on Arrival

My wife and I are home, sick, again, as we’ve been all week.  It’s been a shitty week.

We just finished watching Arrival.  A few quick thoughts:

1. One of the problems of being parents who are afraid of hiring babysitters is that we don’t get to go to the movies as often as we’d like.  Which is why, of the 9 nominees for Best Picture, we’ve only seen Hell or High Water, and now Arrival.  I can’t properly assess how it will fare at the Oscars, but I can say this:  it’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve ever seen.  Even having read the source material beforehand, I was moved and astonished and amazed.  I will watch anything that Denis Villenueve directs from here on out, but I should also mention the cinematography, the sound design, the performances – I have nothing but praise for every aspect of the work that went into making this film.

2. It is impossible to overstate how being a parent can profoundly affect the way one absorbs popular culture.  And if you’ve seen Arrival, you can probably guess where I’m coming from; I’ll leave it at that.

3. It is also similarly impossible to see this movie being made in the same way, now that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.  Indeed, it is impossible to see a lot of alien encounter movies being made in the same way with Trump running the show.  One can only hope that we, as a planet, remain untouched for the duration of his term.

The Year That Was: 2016

Ugh.

I just don’t have it in me, you guys.  It was all I could do to recover from George Michael, and then it was Carrie Fisher.  And these celebrity deaths, while temporarily distracting, still can’t thwart the nightmare that is the impending Trump presidency.

And yet:  all things considered, 2016 wasn’t that terrible for me, personally speaking.  Yes, I am a bit more in debt than I’d like to be, and I’ve put on a few pounds (the “Suburban 15”, as I’m calling them).  But life in the ‘burbs is quite nice, and my kid loves it there, and my wife and I are as happy together as we’ve ever been.  My office moved downtown which makes my commute a thousand times easier (even if it makes the rest of Manhattan a bit less accessible); and my day job itself is a thousand times less stressful (for a variety of reasons that I can’t get into in this space).  If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t finish my album.  At some point I will have to figure out how to get into a creative routine.  But that’s for another post (or blog, possibly).


As per usual, I can’t crown a Best Film, because I hardly saw anything beyond the big blockbusters that lingered in theaters long after their opening weekends.  I can say that Dr. Strange, while not my favorite Marvel movie, is certainly the most spectacular 3D experience I’ve ever had this side of Avatar, if only because 3D filmmakers have finally figured out that interior depth is more intriguing than random shit flying into your face.  Rogue One is terrific enough to seriously upend my wife’s desired viewing order for our son, when he’s old enough to start watching Star Wars.  Hell or High Water was great – and did quite a lot to show a side of America that us liberal elites in our cultural bubbles don’t often get to see.  I have not yet seen Arrival (though I did read the short story it’s based on); nor have I seen Moonlight or La La Land or any of the other likely Best Picture nominees.


I listened to a ton of terrific music this year, and for that I have Spotify’s Discovery Playlist to thank.  I have a lot of issues with internet-based algorithms, especially as the ones on social media tend to ignore the concept of linear time, but Spotify knows what I like and gives me a lot of it.  I don’t know if I could properly order a Top 10 list of albums, but I know they’d include A Tribe Called Quest‘s “We Got It From Here…”, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard‘s “Nonagon Infinity”, Steve Gunn‘s “Eyes on the Lines”.  I have custom playlists for my Favorite Songs of 2016, my Favorite Songs from The Discovery Playlist, and I also have Spotify’s curated Top 100 Songs which is a pleasing mix of both of the above, plus a few songs we listened to in the car that my son likes.


As for books:  I did read quite a lot this year, though as said elsewhere in this blog I feel that the number of books doesn’t reflect their inherent quality; I read a lot of short genre fiction because I was feeling pressured to hit my Goodreads number, and so while I enjoyed a lot of what I read, I don’t know that I read good stuff.  I’m not going to be doing a Favorite Sentences of 2016 post, in other words, because page-turners don’t often include beautiful turns of phrase.  That said, I’m looking at my spreadsheet, and I gave high marks to a rather fair amount of stuff.  The best of the best would include:

  • John Wray, The Lost Time Accidents
  • Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
  • Daniel O’Malley, Stilleto
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me
  • Paul Tremblay, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock
  • Ted ChiangStories of Your Life
  • Nathan Hill, The Nix
  • Tana French, The Trespasser
  • J.M.R. Higgs, K.L.F.: Chaos Magic Music Money
  • N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate

Special credit to Drew Magary’s The Hike, which was an enjoyable enough read but whose last 2 pages provided one of the most stunning endings to a book I’ve ever read in my life.


