.
I wanted to sample some “young adult” fiction (a booming category at the moment), and I chose this particular book because it was a finalist for the National Book Award. While it was well-written and had believable characters, overall it seemed a bit superficial, approaching something deeper without actually getting there. It was all right, but it could be more than what it is.
★ Saunders, George. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
George Saunders here creates a modern fable, which is then illustrated by Lane Smith–a recipe for success if there ever was one! Fun for adults, no doubt also rewarding for children.
Powers, Richard. Orfeo.
I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Powers’s writing. I’ve read quite a few of his books at this point, and I tend to find his style simultaneously engaging and off-putting, his approach by turns elegant or pretentious. He also has a tendency to include one really annoying character in each of his books. Well, this book is typical Powers in every regard. It has a sweeping, engaging story, memorable characters, and believable development, mixed in with all his usual sources of irritation. This time his subject is classical music, so naturally he shoehorns a lot of information about it into the narrative, not usually very gracefully. Despite its unevenness, though, it has a degree of power to it, and easily distinguishes itself from mediocrities such as Want Not and Story of a Girl. If you don’t mind Powers’s style, or if you want to give him a try, this might be a good place to start.
★ Homes, A.M. Music for Torching.
Homes is a strange writer, by turns swinging from realism to absurdism with surprising grace. Her protagonists here try to revitalize a failed marriage by burning their home, a plan which fails but plunges them into an ongoing series of encounters with bizarre local characters. Not a book I’d recommend to most people, but if you like that kind of thing, it’s excellent.
Our lucky winners:
Best fiction: Music for Torching by A.M. Homes. A really fascinating and intricately-crafted book, a rare case in which I wish I’d bought it rather than borrowing it. There’s a lot of writing lessons here, even beyond its appeal to the reader.
Runner-up: Pastoralia by George Saunders. Just as good, if not better, the second time.
Worst fiction: The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield. I had high hopes for this book, but it consistently failed to make any kind of narrative sense, not even managing to be surreal in the same vein as Palahniuk or Pynchon. If I hadn’t kept this list all year, I’d probably have totally forgotten about it by now.
Runner-up: Want Not by Jonathan Miles. While not terrible, this book commits the serious crime of being nothing more than mediocre. It’s decent in many ways, even memorable, but there are better ways to spend your time.
Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.
I’ve had this book kicking around forever without getting around to reading it. Well, now I’ve read it, and unfortunately it wasn’t really as good as I’d hoped. The subject is interesting, and Seife successfully explained to me the concept of imaginary numbers (although said understanding evaporated almost immediately). The problem with it is that Seife’s style tends to be a bit tacky at times, trying for a sort of understated humor that never quite connects and frequently invoking the word “zero” with the melodrama of a movie trailer. Still, if you’re interested in math books, it may be worth checking out; there’s only one other popular-audience book on the topic and if Amazon is to be believed, it’s not much better.
★ Kreider, Tim. We Learn Nothing.
I became familiar with Kreider’s work in college, where his Bush-era cartoons were introduced to me by a longtime “frenemy.” Anyway, enough about that, Kreider has forsaken cartooning (shame, shame!) in favor of essays, and has proven himself to be a very capable and entertaining writer. These essays are impeccable in their style and frequently hilarious. Kreider combines anecdotes from his life with his own musings and creates a potent mix of insight and humor in doing so. Highly recommended.
Blank, Hanne. Straight: The Curiously Short History of Heterosexuality.
An interesting book, but my memory for it is bad and so I can’t say much about it. Worth a read if you’re interested in the subject matter.
Sedaris, David. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.
I read Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim last year and enjoyed it, and I expected to enjoy this one just as well. For whatever reason, his writing didn’t seem so fresh this time around. I could barely get into any of the essays, and those that I read rarely seemed more than slightly amusing. I returned the book to the library without finishing it.
★ Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, et al. The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart’s letters present a wonderful overview of his short but eventful life. Encompassing everything from the quotidian (looking for work, poor living accomodations) to the topical (hated musicians, new composition projects), with a hefty dose of real-life family drama. The legend holds true: Leopold Mozart was a real asshole.
