Favourite music of 2021

Most appreciated shorts:

12. Unknown T feat. Potter Payper (prod. Sean Murdz) - Trenches

I don't have the stomach to really enjoy UK drill, much of which is so relentlessly bleak it becomes a bit monotonous (not to mention terrifying, although that's kind of the point). Grime MCs can be similarly heavy-going, but they are also frequently funny and silly, and drill evaporates all that levity away. That said, Unknown T operates at the poppier end of the drill spectrum, and 'Trenches' is basically a backward-looking straight-up rap track that appeals far more to my sensibilities. It's elevated particularly by a star-making performance by Potter Payper, providing a welcome counterpoint to T's flow by rapping with a booming voice and at a leisurely pace, showing that speed isn't always necessary to maintain energy.

11. Nippa (prod. TobiAitch) - Situation

Imagine 8701-era Usher over a Zaytoven beat, with signifiers straight out of north London. The innovation here is that while this sounds like the silkiest R&B from ages past, lyrically the laydeez are a peripheral concern. Instead Nippa is focused on whether his people will back him up if there's danger on the way. He's a seducer, but he's not after love, he's after recruits. For me, the crooning adds a frisson of homoeroticism to proceedings that makes the track even more special.

10. 5ever - 'Champagne'

This feels like three lockdowns worth of pent up energy released in one minute-and-a-half burst of the sugariest pop punk since Fall Out Boy sat under a cork tree. 5ever write about the years after you're done with school where you're not quite sure when your life will actually start – a situation made all the more relatable by our collective pandemic experience. But the band don't sound indecisive or adrift here, leaping straight into the chorus in a bid to get you singing along as quickly as possible. 'Champagne' recognises how difficult it can be to make an effort when the world is in stasis, and then it gives you a kick up the backside.

9. Facta - 'FM Gamma'

A rainbow road of vibrant melody brushed over a sturdy but understated beat that bounces you along. The joy of this is in the little sound effects littered throughout – a bit of bubbling liquid here, a burst of static there – all adding to the sense of a playful, cheerful mind at work. The title suggests the track is a celebration of the radio, and when those thronging high notes soar towards the end you can almost visualise the frequencies floating across the skyline, merging and harmonising together into a unified sound of the city.

8. Bad Boy Chiller Crew - 'Forget Me'

These lads sounds like a total nightmare to be around – like three Liam Gallaghers in their prime who've added cocaine and MDMA to their lager consumption. They know how to please a crowd though, on record as well as on social media (the crew first found fame doing Jackass-style videos around their native Bradford). This year's Charva Anthems is a big upgrade to the BBCC template – the group could afford to commission slick original hooks from female vocalists, which add a healthy dose of feminine pressure to their standard formula of hyperspeed back-and-forth raps about cars, birds, clothes, drugs and parties. 'Forget Me' has my favourite chorus of the bunch – being slightly mellower than the rest of the EP, although that's not saying much as the whole thing delivers on the promise of its title and is never less than anthemic throughout. If nothing else these boys are a reminder of just how joyous and wonderful baseline house can be, and they've done a service to the world by popularising it outside of its northern strongholds.

7. P Money & Silencer - 'Trouble'

Just your standard Silencer riddim – a UK garage-indebted beat sliced up with dramatic strings – and another virtuoso performance from P Money, who is simply the best skippy grime MC ever. 'Trouble' sounds like it could have been on 2009's classic Money Over Everyone except now P's going on about his 'Covid flow' and streaming games on Twitch. I guess we've all developed new hobbies over lockdown. Honestly it's just good to check in on these dudes and see that they're still killing it. That said, I do find P Money's lack of solidarity ("Had a ting putting in work / Left-wing politics meant I had to sack her.") somewhat dispiriting.

6. Tinashe (prod. Stargate) - 'The Chase'

Pushed up because this year's 333 is a great record, trying all kinds of different moods and genres and generally pulling them off. 'The Chase' is the big power pop ballad – booming drums and a soaring chorus designed to be blown out of cars or over rooftops. There's even a hint of a guitar solo squiggling around towards the end to add an extra layer of Guns & Roses grandiosity to the song. It's about getting over a relationship and feeling like you don't need anyone else in the world, and Tinashe makes it sound great.

5. Meridian Dan feat. President T & JME (prod. Sir Spyro) - 'Teachers Pets'

Meridian Dan is an earworm master craftsman. As soon as you come into contact with the hook you'll have it clanging around your skull for the rest of the day. He doesn't even finish it half the time knowing you'll be able to fill in the blanks. Spiro's minimalist beat gives grime legend President T plenty of opportunities to pause for effect (his signature move), but really I'm all about JME protective father energy at the end: "dad now, married and that / yard, garden, garage and that / why you want to war with the vets / especially now I've got more to protect?" You and me both, brother.

4. PinkPantheress - 'I must apologise'

I'll admit to initially being a bit suspicious about the nostalgic bent of this project – PinkPantheress starting out by reworking god-tier UK garage and drum & bass classics 'Flowers' and 'Circles' into vibey, laid-back rollers and finding an audience on TikTok. Her tunes slap though – you can't fault the craft on display. And the very intimate and authentic tenor of the vocals and lyrics do recontextualise these by-now ancient genres as something that can soundtrack the quotidian headphone moments of teenagers working through their feelings. Ultimately though I'm a sucker for this stuff and PinkPantheress does it very well.

3. Skullcrusher - 'Storm In Summer'

Last year's number one entry is back with a longer and less-perfect EP which is nonetheless still magical. The title track is a proper cinematic triumph, the arrangement beefed up with a full band and with its eyes set on being licenced for the credit roll of an epic romantic movie. Having garnered a fair bit of attention with her music, here Helen Ballentine is ambivalent about what has been read into it, and cautious about what more to reveal or obscure. The hesitancy in the lyrics is answered by the blast of the instrumentation. The outro keeps repeating the line "I wish you could see me start this storm". We certainly hear it.

