This year has been anything if not interesting. At the start, a lot of people around me seemed to answering the call for change, with numerous friends choosing to up sticks, start new careers, move houses, or meet new partners.
While little changed for me beyond shifting to working from home, one difference was saying goodbye to a forum I’d been running for nearly two decades. As no one had posted anything in nearly twelve months, and its use had been dwindling for some years already, it seemed the time had come to save some computing cycles and lay the bits to rest.
Nevertheless, one tradition I wanted to continue from its pages was an annual post taking stock of a year’s media consumption. I’ve gone through the database dump and scavenged previous summaries from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. So for the first time in another seldom visited corner of the web, here’s looking back on 2020 in all its quarantined glory.
PC games played: numerous
Best PC games: Gunfire Reborn, Sniper Elite 4, What Remains of Edith Finch, Strange Brigade, Inside, Two Point Hospital, Catastronauts, DOOM 3: BFG Edition, Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide, Pyre
Worst PC games: Californium, Unfortunate Spacemen, Crucible, Jet Set Radio, Killer Is Dead
Board games played: 39 (75 plays)
Best board games: Sail to India, Majesty, Short List, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Piepmatz
Worst board games: Chada & Thorn, Detective Stories: “Gattardo”, 5-Minute Dungeon, DOG Royal
Films watched: 38
Best films: Paddington 2, Blade Runner 2049, Full Metal Jacket, The History Boys, I, Daniel Blake, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me
Worst films: The Detonator, Empire State, King Solomon’s Mines, Mad Max
Books read: 32
Best books: The Last Resort, The Remains of the Day, Eine Frau in Berlin, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
Worst books: Ficciones, Lord of Light
A Year in Gaming
It’s actually been an interesting year, multiplayer gaming wise. Over last Christmas enough of my gaming group had finally had enough of the widespread cheating in Counter-Strike: Global Operations that we quit playing it altogether. The search was then on for a title to fill our weekly sessions. For a while, Valorant took the reins, though its extremely slow pace, focus on abilities, and the punishing gameplay for a team with a fairly wide range in skill levels, all meant that we soon tired of it.
In its stead, we shifted to a variety of lighter titles. Catastronauts was an entertaining take on the Overcooked genre, giving four furry astronauts plenty of headaches as they attempt to keep a ship patched and maintained in a series of confrontations in space. Playing the game over Steam’s in-built streaming service meant we could play it as a ‘couch coop’ on a couch several hundred miles long, with only occasional interruptions and lag spikes… the wonders of modern technology!
Later we switched over to the summer’s surprise smash hit Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a digital jelly bean version of ninja warriors. Chaotic, random, frustrating and hilarious, I remain the only bean without a crown and will probably stay in that virgin state until I can take on a stage uncontested. But in the spirit of athletics, it’s the taking part that counts, and it can be just as much fun to fail your run, or spoil someone else’s!
Our latest squeeze is a rogue-lite from Hong Kong entitled Gunfire Reborn. It’s been a challenging endeavour so far, with us gradually getting stronger each week, unlocking new upgrades and weapons. Unfortunately, my current internet connection makes the game virtually unplayable, so not sure if I’ll see any real progress any time soon.
In the solo gaming department, I didn’t tackle any particularly long games. At the beginning of the lockdown, I felt like I should probably use the opportunity to try to work through some of my Steam backlog, finally playing through the DOOM 3: BFG Edition, including the original DOOM I/II. It was fun to explore those grandfathers of the genre some quarter of a century later, and amazing how the layouts of some of the levels were still so clear in my mind. While the basic shooting mechanics were child’s play with a mouse (had I really used arrow keys to turn back then?), one thing that I’d completely forgotten was just how convoluted the map design was, with scores of hidden rooms, secret buttons and special tricks. After completing the original pair, I finally succeeded in completed DOOM 3 at the third attempt, a good fifteen years after it first came out, but baulked at the idea of spending even more time playing through its expansion.
After slogging through the Martian hellholes, I only otherwise took in some shorter titles this year, not wanting to spend as much time in the office as what lockdown was already demanding. One of the titles which stuck out was What Remains of Edith Finch, a beautiful walking simulator exploring the biography of several generations of an eccentric family, with each member’s story told through its own separate vignette. It’s easy to see why the game won a BAFTA. I also ticked off the two Playdead adventures LIMBO and INSIDE, the second in particular being a delightful brain-tickler, a noire puzzle platformer lovingly rendered and brilliantly directed.