★ Mukherjee, Siddharta. The Emperor of All Maladies.
This is a fascinating exploration of cancer and our relationship to it. Mukherjee covers its treatment, our understanding of its causes, and its implications to our lives, with a great deal of detail and vividness. A terrific look at science at work.
Singer, Mark. Somewhere in America.
A decent but ultimately unremarkable collection of essays about curious traditions and small-town controversies from across America. I enjoyed reading it, but it has little lasting power in my memory.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. While Dawkins makes some interesting points, he obviously has an axe to grind, and this makes his arguments come across as fairly one-sided and shallow, even to those who might agree with him.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor.
I picked this up because it was frequently referenced in The Emperor of All Maladies. Sontag’s exploration of the symbolic value of illness is an interesting one, and worth a look if you’re curious.
★ Fink, Sheri. Five Days at Memorial.
As of this writing I have yet to finish this book, but it’s been a really impressive piece of writing so far. Fink examines the drama of Katrina-afflicted hospital Memorial Medical Center, at which some critically ill patients were allegedly euthanized rather than rescued. The first half paints a vivid picture of the misery and desperation of those stuck in the flooded hospital, the second details the criminal investigation that followed. The book raises questions while telling a horrifying and engaging story–really, who could ask for anything more?
Our lucky winners:
Best Non-fiction: We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider. It’s been less than a year and already I want to re-read this book. It is both funny and insightful, a pure delight. Read it post-haste.
Runner-up: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. Assuming it doesn’t crap out in the last hundred pages, this is one very impressive book. Meticulously researched, well-constructed, and vividly recreated, it’s undoubtedly one of the most stunning things I’ve read in a long time.
Worst Non-fiction: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris. As the only book on this list which I couldn’t manage to finish, it’s a pretty clear contender for Worst. There’s nothing specific wrong with it, I’ll admit, but it just didn’t engage me.
Runner-up: Somewhere in America by Mark Singer. I enjoyed it well enough while reading it, but it just didn’t make a very big impression on me.
Gloeckner, Phoebe. A Child’s Life.
I like Gloeckner’s drawings but her subject matter really isn’t to my tastes, I found. It’s a decent enough memoir; it doesn’t compare to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, but then again, what does?
★ Siddell, Tom. Gunnerkrigg Court, volumes 1-3.
I’ve been reading GC for a long time, and it seemed like a good time to re-read some of the old issues. All I can say is, geez but this guy knows how to hide foreshadowing. Despite what one might think, he seems to have planned every little thing right from the beginning. No wonder his revelations never disappoint.
Smith, Jeff. RASL.
“RASL” stands for “Romance at the Speed of Light,” and if that sounds silly, that’s because it is. Smith’s first major non-Bone project was more than a little disappointing to me; it’s little more than a combination of very tired science fiction tropes and melodramatic character development. Characters aren’t very likable and there’s a definite sense that Smith was trying very intentionally to be “edgy” without really knowing why. Add on some miscellaneous weirdness that’s never fully explained, and you have this big mess of a story that flounders around without really accomplishing anything. Bone earned its status as a classic; RASL is destined to be forgotten. (It should be noted that there’s some nice stuff about Tesla buried in here, and in my opinion Smith should have just written an entire comic about him instead.)
Deitch, Kim. Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
I’d never read one of Deitch’s books start to finish before, though I’d admired them from time to time. His drawings have a fascinating “Where’s Waldo” quality to them, but I must say–he’s very challenging to actually read. A few pages and I was completely exhausted.
★ Shaw, Dash. Bottomless Belly Button.
I first read this a few years ago and it remains a favorite of mine. Shaw presents a sort of family drama in miniature as an impending divorce draws relatives together for one final get-together, creating a little theater of human interactions. Yet even as the characters play off of each other, a subtle but pervasive surreal element begins to creep into the story, creating a potent mix of realism and weirdness.
★ Ollmann, Joe. Science Fiction.
This is a brilliantly tragicomic graphic novel, short but sweet at around 100 pages. Ollmann’s drawings are rich and expressive; perfectly suited to his subject, an interpersonal drama about a man who becomes convinced that he was once abducted by aliens. Well-written and well-drawn. Highly recommended.
