The Big Short

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The Big Short: uproariously exuberant entertainment, and a stridently unsubtle indictment of the industry that brought the world to its knees in the Great Recession of 2008.

The Big Short essentially tells the story of three different groups of traders who foresaw the subprime mortgage crisis years before everyone else did and proceeded to bet big against the continuing solvency of financial services industry.

Christian Bale engages in a customarily chameleon-like performance as the socially-awkward fund manager Michael Burry, whose painstaking attention to detail leads him to a realisation that the entire subprime industry is sitting on an untapped landmine of opportunity, leading him to spend almost his entire fund to short the market in the face of incredulity from his boss and his investors. The smug, bombastic bond salesman Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s actions and goes on the prowl for a willing hedge fund from which to provide the capital to make a killing off of the impending apocalypse. Said hedge fund is run by the cantankerous Mark Baum (an unusually angry-looking Steve Carell), who spends much of the film growing increasingly agitated by the fraudulence, corruption and general rot of Wall Street even as he reluctantly positions his fund to benefit from its impending collapse. A third group, an up-and-coming garage fund headed by two twenty-something millennial types, is also featured, with Brad Pitt in a significant-ish role as the fund’s paranoid, reluctant mentor figure.

It is a film on fast burn, flagrant in its disregard for cinematic conventions, a sometimes unwieldy, but almost-always funny mishmash of drama and documentary. Much of the humor derives from the lampoonery of Wall Street culture and a kind of schadenfreude deriving from the dramatic irony that the audience experiences when watching the stupidity and greed of the banks. Also brilliant are the frequent House of Cards-esque fourth-wall breaking cuts, in which characters address the camera to provide context for the events of the scene. Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, is a veritable scene-stealer – a keyed-up Wall Street shark type who obsessively works out and goes to meetings flanked by a yes-man and an Asian quant whose sole presence Vennett believes is proof enough of the mathematical robustness of his sales pitch – a kind of funnier, less psychotic Norman Bates.

They work surprisingly well lend an interesting layer of documentary realism to the film, reminding us constantly that this stuff actually happened, and that truth is often more humorously bizarre than fiction.

But despite its uproarious funniness and menagerie of eccentrics, The Big Short has real anger at its heart, like a cinematic equivalent to a Lewis Black rant. It dares us to laugh at the real stupidity and real greed of a Wall Street that precipitated a global financial collapse. And its documentarian sensibilities only serve to underscore the fact that people should be angry that all this stuff really happened, and it was in spirit, not an exaggeration. It’s not interested in bequeathing complexity to Wall Street – the banks, rating agencies, loan salesmen, the SEC – the elements of the teetering edifice – are all portrayed simplistically as greedy, bumbling or stupid. The over-eager Ivy-League grads at the investment banks, the orange-tanned, stripper-club-visiting Floridian mortgage brokers, the bovine, oblivious crowds of securities traders frittering away their money in Vegas, the prissy, fearful, self-interested matrons at the ratings agencies, the SEC officials sleeping with their rich banker boyfriends: The Big Short is interested only as portraying them as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a Mos-Eisley of overpaid shark-suits and their unctuous attendees. Say what you want about what that makes the film – but the Big Short pursues this depiction in full awareness of intent, and accomplishes its pedagogy in a chillingly effective manner.

But the film, to its credit, doesn’t extend the same treatment to its putative good guys, either. While we do root for our protagonists to profit off the imbecilities of Wall Street, that desire is tempered with the film’s slow-burning build-up to the ultimate hollowness of their victory. At the end of the film, with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers dead and the rest of Wall Street in free fall, our protagonists reap their profits, soberingly cognizant that they are indirectly benefiting from the plight of the world economy. They are profiteers off the apocalypse. Nowhere is this more accentuated in Carell’s character, Mark Baum, who, in the last scene, struggles with the moral weight of making the biggest trade of his career as the world crumbles around him – and finally relents, making the trade. At the end of the day, the drive to make money – that desire that seems to exist on a rarefied plane of motivation, amoral in its brute logic – wins the day, and we are left with characters who have won so much, but also lost a piece of themselves in the process.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 jenga towers

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The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna

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Road to Gehenna is an expansion to the excellent puzzle-philosophy game, The Talos Principle which I played and wrote about back in March of 2015 (has it really been that long?).

