Whittier, Alaska is a town of just under 200 people, nearly all of whom live in one fourteen-story high-rise, a former military barracks built by the US Army in the 1950s … The fourteen-story high-rise—called Begich Towers, or BTI—contains a post office, a police station, a grocery store, a Laundromat, a health clinic, and a church. (There once was a combination video rental store and tanning salon, but it’s been closed for a while now.)
Maybe it's because I just finished reading Station Eleven (highly recommended, btw!), but this sounds like the perfect setting for a dystopian novel.
Before I crack into the list, I just want to give a bit of context for some of my choices. There are a load of games that are appearing in other peoples' lists that I bought but just haven't gotten around to playing yet1. So that's why it's really important that I stress that this is just a list of the best games I played this year. Are we all clear? Great! Let's crack on, so.
I played PT in late at night during the summer. I was wearing shorts and at one point about an hour into playing the game, my dog brushed against my legs as he walked past. And it actually hurt. I was so tense my leg-hairs were standing on end so hard that they actually hurt to touch. That's never happened to me before. And all it took for PT to scare me more than I've ever been scared in my life was just two perfectly-rendered corridors. Even the ridiculous sink-baby couldn't ruin this for me.
Kentucky Route Zero
The episodes in Kentucky Route Zero are coming trickling out of the developer, Cardboard Computer, like a pitch drop. You couldn't accuse it of being an episodic game in the way that Telltale games are episodic. And that's a great thing. Once you've played the first episode in a Telltale game, you've pretty much seen everything the entire series is going to throw at you. What makes Kentucky Route Zero so special is that each episode has done something completely different, something completely surprising. In the second episode, you actually arrive at the titular Route Zero and it's a beautiful, twisted nightmare with its own dreamlike logic. The third episode's musical interlude was a brave, ballsy piece of gaming. Up until that point, the game had mostly been about making dialogue choices, but suddenly you take over a lounge-singer named Junebug and you're constructing an entire song from your choices. A gorgeous, haunting song straight out of Twin Peaks. It wouldn't work in any other game but Kentucky Route Zero. Loved it.
This War of Mine
I actually haven't played that much of This War of Mine because it's a tough game. Not in the sense that it's hard, but rather it's an emotionally gruelling experience unlike anything else I've played this year. It's a game where you control a group of survivors during a war (roughly based on the Siege of Sarajevo) and the entire game is just about keeping your group alive and together -- both physically and emotionally -- for as long as you can. Everything you do, every awful decision you're forced to make will affect your group in some way. If you break into an old man's house and steal his food, your group will survive a bit longer, but the character who did the actual stealing will be racked with guilt for the rest of the game.
The Talos Principle
I already described this on Twitter as "Portal with a philosophy degree". You could throw some Myst in there too for good measure. There's no combat. It's just a solidly-designed puzzle game, but it's also got a great story that unfolds in front of you as you play it. One layer peels back to reveal another, to reveal another and so on. And all this from the people behind Serious Sam - I know, right? It's probably not for everyone. I can imagine some people getting ticked off at the being questioned on their moral and ethical beliefs by a slightly dickish, super-patronising terminal. But that shit just worked for me. (Also, this will sound fierce wanky, but you know that first world, the one set in Roman ruins? No game has captured Italian light like that. Really small detail, but jesus, it felt great.)
Mario Kart 8
The best Mario Kart since the original.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
If you'd have said to me last year that Wolfenstein: The New Order would one of the best games I'd play in 2014, I'd have called you a fucking liar. I had no interest in the franchise and this particular iteration was completely off my radar. But here we are. Solid, visceral action and some of the best storytelling of the year. It basks in its B-movie, grindhouse roots (I mean, that scene on the train feels like it's lifted straight from Tarantino) without ever winking at the audience in a "we're actually too cool for this shit" kind of way.