2. Pale Waves - 'Tomorrow'

The Avril Lavigne worship begins with the cover and lasts all the way through the album's runtime. The whole thing is a pitch-perfect imitation, to my mind made all the sweeter by the band being from rainy Manchester. 'Tomorrow' is basically a 2021 version of Jimmy Eat Word's 'The Middle', if anything even more earnest in its lyrics and delivery, to the point where there's a slight anxiety that in their performative solidarity the band haven't accidentally outed the named characters in their various struggles (if he exists, the Ben in "Ben I know that you love a boy!" might be a bit miffed to have the fact included in a pop song). These minor dissonances aside, the song is a glowing feelgood paean for inclusion targeted at all the misfits in the world. Very uncool but hugely heartwarming.

1. Arm's Length  - 'Eve (Household Name)'

Emo in 2021 in rude health judging by this short release – all six tracks are absolute bangers. The Hotelier's Home, Like NoPlace Is There is the foundational influence on these teenagers from Ontario, Canada, who've somehow sharpened their songs into tight packages of soaring hooks and carefully deployed melodic howls despite never actually having played a show. The lyrics are too convoluted for their own good (what does "I'd rather have bad luck than none" actually mean when you think about it?), but it kind of doesn't matter. They're probably just angry at their parents, which is an inexhaustable theme for a young punk band. 'Eve' is faster and poppier than the rest of the songs on the EP, with an intricately lovely opening riff and a collosal sing-along chorus. Life-affirming every time you throw it on, and a testament to the enduring power of guitar-based pop music.

Chill long-players also appreciated:

Lucy Gooch - Rain's Break EP
Proc Fiskal - Siren Spine Sysex
Erika de Casier - Sensational 
Joy Orbison - still slipping vol. 1

Old emo things newly appreciated:

Knuckle Puck - Copacetic
Into It. Over It. - Proper
Pinegrove - Cardinal
Jimmy Eat World - Clarity


My year in lists 2021

There is less to list this year so I've consolidated films, books and games into one big post. Having done these end of year accounts for a while, it looks like I've continued to lose interest in films and books while trying to expand my knowledge of games. The below is ordered roughly by preference.


I did manage a couple of trips to the cinema this year – of which the experience of Dune at an empty screening at my local indie beat the classics I saw at the BFI Southbank and the Prince Charles. The links below go to what I've managed to write about on here, but I've also set up a Letterboxd account where I jot down stray thoughts. The platform has been a good way to find new things I'd want to watch, alongside the weird and wonderful items discussed in the Savage Beast podcast (the best film podcast).

Denis Villeneuve - Dune

John Fawcett - Ginger Snaps [link]
Olivia Wilde - Booksmart [link]
Robert Eggers - The Lighthouse [link]
Anthony Minghella - The Talented Mr Ripley
Michael Mann - Heat [link]
Kathryn Bigelow - Point Break
Rob Reiner - A Few Good Men [link]
Boots Riley - Sorry To Bother You
Akira Kurosawa - Drunken Angel [link]
Kenji Mizogouchi - My Love Has Been Burning [link]
Russell Mulcahy - Highlander 


I got a bit sick of reading science fiction after finishing off Gene Wolfe's 'Solar Cycle' – he's one of my favourite authors but I really needed a break after 12 books. I picked up some contemporary fiction (by women for a change) as a bit of a palate clense, and there was enjoyment to be hand. Having avoided non-fiction for most of the year, I tore through some slim but potent pamplets on politics and culture in the winter months. The links below go to reviews on Goodreads, where I tend to write up most of the things I read even though the site is a bit garbage. I'm poking around Storygraph here, but while I like the data there's less of an emphasis on reviews, so I'm not sure how much I'll persist with it. 

Felipe Pepe (ed.) - The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games [link]
Dan Ozzi - Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994–2007) [link]
Kit Mackintosh - Neon Screams: How Drill, Trap and Bashment Made Music New Again [link]
George Orwell - The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius [link]
Roger Scruton - Conservatism: Ideas in Profile [link]
Christopher Bigsby - Viewing America: Twenty-First-Century Television Drama [link]
Mark Bould - The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture [link]

M. John Harrison - The Course of the Heart [link]
Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness [link]
Ursula K. Le Guin - The Tombs of Atuan [link]
Sally Rooney - Conversations With Friends [link]
Anne Carson - The Beauty of the Husband [link]
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah [link]
John Crowley - Little, Big [link]
Poul Anderson - The Broken Sword [link]
Raymond Chandler - The High Window [link]
Susanna Clarke - Piranesi [link]
Gene Wolfe - The Book of the Short Sun [link] [link] [link]

Dan Schaffer - The Scribbler [link]
Joseph Michael Linsner - Angry Christ Comix [link]


Gaming is still where I'm mostly at though. Last year I exclusively played CRPGs, whereas this year I branched out a bit and tried an adventure game, some puzzle games, an action-platformer and a JRPG for the first time (all on the iPhone). My heart is still set on the CRPGs genre however – the New Vegas playthrough that stretched over the winter months and into spring was in aggregate the most transcendent experience of media I've had in a very long time.