While expansions often fall into the trap of offering nothing new to the experience, Road to Gehenna actually extends the puzzle gameplay in fresh and surprising directions – despite not actually introducing any new mechanics.

To me, this demonstrates the true value of designing games from a systems perspective. Have robust, interactive systems with rule-sets in place – and you can combine and extend them in ways that the original designers might not have intended. This is the principle that propelled games like Minecraft and Portal to fame – and it benefits Road to Gehenna too.  The puzzles were devious, often deceivingly simple, and employed new permutations of interactions in ways that I never expected.

One of my favorite things about the game is just how pretty the environments are. As the player, you are alone in a lush, empty word of Greek and Egyptian ruins, which creates a contemplative mood that perfectly fits the game’s philosophical themes, and which makes the relative isolation tolerable, and even enjoyable. Road to Gehenna might actually have even better environments than the original, and these environments provide depth and complexity to the puzzling as well. My favorite is a map in which a giant ruined aqueduct spans a vast chasm between two peaks, which the player can actually walk across, and which is incorporated as part of the puzzle.

The plot this time is also surprisingly engaging – expanding the themes of the game in unexpected directions. As opposed to the first game in which the player was a lone software entity on the path to transcendence, Road to Gehenna introduces a pack of other instantiated entities, who have been imprisoned by the world’s deity figure, EL0HIM, for aberrant behavior of some variety. Imprisoned in a forgotten corner of the worldspace with only the ability to communicate with each other through an online billboard-type forum, they have forged a meager but thriving online community – Gehenna – trading interactive stories, discoursing on the nature of their existence, and even writing Buzzfeed-like clickbait posts (like “10 reasons I love Gehenna”).

The player’s mission is to free these entities in order to allow them to transcend into the real world, much like the original player character did in the base game. However, these actions have the effect of upending the little community, as its inhabitants are unsure about what will happen to them in the wake of their newfound freedom – leaving the safe but limiting surety of their imprisonment behind to face a wider but uncertain and frightening future.

The story is linear but told in bits and pieces, with narrative continuity serving as rewards for puzzles solved. The desire to know more, and to reveal the next story bit, provides the game with a brisk sense of pace. The narrative is also affecting, which is an achievement when most of it is told through a console. But each of the instanced entities has their own personality, their own sets of concerns and fears, but also a certain kind of courage in the face of an uncertain future. It’s hard not to root for them as they make their way into a brave new world.

Which is actually, perhaps, the game’s biggest disappointment – the lack of a crowning narrative reward – a non-ambiguous reveal of their fates. We are never really told if their transcendance was real or a lie, or whether their personalities live on, and whether or not what they created with Gehenna persists in that unknowable realm beyond. While such ambiguity might have had a thematic significance, I’d have liked a more sure answer to that puzzle, because I was expecting that reward for completing all the puzzles and getting all the bonus stars – which took a fair amount of time, without guides (mostly). But instead, the ending didn’t provide the sort of closure that I’d been playing toward.

But the ending (or lack of one) doesn’t derail what is an excellent expansion to The Talos Principle, one that so manages to feel fresh even without having new mechanics, with a strong aesthetic, and with an engaging narrative with well-drawn characters. I would have no doubts in recommending it to anyone who enjoyed the base game, although I would caution them to temper their expectations of narrative payoff a bit.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 hexahedrons

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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Reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki after 1Q84, one is struck by how much is different and how much remains the same.

Colorless is, in many ways, the antithesis of Murakami’s preceding opus, 1Q84. It’s much shorter, much more down-to-earth, less obstinately enigmatic, and has a greater (but still frustratingly lacking) semblance of narrative resolution. On the other hand, it’s not quite in the vein of Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart, either. There are definitely elements of unsettling magical realism that pepper Colorless, bearing striking similarities to the tropes employed in 1Q84 and his other more reality-bending novels. One could almost say they take place in the same mythos. But this time, these elements aren’t as central to the essential story that Murakami tells in the book.

Colorless, in fact, tells a compelling, surprisingly down-to-earth story, a tightly plotted narrative arc about a character who needs a strong dose of self-confidence, and who goes some way to achieving it through undertaking a pilgrimage through the remnants of his past. The eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki was once a part of an unusually close-knit group of friends until college, where they all abruptly abandoned him. Adrift and unable to form strong emotional connections after that trauma, he drifts through life until a catalyst in the form of a woman he likes convinces him to confront his past by meeting his estranged friends after years of separation.

