I played some good games, watched some good stuff, read some good books. Here’s a look at a sampling of them.
There is no ranking here, no Top ____. It’s just me talking about things I loved.
Alan Wake II
Pardon me while I gush here for a bit. I played the first Alan Wake a couple of years after its release. I loved it–I loved the Twin Peaks influences and I felt, in some ways, it was a better spiritual sequel to Silent Hill than anything after The Room (which might seem strange, but the feeling of excitement I got the first time I played AW and the engagement was what reminded me of SH). I was so disappointed when the sequel was reportedly cancelled and disappointed but Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, but I followed Remedy’s games. I even went through all of Control and all the DLC just for little Alan Wake references (Control ultimately won me over, The Ashtray Maze was a thing of beauty). So I was as thrilled as anyone when AWII was finally announced after development hell.
I was not disappointed.
Initially, I did get a little nervous when everyone said it was clearly influenced by Twin Peaks: The Return (I’ll spare you a rant). But this game is what The Return SHOULD have been. To quote my first impressions from Bsky: “It’s joyful, it honors what came before while being totally new, it’s bonkers but still has heart…like, it’s not a soulless, misogynistic parody of the worst parts of itself. It’s amazing.”
Now, is it ostensibly about a white male writer who would rather dwell in a literal dark place than write his fucking book and requires a Black woman to come in and tell him to get his shit together? Yes. I think it’s also aware of this fact, based on some comments the game’s other lead, Saga, makes.
But it has varied gameplay so it never feels like a slog, unique mechanics, great pacing, really tense horror moments along with some great humour. There is love in every step of its crafting.
Also, there’s a musical number.
Seriously, an entire gameplay sequence where you run around fighting stuff/problem solving while a musical about your life plays in the background.
Sam Lake looks like he’s having the time of his life here. I was so thrilled by all its wins at The Game Awards. Richly deserved and I can’t wait to see where the franchise goes from here.
It also, for me, was a lesson in: do the thing you’re passionate about. Make it weird and uniquely you and love it every step of the way.
Killer Frequency is a clever story-rich first-person horror game set in the 80s where you play as a radio DJ who has to suddenly act as an emergency operator when a killer begins slashing his way through a small town.
It’s got all the tropes of a slasher movie with a unique premise, great voice acting, a catchy original soundtrack, and good replay value (I still need to do another playthrough to let everyone die and get that last achievement). It’s problem solving rather than combat and I’m not sure if there’s a demo but if it sounds like your kind of thing, give it a shot.
What do you get when you combine a musical with an RPG and also the most incredible voice talent ever assembled?
You get Stray Gods: The Musical
Laura Bailey! Ashley Johnson! Troy Baker! MARY ELIZABETH MCGLYNN!! Also Merle Dandridge, Rahul Kohli, and more! (There was, in fact, only one of the cast I don’t care for, but she really didn’t have much to do, thankfully.)
Grace encounters a Greek muse just as she’s been murdered, and receives her power. She then has to solve her murder. THROUGH INVESTIGATION AND SONG. The player’s choices during songs completely changes the compositions and alters the gameplay–it was really uniquely done and great for replay. There are also several versions of the soundtrack.
Granted I spent all my time trying to romance a sun god rather than solve a murder because I love Troy Baker’s voice and also he looked like this:
It was a shame it was snubbed at The Game Awards, but at least they’ve been nominated for a Grammy.
Technically I played this originally Dec of last year and I thought it was nice, got all the achievements, and then forgot about it.
At some point this summer, though, with all the medical stuff I had going on and the stress, I ended up pulling it out again and just…kept playing. Over and over. I have like eighty-three hours now. It’s not that it has anything new to unlock but I just…kept playing?
Unpacking is a story told through unpacking the main character’s things every time she moves, starting in her childhood in the nineties and as she goes to college, moves in with her boyfriend, moves home again, gets her first place on her own, etc. It’s clever and charming and I found myself really invested in the protagonist.
More than that, though, omg this was great for my anxiety. Waiting on hospital stuff, I would just replay it over and over and over. So shoutout to Unpacking, which got me through a lot this year.
This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I thought Forespoken was rad.
