Another year of the plague behind us, another 365 days of solitude. It’s hardly Marquez, but it certainly feels like life has been chugging along in neutral after so many heady years in first gear. The year was mostly dominated by work, with little in the way of holiday breaks, social activities or other diversions to break up the monotony.
So joining the yearly roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, here’s looking back over the second year of the plague, 2021.
Best PC games: Return of the Obra Dinn, The Witness, Zombie Army Trilogy, DOOM
Worst PC games: Heaven’s Vault
Board games played: 10
Best board games: Photosynthesis, My City
Worst board games: –
Films watched: 31
Best films: The Three/Four Musketeers, Psycho, Whiplash, One Hour Photo, Four Lions
Worst films: Train of Life, You Were Never Really Here, The Evil Dead
Books read: 34
Best books: The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, Kleiner Mann – was nun?, Julian, Troubles
Worst books: Winnetou 1, The Marshmallow Test
A Year in Gaming
Continuing the theme of working from home and trying to avoid spending too much time in the office, 2021 wasn’t much of one for gaming, although I did upgrade my hardware for the first time in the better part of a decade.
There were a couple of solo adventure games which provided fair diversion. Return of the Obra Dinn definitely stands out as one of the more interesting games I’ve played in recent years. The basic premise for the player is that a ship has entered port in the late eighteenth century, and all the crew and passengers are either missing or dead. Tasked with finding out what happened, you get to see and hear the final moments of every corpse you discover, slowly piecing together bits of the puzzle through deduction, elimination and, certainly in my case, a good dollop of guesswork. I can’t say my efforts were particularly successful, but the unique flavour of the mystery, together with the beautiful pixelated sepia aesthetic, kept me coming back for more.
A technically more imposing puzzle game also worthy of mention is The Witness, written by the author of Braid, a game that had already battered my meagre brain into submission. As with Obra Dinn, I was likewise too stupid to unravel The Witness, and sadly didn’t see it through to the end (Edit: This changed in 2022.), but the mixture of puzzles and secrets, as well as the unique art style around the island itself definitely made the visits worthwhile.
My worst game of the year was unfortunately also the one which should have been most up my street: Heaven’s Vault purports to offer an adventure in which the player must decipher an ancient language. The premise was intriguing, but unfortunately I simply couldn’t get into the story for just how slow the game’s execution is. Everything just trudges along to such an extent that, only a few hours in, I still hadn’t seen more than a few words of the strange language, and haven’t been inclined to return.
Slow is a word which cannot be used to describe the DOOM reboot, which I’m still in the process of playing through, half an hour at a time. In comparison to the last outing in DOOM 3, this feels far more like the hi-octane classics of the 90s, and the developers and designers really put together a solid engine to drive the game forward, putting action right back at the heart of a classic shooter.
On the multiplayer front there wasn’t anything particularly new this year. In the spring we completed the surprise hit from last year, Gunfire Reborn, before heading back down the galaxy’s darkest mines in Deep Rock Galactic. Trying to avoid the cheatathon that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has become, we tried out a few alternatives like Splitgate (Slipgate?!) and Rogue Company, eventually returning to Overwatch as we were often five players. Why does no one make cooperative (or competitive) games for five players? Why do they always cap out at four? There are so many titles out there which just don’t suit our player count.
So perhaps the only positive surprise of the year was returning to the hordes in Zombie Army Trilogy as a two-player escapade, retreading old steps and exploring a few new haunts. The weird combo system they’ve added, which rather punishes the player for trying to use a sniper rifle rather than running around rocking a shotgun or even pistol, made for something of a strange bastard hybrid for a ‘Sniper Elite’ game, especially with the way the two-player game could easily have you shooting at freshly blown up targets and breaking that all important chain.