★ Bell, Gabrielle. The Voyeurs.
Most cartoonists can’t write about their own day-to-day angst and make it worth reading, but Bell can. The Voyeurs collects several years’ worth of her deeply personal comics. Due in no small part to her almost devastating honesty, this book provides a surprisingly deep insight into the life of another person.
Ware, Chris. Acme Novelty Library #16.
This is part of Ware’s “Rusty Brown” cycle and doesn’t stand up particularly well on its own. I wouldn’t recommend reading it until you can do so in the context of the complete set.
Carre, Lilli. The Lagoon.
Carre’s short story collection took home my “best comics” award last year, but this book didn’t quite impress me to the same degree. I think her writing style simply works better in short-form than long-form, though this book admittedly is not very long.
Allison, John. Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit.
Is there something wrong with me that I just can’t understand Allison’s writing? Because I can’t. I really can’t. I’ve tried multiple times and I just can’t figure it out. I can’t understand the characters, I don’t get the humor, and the storylines just confuse me. His drawings are nice but… I just can’t figure it out. Oh well.
★ Burns, Charles. Black Hole.
Another re-read. Black Hole is a weird and impressive book, a mishmash of hippie-era teenage drama and bizarre horror. Burns’s drawings are virtuosic and unsettling, and his writing captures the sentimentality inherent to his teenage characters without going overboard. Well worth a look.
★ Beauchamp, Monte, ed. Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World.
This book is an interesting idea: various living cartoonists draw biographical profiles of prominent cartoonists from (mostly) the past. The quality of the contributions varies considerably; Drew Friedman contributes the virtuosic and personal profile of R. Crumb, the profile of Charles Schulz is drawn by someone much less well-known or skilled. There are a few inexplicable inclusions and exclusions as well, such as Hugh Hefner (in) and Will Eisner (out). Other inclusions are unusual but deserving, such as Al Hirschfeld, Charles Addams, and Dr. Seuss. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s a fascinating concept and overall fairly well-done.
Cho, Michael. Shoplifter.
Cho’s artwork is wonderful; slick black-and-white brushwork combined with an unexpected (pink!) spot color. The story is a familiar and predictable twenty-something self-discovery tale, at the end of which the protagonist quits her job to write a novel while still residing alone in a big-city apartment, a situation which I can’t imagine panning out. Still, the dialogue and character interactions are well-done, so if you can get past the run-of-the-mill story it’s worth a read.
Reklaw, Jesse. Couch Tag.
Like many people, my primary knowledge of Reklaw came from his long-running dream journal webcomic, Slow Wave. This is something different. This is (sigh) a memoir of childhood. Why do I keep reading these things? It’s an ongoing series of recollections provided without much in the way of self-examination or ongoing narrative. Overall, the impression this book leaves is that Reklaw is doing a lot of cartooning without really having anything to say.
Best comics: Science Fiction by Joe Ollmann. Good art and good writing, and that’s what I like best.
Runner-up: The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell. Bell joins the very small ranks of people who can write about themselves in a way that is of interest to others. While reading this book, you can almost imagine that you are Gabrielle Bell.
Worst comics: Couch Tag by Jesse Reklaw. Art is decent, but the book just drags on and on without ever really saying anything interesting. Reklaw is not Gabrielle Bell, or Alison Bechdel, or Phoebe Gloeckner for that matter. As I said before, why do I keep reading these things?
Runner-up: RASL by Jeff Smith. I waited a long time for this, and boy did it ever disappoint. Seemingly trying to be the diametrical opposite of Bone in every way, the book also succeeds in killing the joy and originality that made that story a classic.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
One of the few Harry Potter films I enjoyed for its merits rather than its faults. I’d rank it among the better entries in the series, alongside Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
This is an ungainly giant of a movie, a huge mass of ideas and effort that crashes around without a whole lot of direction, breaking things as it goes. It’s quite fascinating, and at times enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite come together in the same way that some of Anderson’s later films do. Recommended for Wes Anderson aficionados, but not a good start for those unfamiliar with his style.
★ The Wind Rises.
