Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A year in games, books, gigs and other things: 2012

All around the internet, proper gaming sites are compiling their "Game of the Year" lists, thoughtful and informative summaries of the technological and artistic achievements that took place within the industry in 2012. You won't find any of that here because besides the games I reviewed for GodisaGeek (a handful of slightly underwhelming JRPGs and Dear Esther, which is barely even a game), I haven't actually played any games released this year.

Dear Esther. A game. Kind of.

This is partly for economic reasons: game commentary tends to level out after about a year, so it becomes easier to separate hype from considered analysis. It's also easier to determine whether the criticism a game receives is of an aspect that you personally are able to forgive, and thus whether it is worth your time and money. Many people do this, which is why two games that slipped under the radar when they were released in 2010 (Vanquish and my beloved Deadly Premonition) emerged as sleeper hits towards the end of this year.

However, the main reason I didn't play many games that were released this year is that I just wasn't that excited about them. There are three, namely Dishonored, Fez and Journey, that I am intrigued by but haven't got round to playing yet, and one, The Walking Dead, which I'm working my way through now with damp eyes and soiled underthings, but besides that not much has grabbed me.

It has been a quiet year in the industry. Publishers are gearing up for next year's last hurrah before the new generation. This means that while we've seen entries into several big franchises such as Halo, Far Cry, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and Borderlands (yawn; looks good but probably won't play it; will get round to it eventually; not before I've played all the Renaissance ones; "this really is a game for absolute cretins" and meh, respectively), a lot of publishers seem to be saving the big guns and the new IP for next year.

Ellen Page can barely contain her excitement about 2013's upcoming games.

This is probably because the games released at the tail end of a generation tend to have "legs" since those gamers (such as myself) who are not and never will be early adopters like to have a good selection of games to keep them going while they wait for the new consoles to come down in price.

Probably because of this, 2012 was a pretty good year for indie and downloadable games. Alongside the aforementioned Fez, Journey, Dear Esther and The Walking Dead, we've had insane things like Super Hexagon, Hotline Miami and Peter Molyneux' latest opus, Curiosity - What's Inside the Cube?. Like Dear Esther, this is more an experiment than a game, interesting in the way early Damien Hirst (not the bankrupt later stuff) was without ever being anything you'd ever want on your wall. Perhaps if there had been more large-scale releases this year, these projects wouldn't have received the well-deserved critical attention they did.

Before I get down to the review of this Well-Rendered year, I'm quite proud of the fact that this time, alongside the usual apology, I actually have an excuse for not updating for ages. Yes, the power supply on my PC (on which I have been playing Final Fantasy VII and taking all the screenshots) has had too much sherry, and I am awaiting the delivery of a new one. Non-UK residents: our postal service struggles to cope at the best of times, but the combination of Christmas demands and non-stop rain over the last couple of weeks has resulted in Well-Rendered Towers receiving no mail other than The Economist - those guys never give up - and some flyers from a really persistent pizza delivery company.

Things that will survive the zombie apocalypse: The Economist, pizza menus.

Books read:

Two monsters: Middlemarch and House of Leaves. Middlemarch is George Eliot's long and complex tale of frustration and quiet social revolution in a nineteenth-century English village and House of Leaves is Mark Z. Danielewski's experimental satire on academic criticism that's also a horror novel. Both are outstanding, but Middlemarch is easier to read on the bus.

I also got half way through Game of Thrones, which is well-structured but a bit weak in places. Just as I can put up with poor gameplay for an incredible plot (see: Deadly Premonition), I can forgive an awful lot in a book with brilliant dialogue and believable characters. Game of Thrones has pretty good characters and passable dialogue, but there are some things which irk me. For example, in the first 300 pages, I've read the phrase "her hair had been brushed until it shone" four times, which is three too many. I feel a sub-editor should have picked up on that. Maybe I'll pick it up again later.

The book that had the biggest impact on me has undoubtedly been The Wasp Factory, Iain Bank's weird tale of a disturbed youth on a Hebridean island. It is unpleasant in almost all ways but structurally brilliant, an alternative detective story in the manner of Jane Austen's Emma. I like Iain Banks (or "Iain M. Banks", as he's known when he's writing sci-fi, one of the least cryptic pseudonyms ever), even at its darkest his writing is good-natured and forgiving. There's such a solid core to it that I can forgive the dodgy dialogue. This is saying a lot, I'm very picky about dialogue. If you have the stomach, you must read it.


A. S. Byatt's Possession was the last book I finished that warrants a mention, and I've already discussed it here.

Gigs attended:

Faith No More and Ben Folds Five were both shows by great musicians playing great music. In contrast, Devin Townsend's Retinal Circus, a conceptual gig in London's Roundhouse, was a victim of its own misplaced ambition. Devin Townsend is a fantastic musician and performer, but Retinal Circus' unnecessary narrative about a man reaching enlightenment obscured his incredible performance and diminished the entire show.