Obsidian Entertainment - Fallout: New Vegas [link]
Larian Studios - Divinity: Original Sin 2 [link]
Firaxis Games - XCOM: Enemy Within
Konami - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night [link]
Valve - Portal / Portal 2
Square - Chrono Trigger [link]
Playdead - Inside
Capybara Games - Grindstone
thatgamecompany - Journey
Double Fine Productions - Day of the Tentacle Remastered [link]
ConcernedApe - Stardew Valley


Ginger Snaps

What if a teenage girl got bitten by a werewolf? The metaphor is usually used to explore the bestial nature of adult men and the (sometimes sexual) violence they are capable of. That's present in Ginger Snaps as well, but the focus is shifted to girls hitting puberty – the lunar cycle explicitly linked to the menstrual cycle. Ginger becoming a werewolf drives new urges – to snog boys, smoke dope, fight bullies and ultimately to rebel against her family.

But that's only half of it. Ginger isn't really the main character – her younger sister Brigitte is, and the film is about their relationship and their toxic family environment. The two sisters are incredibly close, they have no friends and they are obsessed with death – perhaps as a fantasy of escaping their cloying family and dreary town. But Ginger is the instigator of their disturbing reiterated suicide pacts, and her lycanthropy only extends her control over Brigitte. In trying to manage her sister's transformation, Brigitte has to upend this power imbalance. She loves but is terrified of her sister, even before her werewolf problem. The final shot of the film tries to capture that very mixed emotion, as Brigitte finally gains her freedom.

But really the most moving part of the film happens earlier. For much of its running time, the mother is a source of brilliant comic relief. Her daughters find her attempts to engage with their problems ridiculous – even though the advice she gives (and that of the cheery school councillor) is eminently sound. Teenagers having to talk to adults about sex is always embarrassing, and displacing that with becoming a werewolf just highlights how out-of-touch parents might come across. But there's a great turn towards the end of the film, where the mother rallies around and chooses to sacrifice everything for the sake of her daughters, no matter what they've done. Brigitte accepts her help but is kind enough to say that it's not her fault. And then the mum says that it is, and apologises.

They are both right – Ginger is obviously out of control, but a parent shares some responsibility for their children's behaviour, even when they are doing their best. Despite baking the cakes, being supportive and making an effort, the mum has failed to nurture her daughters. She hasn't found a way to relate to them that can arrest their (self-)destructive behaviour. That's a tough lesson to absorb, and yet she does it and is determined to keep trying. That steely determination to stand by your children in the face of failure is admirable and very touching.


My Love Has Been Burning

A very didactic feminist film from Mizoguchi – starting out with a statement from the filmmaker to the audience dedicating it to women seeking freedom around the world. In 1949 the sentiment may have been provocative, but today the lectures about human rights land like platitudes.

The film still has the power to shock, however. Mizoguchi doesn’t flinch from depicting the physical and sexual brutality inflicted on women who are basically sold into slavery or are imprisoned. That sequence, which comes midway through the film, has an almost mythic quality – where the radical leader and his followers wait in the woods like Robin Hood and his merry men while our heroine sneaks into the workhouse to witness its horrors.

That's a far more powerful moment than the subsequent domestic drama where we discover that the politician we thought was on the side of women's emancipation is a cad, and an elitist one at that. The film ends on an idea of solidarity between women of different classes, committed to educating each other and dreaming of a better world while male politicians advance their careers and leave them behind. It's a well crafted statement, but the characters remain little more than vehicles for ideas, and ultimately I don't find Mizoguchi’s firebrand activism as moving as Ozu's contemplative quietist studies of the burdens of familial obligation.


Divinity: Original Sin 2

Although this game has a reputation for having a wacky Discworld-esque tone, the overarching plot goes to some dark and heavy places. The path to divinity is covered in blood – gaining and maintaining power necessarily involves war and murder on a grand scale. The game’s bad guys do terrible things, but it’s all in the cause of averting even more terrible things from happening. There are no good options really. To govern is to choose between horrors. 

The original sin of the title does not refer to the burden humanity lives with for disobeying god. The gods are the original sinners, destroying their own race to acquire power and worshippers. The creation of different creatures in their image is not an act of benevolence, but selfishness. Our souls are food. We are farmed animals with the illusion of freedom. The game sets you up to escape this false consciousness and follow in these footsteps to godhood. And it has you killing things every step of the way.

Combat really is integral to the game – there aren’t many peaceful options like in other RPGs. Thankfully combat is the USP of DOS2. Things like elevation, positioning, environmental effects and objects on the map significantly affect each encounter. Winning a fight isn’t just down to the items and abilities you use, but how these interact with elements in the arena. The range of options and tactical possibilities are extraordinary, and pretty daunting when you are starting out. But DOS2 rewards you for understanding its systems and figuring out its exploits.

Although the combat borrows ideas from immersive sims (barrels of various dangerous materials you can move around and blow up, for example), the game is not actually that immersive. Where the developers had to choose between realism and keeping the play as engaging and challenging as possible, they pick the latter. For most people, that's probably the correct choice, but it does make the artifice very apparent, and for me that has downsides. 

The best example is the way the game maintains its difficulty curve all the way through its runtime. Most RPGs get easier as the player amasses more experience and better items. The more side quests you do, the more overpowered you become. In DOS2 on normal difficulty, you have to go everywhere and fight pretty much everything in order to get enough experience and levels to keep up with your enemies, and if you’re not a completionist like I am you will fall behind. Thankfully the fighting is never dull and most of the storytelling is not embarrassing. But it's still a pretty relentless XP farming treadmill to have to keep on. In fairness to the developers, the explorer difficulty setting seems to be designed for players who prefer to have that more traditional RPG experience, where you can pick and choose what you do and still make it through the game.

A more prevalent point of dissonance is equipment, which is assigned a level and gradually loses its utility as you encounter stronger enemies. If you’re not constantly upgrading, again, you will fall behind. Although there is a slight justification for the low-level items at the beginning and the OP ones at the end (you start off in a prison and end up in the literal city of god) it doesn’t really hold together. There’s no reason why Orivand’s mace should be so much weaker than Lothar’s hammer. It just is because it’s in Act 1. In a more freeform RPG like Fallout 2 the journey from periphery to centre makes the shift from pistols to laser weapons feel more consonant.

