2013 was a weird year for me. I spent the first half of it with no money, no prospects and no motivation, but by the end I had a steady income, a bunch of new friends and small cool writing in lots of different places. I can probably credit a lot of that to the Not a Game podcast. Recording something every week really helped me get out of my rut, so thanks for that guys.
I mention this because it probably explains a few things here. Like not going to the cinema or reading much and just binge watching TV instead. Basically it’s about how I suck, but I suck slightly less than I did ten years ago.
2013 in film was a year of disappointment. Part of that disappointment is in myself, I’ve always considered myself a film buff, but in recent years I’ve gone to the cinema less and less. This year I really only went to the big geeky blockbusters. It’s disappointing to realise you actually are a demographic sometimes. The only big critical discussion film I saw was Gravity, which is just a disaster movie really, but a stunning one. It’s nice when Hollywood remembers that genre films exist.
Meanwhile the movies themselves did not reward my unintentional brand loyalty, but rather spat in my face. I try not to get all ‘angry geek’ nowadays but my god Man of Steel and Star Trek into Darkness were horrible. Just incoherent, messy films that couldn’t even find their own central message, never mind understand what Superman and Star Trek actually mean to people. The saddest thing is the thought that uncritical, ignorant 2003 Tom might’ve actually liked these grim and gritty adaptations, that perhaps he would have agreed that “Superman is nothing more than a corporate mascot.” What a fucking tool that guy was.
Thank goodness for Marvel then, who consistently reminded me that heart matters, and good old fashioned cheerful heroism beats half arsed sociopathic deconstruction any day of the week. Thank goodness for Thor 2, the anti-man of Steel. Fuck ‘taking this seriously’, says Thor, have some goddamn Space Vikings, a dash of fish out of water comedy and a hero who actually gives a fuck about humanity. Also a perfunctory, unsatisfying romance, but hey, no-one’s perfect. Film of the Year. If only as a tiny, impotent act of rebellion against DCs concerted attempt to murder heroic fiction.
I still can’t believe that Marvel watched Avengers and came away with the conclusion that Hawkeye was the breakout star. Still if this is the result, I’m not complaining (this is a lie, I will continue to complain that Black Widow didn’t get the same push). Matt Fraction, David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye is terrific, and notably has sod all to do with the film version.
The hook is simple, take Hawkeye’s main weakness as a character, that he’s just a regular guy, and make it a strength. The book grounds everything, pitting Hawkeye against a bunch of low level Russian gangsters while hanging out with his neighbours in the apartment block, but it also grounds him as a character. He isn’t a larger than life icon, he’s just a slightly clumsy, inarticulate guy who oversleeps and wears crumpled t-shirts. He’s ordinary. I realise I just got off railing against realism in heroic fiction in the movie section, but that’s because too often people think ‘realism’ means nihilism, darkness and a lack of compassion. This is bull, and Hawkeye knows that. Hawkeye being ordinary doesn’t make him less heroic and inspiring, it makes him more so. To paraphrase a classic Superman comic: “Do good unto others and anyone can be a superhero.”
Younger, better looking people than me will probably name Kieron Gillen’s and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers their comic of the year. It’s funny, fast and as diverse as balls. Part of me still feels like a shitheel for preferring Ordinary White Guy: The Comic, but sorry Kieron, I just don’t relate to Young Avengers the way I do Hawkeye. Even my actual teenage years contained a dearth of sexy dancing and hot make outs, nowadays it feels like another world, and I don’t get even half the music references. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great comic, I just have way more in common with the shabby everyman who just wants to organise his arrow collection than these impossibly trendy teenagers.
Like Last Resort and Terriers before it, Orphan Black was this year’s Best Show No-one Noticed or Talked About. I was honestly terrified it was going to be cancelled. Part of the problem is that the premise is deliberately mysterious. All you know from the start is that Sarah sees a woman who looks just like her commit suicide and decides to steal her identity, but the show rapidly accelerates from there. It takes four episodes for them to admit it’s about cloning, and by episode ten you realise you’ve actually been watching stealth cyberpunk, the edges blurred to slip under your radar.