And as for games:  boy oh boy, I have no idea how to write about this year.  I felt relatively unengaged with what I played throughout most of it – even as I finished a lot more games than usual – and then, probably brought on by a big of self-directed depression around my birthday in early December, I went on (and am still somewhat in the middle of) a gigantic spending spree primarily in an effort to boost my Xbox Achievement score past 100K.  The difference in my gaming attitude before this spree and after cannot be overstated.  I stopped keeping track of it in my spreadsheet, because it simply became too much to handle.

I don’t even know how to break this down, but here goes.  I’m going to separate the games I finished from those I did not, and I’ll leave some room at the end for all the shit I accumulated in December that I simply haven’t had time to finish/start/digest.

GAMES LEFT UNFINISHED, in roughly chronological order:

  • The Witness (ps4) – I’m just not smart enough to get very far into it.
  • Klaus (ps4) – I bought this because of a Kotaku recommendation, I think, and never got past the 2nd or 3rd level.
  • Broforce (ps4) – picked this up as a PS+ freebie and couldn’t make it past the first level.
  • Far Cry Primal (ps4/xb1) – I’d rented this earlier in the year and found it intriguing but also wishing it was freed from having to be a “Far Cry” game; then it was on sale for Xbox for a stupidly-low price and I decided to give it another shot.  It’s pretty good!  Still working my way through it.  I should also add that I also bought Far Cry 4 at the same time, also on Xbox, and I like that game a lot better the 2nd time around than I originally did.
  • Hitman (xb1) – I have played the first episode and liked what I played, but haven’t gone back to it at all since then.  I should also note that I finished the first episode with a walkthrough, because that is the only way I can play Hitman games.
  • Unravel (xb1) – a very charming but also fiendishly difficult platformer that became frustrating.  My kid loves watching it, though.
  • Ori Blind Forest DE (xb1) – I have every intention of finishing this at some point; I think I put it down right only because a bunch of stuff that will appear in the next category suddenly showed up.
  • Dirt Rally (ps4) – I love the Dirt games; it might very well be my 2nd favorite racing franchise behind Forza Horizon.  But this one did absolutely nothing for me, and I’m not even sure I finished the very first race.
  • Dangerous Golf (xb1) – possibly the most disappointing game I played this year, if only because it’s made by ex-Burnout people and there was a lot of fun potential.  The game simply feels like an unfinished and unpolished tech demo, with endless loading screens and finicky controls and cameras.
  • The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine – possibly my greatest regret of the year, that I haven’t finished this.  I actually went out and bought the complete Witcher 3 on Xbox One (even though I already own it on PS4) just so that I could replay the entire game again and then approach this specific bit of DLC with a fully-levelled and customized Geralt.
  • Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst –  I rented this on PS4 and found it dull and inspired; I downloaded it for free on XB1 and am willing to give it a few minutes here and there.
  • The Magic Circle – I’d heard interesting things about this when it came out for PC; the xbox port is kinda shitty and I lost interest.
  • Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens – this might very well be the last Lego game I attempt to play, sadly, at least until my kid is old enough to play without assistance.  I’m getting very tired of how broken these games are, always in the same ways.
  • I am Sestuna (ps4) – I would’ve played this more, I bet, if there’d been a Vita port.
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I made it almost to the end before realizing that I had to make a decision that I couldn’t have cared less about.  I think I want to give it another shot, though.
  • The Turing Test – I made it pretty far into this one before hitting the proverbial wall, sadly.  A pretty good puzzler, though, even if the narrative flails a bit.
  • Gears of War 4
  • Forza Horizon 3
  • Mafia 3
  • Battlefield 1
  • XCOM 2
  • Dragon Quest Builders
  • Dishonored 2
  • Watch Dogs 2
  • Final Fantasy XV
  • Steep
  • The Last Guardian
  • Stardew Valley
  • Dead Rising 4

That last bunch is all stuff that seemed to piled up all at the same time, most of which I’m still poking around with.  (I did send Dead Rising 4 back, though, because I don’t give enough of a shit.)  I’m not far enough into any of them to feel comfortable giving them a review, though I have every intention of giving all of them a fair shot.

