2015 is the year that open-world games broke me. Remember a few years ago, when everyone was complaining about “shooter fatigue” because it seemed like every game we played was the same thing where you shot at things and the only thing that changed were the things that you shot at? That’s how I’m feeling about open-world games right now. They’re great if you want to spend days and days in the world of a game, but that just sounds like work to me. Personally, I’d prefer a short, authored experience. Anyway, this explains why there are some high-profile games that aren’t on this list1 - they were probably open-world games that just didn’t get their teeth into me.
This is an unranked list, but if I was going to rank it, Rocket League would be the clear winner. It’s a football game, you hit the ball into the opponent’s net. But instead of controlling a player, you’re driving a car. A car with a rocket on the back of it. It sounds like a joke, right? Well, Rocket League was the most fun I’ve had in any video game all year. The local multiplayer is great fun, screaming laughing with your pals as one of you pulls off some ridiculous goal. Which is great by itself, but it’s also got a real depth to it. Watch some high-level videos and it’s like a whole different game. What I love most is that it’s genuinely the best football game I’ve played. All the other games, like FIFA, are trying to recreate the experience of watching football. Rocket League is recreating the experience of playing football. Favourite game of 2015.
This is only the second ever video game (after Silent Hill 2) that my wife has ever played to completion. FMV is back!
The Witcher 3
Okay, so I realise it was only just a minute ago that I was complaining about open-world games. And here’s an open-world game on my list. What the hell, John? Listen, my main complaint with open-world games is that it’s a way for the developers to artificially stretch out a game, to make it seem bigger than it actually is. And they can use it to hide a lot of the cruft in their actual narrative writing, going “ooh, but isn’t the environmental storytelling so good?” The Witcher 3 had actually great writing underpinning it. It’s dense, but accessible. There are quests here that I’m still thinking about, months after I put the game down. The open-world nature of it was incidental to the actual game. I haven’t enjoyed being in a game’s world this much since Red Dead Redemption.
It seems like every year I make these lists, there’s at one entry that could be accused of not really being a game. This year it’s Panoramical. And sure, it’s not very game-like. It’s more like a peaceful, meditative toy. There’s no win-state to the game. You’re just presented with a series of landscapes with different visual and audio tracks, and you control the levels of these tracks. That’s it. That’s the whole game. Play away. You finish when you’ve had enough. There’s some real beauty here, if you’re into that kind of thing. I really am.
The Beginner’s Guide
For the first hour or so of The Beginner’s Guide, I was in awe at the inventiveness of the game. It seemed like creator Davey Wreden was just showing off. At the very end of the game, there’s a revelation. And this completely upended everything I’d just experienced. I immediately played through it again and, even though it was the exact same content, I had a totally different experience. That someone can do something ambitious like this and just fucking nail it so hard is pretty impressive. When you know the back-story and realise this game is actually about something so deeply personal? Yeah, maybe he is showing off.
Even though the two are nothing alike, playing Sunless Sea triggers the same part of my brain that is triggered when I play board games like HeroQuest. There’s this wonderful, tactile feeling to the game, like you’re playing with lovely hand-crafted miniature pieces in a world where anything can happen and there are million stories to tell. I’ve played a few different games of Sunless Sea now and they’ve always gone in different directions. I have a feeling I’ll still be coming back to this in 2016.
Super Mario Maker
Okay, let’s say you’re not interested in making any levels yourself. And let’s say you’re not completely won over by the most charming presentation in any game ever. Then there’s these three words: infinite Mario levels. You can just download other peoples’ creations and have an almost limitless supply of Mario levels for you to play and enjoy. If this still isn’t enough for you, then I just don’t know what to say to you.
Star Wars Battlefront
For a game that got fairly mediocre reviews, I had a fucking blast with Star Wars Battlefront. It’s not trying to be the deepest game ever made. It’s just trying to be a fast, casual, fun, and really, really ridiculously good-looking Star Wars game. And that’s exactly what it is.
e.g. Metal Gear Solid V, which I have played enough of to appreciate was a really well-made game, just not one of my favourites ↩
Old one, but still fantastic. Always amazing to see the process of someone who is just great at their job.
Craig Mod has some theories surrounding the apparent decline in ebook sales. TL;DR: he reckons it’s mostly to do with the physical experience of reading on ereaders (and let’s be clear, when we say ‘ereaders’, there’s really only one player in town, the Kindle). For me, he borders too much on the fetishisation of the physical form of the book. For example, here’s his description of the travel guide City Secrets
Bound in rust-coloured cloth, rough against the skin, with jet-black foil‑stamped lettering and a small key on the cover, City Secrets was skinny. The trim size was non‑standard, much taller than wide. It bent easily, fit handily into my jacket pocket, and was made with cover boards that had a reassuring springy resilience. The combination of the size and the cloth cover made it feel like a travel companion – a book that could take a beating, be dragged around the world, stored for years, and returned to, again and again.
