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!

Red Dead Redeemed

While most people might now be moving on from Red Dead Redemption 2, or exploring Red Dead Online, I found myself fervently digging through the original game earlier this year.

There was, obviously, considerable critical praise at the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and it performed well commercially. At some point toward the end of or just after law school, about 2014 or so, a friend whose gaming tastes I trust recommended this game. (He also recommended Shadow of Mordor, which I loved once I finally got around to it.) I got a used copy and gave it a try. It was engaging for quite a while. I loved the wide-open Western vistas, the mechanics of riding a horse and using a firearm, the cast of Western archetypes and subversions of the form. The story of a bounty hunter pursuing his old outlaw gang associates to clear a debt and get his family back was expected fare for the genre, but then again, Westerns have long lived on familiarity. And the game clearly had things it wanted to say about law, liberty, and justice. Not only did it provide commentary on our history of exploiting the peoples and natural resources of the American Southwest, but it also offered moments of philosophical reflection and debate between characters that were clearly meant to echo contemporary concerns about overreach by law enforcement and the federal government. I played through the assault on Fort Mercer, and the predictable escape of the game’s tertiary antagonist. I played as John Marston crossed over into Mexico, and I took delight in the poignant, melancholy lyrics of one of the rare songs with vocals that punctuated that arrival. But as the game continued to bloat, inserting winding and irrelevant quests for both sides of a revolution into the main narrative, and as the plot continued to beat the drum of its now over-performed and ultimately shallow themes, I lost interest. I stopped playing.

Since then, I’ve attempted to play the games many times over the years. Each time, I gradually lost interest, typically before I’d left the first act in New Austin. I liked the storytelling and characters introduced in that first act, but it was grating to know that the game would derail itself with a soggy middle designed to draw out open-world play. What could have been a tightly executed story about the cycle of revenge and one man’s effort to break the chains of fate became too much, trying to throw every Western plot point into a single game. Alas, that is the fate of too many AAA games: wanting to be something for everyone, wanting to keep people playing, they throw in so much (story, gameplay, open-world exploration, etc.) that it becomes too much.

Well, cut to this year, and in the wake of a few months of reviews, critical essays, and hot takes surrounding the prequel, I felt the urge to mount up for one more rodeo. Shockingly, this became the time that I finished the game. I didn’t just finish the game–I reached 100% completion!  (A little disclaimer: that’s per the stats for the base game; it’s certainly not all the console achievements, and I have never played Undead Nightmare, and I don’t ever intend to do so. I’m rather fond of Westerns but don’t much care for the zombie genre.)

Partly, my completion of the game came down to having a clear goal in mind. I have amassed a vast back catalog of games over the years, especially by way of Steam, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful about trying games, and “completing” games, before purchasing more. Given that I’ve been considering the purchase of a current-gen console in addition to the Switch, or even holding out for the purchase of an early next-gen console, it dawned on me that I should get through some of the last-gen installments in franchises I’d be interested in playing before spending even more money on a machine and additional games. Red Dead Redemption was on that list, since I typically enjoy Rockstar games and would likely want to try the second title in the series at some point. Finishing The Witcher 2 (since I’d played through the original game and rather enjoyed The Last Wish, and since the third title has often been hailed as one of the Best Games Ever) and at least Dragon Age: Origins (since I’ve burned out by the third act in the past) are also on that list.

There were other changes in my mindset when I approached the game this time, though. Primarily, I decided to focus on the gameplay over the story. I knew that the story would disappoint me in the middle act, so as long as I focused on having fun, I’d get more out of the game. After all, a game should be fun or rewarding to play, if not both, and the interactivity and reactivity between game and player are a good part of what make games so unique as compared to other entertainment/art forms. This focus on gameplay improved my skills with the game considerably, and in two ways. First, I myself got better with the game as I spent more time playing it, especially performing side quests and unique challenges that tested my abilities and forced me to engage with the game world more. Second, completing those aforementioned challenges often netted me an in-game boost to abilities. I focused a lot of my time, starting early, on completing the ambient challenges, for instance, which improved my stats (and unlocked stat-boosting outfits) as I reached particular levels in the challenges. Once I tackled the main story, it was easier to advance as a result. In example, enough random quests to save some poor sap’s wife or brother from the noose and shooting challenges to outdraw my opponents on the main streets of cities improved my use and management of the time-slowing, target-marking Dead Eye ability considerably, such that its required use in main quests was often surprisingly easy.