Here's why:

1 - Devin's lyrics are expressive, not explanatory. They are powerful and instinctive at best, incoherent and random at worst. In an album, they form an emotional arc, in "normal" concerts they are powerful incantations, but they cannot carry a narrative.

2 - At a musical, you want to be able to ignore the people around you and concentrate on the stage. At a gig, you can't and shouldn't. Those who choose to move forward do so not just to be closer to their idol but to be at the centre of a crowd, in communion with a sea of others who care about the music just as much as they do. Their vision is obscured by hundreds of heads, everyone is covered in sweat and thousands of singing voices mask the nuances of the music. But while these things would destroy one's enjoyment of a musical, they're what make rock gigs magical. And they're why the kind of music that works for one doesn't really work for the other.

3 - Since this was one of Devin's biggest gigs, a lot of songs which made no sense in the context of the story but had to be included because everyone wanted to hear them.

4 - The flipside of the above: some of Devin's less good tracks were included just because they fit the story. See "Baby Song" and "Lucky Animals", whose inclusion warranted about twenty people shimmying around the stage in animal onesies. Cringe.

5 - Devin's last foray into narrative was "Ziltoid the Omniscient", a sort of comedy prog opera starring a coffee-obsessed alien called Ziltoid. Ziltoid (who looks like The Great Gonzo's uglier cousin) looks great on a T-shirt, which means he became a fan favourite very quickly, so he made a lot of appearances in The Retinal Circus. This annoyed me for the same reason that bad celebrity voiceovers annoy me: it took me out of the world of the Retinal Circus, and back into the real world where everyone has a Ziltoid coffee mug. Guest spots always destroy the fiction.

Ziltoid the Omniscient.

6 - In order to explain what was going on, the disembodied head of Steve Vai kept popping up above the stage. Steve Vai's pretty cool and if I was going to choose anyone to be an omniscient narrator it would be him, but his constant appearances stopped it feeling like a gig. Just as you were getting into the music, the song would end and Steve Vai would appear. While he talked, the all-important adrenaline that keeps an audience enraptured slowly dripped away, meaning people took that bit longer to get into each new song.

7 - The sound sync was broken, so Steve Vai spoke about five seconds before he moved his lips. No-one's fault, but it just goes to show that the more you try and do, the more tends to go wrong.

8 - There was no focal point on stage. In a musical, you watch the action. In an orchestra, you watch the different musicians as you would the intricately moving parts of a machine. In a (normal) rock gig, you do the same, though your focus is generally on the singer. Devin's an incredible performer, he has a huge amount of charisma and he's a brilliant vocalist and musician but at the Retinal Circus he was just one of many competing focal points on stage at any one time. Trippy visuals were bubbling across the screens, dancers were bouncing around the musicians and at one point, actors in shiny leotards were pulling a large papier mache alien foetus out of a seven foot high green vagina on the mezzanine above Devin while he churned out the forgettable "Baby Song" (see 4, above). Visually, the whole thing was an incoherent mess.

Sigh.

Musically, it was still a great gig, but I would have enjoyed it so much more if Devin had just played the songs. When I compare it to Ben Folds Five coming on stage in jeans and just playing music for two hours (or indeed to any of Devin's other gigs), The Retinal Circus looks flaky and unsure of itself, like a pretty girl wearing far too much makeup.

A couple of months later I saw the aforementioned Steve Vai, who is a man who needs to talk less and play more. During a three hour set (support acts are for wussies, apparently), he changed his clothes three times and told multiple anecdotes, one of which lasted fifteen minutes and recalled a time when he went for a walk and saw the moon and realised that the things that we feel and the things that we think are like, connected, man.

I also managed to see Tori Amos again in one of her most magnificent performances. It was so good, in fact, that I'm quite sad that we may never see its like again: she performed with the Metropole Orchestra, who are currently under threat. It's uncertain if they'll survive (though you can help) or if they or another orchestra will ever ask to play with her again.

Picture taken from Drowned in Sound, more here.

Tori is classically trained, but she's not a concert pianist. Even when she has a band with her, the musicians she chooses are those who are able to keep up with her as she takes the lead. It was strange to see someone else (conductor Jules Buckley) in control of the proceedings, and while there was the odd moment when she seemed unsure, for the most part the performance was incandescent. The arrangements shone new light on well-known songs, revealing their depth and complexity and... well, that's quite enough of that.

Films watched:

All the "proper" Bond films. That means no Never Say Never Again or Casino Royale starring David Niven. Everyone has their own "Bond lists", here are mine...