Tsukuru is, in many ways, the typical Murakami protagonist, the introverted, introspective but self-sufficient Japanese bachelor with commitment issues. But Tsukuru Tazaki strikes a chord because his emotional disconnect stems from a surprisingly prosaic place – the trauma of abandonment and the resulting sense of crushing self-doubt. Tsukuru is colorless – his name, alone among his group of friends, does not contain a kanji associated with a certain color. He likens himself to an empty vessel – without a distinguishing trait or feature to offer other people. Murakami has always had a knack for illustrating the interior states of characters with simple but vivid metaphors, but with Tsukuru, Murakami has managed to exteriorise those images by having his characters talk them through in a way that feels much more grounded in reality than in his previous work.

But there seems to be a more significant distinction. Tsukuru’s character arc, as I see it, is really about growing out of the Murakami protagonist mold. Tsukuru is a Murakami protagonist by trauma and circumstance – rootless, itinerant, unanchored to other humans and society – but the entire book sees him re-establishing lost connections with people and with society. We see him cast away that studied otherworldliness and aimlessness of his past self as he becomes aware of that need for a persistent and positive human connection. And he comes to terms with his past in ways that are satisfyingly cathartic to him and to the reader. His life has been in cold emotional stasis since that traumatic incident of emotional abandonment – and now he can finally move forward and emote on a human level.

Which is why the ending to Colorless, while at first annoyingly open, is actually not a bad place to end, despite the lack of the simple resolution we, the readers, have been craving. Because Tsukuru’s arc is done. He has undergone that thawing and transformation, and has moved away from that rootlessness to a desire for rootedness. He is ready to join the prosaic world. Anything beyond that really is not important – whether he gets what he desires is secondary to the fact that he now truly desires what he desires.

While Tsukuru is no stranger to the uncanny and the mysterious – he does experience some trademark Murakami-style dream-states and unexplainable events occur around him, those elements seem peripheral to this central arc. Those uncanny touches, however, add that signature element of irreality into parts of the narrative. And it feels like Tsukuru’s arc is a bid to disassociate himself from the fount of the unsettling nature of Murakami’s magical reality. One could say that Shiro – the victim of those “evil elves” – was consumed by the elements of that magical reality because she was unable to cope with the changes and strictures of entering the real, grounded world. Tsukuru is, then, the opposite – the strong one whose psyche was cauterised against that world, but who continued to experience some of its effects until he goes back and reconciles himself with the past. Tsukuru, in a sense, has, rare among Murakami’s characters, escaped the clutches of Murakami’s menagerie of dream-states.

At least, that’s my interpretation. The thing about Murakami is that his better work can be enjoyed on multiple levels – on one level, as a joyous, flowing reading experience where the irreal and the hyperreal mingle together in an onrushing torrent of prose – and on another level, as a murky, imagery-laden plumb into the depths of another reality ajar from our own. How deep the rabbit hole the reader goes – is really up to them.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 railway stations

 

There But For The

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There But For The is a compassionate, often witty, and sometimes frustrating puzzle of a book.

Ali Smith is known for her love of words and wordplay, and the strangely fragmented title is already a word puzzle exercise left for the reader to interpret. The words “there but for the” is a truncation of the quote there but for the grace of God go I, which connotes, in its most secular interpretation, the idea that our fates are not our own.

But rather than attributing fate to divine whimsy, the book seems to suggest instead that our fates are inextricably tied to other people – hence the truncation that elides the mention of God, but retains the semantic significance of the expression by preserving its recognizable stem.

And the title cleverly encapsulates the key theme of the book. There But For The is a book about the connections, both tangential and profound, that tie seemingly disparate narratives and lives in surprising ways.

The novel is in fact composed of four narrative strands, each named after one of the four words of the title. Each strand is a vignette featuring a single point of view character, and each is distinct and standalone, but they are tied together by a single character, whose life and actions provide the connective tissue that binds them together.

That single character is Miles Garth, who, in the course of attending a particularly obnoxious dinner party, suddenly decides to ensconce himself in one of the guest rooms, and refuses to come out. As hours turn into days and then months, the story of his self-imposed imprisonment spreads throughout the country, and he becomes a minor tourist attraction of sorts, with people coming far and wide to camp out at the lawn and derive whatever meagre titillation or fulfillment they can get from the feeling of being associated with the event.