Another change was a special challenge for myself: the decision to explore and to genuinely accept the consequences of my actions. (I’ve often fallen back on save points and wanted to do things exactly right, or exactly within the bounds of how I saw a character or story as developing, and the experimentation and embrace of failure, and learning from failure, in Breath of the Wild was a turning point for me.) Often, failing to achieve a side quest, or accidentally shooting an innocent, or dying, or missing out on a mission objective that would require beginning again from a checkpoint, or simply encountering a glitch that resulted in a bizarre cutscene without breaking the game would result in my quitting the game or reloading to a previous manual save point. It was partly simple frustration, sure, but it was mostly an effort on my part to force a cohesive narrative vision on the game world. I wanted my John Marston to act in a certain way, not to be someone who died from falling down a cliff or accidentally shot a woman in a gunfight with bandits. But forcing myself to play on often presented wild new deviations, and even continuing from death became something I was comfortable with. That was especially hard to adjust to, though, because unlike games with free saving, the use of world-state autosaves that didn’t accurately capture a particular moment often dumped me into unusual situations that did not reflect my previous predicament. It was tempting to want to reload to a clean, manual save slot, but it would have come at a loss of time, accomplishments, and experience. Overcoming that urge for a clean reset, and accepting sporadic skips and jumps in time, enabled me to better enjoy the moment-to-moment experiences of the game (plus, losing hours of progress to hop back to the last save you made is an easy way to grow frustration even further).

The biggest change was the simplest: I opted to turn off the minimap at the beginning of the game. That proved to be incredibly freeing, helped with immersion, and made me focus more on what was happening in the game world as visually represented instead of relying on raw metadata to determine inputs. There were moments where the lack of a minimap was frustrating or disorienting, but its presence was certainly never required. And again, it made me stay focused on Marston’s physical presence in the game world.

So, those changes in mindset and interaction with the game gave me the push to finish the story. I was surprised to realize how close I had been to making it through Mexico way back in my first, long-lost attempt to beat the game. I was unsurprised to find that the Mexican-set second act was largely a long, ambling diversion from the main game. When you finally track down Bill Williamson for the second time, that confrontation feels unremarkable, rushed, and insignificant. You’ve already caught another gang member (in one of the few moments of choice in the story, however irrelevant to the plot outcome, you can choose to capture or kill Javier Escuella). You already know, through gradually emerging references in dialogue, that you’ll have to go after your long-missing gang leader as well. By the time I got to Williamson and put down the local Mexican tyrant as well (would it have been a choice to spare him? I didn’t give the monster a chance), I was already long past caring about that section of the game. And I was more than a little frustrated by Marston’s staunch, defiantly ignorant refusal to pick a side in the fight. Given that you could play most of the missions in any order you chose, and it was easier to play the quests for each faction, geographically centered around one of two hub areas across the map, in a batch, the story ultimately felt dissonant and lacking clear cause-and-effect to me. Plus, even outside of my efforts to play Marston as mostly honorable, defining character traits in the story were Marston’s disdain for tyrannical government and respect for women, meaning that the crude, violent, corrupt governor/serial-rapist didn’t seem like a reasonable figure for Marston to associate with–especially since the governor’s actions were always so clearly on display, so Marston couldn’t turn a blind eye to it, the governor himself was so obviously untrustworthy, Marston never got any useful information or resources from that work, and the rebels actually made more of a clear effort to help Marston. Even before the “big” twist that “revealed” the governor’s deceptions at the end of the act, Marston should have jumped ship and never looked back when the governor’s right-hand man set an ambush for him.

The third act was interesting but rushed. The game really starts to barrel you toward your final confrontation once you’re out of Mexico. The introduction of Native American rebels resisting the government as part of Marston’s old leader’s new gang could have been an interesting development and a bigger chunk of narrative if handled carefully and with consideration, but it was not.

