My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!