But the characters featured in the book’s four vignettes have a more profound connection to Miles, although those connections range in time and space. And it is through those stories that we slowly piece together the story of Miles and how he relates to the people around his life.

Smith uses the narrative hook of Mile’s story as a platform to launch into meditations on a variety of themes across the four vignettes: memory, isolation, loneliness, time, history and grief. Of the four vignettes, the second is probably my favorite. It features Mark, an elderly gay picture-researcher for a magazine who constantly imagines his deceased mother speaking to him in rhyme, and who spends much of the vignette thinking back to his past and reflecting over his childhood and romances as a gay youth.

Mark’s connection with Miles? He meets him at a theater performance and they bond over their diametrically opposed reactions to a cellphone going off a the climax of the show. Following which, Mark brings Miles as his companion to the dinner party in which Miles begins his bizarre self-imprisonment.

Probably my favorite sequence of the book is the extended conversation at that dinner party, narrated through Mark’s perspective: a fast-paced stream of discourse that adroitly paints scintillating word-pictures of its various participants, serving to gently mock their pretensions to culture by calling them out on their conscious and unconscious prejudices. The sparkling verbal dance interweaves with Mark’s own continuous interior thoughts about the dinner, the guests, slowly revealing the complex web of interconnections between the assembled guests. And then, in the midst of the contrived dinner, Miles up and goes to lock himself in the guest room, precipitating the entire sequence of events that acts as the book’s central narrative prop.

The other three vignettes are self-contained stories in their own right – featuring characters like Anna, who is befriended by Miles when they are teenagers on an overseas study trip, May, the dementia-ailed mother of a long deceased friend of Miles’, who he visits annually, and Brook, a precocious child with whom Miles forms a bond when he meets her at the dinner party. The vignettes are a platform for Smith to deliver thematic nuggets and other delectable fragments – from the banally clever to the profound. Smith indulges her love for wordplay through the stream-of-consciousness punnery of Brook; she meditates on age and loss through putting the reader in May’s faltering shoes, she expounds on the shackles that the past has on the present through Mark’s sympathetic but relentless pining.

Miles himself is presented as a character quirky and multifaceted enough to be at the nexus of these connections. He’s the quirky theatergoer with whom Mark forms a bond, the mentor to Brooke, the grieving but loyal millstone around May’s neck, sharing her grief over her lost daughter while his repeated visits reminds her of what she has lost, the only friend to Anna in her time of loneliness. Miles has special significance to all of them; he is the source of many of Smith’s pearls of wisdom. And it is through the mediating lens of his presence in their lives that they, and we, the readers, by extension, begin to apprehend them as characters and understand their thoughts and preoccupations.

In the end, we are never actually told why Miles did what he did. And initially, it can come across as frustrating when one reads to the end of the book and fails to achieve that catharsis that comes with understanding. But somehow, with reflection, the why of things, as in many of these kinds of books, is not as important as the what that they inspire. And the weird, complex web of connections that Miles’ actions create, both backwards and forwards in time and space, is fertile ground from which variegated and scintillating stories can grow, unfettered by the traditional strictures of narrative temporality.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 exercise bikes

 

Her Story

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Her Story is a highly innovative and experimental game that deserves respect and praise for pushing the boundaries of the medium, even if I felt that the actual experience of playing it was, to me, subjectively underwhelming.

Her Story is, in its essence, a game in which narrative is used as a commodity. There is a story at the heart of the game, and the player’s task is to piece it together. There is a database of transcripted fmv videos dealing with a missing persons case, and the player’s task is to piece together the story by entering in relevant words and phrases into a search box. If the video contains that word or phrase, it can be viewed, and from there, the player slowly accrues a greater understanding of the underlying plot, as more videos reveal more relevant words and phrases to enter.

It’s a short game, clocking in at about 2 to 3 hours at the most – the length of a film once all the gameplay elements are stripped away. It doesn’t take very long for the main mystery to reveal itself, as it were – but more interesting is the why. The game straddles between offering players certain answers and letting them draw their own interpretations from the evidence presented before them. It is this flexibility of narrative, this fine balance between one or the other, that is Her Story’s strength. It is the engine that powers much of the buzz the game has created.