On the subject of Native Americans in the game…it must be said that as usual, Rockstar was less than sensitive in its portrayals of women and minorities, often relying on stereotyped depictions and lacking in meaningful counter-examples to justify the presence of those tired race and gender tropes. Race issues often came down to the adoption of stereotypes rather than actual engagement with those issues or even coherent character development. There’s a lot of ironic commentary in the in-game newspapers that suggests that the developers have a contemporary, conscientious sensibility about the plight of minority communities, but it’s rarely on display in the plot, leaving the impression that they just wanted to have the opportunity to laugh about it all. The one Chinese character in a side mission becomes an opium addict. The one prominent Native American character who is not a gang member is portrayed as slow-speaking and of noble temperament; he talks about how white people are destroying the Earth and gets killed pretty early on, after serving as a guide and sidekick to Marston and an over-the-top racist anthropologist character. Said anthropologist is in the game way too much, having no impact on the plot and present mostly just to say racist things in a way Rockstar apparently felt they could get away with–haha, we’re not saying the racist things, that obviously offensive guy is, and it’s clear that we think you think it’s offensive, so it’s funny now! There are a lot of Mexican characters, and it seemed like the background characters spoke naturally in accurate Spanish (though I’m nowhere close to fluent, so I just picked out what I could understand), but the main Mexican characters were thugs or fools or scoundrels all, save one heroic yet naive rebel girl who is ultimately killed for the narrative purpose of mildly pissing off John Marston. There are black background characters, and that’s about it. The few prominent female characters are mostly in need of saving at least at one point, and early Marston ally Bonnie MacFarlane has a role largely defined by her growing fondness for Marston and his ability to help her, even as they talk about how tough and independent she is. That role is later replicated by Marston’s wife. Rockstar seems to want to have things to say about race and gender roles, but it too often decides to settle on cynical, shallow sarcasm and apparently ironic depictions that fail to really challenge the stereotypes they channel. As per usual, the studio produced a showcase game for exactly why greater representation is needed not just by way of depiction but in the creative stages of development.

But to focus back on the conclusion of the game: the third act is a section where the main plot is picked up with earnest again, but it takes several missteps. It was at its best when it provided slower moments that let John examine the cycles of violence he was caught up in, and in the quiet before the storm at the end when he is attempting to return to a “normal” life with his family (even though those “normal” scenes were often too long to the point of being boring, with cattle-herding and stallion-roping segments I hoped I’d escaped after the MacFarlane quests in the first act). The disdain of the modern law enforcement agents from out East, the suicide by Dutch in an attempt to escape the narrowly defined fate laid out for him, the bonding between John and his son Jack and the heavy foreshadowing of John’s fate on his trips with his boy, and the lyrical songs that punctuate some of the most powerful bridges in the story are what I’ll especially remember the end of the game for. John’s death, which I’d spoiled for myself years ago, was not very powerful to me; after so many impossible fights that we’d overcome, getting taken out after an especially weak Dead Eye moment felt cheap, and John’s grotesquely bullet-riddled body was disturbing but not especially moving. Still, while I know a lot of people were annoyed with Jack, I found the epilogue of the game to be very rewarding.

I’d already spent so much time on achieving side quests and challenges that by the time Jack arrived on the scene, I’d decided that I’d seek out 100% completion. But I found that just spending time with Jack added powerfully to the narrative of the story. You can play Jack as you could John, honorable or dastardly, so the true conclusion of the story is in many ways in your hands. I chose to play him honorably, with the suggestion that he’d taken in some of the values that John tried to instill. The game itself suggests this, as well, through Jack’s possession and use of John’s property, suggesting a replication of personality: Jack wears John’s clothes, has John’s guns and cash, and has access to John’s safe houses. Additionally, Jack makes offhanded remarks in fights and other situations that reflect the lessons he’s learned from John–and a lingering desire to make his papa proud.

In a great touch, to truly close out the game, to cap off the story, Jack must hunt down the agent responsible for his father’s death. It’s not a mission that pops up on your map automatically. It’s a Stranger mission, a side quest that appears to you as you wander through the “big” city of Blackwater. There’s nothing to compel you to keep following the thread, other than a gamer’s completionist impulse. You could elect to have Jack walk away from revenge entirely, to finally course-correct and be anything he wanted, something other than the outlaw and bounty hunter than John was. To do that would be to fulfill everything John hoped for. To do that is to stop playing, though. To keep playing, to keep Jack operating in the game world, you’ll continue the cycle of violence that John hoped he could end with just one more government job, one more bounty, one more death.

This final main story mission plays out slowly and quietly. Jack tracks the agent to a cottage off a lake in New Austin. Jack deceives the agent’s wife into revealing his current location, on a hunting trip just inside of Mexico. Jack finds the agent’s brother at their campsite, who directs him to the game’s primary antagonist, now a washed-up, retired old man. There’s a quick duel–at this point in the game, an incredibly easy draw. In the aftermath, the great villain of Jack’s life dead before him, Jack thoughtfully considers his firearm, holsters it, and turns away from the riverbed scene of this final fight. As he walks away, the screen flashes red, there’s a recognizable note from the score, and the words “RED DEAD REDEMPTION” appear. This is the game’s true ending. Redemption appears more ironic than ever. Jack has found revenge, but he has not redeemed his father or himself. His father never truly found a way out of the life of violence that he led; other forces wouldn’t let him. Jack, too, has fallen into the same cycle, and this one defining moment could mean that he’s stuck in it until the end. Whether the player ever reaches this milestone, and whether the player plays on after this, as I did, is left to a matter of choice.

