As I shake the cobwebs off the old blog here in time for the 2013 Evie Awards, let me offer a quick update: the reason I stopped writing? Interesting things pretty much stopped happening. I worked night shifts at a liquor store five days a week, Katrina parted ways with the union when it no longer felt like a good fit, and had a hard time finding another job. But! Now we have a new plan for the new year. Katrina’s mother has been working as a teacher for the tiny frontier town of Kaktovik, and once she heard that her daughter as out of work and I was looking for something more respectable than selling booze and cigarettes to alcoholics, she realized we could fill some vacancies in her very own school district. Katrina will be driving the bus (since she already has the commercial permit) and I will be splitting my time between assisting in the library and the classrooms. The town is in the northeastern-most corner of the state, on an island above the Arctic Circle. It should be a grand adventure, assuming I can ever get there. As of this writing, I am “stranded” at the Rix home in Chugiak, as a series of storms have made flights into Kaktovik impossible. Katrina has made it to Barrow for her bus driver training, and hopefully we will reunite on Barter Island within the week. Expect to see a resurgence of the blog shortly, perhaps with a video component.
But that’s not what I’m writing about today. It’s past time for my annual review of the pop culture I have digested over the year, good and bad. The gist, as always, is I can only award movies and shows I’ve actually seen, so I can’t take the easy way out and leave a spot at the bottom for whatever everybody hates now that Twilight is over. Since my move to Alaska, I don’t get the opportunity to feast as much as I used to; we don’t have cable and the nearest movie theater is half-an-hour away. But I still like to think I have my finger on the pulse of the entertainment industry. So let’s start with the category I have the least authority in…
As I said, cable/satellite was an expense we didn’t think was worth the trouble, but there are other ways to enjoy fine televised programming. Between Netflix, Hulu, and XBox Video, I can track down pretty much any show and see it within 48 hours of airing, whenever I want. Besides, with night shifts, I would miss a lot of regular television, anyway. However, since I have to seek out this entertainment, I can be a lot choosier, and only watch the stuff I really want to see. We spent a lot of time watching older shows this year, but for the sake of these awards, only shows with new episodes during the calendar year are in contention.
Best TV Show: Young Justice
This is obviously an unconventional choice, but I cannot think of another show I enjoyed watching more. I was introduced to the greater DC Comics Animated Universe this year (detailed, among other things, here), and after we watched all the Batman/Superman/Justice League stuff of the ’90’s, we were delighted to hear that DC Animated was still producing quality stuff, though we only learned about it after the show was cancelled for being too expensive. Young Justice is a show that upon first inspection should be targeted squarely at kids. And I’m sure they are a critical demographic. Focusing on the young sidekicks of DC Universe mainstays Batman, Flash, Green Arrow, and Aquaman (Robin, Kid Flash, Artemis, and Aqualad, respectively), and bringing in younger analogues for Superman and Martian Manhunter, it’s hard to not see the concept as “Justice Babies”. But rather than a lowest common denominator “kiddie” cartoon, we got a well-written, gorgeously animated show with actual character development, plot progression, surprise twists, and DC references galore. On a kid’s show! It’s a shame Cartoon Network pulled it, and that DVD releases for these shows are sporadic, limited, and sometimes incomplete. We got the entire series run through XBox Live, and it will remain one of our all-time favorites.
Yes, another DC superhero show! This one is obviously for the grown-ups and, being on the CW, is kind of a Drama with a capital “D”. But it hasn’t fallen into the trap good old Smallville did, and the characters act like actual people instead of random animated piles of conflicting emotions. Once I became a DC buff, Oliver Queen AKA Green Arrow emerged as a clear favorite. It’s not surprising, he’s basically a Tony Stark who liked Robin Hood instead of robots. The show does a decent job of retelling his origin story, establishing the important relationships, and introducing a plethora of DC characters in a Nolan-esque live-action TV way (with a “this is the CW, so everyone is gorgeous” spin, of course). I’m just waiting to see how long it takes for one of the Big Three to warrant a mention.