A Year in Boardgaming
Sadly, this year was about as sparse as it can get when it came to the table. Aside from a couple of coop escape room style games when we had the occasional guest, we managed all of two gaming evenings with our usual partners. We’ve made a promise to at least try to meet up once per month in future, so hopefully that will change for the better in 2022.
The two coop games we got through were both from series we had previously played. The first of these was the set of three Unlock!: Mythic Adventures. These are generally a pretty good series, neatly interweaving cards with a dedicated app which allows for more interesting solutions than mere card-based options (the Exit series in particular suffers at times from generally having to hunt for 3-digit solutions). The three adventures in this set are pretty varied, though the technology did fail us badly on two occasions: one puzzle required us to take photos of cards, which given us playing in poor lightning, meant we were sometimes led down the wrong path by the app not recognising our solution; the other problem was a minigame which should have been straightforward to complete, but actually took us upwards of 15 minutes on multiple devices trying to find one which would finally recognise our inputs. Those glitches aside, the puzzles themselves were fun to solve, fairly logical, with enough variety in difficulty levels.
The second game was 50 Clues: The Fate of Leopold, the conclusion to a three-part adventure which we started back in 2019. Game noire, in terms of mechanics the game doesn’t do anything too special, but the topic is that little bit darker, the solutions that little bit more visceral than any of the other offerings out there. Fairly recommendable purely on that basis.
In terms of bigger titles, there were literally only two to mention. Photosynthesis is a cute abstract about growing trees and harvesting sunlight. Players place seeds in the forest, evolving them from tiny saplings to mighty trees, before harvesting them for points; but the energy needed to do all these things comes from sunlight collected by the trees. It’s an interesting balancing act, and timing actions to maximise the energy harvested as the sun rotates around the board with the concomitant changes in shadows make for something of a brain-burner. Unfortunately the point-scoring seems a bit random, with big scores but small differences if everyone has played a similar game. Plus there’s a fairly counterintuitive way of paying for things which everyone fell for at least once.
The second biggy was Reiner Knizia’s legacy title My City. Basically a board game version of Tetris played over 24 rounds, with changing boards and rules. The basic game wouldn’t hold my attention held for long, but being a legacy-style game means it at least earns points for tickling your curiosity. Nevertheless, it still it feels more of a gimmick that will outstay its welcome before the final envelope.
A Year in Cinema
One series I revisited was the 1970s Musketeers films of Richard Lester. These brought to mind exactly the kind of thing King Solomon’s Mines was presumably aiming at, and which I so panned last year. The Three Musketeers and the simultaneously filmed The Four Musketeers brilliantly tell the well-known story, combining swashbuckling adventure and derring-do, with moments of high drama, and absolutely gallons of humour. It’s definitely towards the comedic end of the scale, but there’s something about that combination of Pythonesque quips from the extras, the roughshod and often slapstick swordfighting, and of course the characters played by the likes of Roy Kinnear and Spike Milligan, that keeps me revisiting these films. The simple ordinariness of so many of the settings, combined with the brilliant costume work, gives the films a charming authenticity; we’re watching ordinary people, in ordinary seventeenth century France, who are ordinarily funny, ordinarily clumsy, ordinarily charming. Damn good fun!
Continuing with films of an older vintage, one of the gaps I finally managed to plug was watching Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film which lived up to its expectations, despite being so famous and so often referenced, you’ve already seen it even if you haven’t. On the one hand, it reminded me very much of Hitchcock’s own Vertigo, in that the film is very much a film with two distinct acts, where the breathless crescendo of the first leaves you shocked there can even be a second. But it also reminded me of how a simple story can be told so magnificently, which is a failing of so many films which try to lay it on too thick: such as the modern retelling of that other Hitchcock classic Rear Window in Disturbia.
Watched as part of some research for a scriptwriting job, one surprise hit for the year was Whiplash, a film very much in the vein of Black Swan, but one which probably tells the story of an all-consuming passion in pursuit of one’s art even better. The film takes a few wrong turns in my opinion, but the final scene is a breathtaking catharsis for everything which went before, and passes without barely a line of dialogue.