The early drumbeat of themes was long lost in the white noise of the game’s Too Much of Everything design philosophy. They were the least interesting themes, too, the ideas that Rockstar loves to keep bringing up without saying anything new: there will always be bad people, bad people are often on the side of the alleged good guys, we should not trust ourselves to large-scale governance so long as those things are true, and so on. But the deeply personal, intimate, yet universal themes of revenge, redemption, fate, and choice swirling around the Marston men that the game manages to tease out in the third act and the epilogue are powerfully and refreshingly done. No matter how familiar the themes may be to fans of the Western genre, Red Dead Redemption still found something fresh to say. But there’s so much baggage, and so much mediocre, dragged-out storytelling on the way, that most people probably never experienced it all. And sadly, so much of what made Red Dead Redemption‘s story powerful and rewarding was actually playing through those moments in the resolution of the third act and in the epilogue, and especially the choice to continue or to abandon the quest for revenge, such that no stream or recording of cutscenes and gameplay could fully capture that unique recognition of powerlessness in power, fatalistic futility, and tragic despair disguised as victory.

Ironically, by focusing myself on gameplay over story, I was able to reach the point where I better appreciated exactly why so many people do love that story. (Still, that story would have been better, more powerful, and appreciated by more people in full if it had been a twenty-hour experience instead of the forty-six-and-a-half hours I spent on it.) And now I feel rather prepared to play Red Dead Redemption 2, especially since I know what to expect. The reviews I’ve read suggest a bigger, longer game, with even more great development in the first act, and with even more meandering loss of focus by the end. One question remains for me above all others: will this newer game provide an ending that makes the slog through the middle seem worthwhile after all, or will it fail to reach the powerful conclusion of Jack Marston’s silent walk away?

My Five Favorite Games in 2018

It’s the end of the last day of January 2019, so I suppose I’d better get around to a retrospective on my favorite video game experiences of 2018, if I’m ever going to do it. Coming up with my five favorite games in 2018 proved difficult. You’ll notice it’s not five favorite games of 2018, which would have substantially limited the playing field. Rather, it’s the games that I played in 2018, which was still rather difficult. Looking over the reviews I posted over the year, I found that (a) I really hadn’t played all that many games in 2018, and (b) many of my video game experiences were downright mediocre. In fact, because I didn’t do a list like this for 2017, I’m bringing in Super Mario Odyssey to round things out, even though I wrapped up my experience with that game in December of the year prior.

So, in order of preference, more or less, here it goes…

5. Star Wars: Battlefront II

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No, not that one. The 2005 one, of course. I still have a lot of fun playing this game, and I’m beginning to suspect that I may never fully tire of it. I don’t care that it’s getting older. I still load this up when I just want to have fun. And believe it or not, this title, released over a decade ago, had relevance once more in the past year, as it received new patches for renewed online multiplayer in late 2017 and early 2018. So all in all, it’s just as good a time to hop into the game again (or for the first time) now as ever.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

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It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s sprawling, and it can be challenging. There are lots of collectibles–many of those collectibles, like outfits and hats, are rather fun to collect. It’s colorful, quirky, and weird. It’s a damn good Mario game and a damn good platformer. It was the first game that I played for the Switch, and it instantly made the console worthwhile.

3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a Super Smash Bros. game, you should like this. A huge roster of fighters, a variety of game modes, and a colossal pile of stages give any gamer more than enough content to work through, and there’s more to come. It’s flashy and addictive in single-player. It’s brutal (for a horrible player like me) but still fun in online multiplayer. And local multiplayer matches are still a blast.

2. 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

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This was a game I encountered by accident, and it was a deceptively simple and surprisingly rewarding game to play with a rich narrative spun out of chance and my own efforts at cross-generational success. This was a beautiful game, and I’m only disappointed that the planned series to follow seems unlikely to ever manifest. And this is also a really cheap indie title, so you really have no reason not to give it a try!

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I’m not a Zelda fan. I loved this game. It’s not only my favorite game that I played in 2018, it might be my favorite game ever. As I’ve said before, BOTW is a “massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).”

And so concludes my list. What were your favorite gaming experiences in 2018? And what video games are you looking forward to playing in 2019?

The Legends of Zelda: A Case for Broadening the Lore

Having played Breath of the Wild and now Hyrule Warriors in the past year (review on Warriors should be up later this week), I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo has been making serious efforts to reinvent The Legend of Zelda.

