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My Top Picks of 2014

  Happy 2015! You know what that means, right? Why, it’s that time to look back over 2014 and figure out which of my preferred method of wasting time was the least infuriating. Well, I probably should have done that sometime last week. But it’s much too late for that now.

  So I guess I’m doing a “Top 5” list or whatever, only I’m going to be just doing the top honors in a bunch of categories because I’m supremely lazy. Also, I was much poorer this last year, so my access to pop culture has consisted mostly of staring longingly at YouTube videos and hoping someone sends me something for free.

  That last bit rarely happened.

Jonathan’s 2014 Book of the Year

Michael Munz’s Zeus is Dead

Zeus is Dead

  In the interest of full disclosure, I have a quote within the first couple of pages of the book extolling its virtues, but rest assured I would only do so if I really loved it. Zeus is Dead is a hilarious tale that takes all of Greek mythology’s best bits (most the gods are jerkasses and a bit on the crazy side) and plays it up wonderfully. I’m not consistently the biggest fan of modern takes on Greek mythology, but Munz makes it works and makes it work well.

  I think what works so well is the fact that Zeus is Dead’s narrative journey is all very farcical. When people use Zeus and make him a stately father figure, it’s very hard for me to forget that this was a guy who routinely turned into animals/coins to “seduce” people. The fact that he’s not in jail or routinely punished is not the mark of a rollicking good adventure or whatever—it’s a goddamn tragedy. The only way to make a story that uses Greek gods tolerable is to be just as crazy as the gods themselves were. And, dammit, that’s what’s going on here.

  You can read my longer gushing review right here, read a sample here, or just skip go and pick yourself up a very sexy copy of your own.

Jonathan’s 2014 Album of the Year
Nico Vega’s Lead to Light

  Nico Vega is a phenomenal band with a wide array of sounds, the best of which infuse protest-esque anthems with a kind of 80’s rock aesthetic. Hey, look at that—I’m pretty sure that string of words describing music actually made some kind of sense!

  While this album isn’t as diverse as their previous works, it’s still fun and probably a bit too danceable, as motorists on I-94 get to see every morning on their commute to work. My particular favorite in this batch is I Believe (Get Over Yourself), which you can listen to thanks to the wonderment that is embedded YouTube videos.

  Now, if you have been following Nico Vega for a while, there are a number of repeated songs on the album, which certainly is a bit cloying. But nonetheless, I still think it’s a good start if you have yet to get into this band. So… um… here’s a link if you want to do that, I guess?

Jonathan’s 2014 Movie of the Year
The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy

  Not gonna lie to you, everyone, but I love both of these movies to pieces. So allow me to explain my two-parter. I mean, it’s not like you really have a choice.

  The LEGO Movie is a children’s movie done right—it’s intelligent and treats its audience with a tremendous amount of respect. Way too many movies for children fall into the trap of “It’s for kids, so whatever,” and just throw cutesy characters around with only the most threadbare of plots. In other words, a lot of things for children believe that their audience is stupid and treats them as such. On top of that, due to supreme laziness, bodily functions pass for humor in probably 90% of non-Disney kids’ movies. Shockingly enough, The LEGO Movie bucks both of these trends by being consistently and furiously funny while also providing a plot that is as much a deconstruction of the “chosen one” narrative as it is a story about family dynamics that is relatable to its young and old viewers.

  One of the things that made me double-down on my adoration of this movie is that I finally got around to seeing Frozen. After being promised a pro-woman, anti-love-at-first-sight, oh-my-gawd-bestest-EVAR film, I was tremendously disappointed by the lack of just about everything I was promised. But you don’t need to read about that here; you can go here and read a much longer laundry list of complaints.

  Guardians of the Galaxy is what I have been waiting for since Star Wars crawled up its own ass and thought it was a fantastic place to start living. Guardians is just a fun, genuinely interesting sci-fantasy extravaganza that never takes itself too seriously despite dealing with the same universe-destroying MacGuffin that every space movie inevitably deals with. The script was rock solid and the chemistry in the cast (even when two members are entirely CGI) made every scene pop. And if that wasn’t enough, the action scenes and character development weren’t entirely mutually exclusive, creating a film which just felt like such a breath of fresh air in a medium that seems to forever be going in opposing directions of “plodding character drama” or “eye-stabbing visual effects wankery”.

  As a side note, 2014 was the year I officially stopped caring about anything regarding Star Wars, and part of that is entirely due to Guardians kicking so much ass. Another part of that is that, thanks to J.J. Abrams, I can’t go one fucking day without reading about how someone saw half a Chewbacca or whatever and how that’s totally going to fix the fact that the shitacular prequel trilogy is still canon.

  Whatever. The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy are all I need.

Jonathan’s 2014 Television Show of the Year
BBC America’s Orphan Black

  If you aren’t watching this show, you should drop whatever you’re presently addicted to and run to this one. On the surface, Orphan Black could be easily written off as a relatively generic sci-fi thriller—a woman finds out that she’s a clone and that there are a lot of other versions of her running about. Add a couple of evil-ish organizations hunting her and you can practically hear the collective shrug of indifference as we dive precariously toward Jean-Claude Van Damme levels of kickboxing-related silliness.