Her Story’s design is compact but surprisingly elegant, and the simulacra of free-form database searching really gives the player a sense of agency. This is one of the vanishingly few mystery games in which the mystery isn’t telegraphed for the player’s benefit in order to maintain the pacing. In Her Story, the player needs to take the initiative to unravel the story – and that is much more rewarding than going through the motions and fulfilling scripted objectives unrelated to the sleuthing, in order to get to the next narrative bit. This is pure sleuthing – down to its raw essence.

That said, the game’s brevity and surprising lack of difficulty are the main stumbling blocks to its value as an experience. The gameplay after solving the essential mystery – the whodunit – is followed by diminishing returns. Once the player gets a good enough picture of the content, it is necessary to continue until a certain percentage of the content is accessed. After a point, the effort taken to fill up those missing videos comes down to trying out combinations of words and phrases in a haphazard manner. And once the player feels like they’ve figured it out already, which can come quite early on due to its lack of difficulty, that impetus to do so dissipates. The thresholds for different players differ, of course. Some players are content knowing only the framework of the story; others must obsessively find and watch every detail. Personally, I lean slightly more toward the former camp, and when I reached my own personal point where I was satisfied with the answers I’d discovered, I still hadn’t found enough videos to trigger the endgame, and thus, I began to feel a little underwhelmed trying to access the remaining videos I needed.

But that really is a subjective measure of engagement, and different folks will have different ideas over how much the narrative means to them, and whether the quality of the narrative is worth plumbing for every detail, no matter how banal. With Her Story the accomplishment is in Barlow’s ability to write and script scene snippets that work so well in the context of the game – careful writing was needed to ensure a smooth narrative flow, and that is no easy feat, given player agency and their propensity to try to break the game.

I’d say play it. It’s short, sweet, even if ultimately, it’s not feted because of the story it told, but because of what it meant to the medium – a game that showcased what games were capable of narratively: the ability to get the player to do work in unravelling the intricacies of narrative as a gameplay challenge.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 tattoos (that may or may not be a key word)

 

Wolfenstein – The Old Blood

wolfenstein_the_old_blood_coverWolfenstein: The Old Blood is a standalone prequel expansion to Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game that I played in the summer of 2014, before starting this blog.

The New Order (or TNO) was one of the best shooters I’d played in recent memory. Mechanically, the gunplay was responsive, visceral and satisfying, allowing players to feel powerful but not invincible. It was so good, in fact, that I went back and replayed vast swaths of the game’s levels just because I enjoyed it so much, and that’s something I don’t usually do.

But what elevated TNO from entertaining shooter to great game was its atmosphere, level design and narrative. TNO was a decidedly old-school single player only experience in a vast field peppered with multiplayer FPSes with paper-thin stories and on-rails gameplay. TNO managed to recall the glory days of narrative-driven single player shooters like Half Life 2 – it offered maps with multiple pathways of approach and multiple gameplay options. It had health pickups. It explored new gunplay mechanics – while Half Life 2 had its gravity gun, TNO had the LaserKraftWerk. It had great art direction – from intimate spaces to the insane, hypermodernist structures of Nazi-ruled Berlin. TNO  showed us a starkly compelling nightmare vision of a brutal dystopia ruled by Nazis – a morally absolutist regime characterised by wacky but sinister villains like General Death’s Head and Frau Engel, sure, but that was probably the point. The game wanted us to have no compunctions in killing Nazis, and it succeeded.

Conversely, it showed great care and sensitivity in dealing with the good guys as characters. In TNO, much effort was put into making them into compelling companions in the protagonist’s quest to topple the Nazi regime. Much like the characters of Half Life 2, they were interesting, compelling