For a while there, Desert Golfing was all I played. I mean, for weeks on end. Remember I said I bought a load of games but haven't played them yet? It's probably because I was too busy playing Desert Golfing instead. I'd say I've sunk more time into this than probably any other game on here. It's also the smallest, quietest game on this list. There's a ball, a hole, and the landscape. For as far as you can go (there's no ending, as far as I know), that's all there is. Occasionally, you might come across something else - a cloud, a cactus, a vase -- but for the most part, for the majority of the 2,500 holes I played before I finally deleted it, that's all there was. And that's all it needed. You could talk about how the game is like an interactive art installation, a commentary on futility and perception, with the background changing so slowly across hundreds of holes. You could shite on about this and I'd listen and I'd nod at the points you were making. But that's not why this game kept me playing. It kept me playing because it was near-perfect.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes
Gather round kids, old man Kelly's got a story to tell. Back before Metal Gear Solid came out on the original Playstation, they released a demo of the game which was just the first area before you get onto the lift -- the pre-credits introduction. I lost days to that demo. It was a short thing, and you could complete it in less than ten minutes, but I was absolutely obsessed with it and I played it every way I could. I wanted to milk every drop of entertainment out of that because, back then, it felt perfect. Ground Zeroes is does a great job of recreating that feeling of the original Metal Gear Solid demo. It's a small sliver of a game -- an amuse-bouche to keep us entertained until the actual release of Metal Gear Solid V -- that you could easily beat in ten minutes. But it's also the type of thing you could easily lose days to.
Nidhogg, Starwhal: Just the Tip, Gang Beasts, Sports Friends, Tennes
One of my favourite things to come out of 2014, at least in the indie space, is a resurgence in local multiplayer games, so I'm bundling some of my favourites together here. Or at least the ones that we've had the most fun with in our office. Online multiplayer games can have 256 simultaneous players, and that has its own brand of chaotic fun. But there's something genuinely beautiful and special about being able to yell and laugh with the person (or people) you're in a room with. With all the gamergate shit this year making me feel more and more disconnected from gaming and gamers, it was really nice to be reminded of the feeling of two (or four, or with Johann Sebastian Joust, seven) people in a room having fun together.
including Dark Souls 2, Far Cry 4, Assassin's Creed Unity, Bayonetta 2, Super Smash Bros 4 Wii U, Alien Isolation, The Evil Within ↩
El-P: Steven Seagal’s the kind of guy whose idea of morality is very clear. Like, when in Out For Justice, Steven Seagal is just this brutal guy who goes around smashing people’s teeth and breaking people’s arms and just shooting people, and then he’s driving and someone throws a puppy out of a car in a bag, and he stops and gets out of the car and gets the puppy, and that’s the moment where it’s like, Seagal is a good guy, because he gets the puppy, and he brings it with him. And then at the end of the movie he finds the guy who threw out the puppy and beats the shit out of him. This is the Seagal perspective on morality. “I’m a good guy, because I found a puppy, and it doesn’t matter that I literally just destroyed someone’s trachea with a pencil. The puppy is more important.” And, you know, I respect him and his delusions.
I guess we're heading into that time of the year when every site publishes their "best of the year" list. NPR's list of books looks really tight though. My backlog of stuff to read is pretty terrifying now.
One of the things I loved about living in Rome was that it's a living history. If you wanted, you could stand on any street corner and unpack the layers of history and yell "STOP EVERYTHING - THIS BELONGS IN A MUSEUM". But people don't because they've got lives to live. And their lives will add another layer.
The BBC recently put out an amazing three hour retrospective on Chris Morris. I love Chris Morris but I absolutely hate being tethered to the iPlayer, so I created an MP3 version for offline listening.
In her recent blog post, my wife pointed out that the "it Says in the Papers" section of Morning Ireland is a really useful tool for giving you a super-condensed daily overview of the major stories in Irish media. And it's true. It's my favourite part of Morning Ireland (well, technically it's my second-favourite, right after Harem Lousch reading the weather forecast -- honestly, nothing brightens your day quite like hearing a Dutch person saying "schattered schowersch"). So I was pretty happy when my wife said "It Says in the Papers" was downloadable as a podcast.
Turns out that's not strictly true.
It's actually only available as part of the general Morning Ireland podcast, which also includes the news bulletins, the sport, the weather, as well as miscellaneous stories broken out into their own individual podcast episodes. In other words, there's a whole load of shit there that I'm not actually interested in and don't want to spend five minutes each morning deleting the extraneous crap from my feed just to get at the stuff I actually care about.