It’s like Nigella-style food erotica for the lit crowd.
But I sort of agree with some of what he’s saying. As I mentioned before (and I’ll continue to mention at any available opportunity), I recently — finally! — finished Infinite Jest. Now, Infinite Jest is a goddamn doorstop. A thousand pages of some of the densest prose you’ll find. It should be the perfect candidate for Kindle-reading. But I read the entire thing on a physical book. I hauled that monster in and out of the city every day on my commute, even though it took up most of the space in my bag, simply because it was just a more pleasant experience than reading on the Kindle.
The worst part is that a lot of the things that keep the Kindle from being a genuinely great reading experience (as opposed to an entirely passable one) are fairly minor. They’re not insurmountable. They’re mostly niggly details like shitty font options and character spacing that could most charitably be described as ‘schizophrenic’. And these issues are getting addressed, albeit at a glacial pace. This June, almost eight years after the first Kindle was first released and seven generations into the Kindle product line, Amazon released firmware that finally fixed its shitty hyphenation and layout engine.
So the changes are slowly coming, but Amazon’s reluctance to release any information or suggestions of where they plan to take the Kindle is baffling to me. Especially when it’s their mealticket item. Apple called the Apple TV their “hobby” and said nothing about its roadmap (until they finally did). Amazon seem to be treating the Kindle in the same way. Is it any wonder people are returning to books? I’m sure they’ll be back to the Kindle when something dramatically enhance the experience on there, but who knows how long that will be?
Personally, there are two things I would love to see that would improve my relationship with the Kindle. First, release an updated Kindle DX. You know, the bigger Kindle. The “Kindle Pro”. My neighbour in Rome, an editor, used to have one and it was the cadillac of readers even then. The resolution of the Kindle Voyage is finally at a print-like level, but the size of the actual screen means it’s useless for anything but imitating cheap paperbacks. A slightly larger physical screen would open the device up to so much more.
Second, and this is a cheap, simple win - I’d love to see the Kindle display the cover of the book I’m currently reading instead of the Kindle’s shitty generic screensavers. When I read a physical book, I am greeted by its cover every time I look at it. I know the name of the author, I know the name of the book. On the Kindle, this stuff is hidden away from everyday view, so it’s possible to read a book and have no idea of its title or who wrote it. You’re cut off from a relationship with the book in favour of a relationship with its content. The cover, that singular piece of design that, let’s face it, we almost always base our initial judgement of a book on, is completely removed on the Kindle. Without it, a book is just a collection of photocopied pages held together with sticky-tape.
(I try to post reviews of all the films I watch over on letterboxd, where I’ve logged a poor 73 films so far this year. Here are some of my most recent reviews)
Man Up ★★★★
I have this weird, unexplainable love of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. It’s got an easy charm that just wins me over every time. One of the few things that put me off watching the film more is the fact that I am clearly, by like 15-20 years or so, not its target audience, and so it might make me seem creepy or something.
Thank God, then, for Man Up, which is, in almost every way, a Nick and Norah for grown-ups. It follows many of the same beats: the meet-cute, the falling out, the weird exes, the slow, growing affection. Except this time it’s about people in their thirties and forties, so instead of Nick and Norah’s indie contemporary soundtrack that played such a major part of that film, Man Up has the two leads dancing perfectly to Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” while talking about their feelings.
Basically, it hits all the same notes as Nick and Norah without any of the sour, creepy old man aftertaste. Perfect.
Nightcrawler is a wonderful throwback to the great antihero films of the 1970s, which functioned as both a thrilling piece of entertainment and a biting satire on contemporary life. Leo Bloom himself is the perfect amalgamation of the anger and sociopathy of Travis Bickle and the psychotic self-delusion of Rupert Pupkin. Gyllenhaal is terrific - equal parts mesmerising and terrifying.
On a side-note, this is the second time (the other being Zodiac) that I’ve avoided a Jake Gyllenhaal film because I was expecting a boring, leaden film only to be surprised by how wrong I was. I think I need to start giving this guy more credit.
Pitch Perfect 2 ★½
I’m going to try to avoid comparing this to the first Pitch Perfect because even taken on its own, this film is a mess. It’s a comedy without the comedy. What few jokes actually emerge are weak and/or obvious. Prepare for lots of fat jokes and racist “in my country” jokes lifted straight out of That 70s Show. Sub-plots are introduced and given a half-hearted waggle in front of the camera before they’re ditched entirely - for a boyfriend Beca’s been with for three years, poor Skylar Astin’s Jesse is on screen for about twenty seconds total. And only one sequence in the entire film (the Green Bay Packers) made me giggle at all.
Ironic, though, is the fact that it’s a film about acapella groups finding their voice through originality, rather than through covers, and yet this film hasn’t got a single original bone in its body.
Short Term 12 ★★★★½
Who’d have thought a film about child abuse, attempted suicide and abortion could be so uplifting? Not me. A genuinely lovely surprise of a film.
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Forget it Zhang, it’s China.