Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Fourth Annual Wherin I Rant Awards - 2013

Welp, it's that time of the year again, and once again I've brought together lists of my favorite games and movies and miscellany that I really really liked, ordered them from least-awesome to most-awesome, and written some words about each of them. Now, you get to read those words! Hurrah!

Top 5 Games of 2013

All right, let's get this out of the way. There are some pretty big gaps in my game library this year. I just didn't have the time or money to play everything that I would have liked to. Now, I played some pretty great games, and I've got a list of those here, but there are some things which I've either not touched, or only played a little bit of from this year. I have no doubt that Ni No Kuni, Zelda, Rogue Legacy, GTA 5, Tomb Raider, and quite a few other games are absolutely great, and would probably have pushed this into a proper top ten list had I played them. As it is, I just haven't played them, or at least haven't played enough of them. So, here's a list of some of what I did play, and really liked.

5.  Saints Row IV

You know what's awesome? The Saints Rows franchise. This is a franchise that, until late last year, had completely passed me by. I remember hearing some really good things about Saints Row 2 way back when, but never picked it up. Then, I remember back in late 2011 hearing some amazing things about its sequel, but was so utterly consumed by Skyrim at that time that I never got into that, either.

So late last year I finally picked up Saints Row: The Third only to find that, yeah, it's an amazing game. Saints Row: The Third, while not exactly as packed with content as I'd like an open-world game to be, has one of the funniest campaigns of all time, and goes up there, in my opinion, with the funniest games of all time, like Psychonauts and Portal.

Then halfway through this year, I got Saints Row 2 through a Humble Bundle, and found out that, once again, that game was amazing too! I played that co-op, and while it isn't as overtly funny or well written as The Third, it's much more feature rich, and is a very good game in its own right, dealing with an overall more serious tone than the third one..

So of course, as a part of the Steam Sale this year, I had to pick up Saints Row IV. Saints Row IV, or as I like to call it "The Adventures of Gimp-Suit-Uncle-Sam and Lazy Goku," because that's how I played it, is a great game. There are some things about it which bother me, particularly the eternal twilight and occasional deliberate graphical glitches spoiling the look of an otherwise great looking game, which might hold it back from being quite as much fun as the second one was, but it still brought the excellent writing and video game satire of the third game, along with a slightly darker tone.

Plus, the game switched gameplay focus from being a satire of Grand Theft Auto, into being something more along the lines of Crackdown, Prototype, or InFamous. I. Love. InFamous. This game playing somewhat like InFamous means I love this game.

I also just want to mention, this is a game that gets co-op right. Don't give me your seperate co-op campaign. Don't drop me into the world with a friend and tell me I can't do any of the missions or side activities. Just put me in the world with a friend, and let me play. This game does that, and that makes it all the more fun.

Saints Row IV is awesome, and I haven't even finished it yet.

4. Fire Emblem: Awakening

I want to get this out of the way: Purely in terms of gameplay alone, this is the absolute best game released in 2013. Without regards to characters, soundtrack, story, or any of that, and only talking about actually playing a game, this game is very, very close to being perfect.

And, don't get me wrong, the rest of the game is pretty great too. The characters are memorable (Lucina might be one of my favorite characters of the year), the art is great, the story is very by the numbers, but not bad. Those things weren't the draw, they were just icing on a very, very tasty cake.

Between Fire Emblem, SMT4, Zelda, Animal Crossing, and Pokemon, this game very nearly turned into "my top five 3DS game of 2013." Astonishingly, this year the 3DS went from being kind of a joke into becoming what I can say with confidence is my absolute favorite handheld of all time. The catalog this thing has gotten over the past twelve months is incredible, and I just want to make sure everyone knows that now is the time to buy.

Fire Emblem is brutally unforgiving on its higher difficulties, and it's some of the most fun I've had playing a video game in 2013, beating out a lot of quality experiences. This game is absolutely worth buying a 3DS for.

3. Pokemon X

But yeah, there was that other 3DS game that I liked just a little bit more.