So I've created "Morning Ireland - The Best Bits", which takes the Morning Ireland podcast firehose and filters it down to just the bits I care about -- the news bulletin, It Says in the Papers (and Harem Lousch reading the weather).
To subscribe to it, just add the following URL to whatever podcasting software you’re using:
Obviously, the normal legal stuff applies -- I don’t actually own the license for the media, this is for personal slash educational use only, caveat emptor -- etc. etc. If you’re using it and you have any feedback, drop me an email.
I don't know about you, but I find it really hard to keep up with what's happening in the news (as Charlie Brooker describes it, it's like 'wandering into episode 389 of the world's longest running and most complex soap opera'). This isn't helped by the fact I'm more likely to spend an entire day reading the biographies of minor Star Wars characters than actually opening a newspaper. Helpfully, my wife has put together a sort of a bluffer's guide of podcasts and blogs to keep people like me in the loop without having to try too hard. Thanks, wife!
A few days ago, I celebrated my one-year Crossfit anniversary. “Celebrated” is a bit of a weird word to use here, isn’t it? Would you say you “celebrated” being a year in a gym? I’ve never marked this in any of the gyms I’ve been a member of, so what makes Crossfit different?
For me, going to the gym has always been a solitary thing. You go, you set yourself up at your little station, you work out and you don’t speak to anyone. You’re in the zone.
Crossfit is different. Crossfit is about the sense of community. I go to Ronin Crossfit and, honestly, I’ve never found anywhere with such a consistently solid group of people. They don’t just make you feel welcome, they make you feel like you’re part of a team.
I’ll give you an example.
In February, they organised a sponsored 100 burpee challenge for Suicide or Survive (if you don’t know what a burpee is, consider yourself lucky). Lots of people said that one of the conditions of sponsoring me is that I had to make a video of me doing the burpees. I’m glad I did because it captured something I really love. Here’s that video:
Now, as you can see from that video, I’m not an athlete. I found the 100 burpees really hard and I was so slow it’s kind of embarassing. But did you see that? At the end of the video, when people had finished and I was still struggling and wanted to give up, people — real athletes who had finished ages ago — came over to cheer me on. One guy had finished his hundred and did my last ten burpees with me. He wasn’t showing off, he was showing solidarity.
Crossfit isn’t about being the strongest athlete in the room or beating other people, it’s about beating yourself. It’s about finding your own limits and pushing them. The other people are there to help you achieve this. And that’s the exactly what you see in that video. Without those people cheering me on, maybe I would have given up, I dunno, but I know I definitely would have taken much, much longer. And they’re celebrating with me because they know I hit a wall and kept going. And that’s not just reserved for special occasions. Even in our daily workouts, the person who lifts 40kg for the first time gets as big a cheer as the person who lifts 120kg for the first time.
That’s what I love about Crossfit. Here’s to another year.
This is probably one of my favourite pictures ever. It's Bruce Davidson's photo of (l-r) Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Marilyn Monroe and her husband at the time, Arthur Miller, at a dinner party in Montand’s apartment. The whole thing is like a Mexican standoff in glances.
Apple are famous for sweating the small stuff. They pay attention to the tiniest details, the things that hardly anyone notices but make a huge difference to a user's experience of their product.
Apple Ireland, on the other hand, appear to be a bunch of goddamn clowns. This could be a larger blog post about what it’s like to be an Apple consumer in Ireland (other possible topics: no TV shows in iTunes store, no visual voicemail on the iPhone etc. etc.), but let’s just limit it to one thing: the film section of the iTunes store
One of the things I really like about the film section of the iTunes store is the ‘themed’ bundles. For example, during fashion week, they had a sale on 25 films about fashion. Now it’s Halloween and they’re doing a sale on 25 horror films.
Click into this and you’ll get this list of films:
Can you spot the obvious mistake? That’s right, in this list of 25 horror films, there are only 24 films.