Narratively, TNO was also a spiritual sequel to Half Life 2, featuring many of the same narrative beats. A famous protagonist wakes up after a long period of stasis in a dystopian nightmare ruled by entities that turn normal humans into shambling supersoldiers. He seeks out the Resistance and falls in love with one of their members, and seeks out the villain who made the dystopia possible in the first place. Many of the set-piece levels are also similar – sewer missions in which the player is attacked by robotic drones, river traversal maps, escape-the-occupied-city missions. But TNO doesn’t feel like a rehash, but an homage, a much-needed callback to better days and good old-fashioned – and importantly, narratively-justified – righteous violence.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood is, for the most part, an entertaining extension of the base game. However, the story here is a lot less compelling – probably because it seems so much more conventional – one part storming the Nazi stronghold, another part mowing down Nazi zombies – which doesn’t inspire quite the same sense of grandiose horror as the vision of the neo-futurist global Nazi empire of the base game. Old Blood tries to respin the old formula by putting in a few sympathetic characters – but for the most part, the dictates of game length and pacing mean that their character arcs have no space to blossom, and ultimately fall flat. As an example, Annette, a refugee you meet and protect for part of the game, pretty much tells you her whole life story in a dense exposition-laden package and expects you, the player, to care – but it doesn’t quite come off as anything but odd and stilted. But I can forgive the game for its narrative shortcomings, because it frankly doesn’t have much room to develop a compelling narrative.

Instead, the Old Blood focuses on a solid gunplay experience – extending the mechanics of TNO while introducing a few new ones, some better than others. There’s the pipe, which allows the player to climb rock walls and stab Nazis through the throat for yet another hyper-violent takedown option, but not much else. Then there’s the ability to turn Nazis into zombies in the second half by shooting their bodies but not their heads, causing them to turn on the nearest victim – usually another Nazi. This is actually quite fun, but not quite developed enough, and I wish some of the maps exploited this mechanic a bit more.

In terms of level design, the game isn’t as polished as TNO. The first half is marred by some genuinely tedious stealth sections, where the player is stuck just waiting for enemies to walk to the right places before advancing. In the second half, the game makes an attempt to borrow from Half Life 2 again, by placing the action in a zombie-infested town a la Ravenholm. But in this case, mowing down endless hordes of dumb shambling Nazi zombies, while fun at first, quickly wears out its welcome. Unlike Half Life 2‘s famous Ravenholm level, Wulfberg doesn’t have the same sense of creeping dread arising from the gameplay – the player is too powerful to feel fear from the shambling zombie hordes.

The final boss battle is also a disaster, and probably the worst part of The Old Blood. It involves taking potshots at a giant bullet sponge monster while fending off hordes of Nazi soldiers that idiotically shoot you while blithely ignoring the real giant-sized threat in the room. The set-up is nonsensical, the AI is ridiculous, and the sequence is just bug-ridden – at times, the soldiers simply hung in the air after being killed. It’s a ponderous, unsatisfying exercise involving a lot of downtime and irritation.

In all, The Old Blood feels like a fun DLC tacked on to a superior base experience, and is priced appropriately to that level. But I’d still recommend playing the original first, despite the fact that the Old Blood takes place before it in chronological terms.

I give this game: 3 out of 5 pipes

2015 Round-Ups

So here I am. I’ve written a year’s worth of words about every single book, film and video game I’ve read, watched or played over the past year (well, since November 2014).

I started this blog to record my impressions on this trifecta of entertainment options in an attempt to become more mindful of the things I consumed for entertainment. And this quantified consumption, so to speak, has helped me to understand and relate to those products better, by forcing me to articulate in words the things I thought or felt about them.

The process can make me feel like I’m being squeezed through a strainer at times, but it feels rewarding to look back and know that you have, through studious effort, maintained a robust chronicle of your thoughts and impressions. And every time someone tells me that they read a book or watched a film because I wrote about it on my blog, I feel a sense of gratification and achievement that I’ve helped someone discover something new to read, watch or play.

2015: A Retrospective

I’m indulging in a little accounting of my consumptive habits in the past year, just so that I can gain some additional self-awareness.

For various and sundry reasons, I wasn’t able to read or watch as many books and films as I would have liked in 2015, although I do think I might’ve played too many video games. But here are some of the numbers:

Fiction books read: 40

TV shows watched: 3

Non-fiction books read: 13

Films watched: 26

Video games played: 14

That’s 53 books, 26 films, 14 video games and 3 TV shows. Which is about one book every 8 days, one film every two weeks, and one video game a month, if we count from when I started 14 months ago.

I can do better. I need to diversify my reading, of course; more authors, more genres, more non-fiction. I’ve also been meaning to watch more classic films, rather than just recent releases in the cinema. I am quite well-covered for high quality narrative video games, however – it is in that single category that I feel like I’ve truly been able to appreciate the best the medium has to offer. As for TV shows – they’re incidental and I don’t make a habit out of watching them, although I have to say, I used to.