Oh and because it’s a show about cloning all three of the main characters, and the primary villain (and some more supporting characters) are all played by the same woman: Tatiana Maslany, and she fucking nails it. Not only does every clone have her own distinct voice and mannerisms, but sometimes she plays them impersonating one another. At one point Helena (scary Russian clone) impersonates Sarah (criminal British clone) who is impersonating Beth (middle class Canadian clone) and it’s just fabulous. Please people, give her all the awards.
The other new series I really enjoyed was Orange is the New Black. (all the good new TV was about women this year. Understandable really, anyone who wanted stories about men and masculinity was already well served by Breaking Bad and Mad Men) It’s an odd one, the elevator pitch of ‘middle class white girl in prison comedy’ is the weakest part (well no okay, the weakest part is Jason Biggs doing American Pie jokes again) but it’s clearly what sold the show to the network. What makes it work is how that conceit is used as a jumping off point to tell a bunch of interesting stories about prison life and about the wildly different women who end up there. The series gradually weaves a simple ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover message’ through multiple narratives, in such a subtle way you don’t realise until the last minute that that was the point all along.
I talked a lot more about my favourite games of the year in this podcast.
I feel weirdly disappointed about this year in video games. While there’ve been plenty of good games, there’s a strange feeling like something was missing, especially for those of us who are largely PC gamers. We’ve spent the year watching big PC series like SimCity, Company of Heroes and Total War produce games that while not actually bad, failed to set the world on fire. For the first time in a while, it feels like the year wasn’t about us, it was about new consoles and Nintendo games and The Last of Us. We were a footnote. There wasn’t really a big, sprawling epic this year either, no Mass Effect or Skyrim or Deus Ex. I didn’t realise how much those games defined a year for me until I went without one. I’ve played a lot of smaller, more inventive games instead, but I can’t shake the feeling that something’s missing.
So instead this was the year that I caught up with everyone else who’s been advocating shorter, more experimental games, games about feelings and concepts. Does it seem terribly backwards of me to admit that this is the first year I’ve really done that? FTL was probably my game of last year, but even then I probably still didn’t give indies enough credit. This was the year of the first person perambulator, a year defined more by The Stanley Parable vs Gone Home than Xbox vs Playstation. It probably says a lot about me that I prefer the light hearted intellectual exercise that is The Stanley Parable over the kidney punch to the feelings that was Gone Home. Once again the fact that I was basically shit at being a teenager makes me seem like a heartless bastard. Curse you 2003 Tom, you suck.
I did an awful lot of non-video gaming this year, spurred on largely by my friend Matt and the increasing stature of Shut Up and Sit Down. I don’t really think of board games in terms of year on year releases like I do video games though, so I have no idea which of the games I enjoyed actually came out this year. For me the big discoveries were those games that were incredibly simple to rope a group of friends into. Games like Love Letter, Citadels and The Resistance: Avalon (way better than regular Resistance). While I tried and enjoyed others, those were the games I kept coming back to.
2013 was also the year I discovered the indie pen and paper scene, and never looked back. Earlier in the year I was playing D&D 4th Edition, and while I loved the Final Fantasy Tactics style grid combat, it was ultimately weighed down by too much baggage. There’s just too much bloat and busywork in D&D, too many sacred cows that haven’t, and never will be slaughtered. Thankfully Apocalypse World filled that hole for me. It’s just light enough on rules for my clumsy, slightly fudging it style, and lends itself naturally to farce, which is what all RPGs eventually become anyway. The variant we played the most of was the fantastic urban fantasy RPG Urban Shadows, which is currently in playtesting (tabletop talk for ‘beta’). It boasts some really distinctive characters, and a beautifully elegant ‘corruption’ system that offers you power at a price. Check it out.
I’ve been even worse at reading books this year than going to the movies. There was a grim realisation when I started writing this that I couldn’t name a single book I’d read this year. I haven’t even finished the new Discworld, something I usually do within days of release. Fuck, even 2003 Tom is beating me on this one.
I’ve never been one to keep up with the literary zeitgeist to be honest, and that’s something I’d like to do more of in 2014. What are people reading nowadays? Is it Wolf Hall? I see a lot of people talking about Wolf Hall. Help save me internet, I don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t read books.