Breath of the Wild is a beautiful evolution in the storied franchise, providing a true open world with lots of exploration and experimentation. For what it’s worth, it’s the first main Zelda game that I ever really got into, despite trying to play many previous titles.

On the flip side, Hyrule Warriors is on its face a weird divergence from other Zelda games: a hack-and-slash medieval war game with sprawling, button-mashing battles on closed maps. But it works. (Nintendo seems to be licensing its titles out more and more for bizarre crossover projects we wouldn’t otherwise expect to see; besides this combination of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors from Koei Tecmo, there was Pokemon Conquest, the combination of Pokemon and strategy RPG Nobunaga’s Ambition that was also from Koei Tecmo, and there will soon be Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an open-world, starfighter-simulator, toys-to-life game published by Ubisoft with an apparently robust implementation of the Star Fox team for the upcoming Switch version).

Both BOTW and Warriors emphasize lore over story. BOTW offers a minimalist story, and Warriors offers an overly convoluted yet half-baked story. Both thrive instead on setting and mythos. Both tie into the larger narratives of reincarnation and heroic destiny. Both offer a rich cast of characters old and new–in fact, Warriors thrives on a heavy collection of characters in its roster, with many more to unlock.

Zelda game is increasingly defined by its characters and lore over a very particular type of action-RPG, puzzle-solving experience. Neither BOTW or Warriors exactly represents that traditional model of game, but both feel very much like Zelda games because of their use of easily recognizable visuals, characters, mythology, themes, music, and sounds. At this point, Zelda feels bigger than the story of Link and Zelda. It’s a whole sprawling, multidimensional universe.

We’ve seen that explored a little bit in the lovely Legend of Zelda coffee table books from Dark Horse (the Goddess Collection trilogy of Hyrule HistoriaArt & Artifacts, and the Encyclopedia). I’d like to see more of it.

One thing in particular that would be great is a Legend of Zelda tabletop RPG. Let’s step back from Link, Zelda, and Ganon for a moment. Obviously there’s that massive cycle of reincarnation resulting in grand conflicts between the forces of good and evil every so many generations, but in between there’s still day-to-day conflict. There are various kingdoms and political alliances that shift from game setting to setting, and there are a variety of potential races to pull from–for example, Hylians, Gerudo, Gorons, Zora, Sheikah, Rito, Koroks, Fairies, and so on. Different “eras” in the timeline offer radically different geologies, cultures, and environments. You have the bleak and post-apocalyptic setting of the original game, the swashbuckling and island-hopping setting of Wind Waker, the industrialist world of Spirit Tracks, or the more standard medieval-influenced themes found in most of the games. And there is a vast array of monsters that range from riffs on classic D&D opponents to truly bizarre creatures.

Frankly, even without its own separate rule system (and surely over-priced sourcebooks), I imagine that it would be easy enough to develop a homebrew Zelda setting using any one of dozens of different existing games. It seems like D&DPathfinderBlue Rose, and 7th Sea could all make for happy homes to different legends of Zelda. (Hell, D&D and Pathfinder in particular sport such robust bestiaries that it’d be easy to slap on a slightly different aesthetic and lore to many of the races to have ready-made counterparts for the Zeldaverse, with little to no required creation or alteration of monster stats.)

Even if you felt that the franchise should stay solely focused on the Triforce and its incarnated heroes and villains, I say there’s still a rich vein to mine outside of the video games, in the form of television, film, and literature. There have been manga adaptations of many of the games, and there was of course the ridiculous television series from 1989, but it’s a rich property that could be developed further. Heck, even if you stuck with pure adaptations, it’s not hard to transplant the episodic, arc-based, melodramatic game plots into television format. With the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the ongoing appeal of animated fantasy series like Avatar: The Last AirbenderAdventure Time, and The Dragon Prince, it’s somewhat surprising that there have been no serious attempts to convert the games to a contemporary television show.

Perhaps the concern is that any show creators would be adapting a series with an essentially silent hero. It would be wrong to go in the direction of an over-talkative protagonist like in the existing Zelda series, but that seems more a case of over-correction and a weird product of the late eighties. Link doesn’t need to be purely silent. BOTW, at least, does have plenty of dialogue from Link–even if it’s only text-based. But given that I’ve been most intrigued by Link’s allies over Link himself, I wouldn’t mind a companion-based show where Link speaks very little or not at all. Furthermore, I think General Amaya in The Dragon Prince shows that a deaf hero can work after all.