  However, the show is brilliant, constantly throwing out red herrings and new plot lines that keep everything moving forward in an engaging way. The myriad characters that are presented to the audience are all genuinely interesting and—most importantly—utterly human in that flawed way that makes fictional people seem like real ones. Siobhan Sadler, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy, is particularly awesome in her role as badass surrogate mother to the main character and her adopted brother.

  But the real star of the show, without a doubt, is Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sarah Manning as well as her doppelgängers. The range of this actress is tremendous, allowing the show to breathe new life into not only the nature versus nurture debate, but also the meaning of identity, gender, and sexuality as it relates to the individual and society. Seriously, this is extraordinary stuff, especially for a medium that shies away from this kind of long-game story telling.

  You can buy season one here, and season two here.

Jonathan’s 2014 AAA Game of the Year
Konami’s Metal Gear Rising (PC)

  The PS3 and Xbox360 version of Metal Gear Rising did indeed drop in 2013, but I got my copy of the game when it was released for PC in 2014, namely because Steam knows just how to make me buy a product (discounts… it’s always discounts).

  With frantic swordplay and ridiculous action, Metal Gear Rising is everything I want in this kind of game—challenging enough to make the player work toward mastering it, but forgiving enough to just kind of blunder through it if necessary. Once you get the hang of the mechanics, it’s a rewarding experience to just be a whirlwind of bladed death. The boss fights are adrenaline rushes of pure fun, and while the vocal tracks accompanying such tussles are a touch corny, they’re nonetheless a great way to invest the player even further into the onscreen chicanery.

  The low points of the game are the occasional unskippable in-game cutscene and goofy stealth sections. Also, the plot is a bit shaky, what with organ harvesting and mercenaries and other vaguely connected claptrap that reaches for profundity and falters a bit out the gate. Ultimately, though, who can really complain when it culminates in a hilarious battle to the death with a reactionary senator from… Texas, I think? I’d check, but it doesn’t really matter. Bad man is bad, go sort him out.

  Rising also does the one thing that a lot of games fail to do—it left me wanting more. And while you can say that’s a sign of bad design or too short of a campaign, I see it as a game not overstaying its welcome.

  Go a slice up a bunch of cyborg dudes, feel conflicted about it, and then ignore it because justice or whatever. Depth of plot is not exactly this game’s strong suit.

  Hopefully all these nice words will make Konami less angry at me for all those “mean” things I said about Silent Hill.

Honorable Mention: Ubisoft’s Child of Light is a gorgeous 2D roleplaying game in the classic console style. Retelling the story of Sleeping Beauty, the game follows Aurora, the titular Child of Light, as she works to recover the sun, moon, and stars so she can return to her ailing father. It’s a wonderful short story extremely well-told, although it seems to be in a bit of a rush toward the end.

  Also, Coeur de Pirate provided the soundtrack to the game, and it is flawless.

Jonathan’s 2014 Indie Game of the Year
Avidly Wild Game’s Our Darker Purpose

Our Darker Purpose

  So this was a really, really tough year for choosing what would be my indie game of 2014. And, to be completely honest, I thought that The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth would take the crown handily. And although it’s a really great time, I can’t really say that it’s my absolute favorite—despite logging in tons of time in the original as well as this one, it just seems a little… I don’t know… off, I guess. It’s just not doing it for me the way it did.

  A similar game, however, more than adequately scratches the rogue-like itch that the original BOI did. Our Darker Purpose, of which I have a longer review here, is a visually stunning game with a pitch-black sense of humor, both of which are in the vein of Edward Gorey. The challenge never really lets up, especially in the later stages—I do think a bit more balancing is in order to make up for some things, but I also like a game that sets a challenge and expects you to meet it there. Further, there is a distinct lack of bullshit gag items that waste the player’s time—while there are marginally useful items, everything works toward improving your chances of winning.

  The thing that really pulled me to ODP is the game’s lore. Every boss has a backstory, every faction has their own feel, and every secret room unlocks a chunk of the game’s meta-story. It just feels a bit deeper and more complex than it should have any right to be. I also like the fact that a major theme of the game isn’t scatological—I really don’t see the allure of that, personally.

  Finally, there’s the absolutely perfect soundtrack. ODP’s themes, from the haunting title track to the boss fights, completely nail the atmosphere of the game and are profoundly memorable. I highly recommend the soundtrack to this game.

  Long story short, if you like rogue-likes, I’m pretty sure you will find a lot to love about the game. And in the off chance you happen to be a part of Avidly Wild Games, I have a couple of ideas for expansions. For example, theater department. Call me.

Honorable Mention: Tom Francis’s Floating Point is a free game where you guide a little red dot around an arena of floating blocks using a grappling hook. It utilizes physics. It is fun. And it is free.

  And that’s all for now, friends! If you have any favorites, I would love to hear them on the old Twitter. Or my Facebook page. Or you can tell me your shameful secrets over here and no one will know but us. I don’t know why you’d want to do that last one, but hey, no judgments from me.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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