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!

A good weekend

This weekend was good because I was able to do very little that was in any way productive. That was quite fun. Most of the weekend was spent playing Zelda or reading. I played so much Zelda and could do another update just on that alone, but that would be productive, so I’m not doing it today. Let me point out that the image up top is recycled from my last post. What I will do is say that I’ve reached Goron City; I’ve completed the memory main quest, and I’m ready to knock out my last Divine Beast. Then I guess I need to get the Sword of Legend and, of course, wander around to solve mysteries and help people in distress until I’m finally willing to go face Ganon and give Zelda a much-deserved rest. She’s waited a hundred years; she can wait a little longer.

Relatedly, I’m pretty amused by the Switch profile’s game tracking. It’s pretty difficult to tell how vague the tracking is, or if there’s a cap to the number of hours it will report. Or maybe it wouldn’t be that difficult at all to figure this out, but I don’t check very often. Last I checked, which must have been a few weeks back, the profile indicated that I had played about 60 hours or more. Well, it’s continued to track a higher number, though it’s stayed just as vague:

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Wow, I’ve played a lot of Zelda. At least that seems like a lot to me!

Anyway, I said I’d spent the weekend gaming and reading. I’m currently reading UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, by Leslie Kean, and as I result of that, I watched I Know What I Saw, directed by James Fox; Kean and Fox worked together in interviewing witnesses and bringing a group of credible observers together for a conference in, I believe, 2011. The trigger for my current tangent into ufology is the reporting this winter on the Pentagon’s investigation into UFOs, reporting which involved Kean. As with all things ufological, there are a lot of interesting stories in this book and film, and some things truly seem unexplainable, but some of the narratives are sandpapered to remove the rough edges of factual inconsistencies and alternative explanations (conversely, in hearing accounts of some famous sightings by those who actually investigated, I’m shocked to realize how knee-jerk reactionary the debunking/skeptical community can be–I’d completely written off the 2006 O’Hare incident until reading this book). Still, the core of the book and film, that about 5% of UFO sightings cannot be explained via conventional means despite sufficient documentation to rule out all known technological and natural possibilities, and that these sightings are often made by trained observers including pilots and military personnel, and that the US should follow the example of other countries in conducting an open and honest investigation into the phenomenon, is valid and worth considering.

As a child, I had a fascination with a lot of paranormal nonsense like alien abductions and ghosts and various cryptids, as well as the associated conspiracy theories; I think growing out of that and becoming skeptical really helped improve my critical thinking skills. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the paranormal, and while Kean and Fox can’t say that UFOs are anything other than unexplained and currently unexplainable aerial phenomena, that’s still interesting and remarkable in and of itself. (Too bad Fox’s movie was distributed by the very absurdly named UFO TV.)

All right, back to being unproductive.

Review: Super Mario Odyssey

My wife and I got a Nintendo Switch over the holiday break. We purchased two games with it: Breath of the Wild, which she’s playing through, and Super Mario Odyssey, which I’ve been playing. This new Mario game is absolutely fantastic; I beat the main story over the holiday weekend, but there’s still so much more to do and I’m eager to get into it–but before I discuss my opinions on the game any further, let me say a few things about the Switch.

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Switch controller, with Joy-Cons connected, in the foreground. Thanks to my lovely model, Aizen the Cat.

I think it’s a lovely little console. It’s an affordable entry price point for a new console. It’s incredibly easy to set up and use. The console base’s back section organizes and hides the wires you hook up. Everything’s sleek and lightweight. The games look good on the screen, even though not hyper-realistic like with Nintendo’s competitors. The console, when not connected to the TV, doubles as a handheld, of course, and the screen on it is great, with crisp images. Hooking up Joy-Cons to the controller base, or using them separately with wrist straps, or connecting them to the console in handheld mode, is super-easy and intuitive. There were virtually no instructions for how to use the product, and none have been needed. I have had occasional issues with delayed controller reaction, or a Joy-Con losing connection, but these issues all appear to be traced to line-of-sight issues (we have the console dock set on a low level of our TV stand, so a crossed leg or thrust-out end table have been the typical culprits behind the problems, and addressing those concerns has resolved the issues). The only true downside I’ve observed so far is that the handheld mode is a bit bulky and unwieldy, not ideal for extended use. While not a negative, it’s also weird to have a console that is so minimalist; after the rise of Sony and Microsoft, I’ve become accustomed to video game consoles serving as platforms for home entertainment more generally, but the Switch is fashionably bare-bones in a way that’s new to me but nonetheless enjoyable.