Worst TV Show: Alaska: the Last Frontier
I figured my “worst” category was going to be kind of milquetoast here, the upshot of cherry picking your TV shows is you rarely get trapped by a bad one. But, nope! In the few weeks I was home last year, I was mercilessly exposed to Discovery Channel’s latest Alaskan reality show. These were bad enough before I lived in Alaska, but now the whole “Everything in Alaska is so EXTREME!!!” thing is a blatant lie. The family in question lives closer to civilization than the Rix homestead is, and everybody on the show (though admittedly mostly just the narrator) says things like: “If we don’t kill this grouse, we could starve!” Yeah, or have to drive into town and go to Fred Meyer’s. And everybody acts so folksy and redneck-tastic, it’s kind of insulting. This is not how all Alaskans behave, trust me, even the ones who have just as much reason to. It’s just so much mugging for the cameras. Anyway, where I’m going is about as remote as Alaska gets, and I’ll still have electricity, broadband (satellite) Internet and even access to a heated pool. Sorry to ruin the magic.
One of my perennial favorites, Star Wars: The Clone Wars ended its impressive run this year, as a direct result of the “restructuring” Lucasfilm is undergoing after the Disney merger. I have to admit it was kind of a shame to see the show end so abruptly, but the next project from the same team, Rebels, looks suitably impressive, so I am cautiously optimistic. Another favorite, NCIS, had kind of a stumbly year, as they had to replace Cote de Pablo’s Ziva David on the show, and many of the episodes seemed like tryouts for new female characters. I am happy with the one we have apparently settled on, but for a while it seemed like too much of a guys-only show. New this year, we had Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, or whatever it’s actually called. As a fan of all things Whedon and Avengers, I was pretty excited for this one, and it’s turned into a fairly enjoyable show. Thank God I didn’t expect it to be the second coming of Firefly, like the rest of the Internet, because they seem kind of disappointed.
Like with TV, I had to be choosier this year, going to the movies wasn’t just a trip down the street, it had to be planned well in advance, worked around my schedule, and there might have to be some other, more important reason to be going into town as well. On the other hand, Anchorage has several fancy theaters, including a theater pub, and one with all the whiz-bang digital IMAX 3D goodness you would expect in a large city. We’re not animals. I bring this up because I got to see…
Best Movie: Gravity
…in a spectacular IMAX 3D presentation, which probably had a lot to do with why I liked it so much. It’s the rare film that seems supremely suited for a full 3D experience, instead of a generic action movie that occasionally shoves stuff in your face. Besides the spectacularly real effects (if it is not a strong contender for Best Visual Effects this year, I will eat my Academy Awards-watching hat), George Clooney and Sandra Bullock give amazing performances, which is good, as they are practically the only characters on screen for the entire movie. I was also impressed by the paradoxical way the movie makes you feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, which is the feeling you should get stuffed inside a spacesuit floating around in the vacuum of space. You laugh, you cry, you find yourself praying that everything works out.
Runner-up: Iron Man 3
Can’t keep Tony Stark off this list! I think it’s safe to say that Iron Man 3 is the best of the three films, despite the fact that there’s no obligatory AC/DC track (because that totally matters) and we don’t see nearly as much of Iron Man as we do Tony Stark. It’s a precarious position the filmmakers find themselves in; follow up one of the most successful films of all time with a stand-alone film for arguably the most popular character, who has to have been changed by the events of the previous film, but shouldn’t just call Captain America or Thor for help when things get tough. I think they managed to pull it off as best they could. RDJ is his usual sarcastically charming self, and his practically antagonistic mentor relationship with the token child character was surprisingly refreshing. As for the ending, I’m not sure what this means going forward, what with Tony removing the arc reactor from his chest (and negating half of my Tony Stark cosplay), but he has to come back for Avengers: Age of Ultron, right? Maybe one of the subplots will be pressing Iron Man back into service.