Gameplay was fun and glittery and the banter was silly and oh did I mention you make friends with magical cats who then come and hang out at your house???
It didn’t reinvent the wheel but very few games do. It’s an action RPG that was fun and didn’t deserve the hate it got–it was a great time and I’m disappointed there won’t be a sequel.
Because I want more cat friends.
I am a Barbie girl.
Occasionally people are surprised by this (you shouldn’t be, at this point, considering I’ve talked endlessly about Agent Cooper Barbie). But I love Barbie. I have always loved Barbie. Besides physically writing things, Barbie was my earliest storytelling method, and I entertained myself endlessly for years with my dolls. I still have them. I still collect them. I’m currently sitting here typing this in Barbie pajamas. Here is Shawn in my I Am Kenough hoodie.
I adored the movie.
I adored the sets. I adored the nods to Barbie lore. I adored the joy in it. I hope there is no sequel or spinoff because it’s wonderful as it is.
I wish I could have rented a theatre to watch it on the big screen by myself but had to wait for digital.
Very rarely do I feel like a movie was custom made for me, but this one is very close. The Depression Barbie commercial definitely made me feel seen because I, too, rewatch the BBC Pride & Prejudice over and over while depressed.
I don’t have any of the Barbie movie dolls but I want the blue/pink dress one there just because I associate her with the Depression Barbie ad. My only wish for the movie was that Barbie had a musical number like Ken did (and it sounds like there was supposed to be?).
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
I only started playing Dungeons and Dragons in April 2020. Our game, a homebrew by my friend Dina, is still ongoing–we’re level 10 now–and my charlatan rogue is chaos incarnate. I am really glad I play to get a lot of the references from the film, which was a delight. We got to incorporate Themberchaud in our game (he’s our new adoptee, after we convinced him to not eat us).
This is still one of the funniest scenes from the last year.
A perfect film about addiction to spectacle and exploitation. (If for some reason you haven’t seen it yet, go into it without knowing what’s coming. The less said here, the better.)
No One Will Save You
I saw some of the screenplay floating around Twitter and immediately put this one. A tense SF thriller with almost no dialogue, basically a single character, and finding new ways of using invasion/abduction tropes. Also a perfect ending.
The Last of Us S1
I was extremely happy with The Last of Us adaptation. Minor quibbles (it needed an extra episode to add some breathing room to the story) but it was faithful in the best ways to the heart of the game while doing some interesting new things. And I got to watch it live, livetweeting every episode, which is rare for me.
Poker Face S1
Natasha Lyonne is fantastic and I love Rian Johnson’s writing. Much of Poker Face is standalone, following the lead character unravel mysteries–and for a series that starts with revealing who did it to the viewer, there are still plenty of surprises along the way.
A pity about some of the deeply disturbing controversy about one of the secondary (tertiary?) cast members, because Beef was so fucking good. Some of the best needle drops in recent memory, the leads are wonderful, and just overall I enjoyed the hell out of it. I love messy, morally questionable people doing fucked up things but maybe finding one another in the chaos.
I just love all of them so much. I hope there’s eventually ten seasons so I can just binge over and over. I also really wish Aunt Judy was still here, because I think as an elementary school teacher, she would have really enjoyed it.
While I had HBO to watch The Last of Us, I caught up with a few things, and enjoyed the hell out of this. A young comedy writer is paired with an older comedian. Both are prickly and messy. Hilarity ensues. (Jean Smart is so good.)
The Horrors of Delores Roach
It’s really hard finding work as someone who did prison time, and rebuilding your life. Sometimes, you have to resort to murder and feeding human bodies to people, okay?
I’ve long enjoyed Justina Machado in things and that plus some cannibalism? Yes, please, give me a fucked up woman doing fucked up stuff.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds S2
I…think I like Star Trek? Kind of?
I watched TNG as a kid but that’s it. Never seen the movies. Picard was a hot mess. I only started watching Discovery (aka Space Queers) from friends’ recommendations and I love it, so I tried Strange New Worlds. The first season was fine, but the second? The second has some absolutely excellent mostly standalone episodes, the tone shifting from heartbreaking alternate timeline to trauma/war to…a fantastic musical, easily the best since “Once More with Feeling”.