If this is indeed Miyazaki’s final film, it’s a decent if uncharacteristic note on which to end. The fictionalized story of a Japanese fighter-plane designer doesn’t have exactly the same charm as, say, Spirited Away, but still manages a deeply human look at a person in a very technical career. A strange but charming labor of love, and occasionally even a tear-jerker.
A festival of anime weirdness. Yet another story about a dream-related technology that spirals out of control and causes reality itself to go haywire, but done with such all-in aplomb that it’s hard to resist. The mailbox and the refrigerator will lead the way!
★ Toy Story.
Despite being nearly twenty years old, Toy Story has held up surprisingly well. Pixar’s decision to focus on character development has kept the story as fresh as ever, and even the CGI is largely decent. Good work has lasting power.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part I.
What a joyless, miserable piece of storytelling this is. It just goes on and on without doing anything worth paying attention to, and rarely even making a modicum of sense. The only part where I really felt anything was during Dobby’s death scene, but I found it not so much tragic as uproariously funny. However: the animation that explains what the Deathly Hallows are was cool. Very, very cool. I forgive the rest of the movie because at least it knows how to keep good company.
★ The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Wes Anderson at the top of his game. Silly, serious, sweeping, and overall entertaining, the “grand” of the title might as well describe the film itself rather than the titular hotel. There’s not a whole lot I can say about it other than that you should watch it; it’s unlike anything else. The score is quite good, too.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part II.
The torture is finally over. Perhaps not quite as bad as its predecessor, but still deadly boring and without the cool animated segment that so improved the last one. I would jokingly say that the best part was the ending, but it ends with a horrifically stupid flash-forward, so forget that.
★ Pulp Fiction.
An incredible movie. The story is as nonsensical as its title would suggest, but great acting, writing, and directing make it all come together beautifully. The nonlinear storytelling is a fascinating touch. Brilliant and unique.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Not among my favorite Coen brothers films, but it has its charms. It just didn’t make a big impression on me, and if you’ve read this far you know that’s one of my sticking points, subjective as it is.
★ Kill Bill, 1&2
I never imagined I would watch these movies, but I was pleasantly surprised by them. Tarantino’s direction is exuberant to say the least, and the action genre proves surprisingly whimsical, and even ballet-like, when turned up to maximum intensity as it is here. It’s nonsense, sure, and very violent nonsense at that, but it doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and thus succeeds surprisingly well.
This isn’t a perfect film taken out of context, but most of its faults can be seen as inevitable given the scope of the project. For those not in the know, this film was made over a period of twelve years; it follows the story of a boy growing from a young child to a young man as its actors age in real time. As an exploration of the passage of time I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and its characters are well-developed and believable. The biggest problem I had with it is that the parents tend to be more interesting than the ostensible protagonist, but in this case that seems more of a minor problem than a major one.
Fantastic Mr. Fox.
My third and final venture into Wes Anderson Land this year, and a major disappointment. I did not enjoy this movie. The animation is stellar, but the characters annoying and the plot painfully slow. I suspect the main problem was simply that the movie was longer than it should have been, especially given that it’s based on one of Roald Dahl’s shorter books. Particularly grating is the titular Mr. Fox’s condescending patriarchal attitude, which borders on megalomania. A more descriptive title would have been The Arrogant Mr. Fox Spits on Everyone Who is Not Him, and is Ultimately Rewarded for It.
The Virgin Suicides.
Well-acted and well-directed, but though I haven’t read the book I suspect it’s not very well-adapted, as the writing tends to be kind of vague. You can’t have a whole bunch of girls kill themselves without better exploring what led them to do so. I plan to read the book soon.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
A potentially good but ultimately failed drama. There are some likable characters and good performances, but there are far too many questions left dangling. The protagonist’s love interest is just that; her character is not developed beyond being a very transparent Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. At the end, the characters burn their house down, which seemed fascinating to me, as it left a good deal of uncertainty about how they’d survive without it–and then the film flashes forward a year without even acknowledging the question. Also, the score is abysmal. Skip.
A French movie about a girl who impersonates a boy. It wasn’t a terrible movie, and its exploration of gender concepts was better than most I’ve seen, but ultimately it felt somewhat superficial to me.