All of the above comes from my place as a Zelda “fan.” I’m not really one at all. To the extent that I am, I’ve come to the franchise very late. I’d tried to play Zelda games before, but there seems to have been something very formative about playing the SNES or N64 games as children for so many Zelda fans that I just missed out on. I found titles like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to be tedious, overly linear, and sort of boring. I’m not tied into the fandom at all. But I’m suddenly finding a wealth of interest in the franchise, and while I’ve happened to luck into two very nonstandard Zelda games that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, it’s really been learning more about the setting and lore that has given me a place to root myself. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that I’d be happy to see opportunities for the lore to grow–with or without another main title game.

Retrying Skyward Sword

I thought about what game I might get into after Breath of the Wild (for better or for worse, Arena still sits on the back burner). I didn’t have much of a positive experience with most other Zelda games, but my wife’s own fandom meant that there were several of those older titles stacked up, and I found that I really did want to give another Zelda game a shot. While most of the game mechanics I really loved in Breath of the Wild benefited from other open world games, I must admit to a fondness for the characters–and the character of the world itself.

So I’ve started playing Skyward Sword. It’s interesting to walk back a generation in the main console releases.

The game’s already a little over-fascinated with legacy. In its first section, there’s a cheesy reference to the knight academy existing for 25 years, and this comes after an explicit acknowledgment of the Zelda 25-year anniversary in the opening cinematic (and, for that matter, on the game’s packaging). I think where I most like the sense of legacy is in the use of certain recurrent imagery and characters (which, of course, I’m most familiar with from a later game).

I am enjoying the quirky characters and fantasy flavor of the game. There’s also a more pronounced story in this game, but maybe not better. The first chapter of the game, at the sky knight academy, left me thinking about how the story could be better. One of the first scenes between Zelda and Link, meant to showcase their close and old friendship, involves Zelda’s father lecturing the two about events, he admits, they are intimately aware of, like the importance of the bird mounts and Link’s first interaction with his bird (which Zelda witnessed). I think it would have been much better to open the game with Link as a child first encountering the bird, giving us some time to get familiar with the controls and showing rather than telling Link’s bond to his bird (and to Zelda). In contrast, I mostly like the characterization of the major and minor personalities in the game–especially Fledge and Groose and Pipit and Zelda, who have sort of stereotypical high-schooler roles but are nonetheless written fairly well. It’s especially cool to see a spunky, tough Zelda who helps Link and even saves him once early on (though it’s not so cool that she only had to save him because she pushed him off a ledge to near-death on a whim). It’s too bad she’s quickly lost and Link must go off to save her. I sort of like the sword assistant that Link meets–it’s a cool fantasy take on an AI–but bondage of a female character to serve Link is a little uncomfortable. I also want to give a special shout-out to Groose, whose infatuation with Zelda, thuggish bullying attitude, and posse of weaker hangers-on remind me of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, but with an amazing pompadour.

I actually did try to play this game once before, shortly after I purchased it (near its original release) for my wife. We both quickly gave up on it, largely due to its frustrating motion controls. Those motion controls remain rather frustrating. Swordplay can be fun, and certain gestures, like the act of pulling Link’s sword from where it was sealed in stone, or every time you have to raise said sword skyward to power up an attack, are immersive and feel heroic (even if I probably look like an idiot). But the controls more often feel imprecise; sometimes, what I do with the controller will result in an action that is almost exactly opposite of what is intended, or will do nothing at all. A not-insignificant gameplay feature is the use of a bird mount, and this flying mechanic takes quite a bit of getting used to; it is especially prone to apparent unresponsiveness.

I’m also disinterested in the art style, which I find to be a bit bland and dated despite only premiering in 2011 (which is seven years ago now, wow!). I do like the soft colors and washed-out look, and I think trying to draw influence from impressionism is an interesting idea, but the end result seems clunky and inexact. It just doesn’t leave the strong impression of Breath of the Wild or Wind Waker.

Compared to Breath of the Wild, this game is frustratingly railroaded, something that’s burned me out on most other Zelda titles. Even where I might be more willing to forgive its environmental walls, I have the climbing/jumping/swimming/gliding openness of the newest title to compare Skyward Sword to. Even so, I made it to the first temple on the surface world, so while I’m still very early in the game, I’m almost as far along as I was the last time I quit, and I’m not burned out yet. We’ll see how far I get. The more Zelda the game is, the less I like it, perhaps, and Skyward Sword delights in the Zelda legacy. Still, I’m interested enough in the characters, quirkiness, and lore to keep playing at least for a while.