I was, overall, pretty disappointed with Pokemon White back in 2011. I respected the fact that the game tried to tell a more nuanced story, and actually did it surprisingly well until the last hour or so, but I thought the new Pokemon designs were astoundingly awful, and the lack of old favorites to fall back on, while not inherently a bad idea, bummed me out since I only liked a very very small handful of the new designs (Bisharp and me are gonna go wreck things).

But I'm still a huge fan of Pokemon, and so when X and Y came out as the first 3D Pokemon games, I was still there day one, unsure if the magic could ever be recaptured, but willing to give it one more try. And, somewhat surprisingly, Pokemon X was great. I even think there's an argument to be made that it's the best Pokemon game of all time, though it's not an argument I would personally make (Soul Silver is the best one, for the record).

The new designs are almost all terrific. The 3D battles look great. The unique animations for the Pokemon were impressively broad. The new minigames like Pokemon-Amie worked well, and Super Training finally means I don't have to spend countless hours EV-Training the perfect Pokemon.

The improvements made to multiplayer alone made this a terrific experience. I was caught up in the zeitgeist of playing at launch, and I had tons of friends from all over the world playing with me. Having a friends list at the bottom screen at all times, and being able to send short messages, or ask to trade or battle with them at a moment's notice made the game exponentially more fun.

But not only did the internet work, the game was a blast. Although the game didn't tell even a story up to the standards of White (which was unfortunate), story has never ever been the draw to Pokemon, and, while the game was far too easy, I still had a blast with it, and sunk nearly 100 hours into it during October.

While there are probably other, technically better games that I played this year, there probably isn't a game this year I had more outright fun with than Pokemon X. It's a great game whether it's your first Pokemon experience, or you've been playing for over a decade like I have. Another one worth buying a 3DS for.

2. The Last of Us

All right, enough of that fun stuff, it's time to talk about what video games are really about-- Soul crushing depression.

Congratulations, Naughty Dog! You finally made a game I actually liked! The Last of Us is an amazing game. Every single thing about this game is good. The visuals are jaw-dropping, pushing the Playstation 3 to its limits as a system. The gameplay is some of the best stealth I've ever seen, with intelligent choices made every step of the way, and since it's a stealth game, you don't have to put up with hours and hours of awful, awful shooting like certain other, more Indiana-Jones-Esque Naughty Dog games.

And the story... My god. The one thing I can say for Naughty Dog, and has been true since Uncharted 2, is that their games are cinematic like no others. Uncharted 2 looked like a movie. The action was impressive, and didn't feel like something you would play. The Last of Us, from its heartbreaking opening moments, is absolutely that.

The Last of Us has twists, and turns. Every time I thought I knew where it was going, it threw me for a loop, but not in the way many video game stories do. Even as someone who absolutely loves video games for the way they can tell stories, I can admit there are very few games with stories that can stand alongside the best of other mediums. Mass Effect is always the example that jumps to mind. And yet, The Last of Us is absolutely on that list. The ending will leave you shocked, and emotionally destroyed, but not in the way you'd expect.

I don't care how burned out you are on zombie games, if you haven't played The Last of Us, you are missing out on one of the best games of the generation.

So what beats it?

1. BioShock Infinite


BioShock Infinite is a masterpiece. Let me be clear: Every. Single. Thing. About. This. Game. Works. 

From its opening moments, BioShock defies any expectations you might have after the first one. It is just such an incredibly great game, I don't know how I can even talk about it. I mean, to start off with, it's one of the best shooters out there. But I mean, even beyond being an incredibly solid shooter, everything else! The art is gorgeous! Look at it!

Look at it!

And the sound! Speaking of best soundtrack of the year, the sound design is a stroke of brilliance! The way this game uses music, the way it works it into the story in the most brilliant ways... I can't even tell you! Just-- JUST WATCH THIS CLIP!

SEE? SEE HOW BRILLIANT THAT IS? No you don't! If you haven't played the game, then of course you don't!


I love the original BioShock. I think it is one of the defining games of this generation. Infinite blows it out of the water in every aspect.

I can't talk about this game. I can't explain how great it is. It. Just. Is. Game of the year? Absolutely. Game of the generation? ...Mmmm, that's probably still Mass Effect 2, or maybe Fallout: New Vegas, but it's pretty close.