Those older games also provide opportunities to sequence break and acquire awesome loot early. In Baldur’s Gate you can get the best long sword in the game outside the first dungeon. It’s a tough fight and you have to throw everything at it, but the treasure you get as the reward is very satisfying. In DOS2 every bit of loot you find has an expiration date, which devalues the satisfaction you get in acquiring it. I actually kept the level 2 Gloves of Teleportation on Fane all the way through to the final fight, but I really shouldn’t have. The game doesn't encourage a sentimental attitude to your stuff. To be fair, again the developers seem to have thought about this and added an optional mod allowing existing items to be upgraded for a price, which would significantly reduce the amount of inventory management required to keep your party battle-ready. 

Rivellon itself never feels like a coherent place in the way that the Sword Coast or the Fallout universe does, where the player is a small part of a big world with its own dynamics and developments. DOS2 trades in the more traditional linear hero's journey narrative for a tangle of storylines akin to something like Game of Thrones, where your party turns out to be at the centre of every web of intrigue. You don't exist in the world, the world exists for you.

It's a big game, with so many plot strands to pursue that it becomes a struggle to really care about any one of them. Characters like the Shadow Prince, who would be the overall villains in a different game, are met and dispatched very quickly and are used to tie together several arcs in quite an artificial way. With so much stuff happening, the individual story beats lose their impact, even though most are actually well-written. Sebille's romance is unexpectedly sweet. She ends up trusting you enough to teach you the magic that turns her into a slave – an apt metaphor for how love is about being comfortable with your vulnerabilities around another person. Lohse's quest to rid herself of the demon in her head has well-observed overtones of an abusive relationship. And Fane's resolve to document the world with a sense of wonder unavailable to its inhabitants is quite touching.

All of these moments are buried under an avalanche of game-spanning narratives involving a heap of not very distinctive factions, all of whom – elves, dwarves, lizards, magisters – are planning or committing atrocities of one kind or another. By the time you get to the ending slides, it's difficult to care about the fates of these people or places, whereas in a good Fallout game that would be one of the highlights. The politics of this world is just great power competition, which you can put a stop to in order to fight an extra-dimensional Satan figure. The choices are not very interesting, and neither are the results. The game doesn't really pass judgement on your actions. It's for you to reflect on the power you've gained, and whether the mayhem and murder along the way was worth it.

All of this nitpickery is an attempt to justify why I've not fallen head over heels for a CRPG that by general consensus is one of the best things to play right now. Because the play really is exceptional. A DOS2 fight is more stimulating than the complicated rock-paper-scissors nature of a Baldur's Gate 2 encounter – which at higher levels is just about buffing, debuffing and countering the enemy's immunities. Encounter design in DOS2 is better than anything else out there. The variety never lets up, and while there are duds (those respawning necrofire lizards in Act 4 are a pain), generally every battle is a new puzzle that's a joy to solve. And yet ultimately I still care more about the fate of the world in Fallout and my character's story in Baldur's Gate. Those games are intellectually and emotionally richer than DOS2, where the writing is serviceable and mostly serves to get you to the next brilliant bit of combat.


The Lighthouse

Going into this I expected another example of the “is it all a dream?” film, where realistic and fantastic interpretations are equally weighted and you get to pick what you prefer. At its best, like in Pan’s Labyrinth, this is just the opening part of a broader argument about the origins and purpose of myth-making. The Lighthouse doesn’t have such big ambitions. In fact, whether what we’re seeing is real or not doesn’t really matter. It’s like asking whether the action in Waiting For Godot or Blue Velvet is real. The film isn’t about what’s going on in the character’s heads but what's going on in our heads. It presents a metaphor, whereas Pan’s Labyrinth is about the creation of metaphors.

And while the mythological and psychosexual accoutrements provide some interesting visual cues, at its heart the film carries forward The Witch’s exploration of the evils of authoritarian patriarchy. Interestingly, although couched in familial (and psychoanalytical) metaphors, the oppressive relationship here is an economic one, where Daniel Defoe is the worst boss in the world, and where Robert Pattison’s final descent into madness is precipitated by the arbitrary withholding of wages.

One wonders why Eggers is so interested in unearthing these historical examples of religious or workplace tyranny – the echoes of which are slowly fading in the modern world. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of how truly awful the past was. Eggers’s young heroes endure extreme emotional abuse at the hands of their elders and are driven to strike dark bargains, or just to strike out, in order to escape their hopeless situation.

The contents of the knowledge that Pattison gains at the top of the Lighthouse isn't as important as the fact it was kept from him for no reason. Whether it's fire, or sexual awakening, or knowledge of good and evil, the rebellion of the young against the patriarch does not end the pain of existence. The seabirds, old souls representing the ideological remnants of the old order, remain to peck away at whatever freedom is carved out from overthrowing your masters.


Day of the Tentacle

The first adventure game I've played (it's a year of gaming firsts for me). This one was cute but it did make me feel stupid a lot of the time. Some of the time it made me feel clever. And some of the time I felt frustrated because adventure game logic is not real-world logic and certain things that should solve puzzles just don't because the creators didn't think of them that way. My experience was of a lot of dead ends and bewilderment when I looked up the solutions. The logical leap required to get the horse's dentures for example is just wild – like, how were you supposed to get that??