Sticking with the one-man studies, One Hour Photo was probably my surprise treat of the year. A fantastic performance by the late Robin Williams, there’s something so effortlessly natural about this miscentred antihero, a likeable and yet worrisome main character who keeps the scars on his personality visibly hidden. Truly edifying.
Switching to the worst films of the year, there weren’t really any particular stinkers, but a few which were for one reason or another disappointing. The comedic story of a runaway train of Jews escaping the Holocaust, Train of Life was certainly an interesting film, but there are some subjects which simply don’t lend themselves well to satire, and unfortunately this one left something of a foul taste in the mouth. Which is a pity, because one of my absolute favourites of the year was Ianoucci’s The Death of Stalin; despite the very serious subject matter, I think it was the absolutely over-the-top performances and casting which allowed this film to work as well as it did, capturing the absurdity of reality in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The final two stinkers are there for different reasons. You Were Never Really Here ended up being a film I wanted to enjoy, but aside from a few interesting scenes left nothing in my neurons to reflect upon. I think it was a case of false expectations rather than any particularly bad filmcraft. But the final film of note enjoys a reputation beyond its years that frankly, I fail to understand. The Evil Dead is a cheap and drearful horror… comedy, I assume? Low-budget yadda yadda, maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind or the wrong company to enjoy it, but it had none of the visceral horror of Romero’s ilk, few of the real chills a Carpenter might produce, and honestly little in the way of laughs.
A Year in Books
A fairly typical year for books, about on a par with my reading habits for the past few years, there weren’t many titles that really jump out from the stack.
After following him on Twitter and catching the occasional snippet on television, I decided to give The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken a go. For someone not particularly well-versed in what ‘the Law’ really is, it provides a decent summary of how the British system came to be the way it is, and what years of austerity have done to break things. If I had the time, I ought really find a volume comparing that system to others.
Apparently I found more time for reading fiction this year, knocking off some shorter classics like Siddhartha or The Handmaid’s Tale, but there were three in particular which really stood out. Another of Hans Fallada’s oeuvre, Kleiner Mann – was nun? is simply amazing for its prescience, published as it was in 1932 and so poignantly describing the economic and social woes of the depression years on Weimar Germany, the daily grind and struggle to survive and maintain some semblance of dignity.
For slightly different reasons I found myself enchanted by J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, a book set in the brooding revolutionary period of immediate post-WWI Ireland, where the setting sun of the British Empire is epitomised in the form of a crumbling hotel. Humorous and melancholic, it’s interesting that this was written at the start of a fresh set of troubles, being published in 1970.
Going slightly further back historically, I ploughed through Gore Vidal’s Julian, which in contrast to I, Claudius or Memoirs of Hadrian (both read 2018), takes a look back over Julian’s record in the form of a series of letters between two scholars in how to deal with the matter of Julian’s diaries. Perhaps it was the anti-Christian flavour which attracted me the most.
Turning to the worst books of the year, and there weren’t really any terrible stinkers. Not particularly well known in the English-speaking world, Winnetou is a German institution, a collection of western stories that spawned whole series of films, festivals and an extremely successful spoof. But plodding through Winnetou 1, it was difficult to see how. The basic material of White Man and Indians is obviously fertile ground for any story, but the cardboard characters, plodding exposition and lack of dramatic merit makes you wonder how it became so popular with anyone in long trousers. Though I haven’t read James Fenimore Cooper either, so maybe my expectations are at fault.
Meanwhile, the biggest disappointment of the year was probably The Marshmallow Test. I’d certainly waited long enough to read it, probably having learned the gist of the argument sometime in primary school. But there’s basically nothing in this book that you don’t already know, nothing that isn’t already well trodden or implicit in what the test purports to tell us. Are the implications really that profound? Is the test really an indicator for the future or a reflection of the past?