Top five films (controversy alert!):
  1. Dr. No - All the Connery films with the exception of the creepy Diamonds are Forever would make worthy number ones, but this is my favourite.
  2. Skyfall - It's not too early to call this one, which managed to acknowledge and comment upon all that is both great and troubling about the series while still managing to be the kind of wildly entertaining bank holiday thrill ride that a Bond film really needs to be.
  3. The World is Not Enough - I have a soft spot for this one because it contains Desmond Llewelyn's poignant final turn as Q. It's also the only film where a Bond girl actually turns out to be the main villain. The other Bond girl, Denise Richards is a nuclear physicist in hot pants whose name, "Dr. Christmas Jones", provides the best line in any film ever: "I thought Christmas only came once a year!"
  4. A View to a Kill - Grace Jones. Christopher Walken. Duran Duran. The Golden Gate Bridge. If you ignore the fact that Roger Moore is also about 400 years older than Tanya Roberts, it's sort of a period classic.
  5. The Living Daylights - Timothy Dalton is kind of like the Milk Tray Man but The Living Daylights is special because other than Felix's hit-and-miss appearances, it marks the only occasion in which Bond has a significant relationship with another man. This is an underexplored aspect of Bond's character, and it's done beautifully here. The climax features a fight out of the back of a moving plane over the desert, which Uncharted 3 homages to great effect.
I know Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Goldeneye and of course Casino Royale are almost unarguably better than most of the films of this list, but who cares?

This lady was complaining about how hard it is to find a real man...

Top five Bonds:
  1. Sean Connery
  2. Daniel Craig
  3. Pierce Brosnan
  4. Timothy Dalton
  5. Roger Moore
If anyone's least favourite Bond is not George Lazenby, please explain why.

Top five Bond girls:
  1. Vesper Lynd
  2. Honey Ryder
  3. May Day
  4. Pussy Galore
  5. Elektra King 
The Eva Green version of Vesper, of course. Honey Ryder is pretty much the ultimate Bond girl, May Day is otherworldly and unsettling, Pussy Galore is the first "Bond woman", something we didn't really see again until Maud Adams in Octopussy and Elektra is the only one who also manages to be a proper villain. She's also the best-dressed Bond girl, which is very important.

Vesper. Swoon.

Themes:
  1. You Only Live Twice
  2. Skyfall
  3. Live and Let Die
  4. A View to a Kill
  5. Goldfinger
Not many surprises here, except perhaps the order.

My other observations after watching the entire series are as follows:
  • You really need to watch Quantum of Solace directly after Casino Royale, or it makes no sense. 
  • Quantum has a dreadful theme, but one of the best animations - ladies shifting around under desert sands - to go with it.
  • Goldeneye was quite groundbreaking when it came out, mainly because of Judi Dench being cast as M, but the plot now looks ridiculous because it relies upon the audience not understanding anything about computers at all. 
  • Diamonds are Forever has a really ghastly pair of villains, who are apparently creepy because they are gay. "It's the 60s!" does not make this any better.
  • Sean Connery hits women a LOT.
  • Most of the Roger Moore films blend into each other. For Your Eyes Only is definitely the worst offender, though it's almost saved by a cool underwater sequence and Topol. 
  • Die Another Day does not improve with time, it really is terrible. The theme, bleeped out by Madonna and some drunk record producer, is absolutely dire and things go downhill from there.
  • Joanna Lumley lives in the creepy brainwashing ski lodge in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
  • Bond is a terrible spy. There are so many times when he could just get the job done but he just ends up having sex instead and lots of government property always ends up getting destroyed as a result.


Despite the many low points, I haven't had so much fun watching films in years, and given the 50 year anniversary, the Olympics and Skyfall's release, this was a very good time to watch them.

Games played:

Tomb Raider II, IV, VII, VIII and IX. Final Fantasy VII. Uncharted 1-3. Catherine. Batman: Arkham City. Limbo. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Gears of War.

Most anticipated game of 2013:

Lots! Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, Beyond: Two Souls, Watch Dogs and The Last of Us.

I am genuinely thrilled about every game on that list, and half of them are new IPs, not sequels or reboots. This is brilliant news, and gives me every reason to be excited for the future. Maybe I'll even play some games this year!

Happy 2013 everybody!

BioShock Infinite. Bring it on, games industry!

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the recap--I went ahead and picked up Dear Esther, which I'd never heard of, but am hoping it gives me a little bit of the Myst nostalgia in a new package. I can't agree on the ranking of Bond themes: View to a Kill is WAYY better than Skyfall. Jes' Sayin. :)

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    Replies
    1. I didn't think of a connection between Myst and Dear Esther, but now that you mention it, there is a similarity in the way you're an invisible explorer. You're never under threat from the world, so you're free to explore it in incredible depth.

      They're obviously on a rather different scale; Dear Esther is an experimental short game that grew from a mod, Myst is a vast project. As such, the Myst gameworlds are far more detailed, and I think the overall experience is slightly more coherent, but that doesn't change the fact that by removing "objectives" as we know them, Dear Esther actually ends up giving you a far deeper relationship with the environment.

      I'm sorry to have disappointed you on the Bond themes. I like Skyfall for the reason I liked the whole film, it was so clever in its musical and lyrical references to older themes and indeed narrative themes within the films. Bond's intro music is in there around the second verse, I think. I could be wrong though, you're the musician! Also I'm a sucker for a god apocalypse song.

      View to a Kill is rockin' though.

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  2. *good

    Though a "god" apocalypse makes sense, I'm not sure what it has to do with Bond.

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