Day of the Tentacle's innovation is to use time travel as a puzzle mechanic. You control three characters that are transported to three different eras within the same building, and getting them back together requires collaboration across the past, present and future. The most fun you can have in the game is changing history for your own trivial reasons – from having the US constitution mandate that every basement should have a vaccum cleaner to turning the American flag to a windsock. Some of the puzzles that involve depositing items in the past so they can be dug up and used in the future are also particularly satisfying.

The game is very funny, in a wacky Cartoon Network sort of way. There aren't very many pure dialogue puzzles in the game – conversations are an avenue for humour and your dialogue options are usually just a choice between different jokes you can make. The animation is beautiful and the voice-acting is pitch-perfect. It's a very charming game – and the remaster (which I played on my phone) is a labour of love. Although I had a hard time playing it, it feels like a great entryway into the genre. The genre just might not be for me.


Chrono Trigger

The first JRPG I've played (unless Pokemon counts) and I went for the best one of all time – a unique collaboration between the developers of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which I understand are the two pivotal series in the genre. Although western RPGs and computer RPGs probably aren't quite synonymous, I find it a useful shorthand when contrasting them with their Japanese cousins, which were developed with the limited capabilities of consoles (and a younger, less tech-savvy audience) in mind. While WRPGs could rely on computer processing power to dramatically expand the scope of game mechanics, side quests and player choice, JRPGs streamlined everything to fit on a cartridge, and you get a much more linear experience. The stories can still be epic and the characters you meet might still be interesting and well-rounded, but the role-playing element is refined almost to non-existence (beyond the strange convention of being able to rename your player characters).

That's ok though. Games don't have to be complicated to be good. Chrono Trigger's battle system isn't quite as pared down as a Pokemon fight, but you don't need a Dungeons & Dragons manual to make sense of it either, and that sweet spot is appealing. The game innovates in having encounters occur within the map, rather than on a separate, abstracted battle screen – and positionality is of some (albeit minimal) relevance. You have a menu of attacks, special attacks, buffs, consumables and healing to chose from, and the different members of your party will allow you to use different combinations of these. This is probably where the most player choice is exerted in the game. A different party make-up will change the experience of your play-through, although this is still only a matter of degree. My biggest irritation with the game was that battles were not fully turn-based – there is still a timer forcing you to make decisions under pressure, and when playing with touch controls on a phone that just leads to you making stupid errors that make you feel bad. 

Thankfully the fights are by and large pretty easy. You get huge sums of money relatively quickly and consumables will tide you over in most dungeons. Bosses have their gimmicks and once you figure them out it's quite satisfying to beat them, although some may require you to change your party load-out in order to do so. The game doesn't really have random encounters so progression is finely tuned to the point where grinding isn't really necessary. Levelling is quick and the typical RPG dopamine hits of learning new special moves and finding cool treasures are very regularly administered. In my play-through, I decided Chrono would just bring his girlfriend and best friend along, so I had a physical attacker, a healer and a damage-dealing mage crush everything in their path. The biggest tactical breakthrough for me was discovering just how overpowered Marle's haste skill is, giving her two turns for every enemy's turn and allowing her to heal the party faster than they were attacked. Lavos is supposed to be a Galactus-level threat to existence, but my three teenagers stomped them in one go.

Chrono Trigger's story is as elegant as its progression. Chrono is a blank slate who never speaks, but in the course of the game he pairs up with a group of sweethearts and oddballs with their own little short stories. Almost every character is painted with a streak of melancholy – Marle has a strained relationship with her overbearing father, Lucca feels guilty for her mother's accident, Frog has to recover his self-confidence after the death of his mentor, Robo has to strike out on his own after being rejected by his community. Resolving these inner conflicts require acts of kindness and encouragement that are deeply affecting. They also create a sense of this group of NPCs as an actual gang of friends taking on the world and overcoming its darkest features. Other aspects of the game's characterisation are less successful – Ayla is little more than a female Conan the Barbarian and the evil queen manifests basically every evil villain cliche. It is in the exchanges within the player's party that the game's emotional pivot points are found. They are what secure its legacy.


Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Picked up this legendary game on iOS for £3 and it’s worth it even if you have to make do with touchscreen controls, which will never be as intuitive as having actual buttons to mash. Thankfully, Symphony of the Night is pretty easy as action platformers go, thanks to the introduction of RPG mechanics like levelling, consumables and a massive variety of equipment that make you more powerful as you progress, as well as allowing for a certain amount of player expression in terms of builds you can use.

That said, as with a lot of RPGs the hardest part is the beginning. You start off with your endgame equipment, which is then quickly taken away and you have to scramble around in the early areas of the castle finding basic swords, shields and armour to survive. I didn’t really understand the process of saving or using secondary weapons, which made the game feel far more frustrating than it actually is. Once you know what you’re doing and have beaten the first few bosses the world becomes your oyster.

Symphony of the Night is one of the most famous examples of a game that gates areas by equipment and abilities, so rather than progressing in a linear fashion through levels, you are constantly exploring a giant map, and doubling back through old areas to find new pathways and treasures. At several stages, you have a choice of what to explore next, and you can check out early by beating the main boss of the castle, although that doesn’t give you a very satisfactory ending. The game is designed to reward exploration – only by unlocking its secrets do you get the full story (meagre as it is).

You also get a huge amount of extra content. The biggest trick Symphony of the Night pulls is to reward the player who has explored every nook and cranny of the castle with a whole other one to play in. Granted, it’s just the same castle turned upside down, but there is still a heap of new enemies and equipment to discover. It’s not quite a doubling of the game’s runtime, but it’s close. And that moment of revelation is a powerful one.

