Another year, and time again to look back over 12 months of consumed media. Following on from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, here’s another summary of what I’ve been reading, watching and playing over the past year.
PC games played: numerous
Best PC games: Abzü, Overcooked 1/2, Risk of Rain, Firewatch, Battalion 1944, We Were Here Too, Hard West
Worst PC games: Prison Architect, Lethis – Path of Progress, Rage, A Story About My Uncle, The Last Express
Board games played: 41 (81 plays)
Best board games: Decrypto, In the Year of the Dragon, Unfinished Case of Holmes, Codenames: Duet
Worst board games: Sherlock: Whereabouts Unknown, The Mind
Films watched: 41
Best films: Her, Hunger, Senna, Doubt, Star Wars, Jurassic Park
Worst films: Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Books read: 48
Best books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, The Comedians, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Bad Science, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Battle Cry of Freedom
Worst books: Cybercrime And The Darknet, No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine
A Year in Gaming
Another twelve months down the line, and not much has changed on the multiplayer gaming front. Counter-Strike: Global Operations remains our go-to watering hole of a Thursday, despite the incessant wave of cheating accusations that accompanies it. I still play Quake Champions occasionally, though it normally takes me a season to play all my placement matches, and so my rank is only visible for a while before it gets reset. Similarly I play the odd game of Heroes of the Storm, but haven’t done any ranked matches this year as far as I can remember.
Apart from the usual suspect, we played a few weeks of Paladins in recent months, which was a nice distraction and fairly enjoyable. It reminded me a blend of Team Fortress 2 with some extra layers of complexity a là Overwatch, but without the same level of seriousness. Certainly there seemed to be lots of players of dubious skill level on there, so maybe once we reach a ranked level, the matches might be more regularly challenging, rather than alternating between walkovers and walkunders. That is if we ever go back to it!
In the background we’ve been playing some Civ VI in the new PBEM variety, two games in parallel thanks to Benno quitting the first one before it had been set up! With Tesh’s rash exit from the second game, both were soon down to three players, so we’ve been progressing fairly fast, and the new cloud save system is a vast improvement on sending save files around. I have to say, I’m not particularly enjoying the game though, and it reminds me of how things went in our old games of Civ III; an interesting start until you realise what vital resource you’re lacking, a moment of dispair when you realise all the iron is in your neighbour’s back yard, then someone quits and we start again. I’m pretty much just clicking through my turns waiting for the games to end, though it could still take some time. But I’ll probably write something about that separately.
For solo gaming, I did squeeze in a few interesting titles this year. Abzü and Firewarch stand out for being somewhat less ordinary, I suppose basically both of them pure exploratory adventure games, the latter even carrying the moniker of a ’walking simulator’. Relaxing, intriguing, beautiful to behold, both offer a short diversion of a few hours that doesn’t overstay its welcome and definitely places a different slant on what you expect of a computer game. Another game of a similar ilk I tried was A Story About My Uncle, which was however more of a freaky platformer and fell rather flat with me.
A few more worthwhile mentions for the year: Hard West is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the American west, with several short campaigns which are interesting enough in their own right, and only consist of a few short missions. An enjoyable game, even if I didn’t get particularly far in it. Risk of Rain was a fun multiplayer roguelike platformer, which had us struggling to beat it the few evenings it appeared on the menu. Quick to pick up and play, with that ’oh just one more try!’ that comes with failure in roguelikes. Battalion 1944 scratches the itch that Day of Defeat left, and is actually a pretty competent shooter in its own right, though it has some very annoying movement mechanics that slightly detract from my enjoyment. We Were Here Too, the sequel to a puzzle game I think I reviewed here some years back, was a pretty straightforward but nevertheless enjoyable escape room relying on asymmetric knowledge, where communication is the key, as well as a bit of lateral thinking. And finally I can’t leave 2019 without mentioning the Overcooked games, which Ric introduced me to in spring, and which Steffi became addicted to and had us spending many an evening finely honing our tactics to unlock an elusive fourth star. It was actually quite impressive how we would barely scrape enough points to clear the three-star requirement, and yet we’d practice and practice until we could jump the four-star hurdle which was twice as high. Certainly helped being able to stream this to the TV in the lounge and play it on a controller.