I’ve also been meaning to collate some more meaningful summary statistics in an excel sheet, but that’ll be a task for another day. I’ll update this space when I get around to it.

Top Picks

Here’s some top picks from the past 14 months, in no particular order:

Fiction

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (4.5/5 stars): I came late to this classic that expounds on themes of nostalgia, loss and mortality, amidst the disquieting setting of an alternate history dystopia where clones are reared as potential organ donors. Spare, naturalistic and melancholy.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (4.5/5 stars): An unsettling, acerbically-written psychological thriller that cleverly plays games with our expectations, and contains one of the best twists in the genre. A book about the artifice and artificiality of human relationships.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (4.5/5 stars) A fantasy novel set in an alternate but parallel fantasy version of China. Epic but intimate, beautifully written, and lush with allusions to history and myth, this is a book that reminds me just how much Chinese history has to offer to the realm of storytelling.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (4.5/5 stars) A graphic novel of uncommon range and boundless creativity, it tells a cleverly intertwined parallel narrative – one of Singapore, and one of an aspiring comic book writer named Charlie Chan. Wistful and slightly sly in its subversiveness, this is a must-read for any Singaporean interested in viewing our history through a unique, non-academic lens.

Non-Fiction

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (5/5 stars): A polemic, irreverent and ultimately thought-provoking work that tries to provide a unified framework for thinking about risk management. Enthralled me on an intellectual level even (because) I had so many points of agreement and disagreement with Taleb’s arguments.

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett (5/5 stars): One of the most lucid and entertaining philosophy books I’ve ever read. A bit misleadingly titled because it serves as a vehicle for Dennett’s ideas more than anything else, but excellent reading nevertheless, and a great introduction to theory of mind, phenomenology, cognitive science and complexity, among others.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (5/5 stars): An excellent and engaging book about how the mind works, by one of the most estimable and revered scholars in that field of research. Kahneman’s affability engages the reader and guides them through the theory and the evidence, and draws surprising conclusions and insights from his theoretical models. Full of wisdom and self-help potential.

Film

 

Inside Out (5/5 stars): The best film Pixar has ever made. This film has everything that makes Pixar great: creative premise, wonderful characters, moments of genuine joy and pathos, great music, and a profound wisdom about the workings of the human heart. A must-watch.

Mad Max: Fury Road (4.5/5 stars): Violently kinetic, brimming with atmosphere, and surprisingly progressive despite its simple plot and relatively flat characters. I was surprised at how good this film turned out, despite its present status as a rich source of quotable one-liners.

Birdman (4.5/5 stars): Unabashedly artsy and inward-looking, this film is nevertheless a joy to watch. Technically, it’s a marvel: an entire film shot and edited to seem like it’s one long, continuous take. It’s one of those films that gets people talking, speculating and arguing; an experience that lingers with you long after you’ve left  the theater.

Song of the Sea (4.5/5 stars): Simply one of the most beautiful 2D animated films I’ve ever seen. While made for kids, it has definite appeal for adults as well, in the lush art, the wonderful music, and the pure simplicity of the story as it wends its way through the heart of Gaelic mythology.

Video Games

 

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (5/5 stars): The open-world game to end all open-world games (until Cyberpunk 2077, maybe). The Witcher 3 is gigantic, gorgeous and varied. While the gameplay can get one-note after some time, the narrative more than makes up for it. It’s variegated, fresh, full of fully-formed and sympathetic characters and moral quandaries. The narrative elevates the game into a masterpiece.

Life is Strange (4.5/5 stars): A meditative, emotionally impactful game about growing up, set amidst a lush soundtrack and appealing, sun-dappled visuals. The game is simply a narrative experience unlike any other, managing to get you to care about the lives of its characters like few can.

Undertale (4.5/5 stars): For all its brevity, Undertale packs a complex and affecting storyline that has a powerfully disconcerting message about player morality. No other game except Life is Strange has gotten me to care so deeply for its wacky but compelling characters.

The Talos Principle (4.5/5 stars): A wonderful puzzle game in more ways than one. Beyond the (excellent) puzzles, the game offers an additional layer of narrative puzzles that dares the player to explore, question, and doubt the reality set before them, and reflect on the the themes of existence and faith.