Unfortunately, the inverted castle doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Large portions of it are only accessible through flying, which isn’t a particularly enjoyable way to traverse new areas. It’s pretty obvious that the developers didn’t design the map to work effectively when it’s turned upside down – plenty of platforms are just out of reach of your double-jump, which is frustrating. The inverted castle is also far more hostile than the game thus far would lead you to expect. The power curve is very effectively reset, but at the beginning you are reliant on using your mist form (which makes you invulnerable) to bypass certain enemy-filled corridors until you gain enough levels and endgame equipment to navigate properly, which is again, not very satisfying.

The RPG elements save the day in the end. If you explore enough you will find enough health, armour and weapon upgrades to give you the resilience to survive. The bosses you encounter are actually not too difficult, and by the time I got to confronting Dracula, I had so many consumables on me that I just drank them all and aced it with most of my health intact. There is one impossible boss –  a giant mecha called Galamoth – which can be a bummer. But there are game-breaking tools available (a weapon and shield combo that does huge damage while healing you) to get you past things you can’t be bothered with. Ultimately, the inverted castle is an awesome idea that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth engaging with.

Beyond its open-world experiments, Symphony of the Night is not complicated or especially cohesive. The plot is a ridiculous mish-mash of vampire tropes that is difficult to take seriously. There are entire systems that I didn't engage with at all, such as the economy of the game (there's a merchant that will buy gems and sell you things that you don't really need). You can cast spells – which might have made certain areas easier although I never figured out how to work them.

The look-and-feel of the game is very ornate and impressive, however. The game is basically still a 2D platformer, but it uses 3D to embellish the backgrounds of the world to achieve startling effects. There are also quirky little easter eggs throughout – although ostensibly set in the 18th century you can pick up pizzas and ramen to eat, and you can lounge around in banquet halls and eavesdrop on ghosts in confessional booths. It's silly and delightful, even if it doesn't hang together very well. But it holds up, and you won't find many better ways to spend £3 on over 10 hours of entertainment.


"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it." – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan


"There is an essential core at the centre of each man and woman that remains unaltered no matter how life's externals may be transformed or recombined. But it's smaller than we think." – Gene Wolfe, The Book of the Long Sun


Fallout: New Vegas

What a delight. What a triumph. I honestly think this is the most fun I've had playing a computer game. And I've been playing this in fits and starts going on for over four months now, so to sustain that kind of momentum is quite something. Fallout: New Vegas is the first open-world RPG I've played, and I really went all-in on it – completing every major side-quest and companion quest during my playthrough. Looking back, I marvel at the lack of filler and flab. Obsidian took Baldur's Gate 2's ambition to never waste the player's time with boring things to see and do and just kept adding more and more interesting things to see and do. What an achievement.

The developer has made a name for itself exploring the grey areas in between the traditional good-and-evil moral landscape of video games. New Vegas has a myriad of factions, four of which can make or break the Mojave. Your character's allegiance decides the world's fate – but it's never an uncomplicated choice. The New California Republic is the 'good' path – especially for players who have watched (and perhaps abetted) the rise of the NCR through Fallouts 1 and 2. But here you're on the fringes of their push east, and you are constantly confronted with evidence of imperial overreach. The bureaucracy is inefficient and bedevilled by corruption. The army cannot keep the roads safe. The people chafe at the imposition of new rules and taxes. The lofty ideas that the country was founded on are being tested by the realities of governing an unruly patch of the post-apocalypse. The player can bolster the faction back to glory, but there is nonetheless the sense of moral decay and political decline to their project.

Like Byzantium facing the rise of the Arabs, the NCR is confronting the creation of a new empire in the east. Caesar's Legion present the player with the 'evil' path to victory. They have a very powerful and disturbing introduction in the town of Nipton, which the player approaches at the end of an orchestrated massacre designed to terrorise the region. The Legion is inspired by the NCR's weaknesses, which are attributed to those ideals – democracy, tolerance, freedom under the law – that would endear them to the player. Instead, Caesar has taken inspiration from pre-modern civilisations built on slavery, racism, patriarchy, military ruthlessness and the cult of a divinely-inspired monarch. The Legion are gruesome, but their religious attachment to their war leader has given them a unity of purpose that has made them effective. If the Nazis made the trains run on time, the Legion keep the roads safe – even if it is through terror. Caesar's argument to the player is that these medieval values are what can bring order to the chaos of the wasteland. He wants New Vegas to be his Rome – a glittering jewel of civilisation upheld by the fervour of his devoted legionaries. It's not an attractive vision of the future, but it's a more subtle one than that of would-be dictators in other media.

If Caesar finds his roadmap to power in the distant past, Mr House presents the player with the opportunity to harness the tools of the future. He is a scientific genius – Tony and Howard Stark rolled into one and multiplied by twelve – who used his brilliance to shield Vegas from the nuclear warheads. He has built an army of robots to keep the peace in the city – and wants the player's help to upgrade it so that he can push both the NCR and the Legion out of the Mojave and rule it himself. Mr House offers huge wealth to entice the player, but also suggests that his genius can build a technological wonderland that can not only restore what was lost but propel humanity to the stars. It's Silicon Valley utopianism that nonetheless strips the vast majority of any political rights or power. Mr House is the philosopher-king to Caesar's bloodthirsty emperor – a more attractive proposition, but one that still has a dark side.

The final option is to reject the other three – and is probably the most appealing to most players. Mr House needs a MacGuffin – the Platinum Chip – to power up his army. You are the Courier who has been dispatched to deliver it from where it was buried in the west. But at the start of the game, you are intercepted by Benny, who shoots you in the head and takes it for himself. Benny is a slimeball wheeler-dealer voiced by Matthew Perry who's managed to hotwire one of Mr House's robots and has learned of the army lying dormant deep in Legion territory. His plan is simple – use the Platinum Chip to steal the army for himself, take Mr House's place and liberate New Vegas from his oppressive rule.