If you play only one video game from 2013, play BioShock Infinite. Full stop. If you don't like this game, I can't help you, because that means you are probably dead.

Top 5 Best Movies of 2013

5. The World's End

Until this year, I had never seen any of the Cornetto Trilogy. In case you're unfamiliar with that term, it's used to describe the three movies starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and directed by Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End. They are completely unrelated films, but thematically linked enough that they are often mentioned together.

So, until this summer, I hadn't seen any of the three. Then, I watched Shaun of the Dead. It's amazing. Then, I watched Hot Fuzz. It's even better. Then, I watched The World's End. It's... Well, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are both probably funnier, but The World's End stands up as a very strong story, perhaps surprisingly so. The acting is great, the story is surprisingly touching and heartwarming, and, yeah, it's really funny.

4. Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 was a surprisingly divisive movie, with many fans loving it, and many hating it. I can only assume that the people who hate it are literally insane, because it's a fantastic film, perhaps my favorite of the Iron Man trilogy.

It's really hard to talk about this movie without spoiling the big reveal partway through, but suffice it to say that the film takes some shockingly huge risks which pay off incredibly well.

On a more personal note, the thing that makes this one of my favorite films of the year is the way it deals with Tony Stark's anxiety after the attack on New York in The Avengers. Speaking as someone with an anxiety problem, it's an issue that pop culture almost never talks about, and to see it actually portrayed really well-- Especially being portrayed by one of the superheroes I adore so much --personally touched me in a way no other movie managed to all year long (or even further back).

It does bother me that once it's time for the climax of the film they kind of forget about the anxiety problem they established Tony was having earlier in the film, and if they had handled that better this might have even made it to the number one spot on this list, but as it is, the film still works really well.

3. Frozen

Of course the new Disney Princess movie is on this list! I'm the guy who said Tangled was the best movie of 2010!

Frozen is not as good a movie as Tangled, but that's all right, because very few movies are. Frozen is, in a lot of ways, about defying every expectation you have about Disney movies. It takes many of the tropes commonly associated with Disney films, plays them straight just long enough for you to start rolling your eyes, and then BAM, turns them on their head mid-eyeroll.

The music is great. The characters are great. The story is extremely strong. It isn't quite the pitch-perfect success that Tangled was, but it comes really close. With three hits in a row, I'd say it's safe to say we're entering a new Disney golden age, and if the movies keep being as great as this, then I'm happy to be along for the ride.

2. Catching Fire

I love the Hunger Games books. I think that they're very well told page turning novels. They're my favorite YA series since Harry Potter, and I've read a lot of YA series.

And the first movie was good. It wasn't perfect, but it was good! This, however, is the difference between a good movie, and a great movie. I know I'm weird, and that Catching Fire is my favorite of the novels, but this is one of those movies where you are just captivated, and can't look away.

My favorite thing about the second book, and my favorite thing about the second film, might be considered a spoiler (even though the trailer totally showed it), so I won't talk about it here. Suffice it to say, don't miss this movie, whatever you do.

1. Pacific Rim

If you only watch one movie released in 2013, please make it Pacific Rim.

Pacific Rim was absolutely the most fun I had seeing a movie this year. I've said this a lot, but this movie is like what the Transformers franchise should be. Good robot designs. Excellent characters. Beautiful cinematography, and just an overall gorgeous LOOK to the film, part of which can be attributed to it being set primarily in Hong Kong, but a large part of which is just because of smart choices made with the film.

I've heard people criticize the movie for not having a good enough story, and... Yeah, ok, I can kind of see where they're coming from, but I don't agree. Story is not the primary thing you're coming to for this film, but it should still provide you with a good one. Here's the thing: It does. It's not the best part of the movie (that's the part where the robots are punching the monsters in the face), but it's competently done. The characters and the acting all really captured me, Mako Mori, Stacker Pentecost, Hannibal Chau, these are all very very distinct characters, and you really feel like you're only getting to see a little bit of a much more complicated life story with each of them. Even the background characters feel like fully realized characters who we're only seeing a little bit of. The stereotypical "RUSSIANS"? I think there's a reason those two have caught on in such a big way with so many people.