Under the Skin.
An “art house” film through-and-through. Interesting in some ways, dull in others. I took a break halfway through and never felt compelled to finish it.
Punch Drunk Love.
Ah, Paul Thomas Anderson, my old nemesis, we meet again. The probably-autistic protagonist of this film is interesting and unpredictable to watch, but the supporting cast are a bunch of unrealistic whiners who seem to exist solely to inconvenience the protagonist. The film seems to experience a number of identity crises as well, unable to decide whether it’s a romance, a comedy, a crime story, or a surreal art film. In the first few minutes of the film, the protagonist sees a car flip over and explode in the road right in front of him, a bizarre incident which is never mentioned again.
★ The Shining.
By the time I watched this I’d seen enough mediocre movies in succession that I’d begun to forget that I even like movies. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, I am born again! The influence of David Lynch is evident here, and Lynchian-style narrative combined with Kubrick direction makes for a potent combination. Excellent.
A weird little Coen brothers movie, almost more like a play in its small cast and limited number of settings. Casting was spot-on; the actors embodying their larger-than-life characters expertly. It’s an odd movie, but certainly an enjoyable one.
But who won?
Best movie: Pulp Fiction. I almost denied it the award because of the accolades it’s received from others in the past, but that seems like a silly reason. It’s all-around excellent, and very impressive in its construction, so it has more than earned the acclaim it’s received.
Runner-up: The Grand Budapest Hotel. A contentious battle took place in my head about whether or not this should be my number-one choice. In the end it is not, but it was certainly a strong contender. If Wes Anderson continues on this trend, his films only stand to get better from here… is that even possible?
Worst movie: _Fantastic Mr. Fox._Oh, hello Wes Anderson, I didn’t expect to see you here. Well, I guess that’s what happens when you make a movie with such dislikable characters. I didn’t find any charm here, just a lot of condescension and occasional outright cruelty.
Runner-up: Under the Skin beat out Deathly Hallows by a narrow margin on the grounds that I actually finished watching the latter. Both are painfully boring but at least Harry Potter is occasionally amusing.
Sequential film, AKA “Shows”
★ Breaking Bad, seasons 3-6
All the seasons have blended together in my memory now, so it’s hard for me to evaluate them individually, but I will try to evaluate them as a whole. Breaking Bad is a really unpleasant show about horrible people doing horrible things. Getting through the entire thing was a real trial that I never could have accomplished without my wife’s insistance that we continue. That is not to say that the show isn’t well-written, because it is. It is, in fact, very well-written, and was used as a positive example numerous times in my recent fiction-writing guide. If you’re interested in beautifully-constructed narratives and can tolerate extremely dislikable antiheroes, you should check it out.
★ Game of Thrones, season 3
Things continue to go from bad to worse for our fearless characters, and the show continues to be well-written but grotesque. It’s gorier than Breaking Bad but more enjoyable as the characters are genuinely likable (even most of the “bad guys” have endearing qualities). I can’t discuss the particulars of the season at this point as I haven’t seen it in almost a year, but I recall it being just as engaging as ever.
★ Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
As of this writing I haven’t yet finished this show, but assuming it doesn’t crap out at the end (which it had sure better not!), it is quite good indeed. It is a “reboot” of its predecessor more than its sequel, carrying over certain narrative elements but interpreting them differently, and taking the storyline in completely different directions. I’m told this more closely follows the original manga, and if true, I can’t imagine why they made the changes present in the original. The original was definitely enjoyable (in fact, it tied with Samurai Champloo for “Best Anime” in my list from 2012) but this could easily have been titled Fullmetal Alchemist: The Much Better Version.
Given that I only watched these three shows this year, and that all are good in their own way, I’ve elected not to name any winners. All have their own strengths and weaknesses, and none is worse than the others, aside from matters of preference.
OMG Video Games!!1!
Papo and Yo.
I really liked the visuals in this game, and at first I imagined that the whole game was a sort of adventure romp centered around a young boy and his monster. Unfortunately, my interest quickly waned when I discovered that the monster spends most of the game asleep and the gameplay is primarily of a puzzle-platformer variety. Yes, yes, metaphor for alcoholism and all that, but the actual content of the game simply wasn’t as fun as I imagined it would be. That’s not the developer’s fault, but in any case it lead me to quit long before the end.