His mistake was to mess with the wrong Courier. There are a lot of different ways to deal with Benny once you've recovered from your head-wound and have caught up with him. In my playthrough, he ran away and I found him tied up in Caesar's tent having failed to infiltrate the robot army bunker. Caesar gives the player the opportunity to dispatch Benny – a fittingly poetic reversal of the beginning of the game where Benny has you at his mercy and shows you none. Killing Benny may be satisfying, but the game gives the player an opportunity to redeem him as well. He's a scumbag, but he's not a coward – he's accepted that his life is at an end, and in his final moments he tries to convince you to finish what he started. And you can kill him promising that you'll fulfil his wish to make Vegas swing again. It's one of the most emotionally complicated moments I've ever come across in games.

The independent path seems to leave you in charge, although in the final moments of the game Benny's hotwired robot 'Yes Man', which you've installed as a substitute for Mr House, drops the hint that it might upgrade into something more authoritarian that may slip out of your control. But the fundamental ideological conflicts between the factions remain – how do you strike the balance between liberty and authority, and does Mr House's technology inevitably imperil democracy?

The DLCs take up that second question and run with it – introducing several Mr House-equivalents digging through the wreckage of the old world to uncover wondrous innovations and dangerous weapons. Dead Money is one long metaphor for obsession and addiction, fittingly centred on an old world casino stuffed with miracle technology and more gold than you could ever dream of carrying out with you. The villain is Father Elijah, who gambles with his own life and the lives of others in order to crack open its mysteries and use an army of unstoppable holograms to reconquer the Mojave. You stop him, of course, although the option to join with him and unleash a second darkness on the world was added in for players who need more thanatos in their lives.

Old World Blues is a comedy DLC with a serious message – its squadron of superbrains must be forced to forget their past so they don't use the enormous pile of dangerous weapons they sit on to take over the world for themselves. Fallout takes place after a nuclear apocalypse, and all of these investigations into the perils of science could be interpreted as metaphors for the bomb. The final DLC Lonesome Road makes this more explicit. The DLCs were helmed by Torment narrative designer Chris Avellone, and there's definitely a Torment echo to you uncovering your backstory to reveal a great crime – you delivered a piece of tech that accidentally set off a nuclear arsenal and incinerated a community that you had a hand in creating. The DLC incongruously introduces you to a little minigame where you use a laser to detonate other warheads lying around the wreckage – forcing you to continue to repeat your original sin in order to move forward. The villain Ulysses enjoys this historical irony, and is generally obsessed with the way history keeps repeating itself. All empires fall – and you have to convince him that instead of succumbing to nihilism and accelerating that process, it's better to keep trying to rebuild.

All of these grand themes are set against hundreds of smaller stories of people struggling to survive in the Mojave. New Vegas probably takes narrative complexity as far as it can possibly go in a fully-voiced 3D first-person game. The writing is never lazy, and the voice-acting is almost always excellent. The set of companions you encounter have rich backstories and involving personal missions, although not all are equally well-developed. Veronica is gradually losing faith in the secret society she was born into, and you can help her decide whether to stay and try to make it better, or abandon it forever to forge her own path. Arcade is also trying to escape the shadow of his upbringing – he's a peacenik doctor but his family were part of the facsistic remnants of the US government that were defeated in Fallout 2. He can either embrace that legacy and try to fight for something better, or renounce violence and go back to treating the sick. Boone's story is possibly the most tragic – he is hollowed out and close to suicidal after participating in a war crime and following the death of his wife. He hunts down the Legion incessantly in the hopes for a meaningful death, but through your adventures you can help him find a meaning in life again. There are no romances in New Vegas, but I liked to imagine my Courier was lowkey in love with Boone, all the while knowing that love could never be reciprocated.

The one blemish on the game is the second DLC Honest Hearts. It's most appealing feature is the lush environment of the national park, but the actual missions are dull and badly designed, supposedly offering you stealth or violent options while in practice making stealth almost impossible. Thankfully it's short, and its story is not well-integrated into the rest of the game, so it's an easy one to forgo entirely.

The game is very buggy, and you're advised to do quite a bit of patching and fiddling on PC before you begin in order to avoid crashes and glitches. Although I had a couple of crash-to-desktop moments, by some miracle all my quests (and I did a lot of quests...) triggered correctly and completed or failed as you would expect. In general, the play isn't difficult – and the GOTY version is made easier by the addition of a heap of high-value equipment to get you started. The main challenge comes from entering areas and fighting monsters you're not ready for. The DLCs up the challenge significantly, but they warn you in advance about the level your character should be before you attempt them, and Dead Money's survival horror gameplay does a good job of resetting the power curve if you come at it when you're a level 35 beast like I was. There are a couple of set-piece encounters that stay with you, such as taking out the deathclaws in the quarry or the radscorpions at the airport. But mostly this is a game about talking to people about their stories and making choices about how those stories should resolve, all of which is presented with a care and intelligence that preserves the game's place among the pantheon of western RPGs. 


The Course of the Heart

A tale about the allure of a fantastic world that can be breached with obscure magical ritual – the obsession with which destroys the characters' lives. This ostensibly moves beyond M. John Harrison's early deconstructions of the fantasy genre, but given how phantasms invade and wreck the seemingly ordinary lives of the characters in the novel, I feel like it's of a piece with Harrison's ability to take genre elements and make them dangerous and unsettling again. For example, although the corrupt (and corrupting) magician Yaxley seems to be modelled on Aleister Crowley, he reminds me just as much of the decadent wizards in Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, who offer quests and magnificent rewards but can never be trusted by the roguish heroes. This book is like the inverse of the author's Viriconium series, which gradually brought its fantasy world into a closer relationship with our own. Here the fantasy genre lurks in the shadows of what appears to be a standard work of 'literary' fiction.