*Image at the top is from The Legend of Zelda: Art & Artifacts, Dark Horse Books 2016.*

Five Favorites Fast

Finishing Breath of the Wild, I thought to myself that it’s probably one of my top favorite games ever. This, of course, prompted a bit of further reexamination. A favorites list is an inherently subjective and personal artifact, no matter what numbers one assigns to a thing in the attempt to give a more formal rating. It is also fairly mutable; my favorites list–especially if you get out to the fringes of a top ten or top twenty anything–changes relatively frequently.

So if Breath of the Wild is one of my top favorite games now, how do the others shake out?

In no particular order, my five favorite video games are currently…

I. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).

II. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

The list changes a little bit, but not that much. This permanent ranking at the top of my games pile is part nostalgia and part a reflection on what a wonderful game Bethesda put out back in 2002. It’s buggy and a bit ugly around the edges, and its (unmodded) graphics certainly don’t live up to the test of time–but it was rewarding exploration and wild experimentation almost two decades ago, and it felt like a truly massive game world at the time. Plus, by focusing on a fairly small geographic footprint, a volcanic island in an inland sea, the game tended toward density over sheer openness. There could be a lot of wandering, sure, but over just about every rise and in just about every hollow would be something new and interesting. The realm of Morrowind was a truly weird place, with bizarre plants and animals, fungi towers, and an elaborate set of competing and overlapping cultural and political systems. The tension between a (racist, classist) native culture and (corrupt, domineering) imperial presence blurred the lines of right and wrong. Not that your character was ever bound by doing what was “right” so much as what said character could get away with…

III. Beyond Good and Evil

This was another game with a bizarre world to explore, with humanized animals and strange invasive aliens and bizarre native wildlife. It wasn’t truly “open-world,” I suppose, but there were massive hubs to explore and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like Breath of the Wild, this game employed a photography system, and photographing key objects was often essential to completion of mission objectives. It could also be used to take pictures of native fauna to pick up extra cash cataloging the remaining life forms on the planet. The combat system was typically light and breezy, though some of the boss fights–especially the final boss–tended toward the tedious. I truly appreciated the wonderful sense of empathy expressed by the main characters, as well as the portrayal of a wildly multicultural and welcoming world. That’s in addition to the conspiracy-theorizing, love-letter-to-freedom-of-expression, resistance-to-fascism themes of the game.

IV. Fable II

Another fairly open-world game–huge swaths of territory to explore in open hubs containing either cities or wilderness. The ease of combat and the easier ability to intermix magic, melee, or ranged attacks into a fight improve upon its predecessor, and the additional ability to pick a gender was a nice change (even though you’re still stuck being a pale Briton, despite the inclusion of people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the game). The third game offered further improvements to combat and the interplay between the three types of abilities, and its expansion of property acquisition and rise-to-the-throne plot were refreshing. Still, I think the second game represents the peak because of the Hero’s companions. Hammer, for instance, is just a fantastic video game character and always more clearly heroic than the protagonist, even if she is prone to anger and rash action. Once again, experimentation is another thing that can be valued about this game–experimenting with combat styles, experimenting with mercantile tactics, and experimenting with social interaction. Everything feels quite organic at first, a series of player actions and world/NPC reactions, although the simplicity of each of the main systems in the game quickly reduces them to something feeling transparently mechanical. This is probably the most troubled game on my list, and I think the ending in particular was disappointing, rushed, emotionally manipulative, and overly simplistic (why must it be one of those three wishes? I could think of other variants with better outcomes!).

V. Deus Ex

Writing up this list, I thought the fifth entry would be Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, there are other games I like more than that; they’ll come first. But I was sure KOTOR would take the final spot. And then I got here, and I realized, Deus Ex came out three years before, it was in some ways a more experimental game, it certainly gave the player a lot of agency (probably more so than in KOTOR), and it dealt with moral choice in a far more mature way than the other game! Deus Ex may not be the better game, but I think I prefer it, if I’m being honest and not blinded by fanboy nostalgia. I think I talk about that game more–and recommend it to others more, even now. And Deus Ex‘s story was wild, taking the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and rebranding them as a twisted truth, all adding up to an awful dystopian future. The blocky character models and dark environments are definitely dated, but they also fit with the gritty and failing cyberpunk world explored in the game. KOTOR’s characters stuck with me more, but the Dentons’ story is a bizarre one that’s worth remembering too. Plus, there were multiple approaches through any situation; stealth, diplomacy, or a tech-based approach were often not just alternatives but often far superior to a straightforward combat option. The dense, shady urban environments in each level were lurid and rotten and packed with secrets to find. It was a weird game, and it was hard at first for me to get into, but it’s worth taking the time to unpack it. It’s a game that’ll eat at you a while after playing.