I should note here that I still do not own a Playstation VR, and I’ve been checking every major retailer’s site at least once every few hours.  I need it.

I should also note that I did rent but did not enjoy Overwatch, and I will also note that my lack of enjoyment is simply a matter of personal taste – I suck at team-based multiplayer shooters, and I have no desire to learn how to play them better, and it is what it is.  I gather that it’s at the top of the lists for most other critics, and that’s fine.

GAMES THAT I DID ACTUALLY FINISH, also in roughly chronological order, including my informal scores from the spreadsheet:

  • Lego Marvel Avengers: C+
  • Firewatch: B+, and it’s only grown on me since I finished it
  • Superhot: B, and I would LOVE to play this again in VR
  • The Division: B, and I liked it a lot better than I expected to.  Never got into the PvP stuff, but that’s par for the course around here.
  • Quantum Break: C, the perfect justification for having a Gamefly account.  Spectacular to look at, and some of the time manipulation stuff is actually quite fun, but the overall experience was dreadfully shallow, the TV show half of the thing was super-dumb, and the final boss battle is one of the most frustrating I’ve played in years.
  • Ratchet and Clank: C-
  • Uncharted 4: A.  I understand there’s something of a critical backlash about this game at the moment, but I think that’s kinda shitty; I had a blast with this game, and if this is indeed Naughty Dog’s last run with it, they left on a very high note.
  • Doom: A.  I’ll confess that I finished this on easy mode, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of it one bit; I want to go back and play it on every difficulty, all the time.  This one’s stuck with me much more than I expected it to.
  • Trials of the Blood Dragon: C+.  I like the Trials games quite a lot, but the on-foot stuff was super dumb and broken and the whole thing felt rather uninspired.
  • INSIDE: A-/B+.  I gave this high marks after I finished it, but as time goes on I find the ending more and more… dumb.  That said, it’s still an engrossing experience, and one of the more engaging games I played all year.
  • Headlander: B.  Loved this game, and I should get back to it and try to 100% it (I’m currently at 88%).
  • ABZU: ?  I don’t know how to grade this.  I was not as smitten with it as I’d thought I’d be, nor did I find it as gorgeous as other people did.
  • Valley: B-.  There was an onslaught of intriguing indie games this summer, as you can see, and this one had some positive word-of-mouth.  It was… OK.
  • Picross 3D Round 2: A+, and one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played.  Has to be in my top 3 for the year; I couldn’t put my 3DS down for the entire time I was playing it.
  • Virginia: ?  I suspect I’ll need to replay this again and see if anything changes.
  • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare: B.  The grade is just for the campaign, of course, because that’s all I care about, and I’ll be goddamned if this isn’t one of the most fun Call of Duty games I’ve played since, well, Modern Warfare.  Had a blast with this, although it’s overshadowed by…
  • Titanfall 2: B+, and this would be the shooter of the year if not for Doom.  Hell, I might have to replay them both and see if this one gets the nod.

NOTABLE iOS GAMES:

  • Swapperoo
  • Train Conductor World
  • Solitarica
  • Reigns
  • Mini Metro
  • Human Resources Manager
  • Loop Mania
  • Sky Force Reloaded
  • Microsoft Solitaire (yes, really)

back from the break

Before I get into the vacation recap, I’ve got an update on my Vita situation.  It’s not good, though there is somewhat of a happy ending.