★ The Stanley Parable.
I think I finished The Stanley Parable. Pretty sure. At least most of it. Or maybe just some of it? With The Stanley Parable, who can really say for sure? Maybe nobody played it at all and it was just some sort of mass delusion. The only way to know for sure is for you to play The Stanley Parable too. You will like it, you will see. 8.
Mark of the Ninja.
I’d like to begin by asserting that I am really bad video games. As such, the main reason I didn’t get very far in Mark of the Ninja was that I kept failing, and I hate doing things over and over again. I may try again if I acquire a game controller for my PC, but for now this game is back on the shelf. I won’t deny that this is a quality game, but I’m just really bad at playing it.
★ Half-Life 2.
I didn’t finish Half-Life, but I had to give the sequel a shot anyway, and I’m certainly glad I did. Half-Life 2 is an incredible experience encompassing a huge variety of environments and gameplay types. Play is challenging without feeling impossible. Characters look realistic without succumbing to the Uncanny Valley. Narrative is conveyed without gameplay-interrupting cutscenes. There are some terrific-looking monsters and scenery. I intend to write a more detailed examination of this game at a later time; for now I just want to say that Half-Life 2 is the only game I definitively finished this year, and not without reason.
★ Kentucky Route Zero, acts I-III
It’s hard to write about Kentucky Route Zero. It has some characters, all of which seem simultaneously inscrutable and deep. It has a complex world and storyline, which both feel simultaneously inscrutable and deep. It’s a very quiet kind of experience, one wanders through its desolate spaces and the characters have interactive dialogues with each other. The narrative’s viewpoint shifts in subtle and unexpected ways: one section is narrated by security guards reviewing video footage of the characters. The graphics are drawn in a beautiful low-definition but not pixelated style. Look at some videos and screenshots online; you’ll be able to tell whether or not it’s something you’d enjoy. I liked it.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Like Mark of the Ninja, I didn’t play much of this game before being forced to give up out of frustration. After spending a ridiculously long time trying to get to the floor of a large chamber, I was beset by a seemingly infinite number of monsters who killed me repeatedly. After failing to make any significant progress and being really frustrated, I eventually quit. I might try again sometime, but the prospect of having to climb all the way down to that floor again makes that unlikely. I hate games that lack the ability to save wherever you please.
Good gravy, I don’t know if this game has just aged poorly or what, but I hated it so, not that I got very far. (I quit partway through the Medical Pavilion.) What’s wrong with it, you ask? First and foremost, it’s noisy. Very, very noisy. There are always maniacal ravings in the background, which are fairly often accompanied by the sounds of noisy robots, stuff exploding/breaking, screams of attacking mutants, and the guy who keeps yelling at you over the radio. Secondly, it feels the need to break the fourth wall constantly, flashing objectives at you and showing little go-this-way hovering arrows and nonsensical gobledygook like “+1 health gained from eating potato chips.” (I am seriously not making that up.) Thirdly, the setting seems genuinely interesting and I would have liked to explore it without being constantly attacked by masked mutants. In short, I would have liked this video game a lot better if it had been less like a video game.
Currently in queue, to be discussed at a later date: Alan Wake, Shadow of the Colossus.
Best video game: Half-Life 2. Once I got going, and particularly once I got past the annoying car and boat levels, I found it hard to stop. While it’s a bit weak in the narrative department, it’s a very well-made experience in almost every way. I will gravity-gun the first loser who tries to argue that the game is too old to be any good. Seriously, you, keep quiet.
Runner-up: It’s The Stanley Parable, of course. What else would it be?
Worst video game: Bioshock. The game isn’t BioShocking so much as it is BioReallyIrritating. I can’t imagine playing any more of this except to remind myself why I hated it so much. Which is a shame, because I really liked the premise. Anybody care to make a mod that strips out all the enemies?
Runner-up: Bioshock was the only game I played that I found to be objectively bad rather than subjectively, so I award runner-up to Gone Home, as its failures are still a source of irritation to me even a year later.