There weren’t any really major stinkers this year, though a few disappointments. In the multiplayer department, we tried out Amazon’s very short-lived Crucible on its beta release. While the basic premise and mechanics were sound, we were left feeling distinctly bored by what we’d tasted, and it wasn’t a surprise when the initial closed beta stage was withdrawn. Still, it certainly was a shock to hear some months later that they’d pulled the plug entirely. I guess the competition for free-to-play titles is so great that it was deemed unworthy of further funding, despite it having been in development since 2014.
On the solo front, there were two games which fell a little flat. Californium sounded like a fascinating concept, a small adventure set in a drug-addled and Philip K. Dick inspired multi-layered universe, where the player peels back the real world. I was expecting something in the vein of A Scanner Darkly, but what I got was something more like a hidden object game. Frankly the overarching gameplay is far too simplistic, and the world-bending effect soon gets boring. The second game which didn’t live up to expectations, though through no fault of its own, was Into the Breach. The basic gameplay boils down to an agonising game of 3-piece chess, with the player in full command of the information, barring a few statistical chances. A limited number of moves, yet with tons of different combinations, different pieces, different abilities, taking moves in different orders, and even the option to restart each scenario once, make each encounter a brain-burning conundrum. What’s not to like? For me the major detraction was the fact that the developer’s previous title – FTL – was frankly even more brilliant!
A Year in Boardgaming
It was a somewhat weird year in boardgaming. Overall we didn’t play as much as normal, though we started out the year meeting up with our friends extremely frequently, had a massive hiatus in the middle during the lockdown, and again picked up the pace in the autumn, before dropping it altogether in the winter again.
In terms of new games, the biggest surprise of the year was far and away The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine. A simple trick-taking game for four players, what absolutely flabbered my gast is that no one had come up with it before. A pretty standard set of cards, some basic objectives, and a very limited ability to communicate, this game had us entertained for hours on end over a long series of evenings. While I find the Kennerspiel des Jahres category rather ill-defined, it came as no surprise to hear it had won.
On the hunt for some smaller, more family-friendly board/card games, I bought a couple which resonated well. Piepmatz is a set collecting game I picked up after a recommendation from The Spiel podcast. We’ve only ever played it four-player, and I think it’s probably a bit too random for my tastes at that number, but otherwise it’s a cute little diversion which doesn’t overstay its welcome. The other game I found second-hand was Sail to India, which packs a surprising amount of gameplay in a little box (though requires a fairly large table once all spread out).
The only notable ‘larger’ title of the year was Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, earning a place as a very special mashup of two other games, being a semi-cooperative tile-laying game which is something of mix between Carcassonne and 7 Wonders. I’m not sure how much strategy is really involved, though there’s enough decision-making to keep you engaged, and the way that the game is played cooperatively yet competitively at the same time works well with the right group.
During the lockdowns, we didn’t get much gaming time in as we hadn’t found ourselves anything interesting for two players, and the only two games we already had around make it onto my list for worst games of the year. The first was Chada & Thorn, a small spin-off from The Legends of Andor series which Steffi had so devoured. It felt rather clunky and lifeless in comparison to its larger brother, with none of the depth of an LCG like Lord of the Rings, nor the interesting discussion a four-player game can bring.
The second flop this year was a rather odd acquisition Steffi found somewhere, actually being a demo for a series, called Detective Stories: Gattardo. We’ve played enough escape room games over the years, and this one relied more on open facts and clues rather than the gimmicks that many others use. However, we completely failed to read the signs in front of us on a number of occasions, eventually coming up with a solution to the case that was wrong in just about every single aspect… probably including even the identity of the victim! Maybe if we’d had some more sensible heads with us, the experience would’ve been less demoralising, but instead it felt like a wasted evening.
A Year in Cinema
Obviously, this year lent itself rather well to watching the box, and once lockdown started we stuck fairly religiously to our weekly film evening. Often overwhelmed with choice, Steffi tried a new tack this year, choosing to work her way through the alphabet of our backlog and what’s available to stream online, so while many of her choices were a far cry from her usual comic-centric tastes, there were as many pleasant as disappointing surprises in the mix!