The Fall of the House of Usher
The sheer rage at capitalism and the integration of references to Poe’s work really worked for me, atop incredible performances and a wonderful score. It’s not the kind of thing I’ll rewatch because “The Black Cat” as a story always upset me as a kid and really bothered me in this as well, but I appreciate much of Flanagan’s work and this was well done.
Some of these were late Dec 2022 reads, but I gathered them from my Discord server when I talked about them, so I’m sticking them here. (Note: I’ve read some really good books by clients, too, but I generally don’t post them here because I don’t want clients to feel left out if I forget someone’s book.)
My Heart Is a Chainsaw – Stephen Graham Jones
Both a love letter to slashers and a really beautiful book about trauma and what a community owes its children, I loved everything about it. It’s gory, with one of the most brutal climaxes I’ve ever read. I haven’t read the sequel yet, and I knew going into it that it was going to be a trilogy, but I think the ending–although maybe technically a cliffhanger–was perfect as-is.
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
I really love St. James’ books that I’ve read. This is one where I got worried it was going to turn into copaganda (which is common in mysteries) but it’s very aware of what it’s doing. The Broken Girls, like some of the author’s other books, combines dual timelines and paranormal elements to weave together a mystery. The supernatural complements rather than overwhelms the mystery, so even if you’re not super into paranormal stuff, it should still appeal.
Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins
I don’t want to spoil anything that happens, but this is a great thriller and if your thought process aligns at all with mine and you find yourself saying “I hope ___ happens”–yes, this book is going to end exactly the way you’d hope. I found it really fun and satisfying.
We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen
I have been desperate for really claustrophobic, weird SF horror, like a book version of Event Horizon. This wasn’t quite that but it was excellent and really stuck with me. Misanthropic psychologist who prefers the company of androids is stuck on a ship caught in a radiation storm where everyone gets paranoid and weird. The uncovering of the mystery, the way the puzzle unfolds, was beautifully done.
Salvation Day by Kali Wallace
This one was the kind of claustrophobic SF horror I was looking for, eerie and vivid, but it’s also an absolutely beautiful story about humanity.
System Collapse by Martha Wells
By this point, I think anyone who isn’t a Murderbot fan is probably extremely annoyed by everyone talking about Murderbot but…MURDERBOT. I did a series reread during my hospital stuff this summer as it’s a top comfort read for me, and the new book dropped this fall which is a great examination of trauma and coping except through the lens of a socially awkward murderbot.
Maeve Fly by CJ Leede
I needed this book. It is, without a doubt, completely over the top and depraved. I loved every minute of it. Maeve is not a good person and this is a horror book. Content notes for graphic violence and sexual violence (the latter of which is off screen but you know exactly what happens). Lester the Cat has an emergency vet visit but he’s okay. If you’re a horror fan, though, and a monstrous woman getting to be monstrous without apology or redemption appeals to you, check it out.
See It End by Brianna Labuskes
Labuskes is a go-to thriller writer for me. This is the third and final Dr. Gretchen White book, about a sociopath who solves crime. Her friendship with the other female lead is complex and interesting, and Gretchen is both hilarious and chilling.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
I finally caught up the same time a lot of people did this summer. The unfolding relationship between Blue and Red, the time loop, and everything was just as beautiful as promised. (Was I baffled? Yes, often! I have trouble with SF. But I also didn’t care, because I’d rather things under explained than over, and the heart of the book was lovely.)
Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher
I love Ursula’s horror and I loved A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. I can’t tell you why I kept putting off starting the Paladin books, though, except that people kept describing it as cozy, and other than cozy mysteries (like, that very specific genre; light, bloodless murder) that very word puts me off things so hard. But this has lots of decapitation and trauma. Please stop calling things cozy because I’m probably missing out on great books.
I’m sure I’m forgetting things. Time kind of blurs together for me. But this is a glimpse at the stuff I played, watched, and read, that helped get me through 2023.
I hope 2024 isn’t totally terrible.
Leave a comment with some stuff you loved too!
(Same vibes, let’s be honest.)