Worst Film: Man of Steel
Anticipating this movie was the catalyst for my diving into the back catalog of the DC Animated Universe. I’d seen the Batman animated series, of course, but didn’t actually know that much about Superman. So I watched the Superman animated series and Justice League, an somewhere along the way became a big Superman fan. He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout! Always on the side of good! You can’t get him down, he sees the good in everybody! And then Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan got their mitts in him and he’s just as broody, violent, and conflicted as every other “serious” superhero these days. I know drama is important, and destroying buildings looks cool, but give me a break. I don’t want to see Clark Kent moping around about having super powers. He did enough of that on Smallville. I don’t want to see Metropolis leveled every time we have a conflict. I definitely don’t want to see Superman (spoilers) snapping the bad guy’s neck with his bare hands. I’m going to add my whining to the cacophony, but Superman doesn’t kill people, just like Batman doesn’t use guns and Iron Man doesn’t attend AA meetings. It’s a central tenant of his character. Man of Steel was a gorgeous-looking superhero action movie, but it wasn’t really a Superman movie.
As for other superhero fare; Thor: The Dark World was a lot of fun, now that we’ve established the Jack Kirby craziness that is Asgard, and we don’t feel like we have to be quite so deadly serious about it all the time. Though I stand by an earlier appraisal that it is basically Loki 3, as Tom Hiddleson chews the scenery in his usual glorious way. The Wolverine was “better” than it’s predecessor in that it looked more polished, had a better story to tell, and actually focused on it, rather than parading a bunch of X-Men before our eyes. However, it didn’t have Origins‘ sense of fun, and kind of came across as fairly generic… Until the after-the-credits scene when Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan showed up and blew my little mind. Speaking of Gandalf, Desolation of Smaug was great (despite giant talking spiders), though I didn’t have a problem with the first Hobbit, and eagerly anticipate the third. Pacific Rim would probably be Katrina’s best movie pick, and I have to admit it has a lot to love; I’ve heard it described as either the dumbest awesome movie or the most awesome dumb movie, and both are about right.
I spent most of this year still toiling away at GameStop, so of all of these categories, this is probably the one I am still the best versed in. This year, I kept up my XBox 360 playing ways, and have vowed not to upgrade to the XBox One until there are enough games I really want on the thing to justify it, and they have worked out whatever bugs the system undoubtedly has. Though I would probably be the only person in Kaktovik with one (I know from Katrina’s reconnaissance earlier this year that I will not be the only one with a 360). I’ve also come back around to PC gaming, now that the current generation of console video games looks kind of “meh” for now, but I don’t think I’m going to go all out and start talking about my “rig” or looking down my nose at people who have a PlayStation.
Best Game: BioShock Infinite
I suppose this should come as no surprise, I pretty much called this one back around Easter when I could not stop playing it. By the way, I sent a copy of that blog post to the developers, who wrote me a very nice thank you. I’m sure they appreciate hearing that kind of rave review instead of idiots whining about “balance issues” or some other petty grievance day in and day out. Looking back, it’s not the perfect game, it suffers a little bit from visual dissonance (Beautiful vistas, buildings, and effects combined with brutally gruesome violence), which, intentional or not, is a bit unsettling. But as far as story, characters, acting, gameplay, and atmosphere go, there are few better.
Runner-up: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
The Assassin’s Creed series has been one of my personal favorites for some time, and despite the latest entry (in what now appears to be an annual series) deviating somewhat from the formula, Black Flag may just be the best one. Oh, the convoluted conspiracy plot is as nonsensical and baffling as ever, but the core gameplay; exploring a (mostly) historically accurate open world (this time, during the golden age of piracy) has been changed for the better by the setting itself. Cruising the Caribbean in your own customizable, upgradable pirate ship is a joy; the ship rising and falling with the waves, the seamless transitions from traveling to naval combat to the standard Assassin’s Creed parkour, your crew’s variety of authentic sea shanties; it’s about as enthralling an open world game as you can get.