Didn’t play any particularly terrible games this year, but one vague disappointment was trying to play through The Last Express. It’s one of those overlooked gems from the mid/late 90s, with a unique art style and ambitious gameplay, an adventure with real-time elements and multiple different endings. I imagine if I’d played it at the time, I’d have had the patience (and the boredom!) to explore every nook and cranny, trying to get through every ending, and never give up, but today I’m just too impatient and we couldn’t get into it at all.
A Year in Boardgaming
It hasn’t been a particularly great year for us in boardgaming with only 81 plays, certainly on the lower end for us, and there hasn’t really been very much new in all that. The Exit Games series remains one of Steffi’s favourites, though I have to say I’ve played enough now that I’m not really excited by the prospect of any more. We’ve also played a fair number of other games of a similar ilk, and whilst some of them at least offer slightly different challenges, with many using an app so you have to enter the answers in a more detailed way than you can get with a three-digit code, there are still only so many ways you can hide a solution in a box of bits.
Still, we did see a few new games to the table this year. We had a lot of fun with two party-esque games in Codenames: Duet and Decrypto. The former is just a slight tweak on the earlier version, but I think makes the game more enjoyable overall; instead of playing in two teams against one another, you play in two teams cooperatively, with everyone being responsible for both making and guessing clues. Certainly worked for us. Decrypto on the other hand relies on teams of players communicating codes to one another using a common ’codebook’. But the other team always gets to hear the code too, and must try to intercept the message, so players not only have to come up with ever new clues for their partners, but also work out what the cryptic clues their opponents are giving could mean. It’s fairly easy to put together your own version to try out too!
A short mention to The Quacks of Quedlinburg which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2018. While a fun little push-your-luck game, I’m hard pressed to understand how it was the Kennerspiel, nor really how it won at all. We played it with 4 players and it felt like it wasn’t really designed well for that number, with the starting two players able to capitalise on the cheaper chits and the other players then locked out of certain tactics. Otherwise the game was basically like an elaborate game of Pontoon, each player holding a bag and deciding whether to keep drawing or hold their current scores – twist or stick?!
There wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy playing this year. We had a few lacklustre escape room games, both from Exit games series and others, but they’re generally one-off games which still have some entertainment value and don’t overlast their welcome. One game we’ve started playing as a filler is The Mind, which I really can’t rate and always feel is a bit of a waste of time. Basically 100 cards in total, starting off with each player getting one, then without communicating they have to play them in ascending order; then the round repeats, each player getting two cards etc. There are a few rules with lives and special abilities, but this is a game you could easily play with a pack of regular playing games and is basically a game of "can you all count together in your heads at the same speed?" Yawn.
Another game I have to mention and I’m dead on the fence about is Detective. It’s pushing a bit really to describe it as a game: essentially the players take on the role of detectives and have to solve five cases. Each case has a stack of cards which the team can explore, plus there’s a detailed app database containing extra info on lots of characters and events in the game, and some puzzles even require a bit of Googling to find the answer. You then decide when you think you’ve got enough info to solve the case, and the app takes you through a few questions and tells you your score. Each case is unique, but they are all somehow interconnected, with the same characters and locations reappearing. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the game comes with a board, different characters, some silly tokens and really a whole load of guff which is just absolutely unnecessary. There’s a board just for the sake of having a board which is supposed to indicate where the investigation team currently is, and moving around costs time, but quite frankly that makes no sense. Sure, it’s important to keep track of time, and I can see that there has to be a ’currency’ of sorts to force players to make decisions about how much to research or what leads to follow, but then each investigator has a certain number of ’special ability’ chips which only they can use at a certain time. But why? It just adds pointless cruft to the game, where all the fun comes from theorising, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, working out the who, what, where and why. Where’s the fun in not being able to read the back of a card because computer specialist John already looked at the back of a different card? The other major criticism is the way the time pressure in the game works: it’s fairly straightforward in principle, you have for example three days to solve the case, each day has 8 hours, and each lead you follow will cost a certain amount of time. But you don’t know how much time, and often the ’story’ has stupid things like traffic jams costing you extra hours all because… reasons! We’ve done three of the cases so far, and while the first felt too easy (maybe a nice introduction?) we completely failed the second two. I hope we return to it, because the actual story is very interesting and feels well constructed, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.