I came back to work this morning and saw what I assumed to be my repaired Vita waiting for me on my office chair.  But when I opened the box, I instead saw a note that said that the Vita could not be serviced because “it is not a North American product.”  I contacted Sony immediately thereafter, and quickly discovered that the Vita’s serial number does not actually exist in their records, and there’s no manufacturing region that it can be traced back to.  So then I looked at the order on Amazon, and saw that it was sold through a company called Tax Free Distributors.  The Sony customer service guy had never heard of them, and Googling their phone number turned up almost nothing usable.  I’m not sure what their deal is – they seem to operate somewhere in Nevada – but they sold me a fraudulent Vita, and I’m really, really pissed.

Amazon is getting me a full refund, which is great – because now I’ll probably wait for the Vita Slim, which is the thing I was hoping to get in the first place.

But the moral of the story is:  if you buy anything on Amazon that goes through that company, use caution.  Side note:  I left a scathing review on their feedback page and I can’t help but notice that a whole bunch of short 5/5 star reviews are going up really quickly, possibly in an effort to push mine off the page.


henryandme_beach

So, then:  I am back from the first real vacation I’ve had in maybe 3-4 years.  We flew first to Chicago for my great aunt’s 100th birthday and to see my extended family on my mom’s side.  While we were there, my kid took his very first unassisted steps, right in full view of everyone, and we caught it on video.

Then we flew to Naples, Florida, where we spent an absolutely beautiful week with my wife’s parents.  Many more kid firsts:  first time with a babysitter that wasn’t one of our parents (which went just fine), first visit to the ocean (he didn’t like it), first dip in the pool (he loved it), first trip to the zoo (I wasn’t there for this, but he supposedly liked it, even if he conked out towards the end of it).

I should also point out that the thing I was most concerned about – the actual flights themselves – were totally uneventful, as far as the baby was concerned.  He slept through the first two, and while he was a little cranky on the final flight, he did eventually sleep through the back half of that one as well.

It should also go without saying that this was not necessarily a relaxing vacation.  Don’t misunderstand – I loved not being at work, and I loved being out of the dreary NYC weather, and I loved being with my family and (especially) with my kid.  But that’s the rub – when you have a toddler, you can’t really stretch out and relax unless the kid’s asleep.

So, yeah – even if my Vita had been working properly, I probably wouldn’t have used it all that much.  Indeed, I was very nearly entirely game-free the entire vacation.  I did a few levels of Hitman Go on the iPad (which is quite good), and I did a few of the tutorial hands in Hearthstone (which is not grabbing me as much as I’d like, though I didn’t really give it my full attention).  But that’s about it, as far as gaming is concerned.

Did quite a lot of reading, though.  I can highly recommend Max Barry’s “Lexicon”, which I devoured in, like, 2 days.  I also finished The Pioneer Detectives (though it’s pretty short).  I also read through most of “Up Up Down Down Left Write: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism” by Nathan Meunier, which was informative and inspiring (if also a little overly cutesy with pop culture references and is probably geared for someone about 20 years younger than me).  Being that I’m slowly starting to branch out onto other sites, it’s good information to have handy.

We also saw some movies, too, at the absurdly nice Silverspot theater, where the huge leather recliner seats are reserved in advance and where they serve you booze; we saw Captain America (which was awesome) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (which was great, and which keeps growing on me as I continue to think about it).  Also:  I can highly recommend the theater’s Italian Mojito, which was delicious.


I’m back, now, and trying to get into the swing of things, gaming-wise.  Last night I dusted off my PS4 and tried getting back into Trials Fusion – I am now up to the “Hard” difficulty levels and all I’ll say about it is that it’s inspiring me to write a column about frustrating difficulty levels, and why I’m willing to punish myself with Trials while being utterly dismissive about Dark Souls II.  Also did some fooling around with Infamous Second Son‘s new photo mode; I’m not thrilled with the photos I took, but it does seem to be a pretty cool tool.

Mario Golf: World Tour comes out for the 3DS on Friday.  I love video golf in any format, and I loved the DS Mario Golf game, but I’m not thrilled with the reviews that have been trickling out of late, especially as far as the solo campaign is concerned.  Being that I’m somewhat broke for the immediate future, I’m probably going to hold off – or at least I’ll stick with renting it from Gamefly.

Beyond that, it looks like a quiet week, gaming-wise.  I’ve got some columns I need to write up for some other sites, though, so I do need to get caught up on the last week’s worth of RSS feeds…