Worst Game: SimCity
This is almost too easy. Simply put, this was a much-hyped reboot of a PC gaming classic, it cost you $60, and it didn’t work. The critical mistake that EA/Maxis made was to turn the obviously single-person experience of city management into a “sort-of” multiplayer, with different players in charge of different cities within the same region. The amount of actual player interaction was minimal, but that didn’t mean the sheer volume of data uploading and downloading to and from servers wasn’t daunting, and in the days and weeks after release, you were a lucky mayor who actually got to play the game. Once the server issues were at least stabilized, it became clear that the programming wasn’t quite up to snuff, either. A fire on one end of town would cause a traffic snarl on the other side as emergency crews tried to respond. You could lose half you city before fire trucks ever made it, regardless of how traditionally efficient your city planning was.
Grand Theft Auto V, as it’s predecessors before it, is a fascinating time-sink, with far more things to do in it than you would think (you can play tennis or golf, and suddenly it acts like a tennis or golf game), between the more-hyped, less-politically-correct things the series is famous for. It’s another example of a richly detailed open world that captures a moment in time, in this case, corrupt modern Los Angeles. The Tomb Raider reboot was a welcome one for a guy who likes the gameplay style of Uncharted, but doesn’t own a PlayStation. Now if we could just get Lara to crack a little more wise and not get thrown through a metaphorical shredder. Remember Me was perhaps my favorite failure of a game: the third-person unarmed combat wasn’t anything special, but the art direction of a near future Paris was spectacular, and the occasional puzzles where you changed people’s memories of events (it was a weird game) by altering tiny elements of a scene was so much fun, it should have been the whole game. Too bad it only came up about three times. Injustice: Gods Among Us surprised me by actually being good. It stayed near the top of my list most of the year, until the big fall releases came around, anyway. Traditionally, I despise fighting games. I only picked this one up because there was a big marketing push at work, with a lot of pressure from management for us to buy it. But maybe it was the fact that this was a DC Universe fighting game, coming along at a time when I was getting deep into the mythos, so I knew most of the characters. Or because it actually put some effort into having a story beyond “here are some guys; they fight”. At any rate, we still use it to settle “who would win” arguments and sometimes “who’s doing the dishes” arguments.
Best DLC: Mass Effect 3: Citadel
Mass Effect has a way of making its way onto this list in some capacity every year, though unless I am woefully misinformed about the progress made on the rumored Mass Effect 4, 2014 will break the streak. But Mass Effect is one of the reasons I’m a “gamer” in the first place. It’s what drew me from my musty old PC games to the XBox console (because my computer couldn’t run it, and a 360 was cheaper than a new PC). It’s combination of deep sci-fi setting, branching storyline, and fairly streamlined role-playing ability were all things that I wanted out of a game. The characters were (mostly) interesting to be around, and had (again, mostly) compelling back stories to tell. If you’re wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the Citadel DLC specifically, that’s just it, it’s a great-big love-letter for me and all the other nerds who loved Mass Effect; an excuse to have one more adventure, reference our favorite jokes, and (literally) throw a big send-off party before everything gets all deep and serious for the ending.
Runner-up: Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep
Borderlands 2 was a game I was originally hesitant to get my hands on; I had heard second hand how glitchy and broken the original game had been, and this one looked like a big dumb shooter for any Call of Duty fans who had gotten bored of realism. I was very wrong. Borderlands 2 was one of the best games of 2012, and might have made this list in some capacity if I had played it before the year was over. Yes, it’s a first-person shooter, but it’s also a surprisingly witty pop culture-fest with a role-playing game’s sense of discovery. The thousands of guns in the game are unique, interesting, and fun. (I kept one as an emergency backup; an incredibly powerful SMG, which had the minor drawback of having the most annoying sound effect; literally someone saying “pewpewpew” sped up to chipmunk speed). Anyway, this DLC pack was a new campaign that recast the game as the characters from the first Borderlands playing an in-universe game of Dungeons & Dragons as the characters in Borderlands 2. So, heavily leaning on the Fourth Wall, it proceeds to send up everything from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to World of Warcraft and… itself.