A Year in Cinema
Although we haven’t kept it up quite as religiously, Tuesday evening remains film night and we watched about 40 this year. A few films I hadn’t seen before stuck out, as well as a few rewatches.
Her with Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, and I found it really interesting how the perception of talking to an intelligent AI massively reminded me of the uncorporeal minds of the early internet, back when cyberspace really felt like something distinct and separate from the real world, where other people were faceless intelligences in the void. The main character’s connection to his AI reminded me of some of my early experiences with people on the fledgling internet, people I would never see, never meet, and could only engage with through words.
On a less upbeat note, we watched Hunger about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend, decent acting and cinematography notwithstanding, as there isn’t really much substance to it that you don’t already know (if you know about the events). Nevertheless I found it particularly interesting to see how allergically Steffi reacted to the inmates’ decisions, a very visceral inability to see things from their perspective.
One film I enjoyed while Steffi was away one evening was the documentary of Senna. The first thing I ever heard about Senna was probably when he died, and remember the funeral in Brazil being broadcast on TV, probably on news reports, though at that stage I hadn’t really watched any F1 races and had only otherwise heard of Mansell. The film was an interesting look at his life, the controversies, the rivalries and the sport of F1 in general in the late 80s/early 90s.
Another dramatic outing which had some extremely good acting was Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. There isn’t really very much in the way of ’action’, being based on a play, but it is not a surprise that all four main actors were nominated for an Oscar.
A couple of films I rewatched this year, just because they happened to be on telly, but which reminded me of how good they are, were the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Yes, Star Wars is relatively cheesy, yes it has some god-awful dialogue and dated cinematics, but the overarching storyline is simply good. The few plot holes can easily be put down to dramatic licence, almost everything in it makes sense within the universe Lucas created, and the result is a solid and enjoyable opener to the saga which stands alone in its own right and remains entirely watchable today. I already ranted about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in another thread, but even trying to judge the films in their own right, which is obviously impossible, I’m not sure A New Hope comes off any worse for its age. I don’t think you could say the same about the moneymaker.
Jurassic Park is a similarly well constructed story. Watching it with a particular eye to the scriptwriting, it’s amazing how effortlessly the characters are introduced. The first few scenes lay the groundwork about who everyone is without any exposition, any uncharacteristic or irrational moments, and sow the seeds which will be harvested by the end of the film. Simplicity like that takes a lot of work, even if you only went to watch the film for the dinosaurs. The special effects are also still decent, I think the film was made just early enough to avoid the early wave of terrible CGI, but late enough that it stands up cinematographically.
In terms of stinkers, we sadly watched quite a few this year. Two comic book films stood out as being particularly awful, with Suicide Squad quite possibly winning my award for most pointless comic book film I’m seen to date. No drama, no character development, too many minor characters who had no purpose, exposition slapped on like it was directed at retards, there was nothing to like about this film beyond Harley Quinn (who was admittedly excellent). Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t quite as awful, but had absolutely none of the drama of Nolan’s Batman films, none of the positivity of Reeve’s Superman, and Batman beat Superman (FFS!)
A Year in Books
I managed to smash previous records with more than 15,000 pages read this year and nearly a book a week. Maybe I should actually make that a target for 2020?
Among the hits for this year was an interesting work on psychology and morality entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but it’s a really fascinating look at how we consider questions of morality, how certain aspects can be measured on different axes, and where for example people on the right and left of the political spectrum differ is generally in how these axes are weighted and/or how they are interpreted, but a lot more binds the two together than separates them. Indeed, two things become clear from his thesis: that most decisions we make of a moral nature are first made, then justified (i.e. we feel something is wrong, and only later when asked to justify it do we come up with reasons, which generally don’t make any sense – cup of Brexit anyone?), and that today’s politically divided societies have more to do with people not talking to one another, than with actual radical differencies, i.e. things feel more polarised today because of social media echo chambers, rather than our views becoming radically different.
On a more upbeat and positivistic note, I finally got around to reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a look at how computer games successfully manage to do what we in society really need to learn from. Some of what the book covers is a bit wayward and comes from her research work, but a lot of the core message is sound and has very interesting implications for everyday life. Nothing much of it is new, but the book summarises it fairly succinctly: gaming succeeds because it rewards achievement, binds people together, creates a sense of accomplishment, teaches new skills, etc. A bit dated now, but worth a perusal (or reading a summary) nevertheless.