And here's the thing, I'd be lying if I called Pacific Rim some sort of deep, philosophical movie. I definitely think the movie has some interesting things to say, and I love the way the forces of the Earth have all grown together in the years since the first Kaiju attack, but at the end of the day I don't think it's trying to give us some deep insight on the meaning of life. It is, at it's core, an action movie about giant monsters and giant robots punching each other. But the thing is, not every movie needs to have some deep philosophical message. I like it movies do have some sort of deep meaning, but sometimes taking a fairly shallow concept and executing on it really, really well is just enough.

I re-watched this just the other day (for the record this is the first Blu-Ray I've felt the need to own since the best film of 2010, Tangled), and you know what? It still really holds up. This movie just does so many intelligent things. Taking a Kaiju film, and changing them from being a metaphor for the atomic bomb, like Godzilla, or even for 9/11, like Cloverfield, and turning them into what feel like a force of nature, into a hurricane, that's clever. Giving us a really fleshed out world, but then letting the audience figure out, or not figure out, a lot of the details of that world based on their own inference? That's brilliant.

And, yeah, the bits where the robots and the monsters are punching each other are really great too. I've been called a hypocrite for liking this movie so much, while still thinking that the Transformers film series is tantamount to a hate crime against people who like movies, but here's the thing: Every word I've just said, you can say the opposite about for those films. It's crazy how much more I'll enjoy a movie when I actually like the characters on the screen. It's amazing how much more fun I'll find the fight scenes when I can actually tell what's happening, because the cameraman isn't having a seizure. It's incredible how much more I'll like a movie when it's actually a good movie.

Pacific Rim didn't do super well in theaters this year, and that makes me really sad, because I can't even think of a movie that's as much sheer FUN as Pacific Rim is. The type of sheer glee I had when I left the theater, the only movie I can think of that match that was the last fifteen minutes of Cabin In The Woods (by the way, you should totally watch Cabin In The Woods), but this kept that dopey smile on my face for the full 2+ hours.

I would be willing to bet money that the story of Pacific Rim isn't over yet, and I don't mean in terms of a sequel (although please, please make a Pacific Rim 2). I see a future, twenty years from now, where people are still watching Pacific Rim. Where it goes down as one of the Sci-Fi Action classics. Until then, I'll just have to go watch it alone a few more times. But, seriously, that bit with the rocket punch? Amazing.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Very Night Vale Christmas [Fan Fiction]

Note: This is a Fan Fiction for Welcome to Night Vale. You can find Night Vale at http://commonplacebooks.com/welcome-to-night-vale/.

On today’s show: It’s Christmas in Night Vale, everyone’s favorite time of the year. What’s your favorite holiday tradition? Also: A very important message about the Christmas Spirit. And, as always, the weather!

Sleigh bells. A twinkling, in the darkness. Footsteps on the roof. Gunshots in the night. Welcome to Night Vale.

Season’s greetings, listeners. How is everyone doing today? I hope you are all doing well, this morning! Today is a wonderful day, Night Vale, as I get to start off the day with some good news!

This morning, as I was passing by the Ralphs on my way to the station, a hooded figure emerged from the dog park. Now, normally that would be frightening news indeed, but today is no ordinary day. The hooded figure was not wearing the usual robe, made of what appears to be shifting shadows. Instead, the hooded figure was dressed in-- You’ll never believe this-- Red! That’s right! For the first time, well, ever, a hooded figure was seen wearing a colorful robe!

A crowd grew together around the hooded figure as he emerged, despite the many warnings issued by the city not to come within fifty feet of any hooded figures, as if propelled by some unseen hands, drawing us all in like moths to a flame. The hooded figure began speaking in some ancient, eldritch language that I do not know, but was somehow able to understand. And do you know what he-- or she, it was pretty difficult to tell-- said?

It’s Christmas! Yes, Night Vale, that’s right! I hope you got all of your shopping done, because today is everyone's favorite day of the year-- Christmas! Oh, I do love Christmas!

As the hooded figure disappeared back into the dog park, looking downright festive in that blood red robe of his, which I still was not able to look directly at, Christmas day was officially kicked off!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But Cecil, what are you doing telling us this? Shouldn’t you get Christmas off? Shouldn’t you be spending it with family? Or someone special, like, say, wonderful, perfect Carlos?” Well, you’re right. I should be spending the day with family. But you know what, listeners? You are all my family, Night Vale, so how could I not come spend some of this wonderful day with you?