If you change iTunes store to United Kingdom, you’re presented with the full list of films. Apparently, we’re not getting Cabin in the Woods as part of this sale although it's still available in the Irish iTunes store for €16.99
But the fuckery doesn’t stop there! Even in the Irish store, you can see that The Blair Witch Project is in the €6.99 sale. Except when you click into it…
(Again, in the UK store, this film is listed at the 'sale' price.)
Apple Ireland have definitely adopted the Irish attitude of “Ah sure it’ll be grand”. I’m just not sure how well this works with Apple’s overall reputation as a company that sweats the small stuff.
I’m having real trouble trying to figure out who EA Sports UFC has been made for.
Was it made for the hardcore fans of UFC as a sport? I mean, it’s got 97 current fighters all realistically modelled, animated and rendered. Their Conor McGregor even has that God-awful gorilla chest-tattoo he got recently. This means that rather than just using a generic fighting model with a different ‘skin’ for each fighter, each fighter in EA Sports UFC moves and behaves like their real-life counterpart. They have the same strengths and weaknesses (or at least, they’re supposed to - lots of fans have been scratching their heads at some fighters’ stats, some of which seem wildly off-kilter). These are things that will mostly appeal to the hardcore UFC fighting fans, because they’re the only ones that will pick up on them. Plus the game copies the basic control scheme from the previous UFC games, so the hardcore fans who are familiar with THQ’s games will be able to hit the ground running with this game.
Unfortunately, if they’re targeting the hardcore fan, I can’t imagine it being anything but a bit of a disappointment. UFC is a visceral, vicious sport that’s all about cracking heads. But the fighting in the game feels weightless and floaty. Despite the amazing graphics engine, blows never actually feel as if they’re connecting, so a lot of the fights are spent just watching health meters because they’re the only real indication of how you’re doing. Only a few years ago, this same development team introduced a HUD-less fighting game, where you could tell how tired/battered your player was just by looking at them. It’s hard not to see EA Sports UFC as anything but a step back.
And it’s not just the floaty, toothless fighting game that will drive the hardcore fans bananas. The game’s transitions between the various stages of fighting (standing up, in the clinch and on the mat) are painfully disjointed and mechanical with no sense of grace or fluidity. The game is full of canned animations that bring everything to a standstill until the animations have completed. Then there’s also the fact that some of the sport’s more ‘simple’ moves actually require a fairly complex combination of inputs on the joystick, but some of the sport’s more difficult moves are just one or two button-presses. So it’s entirely possible to just spam flying knee kicks and win 90% of your matches (I tested this and won around half of my matches on ‘hard’ difficulty by just spamming the one move over again). In a sport that prioritises technique and finesse, this confusing mess of a control set-up is another of the game’s disappointments.
So maybe the game wasn’t made for the hardcore UFC fan. Maybe it’s there for the more casual fighting fan. People like me, who think that the whole arcade fighting game genre peaked with Rocky on the Gamecube, or maybe Fight Night Round 3 on the Xbox 360. In which case, EA have completely misjudged this game’s introduction. It starts by dropping you into an extended tutorial sequence that attempts to familiarise you with some of the basic controls before finally dumping you into an actual exhibition fight. But considering the sheernumberofcontrols, it’s a bit like saying “Okay, press this button. Great. Press this lever. Great. Now these 200 other buttons. Great. Now fly this plane.” If you haven’t played a UFC game before, you’ll be overwhelmed by the controls and immediately left feeling frustrated as the game kicks your ass and asks if you want a rematch. And when you don’t know what you did wrong in the first place, a rematch is a grim, unappealing option.
The short ‘career’ mode is where the game should open up for newcomers. You choose a fighter (or create one yourself) and take them through the various stages of The Ultimate Fighter, an actual reality TV show where contestants compete for a chance to enter into the UFC. Between fights, you practice the moves you briefly saw in the tutorial, running drills until you can actually use them in some sort of sensible way. Then you fight one-on-one against a computer opponent to progress to the next round. Repeat, repeat until you’ve won your ‘contract’. As a relative newcomer to UFC games, this is where the game finally started to make sense for me. It didn’t make it much more enjoyable – the complaints about the weak-ass fighting system still stand and the opponent AI was underwhelming – but at least I could say I finally started to get my head around what some of the buttons did and when I should use them.