Perhaps the two immediate stand-out films for me were both sequels. Paddington 2 managed the rather rare feat of actually being better than its predecessor, at least from what I can remember. Where the first was a sweet family film, the second seemed to inject even more humour, with an entertaining plot and the usual slew of jolly actors. Blade Runner 2049 meanwhile was a film I approached with some trepidation, as the original has stood the test of time well enough on its own. But the cinematography is just as delicious for this second outing, Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast as the new blade runner, and the film had a meaningful story of its own to tell, rather than just riding on the coattails of its ancestor. Guess that’s what can happen when Disney isn’t involved.
This year I also managed to plug a few of those gaps for films everyone has seen. Full Metal Jacket was a somewhat surprising war film in how seemingly aimless the script was constructed, although the first and second halves of the film stand fairly well on their own merit, the overarching message was muddy. But despite having never seen the film before, the scenes often felt familiar, having been parodied and quoted that often. The same could be said for The Princess Bride, which I felt like I’d seen vicariously often enough (was there a Simpsons parody?).
The most disappointing film of the year was probably a result of misfiring memories from childhood, but I expected Mad Max to be something more along the lines of a Kevin Costner dystopia, with less melodrama and stupidity. Probably I’m just remembering snippets from its sequels in my mind. However even this disappointment couldn’t beat the hands down the worst film of the year: King Solomon’s Mines. Honestly, how did they get Richard Chamberlain, Herbert Lom and John Rhys-Davies to star in this mess? It’s like someone had seen the success of Indiana Jones and thought: what this needs is less plot and more slapstick. It wouldn’t have been out of place in the Carry On series.
A Year in Books
I’d expected that in the year of the plague I’d have ploughed through a lot more pages than I managed of the previous 12 months, but I guess not having that daily commute cut a lot of my reading time.
Still, I managed to knock off a few of the books that have been on my wishlist for the longest. The Last Resort, for example, must’ve been on my list since about the time of its publication, being a sometime first-hand narrative about a small white homestead in Zimbabwe, and their attempts to keep going during Mugabe’s descent into populism, as the economy crashed around him and he resorted to whatever means necessary to stay in power. The crisis was broadcast often on British news, but this book brought home what it was like for people in the ground, trying to go about their lives despite the ever-present potential threat to life and limb. At times harrowing, but always a very human account.
In a similar vein I read the anonymously written Eine Frau in Berlin, the accounts of life in occupied Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when life was cheap, food scarce, and rape a daily visitation. Aside from how well written the accounts are, the memories from those two months are honest and matter-of-fact, leaving it to the reader to pass judgement. Only published after the author’s death, nearly 60 years later, the dairy makes for difficult reading, but an important one.
It seems I didn’t pick up much fiction this year, so the standalone favourite was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Beautiful characters, beautiful prose, a subtle tale and extremely believably narrated, this is a slow-burner which is in turn amusing and poignant and arrives where you expected it to.
Two of my worst reads of the year were some which had also been in my to-read pile for the longest. I’d read about Borges somewhen and heard about these magical constructions and thought experiments all encapsulated into tiny vignettes, and figured they would be right up my street. Unfortunately I found plodding through Ficciones to be utterly mind-numbing, a style akin to reading a textbook on metaphysics, with pointless asides and deviations about nonsensical figures and oh god get to the bloody point. I see praise wash up on his shores like crates of whiskey after a propitious sinking, but mine is his style not.
The other disappointment from the to-read pile was Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, though I feel I was rather more to blame for it failing to land. The entire premise of the book was interesting enough for me to keep reading to the end, but too much of the content was lost on me for a lack of knowledge of Indian deities.
The final book which I’d have to say a really regret reading was the programming book Head First Design Patterns. The content is all solid, but the style in which it is presented just isn’t me. Instead of obtuse non-real-world examples it felt like they shoe-horned in some better non-real-world examples and then proceed to lay it on thick. So many asides and cutsey comics and conversations between non-existent people and not enough plain text. I don’t mind a few bullet point summaries and diagrams, but when that’s the main bulk of the text, it makes navigating what’s important to read only more difficult!