I know we’re all huge fans of Christmas here in Night Vale. The Sheriff’s Secret Police require us to be. Why, it’s hard for me to even say what my favorite part of the holiday is! If I were pressed, though, I would probably say that it’s the gifts.

Opening presents has always brought me such joy, ever since I was a little boy. Oh the joy and delight of seeing what wonderful gifts I had been brought that year, is there really any happier time in a child’s life? And then, getting to burn those gifts, as a sacrificial offering to Krampus, your father or mother reading the traditional passage from an old Austrian book of spells which always seems slightly moist, being read in the original German, of course.

What a magnificent sight it is, seeing the wooden toys burn, the plastic ones melt, and any electronics spark slightly, before going dark forever, all to protect you from a terrifying beast who would otherwise surely devour you in the night. There truly are few sights as wonderful as seeing the toys you've so desperately wanted for so long being forever purged by flame. That sort of memory sticks with you for your entire life!

It sounds like word has spread about today being Christmas, Night Vale, because I’m receiving a report that the Night Vale Mall is doing its biggest business in years! Just minutes after opening its gates, the mall was flooded with shoppers, running frantically through the stores like packs of wild dogs, searching desperately, almost viciously, for the items they needed for their last minute Christmas shopping.

Now, I don’t want to judge, but really, this is why you do your Christmas shopping early! I got Carlos a gift way back in mid-July, I know, it seems like a long time ago now, and as a result, I don’t have to go to the mall this late in the season! Procrastination only leads to bad things, and while I, of course, hope that everyone gets exactly what they want this year for Christmas, I can’t say that I’ll be surprised if there’s a lot of disappointing presents this year.

To anyone who might be listening to this from the mall or its surrounding area, good luck with your holiday shopping!

And now, a word from our sponsors.

I know that the Christmas season has a habit of sneaking up on us. I mean, just yesterday it was mid-July, and one announcement spoken in some ancient demonic tongue later, it’s the end of December! But StrexCorp has you covered, friends.

StrexCorp has set up Christmas tree lots all over Night Vale. And the best part is, the Christmas trees are free! Well, they don’t cost any money, at least.

Here’s what you need to do. Head over to any one of the StrexCorp Christmas tree lots. Find the tree you like. I personally have always been a fan of those noble firs, grand trees indeed. Once you’ve found the tree you like, find the cauldron at the center of the lot. Pick up one of the knives located next to the cauldron, and create a small slit on your hand-- Don’t worry, listeners, it hardly hurts at all. Let a few drops of blood drip into the cauldron.

And that’s it! Your Christmas tree will be transported via blood magic all the way back to your home, where you will find it fully decorated, looking more gorgeous than you could even imagine. Isn’t that great? StrexCorp really has taken all the hassle out of Christmas.

StrexCorp Christmas Lots: Death free since 2011.

Listeners, I don’t want to ruin your Christmas day with bad news, so I’m just going to skip over the next few announcements. Let’s see… War declared… Tramplings at the mall… Economic collapse… Oh, here we are! This is a fun one!

Little Abbie Mills, one of the students at Night Vale Elementary, has decided to give up her Christmas day, and is spending it doing charity work. Isn’t that great? She’s decided to go around town today painting over graffiti, giving food to those less fortunate than her, and helping families protect themselves from any dangerous Christmas Elves they might come across.

I think I speak for all of us when I say, good job Abbie! Just make sure not to cover up any of the city’s Sheriff’s Secret Police officially mandated graffiti! Ha ha ha ha ha! You’ll be able to tell which graffiti is officially mandated by… Oh. Well, it says here that there actually isn’t a way to tell which pieces of graffiti are officially mandated. Hm. Well, good luck, Abbie.

Listeners, Christmas is always a fun time, but, like little Abbie just reminded us, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in ourselves this time of year. So, I’d like to get a little more serious, for a moment, and talk about the Christmas Spirit.