Being able to create my own fighter and bring him through career mode definitely helped with the enjoyment of the game. Rather than creating something sensible, I created a 300-lb man-child called “Dick ‘Jumbo’ Wang” from Bosnia and Herzegovina (the commentators actually use your nickname and surname in fights and having them say stuff like “Jumbo Wang is taking a heck of a beating” never stopped being funny for me), with easily the worst stats in the game.
As well as providing you with just enough customization options to make your fighter look like a mongoloid sex-pest like I did, you can give your fighter some tattoos. There are pages and pages of dragons and tribal patterns (no God-awful gorilla chest-tattoos, disappointingly). In amongst all these is, bizarrely, a “In Memory of Cheryl” tattoo. And because the game lets you spam the shit out of these tattoos, Dick Wang has an “In Memory of Cheryl” tattoo everywhere the game would allow it: on his head, on his back, three times on his chest, twice on each arm and twice on each leg. I have no idea who the fuck Cheryl is, but Dick Wang must really miss her. I guess this says a lot about how easily amused I am, but it also says a lot about the game. The thing that amused me most wasn’t the exhibition fights, it wasn’t the multiplayer and it wasn’t the career mode. It was creating Dick Wang.
In the end, EA Sports UFC doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It doesn’t know who it’s trying to please, so it ends up not really pleasing anyone at all. It’s not engaging enough to be the essential next-gen UFC game the hardcore fans have been waiting for. And it’s so inaccessible for casual fans that they’ll be reduced to putting together hideous monsters in the character creation screen just to extract some entertainment from the game. I’ve no doubt that the next iteration of the game will be much better, but until then, this is definitely one to skip.
I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. I loved the design of it. And that design doesn't come from nowhere - it comes from amazing concept work like this. I can't wait for the Blu-Ray so I can pore over every frame.
I try not to post about the kickstarter campaigns I support (because there’s not enough disk space in the world for that - sorry wife!), but I’m willing to make a huge exception for this. It’s such a great idea: a game where you write the story of what you’re seeing. And then you get to share your story with other people. And you can read other people’s stories! This sounds amazing. Insta-back.
(I try to post reviews of all the films I watch over on letterboxd Here are the most recent reviews I’ve written)
The Inbetweeners - ★½
I’m not sure the makers of this movie meant to channel Waiting for Godot, but that’s exactly what it reminded me of in places. Someone said that the Beckett play was one in which nothing happens, twice. Well, The Inbetweeners 2 is a film where nothing happens for forty-five minutes, then someone gets hit in the face with a lump of shit, then nothing happens again for another forty-five minutes.
Chef felt like Jon Favreau trying desperately to recreate the light, breezy feeling of Swingers. Instead, we get a film that breaks down halfway under the weight of its own self indulgence and we're left with a film where Favreau has Sophia Vergara as an ex-wife and Scarlett Johansson as a girlfriend and where it's apparently okay for two middle-aged men to sing "Sexual Healing" to a child they've locked in a van.
Pride - ★★★★
So the story of Pride might be told in broadest possible strokes, right down to the evil, cackling neighbour that bordered on panto-villain ridiculous. But despite this, it's still the most wonderful, joyful film I've seen all year.
There’s hardly a single original thought in Dark Skies. Almost every scene has been lifted wholesale from other films. The usual suspects - a bit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a little of Signs, and even some of The Exorcist thrown in for good measure. This wouldn’t in itself be a bad thing except the film is just lifting them as if it’s ticking off a list of scenes it feels it needs to have. As a result, it tries to create an atmosphere of tension that climaxes about halfway through the film. Then, having painted itself into a corner, it then decides to lift from Poltergeist with J.K. Simmons in the Tangina role.
Dredd - ★★★★
Watching this film again, I was impressed that they managed to take an off-the-shelf action setup AND YET make it into a great Judge Dredd film AND YET keep it true to its comic-book roots AND YET make it seem gritty and realistic and big-budget AND YET keep it spikey and not round off the edges to try and capture a large audience.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I really love this film.