Runners Up

It is really hard to contain oneself to five favorite things. Honorable mention goes to the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic for a worthy Star Wars story with a robust dialogue system, interesting companions, exotic environments, and a turn-based combat system that was simultaneously tactical and cinematic; Stardew Valley, for its seemingly simple farming simulator that also contains a dungeon-delving combat game, a community of quirky personalities, and a deeply rewarding cycle of daily tasks, all set to the most pleasantly peaceful music; Analogue: A Hate Story for being a visual novel with a good story, interesting themes, and a clever collapse of the fourth-wall through the nature of play, making it a visual novel that I actually wanted to play; Life Is Strange, for the emotional (and not just melodramatic) high school drama and weirdness and cool game mechanics; and Halo, for being the first FPS I loved as a youngster and for its derivative-yet-imaginative epic sci-fi setting. Oh, I guess that makes five runners-up, so this is secretly a top ten list, and you’ve just reached the end.

Destroy Ganon: Complete

Last night, I beat Breath of the Wild. I didn’t think about snagging a screenshot when the screen went white and the simple text “Destroy Ganon: Complete” came up. I wish I did. My wife was there for that final battle, and can vouch for me; otherwise I’d hardly believe it myself.

And that ends a truly great game. It got me so wholeheartedly devoted to an open-world fantasy RPG at a time in my life when I didn’t think I had the time, attention, or persistence to play a game like that anymore. I never stopped having fun with it. It was beautiful and surprising throughout.

Late in the game, while mopping up some shrines to round out my spirit orbs, quest log empty except for that one dread Main Quest to Destroy Ganon, I climbed a tall rock spire simply because it was there and I hadn’t been to the top before. Awaiting me was a Luminous Stone Talus, perhaps the only one of its kind across all Hyrule. We fought. It was surprising and rewarded adventure, and it was fun. The whole game is like that. It just never really stops.

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I didn’t 100% the game. I got all the memories, and the Master Sword. I cleared out all quests in my log, including main and side and shrine quests. I talked to everyone I could think of. I probably missed some people. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t find all the shrines, though I don’t know how many spirit orbs I’d found by the end of the game. I definitely didn’t find all the Korok seeds, and I had seeds left over and inventory expansions left unfilled by the end of the game. But I did everything I wanted to do in the game. My final play time recorded in Switch is “120 hours or more.” It was just an incredible experience all the way through.

Whether you’ve followed along with my past posts, or this is the first you’ve read, I would say to you, please, please, please consider playing Breath of the Wild, if you haven’t already. It doesn’t matter whether or not you care for the Zelda franchise. I’ve never been a fan. I’ve never played another Zelda game to completion, even. And I loved this title. My wife, who is a Zelda fan, loved this game too (although so far she’s mostly just watched me play it; she didn’t advance very far herself, though she actually has completed Zelda games in the past).

I don’t think I’ll touch the game again for a while. Maybe months, or years. Maybe I’ll never play it again. But maybe someday I’ll get an itch for adventure, and I’ll pull it out like I pull Morrowind or Fable out, and I’ll play through it again–and maybe, if I’m feeling especially adventurous, I’ll even download the DLC to give that extra-hard Master mode a try.

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If anything, the game left me wanting more. When Zelda goes off with Link to investigate a suddenly silent Divine Beast Vah Ruta (and to help give closure to the Zora King), hoping that they will be able to restore Hyrule, I hoped, even knowing otherwise, that the game would let us do that. I would love to have seen an end-game world post-main quest, where there is more room to explore, where we have new quests focused more on building and growing, interacting with the characters. You may say that Zelda isn’t that kind of game, but the whole Tarrey Town quest line is about building a community in the wilderness from nothing. Being able to fight back against the scattered remnants of Ganon’s army, and building a society in its place, would have been a remarkable experience.

Not that the Zelda franchise is ever that concerned with canon or consistency between titles, but the implication at the end was that we destroyed Ganon’s base form, and not just his attempt to reincarnate yet again. Maybe that’s a gimmick used in other games as well? But I want to take this as a break in the chain. Zelda remarks that her own powers seem to have faded once again–and she’s at peace with that now. Imagine if the whole cycle was broken. Imagine if the next Zelda game was in this bold new frontier, as society is allowed to recover. What a wildly different game that would be. If it ever existed, I expect I’d love it as least as much as I’ve loved Breath of the Wild.