The Christmas Spirit is a dark, terrible thing. Do not take the Christmas Spirit lightly. No one knows for certain who-- or what-- the Christmas Spirit once was, but one thing is for certain, if you should be out and about on Christmas after nightfall, beware. The Christmas Spirit is the stuff of nightmares, listeners. It’s suspected to be the reason why Santa Claus hasn’t visited our town in nearly twenty years-- Oop! I’m sorry, I hope there weren’t any children listening. Uh… What I meant, children, was that Santa Claus definitely still loves our little community as much as anyone, and it definitely hasn’t been your parents putting those gifts under the tree. Moving on.

Should you see the Christmas Spirit, run. Do not look back. Do not think back, as thinking about the Christmas Spirit has been shown to attract it in the past. And, as you run, should you suddenly be possessed by a feeling of extreme merriment, then all I can say is, may god rest ye, merry gentleman.

An update on the mall story from earlier: I’ve received some reports that the Night Vale Mall has become something which can now only be accurately referred to as a battleground. The shoppers have formed tribes, and now hunt together not only for bargains, but for each other. They have fashioned everything from primitive weapons like swords and spears, to makeshift explosives, and are currently engaged in combat just in front of the RadioShack.

It appears there are two main tribes who have come out leaders in the struggle. The first are calling themselves “The Children of Nicholas.” They are based out of the Sears, and appear to wear festive sweaters stained by the blood of their enemies to identify themselves. The second, based out of the Best Buy, referred to themselves only as “Shoppers,” and, in their own words, “worship the malevolent god Consumerus.”

If you are near the mall or, even worse, inside the mall as you hear this, I urge you to leave as soon as possible, and retreat to the safety of your own homes. I’m afraid that, before I received this update, I sent intern Timothy to the mall to investigate, and only now do I realize I may have been sending him to his own demise.

Listeners, I’m afraid little Abbie Mills has accidentally painted over some of the Sheriff’s Secret Police officially mandated graffiti. The Sheriff’s Secret Police have taken the eight year old girl into custody. I don’t know what will happen to her, but I’m sure all of us here in Night Vale are wishing her the best, unless the Sheriff’s Secret Police tell us otherwise.

And now, the weather. Today’s weather has been cancelled. Because of that, I’m afraid our weather segment has nothing to report.

The open warfare in the mall was cut short today when one of the makeshift explosives created out of a propane canister which was being used by the Sons of Nicholas exploded next to a load bearing beam, leveling a section of the Night Vale Mall, and crushing both the Shoppers, and the Sons of Nicholas alike.

I’m afraid intern Timothy wasn’t able to make it out of the mall in time. And I regret to inform the audience, and his family, that intern Timothy has died in the line of duty here at the Night Vale Community Radio Station. Our hearts go out to all of those who knew intern Timothy and--

What’s this? I’ve just been handed a piece of paper updating me on the situation in the Night Vale Mall… Why-- This says that… Is that right?

Listeners, wonderful news! Intern Timothy has been… Found! Alive, no less! Rescue teams found him unconscious, pinned beneath the fallen Radioshack sign. Emergency armored medical vehicles are taking him to the Night Vale Hospital as we speak, and he is expected to live. It’s a Christmas miracle, everyone!

Well listeners, that brings us to the end of our show. And really, could anyone among us ask for a more perfect ending, than to find out that a citizen of our fair town wasn’t killed, but merely maimed and likely crippled?

Intern Timothy shall not be taken from us today, instead he shall get to know the many experiences left in life. The joys of falling in love. The pains of seeing your love leave you, either for another man, or for the one who takes us all, eventually, death. The utter sorrow of growing old alone and filled with regrets, until one day Intern Timothy will look back at his life, think of this day, and scream to a harsh, uncaring night sky “Why? Why couldn’t you have taken me then?” I don’t think there’s a more perfect ending to be had.

Stay tuned for six straight hours of your favorite holiday music, as a part of our fair town’s radio tradition “The Scares of Halloween.” Merry Christmas, Night Vale… And good night.

Welcome to Night Vale is a production of Commonplace Books. This is a not-for-profit fan work with no relation to Commonplace Books. Please, don’t sue me.

Today’s proverb: Rudolph the red nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose. Wait, that’s not a reindeer, that’s a bomb. Run away.