Unlike most fantasy authors, M. John Harrison is happy to leave the structure of his overlapping universes vague and unexplained. Moreover, if the genre as a whole operates by using metaphor to convey meaning, Harrison's metaphors are notably enigmatic. The three characters who performed the magical ritual as students are all haunted by monsters that reflect their particular psychosexual hang-ups – Pam's lovers perhaps reveal a lack of romantic fulfilment, Lucas Medlar's dwarf/child a guilt and self-disgust that spills over into masochism. The unnamed narrator's glimpses of a (more benign) green goddess is in the opening of the book associated with his mother, and perhaps reflects a tendency to revere but misunderstand women.

The book is ultimately a love story where the love affair is skillfully obscured until the final pages. It's a superb reveal, and subtly recontextualises everything that has come before it. The book can be criticised for fridging the two female characters, although rather than providing a motivation for the male characters, their deaths totally unravel their lives. An undercurrent of the book is that the fixation with a more perfect magical world arises and is a substitute for a lack of solid connections with this one. It's a grim verdict for a fantasy author to reach. 



I'd like to think I was a little younger than 18 when I realised that being well-behaved is different from being smart. For someone who wasn't exceptionally bright but liked to keep within the rules, I can understand the resentment that might cause, although rather than leading me to act out as the characters in this film do, I just knuckled down and tried to work harder to keep up. Still, this is a great hook for a high-school comedy – and one that speaks to me particularly clearly, despite being made more than a decade after I left school.

The film does shoot itself in the foot in the first 20 minutes before this dynamic is revealed. The pace is just a little too quick, and the jokes still haven't built up a rhythm where an audience can get their bearings and figure out why they should invest in this story. I watched the film with my wife, and she straight up got up and said she was going to bed at one point. Thankfully the long night of mishaps and adventures was about to begin. This is when the film slows down enough to explore its wide cast of characters. It settles into its groove and becomes wickedly enjoyable.

The hook is also a storytelling device. The main character Molly is fundamentally incurious about other people, which leads her to treat everyone with insufferable condescension. Her arc and that of the film are intertwined – discovering that your initial assumptions about the characters are wrong. The film is constantly setting out to disrupt our expectations. Characters you think are empty-headed jocks or prep boys, gay or straight, figures of authority or figures of fun, turn out to surprise you. You can't judge a book by its cover, and being booksmart is not the same as being streetsmart. Trying to understand people will get you further and make you happier than looking down on them. The film is at its best in those little moments of revelation, where alongside Molly you realise that everything you thought you knew was wrong.


Drunken Angel

Kurosawa's breakout feature stars a gruff, irascible but golden-hearted doctor working in a slum and doing his very best to heal both the bodies and the souls of his patients. The metaphor is bluntly stated and frequently reiterated – dirt and disease are the physical counterparts of the moral evils committed by the yakuza who control the neighbourhood. There is a giant swamp in the middle of the district to underline the point. 

The doctor tries to save the life of a young gangster who he diagnoses with tuberculosis. But treatment involves staying away from the drink and excitement of life as a criminal. Ultimately it's impossible to stay clean and healthy while living in the city. The film floats the prospect of returning to health and finding love in the countryside, but the yakuza cannot stay away. He's stuck in the swamp, and dies there.

The film is notable for being Kurosawa's first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, who really does dominate the screen. He can be as suave and debonair as Marcello Mastroianni in 1960s Rome and as physical and dangerous as a jungle cat. There's a scene of him taking a girl for a spin in a nightclub where he looks like he could command armies with a swing of a hip. Mifune is emasculated by the introduction of a bigger and badder crime boss, but he sells the desperation he falls into well, and is given a grandiose death scene as a fitting send-off. 

Mifune's energy is well matched by that of the doctor, played by Takashi Shimura, who cannot stop himself speaking his mind and never speaks when he can shout. Without the portentous body politic metaphor the film is basically a character study of a man stuck where he is because he cannot grease the wheels of social advancement. He calls bullshit everywhere he sees it and as a result cannot escape being engulfed by it. Kurosawa doesn't quite know where to take the character. The ending gives him a little moment of grace with a young patient he has managed to cure, but that is set against a lifetime stitching up criminals and burying bodies, and it rings a bit false. Kurosawa may have had his first hit, but it seems he was still learning his craft.


2020 lockdown gaming

The main reason why my other EOY lists are shorter than previous years is because I've started playing computer games again. That makes perfect sense in a lockdown year where you had to find ways to occupy yourself at home. It makes less sense when you have a baby to look after, although I've found that the stresses of that (alongside some other things that have made this year pretty tough on my family) were aleviated somewhat by gaming, which has the amazing ability to take your brain elsewhere entirely.

I haven't played a computer game since going to university more than 10 years ago, so I'm neither a very experienced nor a very proficient gamer. But that hasn't stopped me from trying to think a little bit about how games achieve their effects, and writing about that here. I've been helped in this by listening to the Watch Out For Fireballs podcast, which talks through and takes apart different games on a weekly basis. That show, as well as the network in general, has been another source of entertainment and distraction during this difficult year – and it has supplied me with prompts and a vocabularly for evaluating the games I'm playing. The hosts are great company, and it's been fun to listen and play alongside them.

I've been drawn to CRPGs mostly, which are gentle on the reflexes and tend to have a greater emphasis on story and character. That's the stuff I really latch onto, over and above satisfying and rewarding gameplay. It helps that I've been playing the Citizen Kanes and Casablancas of the medium – a good way to avoid disappointment as well as educate yourself on what games can achieve at their best. I've done my best to articulate those achievements in the summaries of my playthroughs below: