Tuesday 29 December 2015

Rob Wade's Best of 2015

So as the year draws to a close, it falls to me to assemble a list of my personal favourite things, as if I'm best placed to do that or some shit. So, then, here are my favourite things I've experienced this year. I've kept the categories exceedingly basic this year, and as with previous Favourites lists, this reflects stuff that I've experienced for the first time this year, so in theory could include things that were not released in 2015. Make your peace with this and read on...

Favourite Game: Until Dawn

This might have seemed like a lock for me. It's no secret to long-time E14 readers that I'm a huge fan of the Fallout series, so naturally it would make sense for me to really love the latest instalment of the franchise. Indeed, this is true. I do really love Fallout 4, and it was a very close contender for my Game of 2015. However, I have to give my pick to a game that truly gripped me from start to finish, made me care about the way I played and try my hardest to do certain things as well as possible in order to get the best ending. That game for me this year is Until Dawn, which I was kindly lent by a work colleague. I've since been out and bought my own copy simply on the strength of my playthrough.

For those unfamiliar, Until Dawn takes the form of a horror adventure game, dotted with quick-time events and a branching storyline, featuring the exploits of eight youngsters (it's not entirely clear to me whether they are intended to be teens or just twenty-somethings, but it doesn't really make much odds either way) who find themselves in a particularly unfortunate situation and are trying to survive...until dawn. As my colleague put it so eloquently, "the best ending has them all survive, the worst ending has them all die and you'll probably end up somewhere in the middle." Middle out, I did, with 6/8 surviving until the end despite their best efforts, the silly fools...

Everything about Until Dawn (with the possible exception of the controls, which felt fiddly at times in a similar way to Heavy Rain - not so much that it ever ruined the game for me, but still enough to irk me occasionally) is so masterfully done that it's hard to fault it, not least that the graphics are nothing short of superb. One must commend in particular the incredible work on the facial resemblances to the characters' real-life voice actors (the fact that I could recognise Peter Stormare, a relatively obscure though great actor, without any knowledge of him in the game, speaks to this quality). The actors are also a great fit for their parts, with Stormare in particular having a good old fashioned ham-it-up.

The thing that I like most about the game is that everything fits the tone so well. The music is tense, with orchestral scores punctuating some of the tense moments and elevating them to full-on jump scares. I'm not usually a fan of this sort of game, and am generally critical of media that resorts to jump scares to get its scares from the audience. I suppose, really, that part of the reason that Until Dawn is my favourite of the year is exactly for that reason; I'm not usually a fan of this sort of thing, and yet I loved the game because it's just so well done that I find it difficult to find fault. It's a brilliant execution of classic horror tropes and makes great use of the medium of videogames to ramp up the tension; I've never given much thought to how still I hold the Dual Shock 4 and how much the light bar moves, but I bloody well was when it meant the possibility of life or death!

Honourable mentions: Fallout 4. Despite it not being my favourite game experience of the year, I still bloody love it.
Telltale's Game of Thrones series, particularly Episode 5. Never has a gaming series made me so angry at some of its characters as this series. I found myself really getting quite cross at some of the fates that befall the Forrester family.
Shadowrun Returns - Not a release from this year, but one that I came into finally, after adding it to my Steam library a while back. A really strong RPG with a pretty decent storyline, in a Cyberpunk setting that I find myself increasingly keen on.

Favourite Movie: Gone Girl

In a rare turn-up for the books (mehe), Gone Girl was a novel adaptation that I read before I watched the movie. Usually, I do it the other way around, just to see how much the book adds to the overall narrative. Sometimes the books add a ton of useful stuff (An example of this would be Jurassic Park, which adds a whole darker layer to the beginning of proceedings and doesn't go down that Unix system bullshit from the end of the movie, although if I remember correctly some of the darker points got used in the sequel movie) and sometimes the book adds extra layers of stuff that you can see the reasoning for cutting from a movie adaptation (case in point, V for Vendetta, a wonderful comic with lots of extra layers of stuff that I didn't really miss when they weren't in the film). With Gone Girl, I felt that the movie was sufficiently faithful to the novel and was all the better for it.