It’s also impressive how well the hardware, console operating system, and Nintendo-published games all flow together. The motion sensitivity in the controllers is fun. And the record button on the controller is great; you can save pictures and videos and make small edits, then upload directly to social media, basically encouraging a steady stream of Nintendo-branded video game meme images.

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I’m not good at memes.

As to Super Mario Odyssey itself, I don’t think I could have asked for a better introduction to the console. It makes use of all features of the controller and console quite well (motion sensitive controls for more precise or faster moves, recording tool to capture specially placed hint images, and so on).

It’s also an incredibly fun game. It innovates, but more than being revolutionary it’s a lovely evolution of play in the way that Nintendo does so well, taking the familiar and adding layers to it. Much of the platforming gameplay is reminiscent of Super Mario 64, with the open-world levels and star (or, in this case, moon) collection and even how Mario moves, how he’s controlled, and what his abilities are. Mario is joined in this adventure by Cappy, a sentient hat spirit who can take the form of different hats and who enables Mario to possess many creatures in the game. He joins Mario to rescue his sister Tiara, who was captured by Bowser as one of many wedding accessories the villain has assembled from across many kingdoms for his planned forced marriage to Princess Peach. With Cappy, there are additional moves and tactics for interacting with the environment, but his possession abilities especially open up a whole new world of possibilities (and feel like a growth from the Kirby concept), and his ability to cut through poison spills and the like made me think of Mario’s water gun in Super Mario Sunshine. There are 2D segments as well, which draw connections to the earliest of Mario games (there’s a great extended sequence where Mario participates in an urban festival by recreating elements of the original Donkey Kong game), and of course the gameplay transition from 3D to 2D wall-scrolling comes from other Nintendo titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. This game does not just pull from older games–it celebrates them. There are many references to other games, my favorites being the aforementioned Donkey Kong sequence, an advertisement for a “Diddy’s Mart” on “Dixie Street” (for the Donkey Kong Country fans out there), and a brief montage of Bowser’s evolution over the course of the games in the final level.

Another fun addition is the ability to purchase collectibles in each level. Since you’re kingdom-hopping by way of a magical airship, the idea of travel and tourism is played up considerably. Each kingdom has a unique flair, and so does the merchandise! There are two types of monetary systems–a global coin and a local currency. These currencies let you buy different types of regionally appropriate outfits, stickers for your airship, and little statues and other such souvenirs. There are so many costumes, and I had fun buying many of them as I went through the game. My favorites were the silly and bizarre costumes. The costumes aren’t purely cosmetic; some areas of the game are locked unless you’re dressed appropriately, though I only recall this coming up in side quests for extra power moons, never in a way that forced you to invest in the costumes.

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Before I wrap up, I’d also like to point out that the music in this game was really quite good. It serviced the game rather well, and there were some fun throwback melodies. But highlights were the lyrical songs–the “Jump Up, Super Star” theme sung in-game by Pauline, as well as the end-level song, “Honeylune Ridge: Escape,” which feels rather like something out of a 2000’s Sonic game. And just to show how splendid this whole package is, let me point out that Nintendo Switch cases are very lean and minimalist, with often beautiful artwork adorning them; Super Mario Odyssey has the lyrics to “Jump Up, Super Star” printed against a red background inside the case.

I had a lot of fun with this game. A lot of fun! The different zones were so colorful (mostly, except for some worlds that were deliberately drab and somewhat creepy) and unique and sometimes somewhat mind-bending. It was Mario silly absurdity at its best. Yes, the same tired tropes get dragged out to provide a simple overarching plot (though somewhat lamp-shaded in the end, in a cute way), but a lot of the specific moments in the game were memorable and intriguing. And anyway, while I typically prefer narrative-focused games, Mario’s not about that. Mario’s about having fun, and this game was a rousing success in that regard. You will find something you like to do in this game, and the game will have some way of rewarding you for doing it. And nothing required to beat the main story was all that frustrating or stressful, though it could be challenging, especially in boss fights and hard-to-reach side quests.

I’ve finished the main story, but now I’m left with the whole world open to me. I still have a lot of costume-shopping and exploring and power moon-collecting to do before I put this title aside. And I’m really looking forward to it!

I don’t know if people still talk about “killer apps” in relation to consoles anymore, but I’d suggest Super Mario Odyssey is a game that justifies the console purchase all on its own. I highly recommend it.