Worst DLC: State of Decay
The hip new scene in gaming is known as the “indie market”. Depending on who you talk to, it is either the best or the worst thing to happen to gaming in recent years, and most of the people who think it is the worst thing work for the big developers. State of Decay is one such “indie” game, coming out of a heretofore unheard-of company, and showing up on the XBox Live Arcade (among other places). As our culture is still obsessed with the zombie apocalypse, it’s not uncommon for a lot of developers first stabs to be at the genre. If anything on this list deserves the title “Most Disappointing”, it’s this game. State of Decay is a sandbox RPG zombie game, which sounds like the greatest game ever made. Multiple characters who can grow and change (or permanently die!) in a big, open world, trying to survive against hordes of the undead. It’s the game everyone wanted and couldn’t believe hadn’t been tried before! But, made by an inexperienced crew, this monumentally complex game showed its seams. It was buggy almost to the point of being unplayable, and could not maintain my interest as I wound up killing off all my characters and had to start over again and again. The sad truth is, a big developer wouldn’t take the risk on deviating from the tried and true “zombie shooter” formula, but only a big developer could make a game this complex actually work.
As for an indie game I did like, Papers, Please is a fantastic example. It looks like something that would run on the old DOS machine we used to have, but it is a singularly engaging experience. You play as a border agent for a fictitious Soviet Russia-style country, checking people’s passports and determining wether they will be allowed to pass through the country or not. I like to call it Depressing Bureaucracy: the Game. As it progresses, there are more and more documents you need to keep track of, (work visas, diplomatic papers, etc.) and the people you meet have a variety of stories, big and small. It’s you job to decide wether you should be hard-nosed and not allow the weeping refugee through who’s visa expired yesterday, or stick it to the man. Pro tip: “sticking it to the man” in fake Soviet Russia works about as well as it did in real Soviet Russia. Also of note this year, TellTale, the wizards behind previous favorites The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park, have started a new episodic series, based on the Fables comics, and are continuing to live up to expectations. It’s hard to say too much about it, as we’ve only seen the first episode so far, but this is shaping up to be another winner of a series.
In the add-on department, two DLC campaigns are memorable in different ways. BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea combines everything that was good about BioShock Infinite (along with a 40’s film noir feel) with the Ayn Randian underwater setting of the original BioShock, before it was the horror show we saw in that first game. And even though I knew to expect it, it still managed to surprise me with the ending! On the other hand is the multi-chapter campaign for 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King George. This story rubbed me the wrong way for a couple of reasons. First, it’s “speculative fiction” wherein George Washington, corrupted by the Templars and the Ancient Aliens MacGuffin of the series, rules the recently liberated colonies as a mad dictator, with only Connor (who somehow knows how things are supposed to be) to stop him. Secondly, while we’re “speculating” we tread a little to far into the mystical realm, giving the half-native Connor “animal spirit powers” such as being able to briefly turn completely invisible, which is just so much nonsense and actually breaks the fundamental stealth elements of the game. Challenge pretty much vanishes when you can just be invisible and/or summon a pack of undefeatable “spirit wolves”.
So that’s my media memories from 2013, a little later than usual, but I’m still technically in awards season, right? I hate to say it, but there may not be an Evie Awards for 2014, or at the very least, it will be substantially different. Kaktovik doesn’t have a movie theater, GameStop, or even a Blockbuster (yes, Alaska still has a few, privately-owned, even now). Any movies, TV shows, or games are going to have to come through Amazon (because of course Amazon ships there), so my pop culture experience is going to change dramatically. We’ll just have to wait and see how that all shakes out. Happy belated New Year!