While a large reason of why I like the movie so much is the strong novel on which it is based, a movie can have the best story on which to base itself and still fall flat if the casting isn't right, or if the performances aren't up to par. There was none of this with Gone Girl in my view. Affleck is great in his leading role, and backed by strong performances from co-stars, particularly Neil Patrick Harris. However, the best performance in this movie is undoubtedly from Rosamund Pike in her role as Amy. While I have no doubt in my mind that Rosamund Pike is almost certainly a lovely lady in real life, she plays this role so well that I would be wary of approaching her in the street out of fear for my wellbeing. Indeed, this movie shows her really getting into a darker and more sinister character. Again, Gillian Flynn has given her a lot of good stuff to work with, but Pike just nails it at every turn.

The primary measure of strength in a movie, for my money at least, is what percentage of the movie adds value to the story. A good way to think of this is to think about a movie you love and then ask yourself "Did it feel like as much time had passed as had actually passed, or were you sufficiently enraptured that it didn't really register?", with a more exceptional movie feeling like an absolute breeze compared to the running time. I first experienced this feeling in a quantifiable sense when watching the first X-Men. In my mind the movie was going from strength to strength, and then...credits. I remember being bewildered. How could the length of a full motion picture have occurred in that seemingly small space? Gone Girl's running time clocks in at 2hr 29min. To me, it felt like half that, with the time flying past in my head as I checked off scene after scene that I thought did justice to the source material, but I was especially grateful for the length, as I was on an incredibly uncomfortable long-haul flight to Singapore.

It speak to the quality of Gone Girl that I almost immediately watched it again, but I felt that it would be good to see some new stuff and the plane had the third instalment of The Hobbit. That day, I learned to trust my instincts, as while the movie was perfectly watchable, I'd have been much happier watching Rosamund Pike being awesome.

Honourable mentions: John Wick. An enjoyable action movie with some nice touches, and a grim-faced Keanu in full gunslinging glory!
Spectre. A fun, though flawed, Bond movie with some enjoyable action sequences and some good performances in a pretty good story. Needs more Christoph Waltz. Doesn't everything, though?
Ant-Man. A great superhero movie with similar levels of fun to Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There's something to be said for a movie you're happy to see four times in the first week of release. Not by any means a perfect movie, but a really strong addition to the franchise and it does a great job of getting people excited about Star Wars again. STAR WARS!

Favourite TV Series: Attack On Titan

My experience of anime pre-2015 was severely limited, with my knowledge almost exclusively restricted to anime series based on popular video games (Dead Space and Devil May Cry spring to mind, although I couldn't tell you their plots) and Naruto Shippuden (which despite numerous reviews of the series bearing my name, I still had to fucking look up the spelling of). This year, I found myself on Netflix one day (other video streaming services are available, and indeed I'm subscribed to one or two of them) and was at a loss as to what to watch. My brain pinged back to an E14 post by Sour Crouch last year, recommending a Flash-based game based on the series, and his subsequent endorsement of the series to me in our chats following the post.

I'm pleased in hindsight that I asked him about it, and not just because of his delicious opinions on which I rely for sustenance. Back in the realm of my bored brain choosing a Netflix show, my brain subsequently went "Ooh, you said you'd check out Attack On Titan sometime. This is a time. You should do it now". Sure enough, I did, and am glad for having done so. What a show. Although I learned about halfway through that there were more options than just Japanese language accompanied by English subtitles, I found myself determined to see the series through with my original choice of Japanese audio. Don't get me wrong, I would've been totally lost on the subtleties of the lingo without subtitles, but maybe it's a credit to the storytelling that I don't feel I couldn't have followed purely on the grounds of the visuals and the tone of dialogue delivery.