On the history front, I continued my Roman history trip with SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I understand she’s something of a TV personality as well? The book is a brief overview of Roman society, rather than a blow-by-blow look at events, and I found it to be very balanced, despite many decrying too much conjecture.
Another history gap I tried to fill this year was in reading two books I’ve had on my list probably since Dublin – i.e. for more than a decade! – those being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Battle Cry of Freedom. The first is an amazingly sad history of what can only really be called the genocide of the native American tribes, showing how different tribes reacted in different ways, and the result in each and every instance was expropriation, exploitation, maltreatment and/or eradication. A very depressing chapter of history, from which no lessons have really been learned as far as I can see. The second is a detailed account of the American Civil War, which I knew pretty much nothing about beyond a few western films. Aside from the course of the war itself, it’s fascinating to look at how the issue of slavery was at once the cause of the war, and its ultimate end, without ever actually being the casus belli. Similarly mindblowing how the Democratic Party remained officially opposed to the 13th Amendment even after the war as "unwise, impolitic, cruel and unworthy of the support of civilized people". Such an enlightened heritage!
A couple of books with a slightly sciency/political bent tickled me this year. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is more amusing than enlightening, but it certainly had some eye-opening passages about how health care is actually delivered in the UK, as opposed to how it is perceived. At once hilarious and terrifying. Bad Science on the other hand is a more engaging and sober look mostly at how science is portrayed in the media, and the concomitant problems that brings. Ben Goldacre wrote (writes?) a column for the Guardian and a blog of the same name, usually highlighting badly reported findings and the like, and this book is just a more in-depth exposition of a few of those topics. Pretty much nothing unexpected in there, but it’s still maddening when you see the kinds of rigorous argument that can be arrayed against the most insidious of lies, and yet still fail to land in the minds of the converted. It reminded me of both The Righteous Mind (above) and Thinking Fast and Slow (also highly recommended) which I read some years back. Goldacre’s ultimate message seemt all the more realistic/pessimistic for it.
I didn’t seem to read too much fiction this year, at least not much I could unreservedly recommend. The longest book of the year was the nearly 1000-page Der Schwarm by Franz Schätzing, which while certainly interesting, read too much like a silly Roland Emmerich film and overstayed its welcome a bit. The best on my list was probably The Comedians, just another classic from probably my favourite author. So much depth in so little material, truly refined, his books are only short but pack so much of the human experience into so far words. I also read his England Made Me this year, and it goes to show how much he developed as an author over the years. The lack of plot in the latter book was no different to the former, but the characters were soulless in comparison.
Two books get my stinker of the year award. The first is No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine by Steve Jones, who normally writes pretty interesting popular science books. But I couldn’t really see any purpose to this book, it’s just a collection of small vignettes which may or may not have some relation to the French revolution, but generally didn’t. Jones isn’t a historian and it clearly isn’t his suit.
But hands down the worst book of the year goes to Cybercrime and the Darknet. One of those books my dad picked up on the cheap somewhere, he read it first, probably learned a few things, and sent it to me thinking I’d be interested. And oh my god, what a badly hashed together mess! I don’t wanna go hating on the author, she generally writes books for kids which I’m sure are perfectly fit to purpose, and maybe if you know absolutely nothing about the internet, then you could learn a few things from this book. But otherwise, everything about it was pathetic, and worse. It was like an undergraduate essay, written with an eye on the word count, trying to squeeze in footnotes which aren’t required (and missing ones which are absolutely vital). It was journalistic to the point of maddening, always looking at individual instances and extrapolating to general rules, with whole chapters dedicated to theorising about things that may/may not have happened and showing how that is the way of the internet… unless it isn’t. She peppers the text with statistics that bear only a passing relation to the subject matter at hand, no explanation, no interrogation, they’re just left hanging in the air as if self-evidently supporting her thesis (Goldacre would’ve torn her a new one). I don’t think I’ve ever facepalmed so many times in 150 pages. If she’d been an undergrad, I’d have given it back and had her re-write it. But she already has a degree – from Cambridge no less! – and works at a fucking university. I’ll retire to Bedlam.