Some things that I do know follow. The art direction is nothing short of excellent, with particular kudos aimed at whoever made the Titan designs, because they are unsettling as fuck. They do a superb job of making the Titans look like things it would be reasonable to fear, and not just through their consumption of normal-sized human beings. The characters you follow throughout are put in sufficient amounts of peril and have well-developed back stories for the most part, giving you a little more investment in their fate. What's more, the intrigue posed throughout the series adds a fun level of urgency to proceedings when you realise there are only a few episodes left of the series and they're nowhere near finding out what the FUCK is in that cellar.

The series does a great job, ultimately, in making you invest in what it portrays. I'm not suggesting that the world in which we live now in any way resembles the world of Attack on Titan, as that would be ridiculous (anyone who listens to the podcasts knows that the world is actually like The Hunger Games). What the series does do, however, is make you feel like humanity is on the back foot. Their enemies can't be bargained with or reasoned with, and the reasons for even their existence are entirely unclear to anyone who hasn't read the manga (Disclaimer: I've only read the first volume, so for all I know the reasons for the Titans' existence isn't even clear in the manga, I'm just speculating wildly because I can). Anyway, the humans are pegged back, and have to utilise their best strategies to make progress against seemingly mindless monsters that wish to snuff out their existence for no other reason than insufficient portion sizes at Pret and similar eateries. They probably haven't got money for food even if the portion sizes were there, on reflection. But I digress.

As a semi-related aside, what is it with anime series changing their theme tunes all the time? The choices are often perfectly good alternatives, but in the middle of a long series it's properly jarring. Anyway, it's semi-related as the first half of the series has one of the best theme tunes and intro sequences I've seen in a series. I like the song so much that it's my alarm tone in the morning, as the stirring intro is good for get-up-and-go, and makes the mundane (which is to say a 31 year old IT worker from Kent waking up for a weekday) feel that little bit more epic than it would otherwise be (which is, unsurprisingly, not very).

Honourable mentions: Deathnote. A tremendous story, which keeps you guessing throughout as to the outcome. Having said that, I can only ever watch it once now that I know.
Knights of Sidonia. Yeah, I know, you'd be forgiven for thinking that all I've watched this year is anime. Nevertheless, this is a strong series with an imaginative premise, which keeps you engaged throughout.
Constantine. Because I have my biases. I'm by no means a comic expert, but Constantine has always been one of my favourites. It's not without reason that the show gets an honourable mention, though, as the series is really strong. It's just a shame that it didn't get picked up for a second series, but so it goes.

Favourite Book: Speaker For The Dead - Orson Scott Card

Last year, for the first time, I read Ender's Game. Had I done a Best of 2014 list for books, Card's most notable work would no doubt have found its way onto the list. A stunning piece of science fiction, Speaker For The Dead takes place in the same universe and shows how the world has changed following the events of Ender's Game. Chronicling the story of a colony on a distant world which is having to deal with some recent unexplained deaths, Speaker For The Dead is an absolute masterpiece of narrative fiction. It's no surprise to me that Orson Scott Card thinks of Speaker For The Dead as the story he really wanted to write, as an interview at the end of the excellent audiobook version tells us. It reads like a labour of love, seeking to give more depth to the ending of Ender's Game and further the impact of the storyline events. If you read one book by Card, read Ender's Game, then read Speaker For The Dead because it makes it better. I know what I said.

Honourable mentions: The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith. Whether writing under her own name or as Galbraith, Rowling has always been one to spin a good story. The Cormoran Strike books (that's his name) continue this trend, switching from the fantastical to the more classic gritty detective story. With a compelling protagonist and an engrossing mystery, there is scarcely a better intro to a detective series than this one.
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien. A classic, which I have criminally only just become familiar with. I am frankly *amazed* that Peter Jackson was able to get a 3 hour movie out of the Battle of the Five Armies, as well.
The Princess Bride - William Goldman. A really funny and heart-warming book which deals both with the fantastically entertaining The Princess Bride story, and a bit of additional history of the author's own life and his reasons for abridging the original story.

Well, there you have it. My favourites of 2015 have now come at you. I hope you enjoyed reading them, and whether you agree or disagree with my feelings thanks for reading!

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