Things I Loved In 2020

GAMES

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

Airplane “stealth” wasn’t something I had considered as a gameplay mechanic prior to 2020, but after finishing the anime-fueled adventure that was Ace Combat 7, it was one of the least weird things I had experienced.

I’ve never been an Ace Combat fan before this game, to the point where I still get Uresea and.. the other one that sounds like it mixed up, and even though the series seems to take its writing very seriously, to the point where the lead writer is the first credit shown in the game, I don’t… know… why. I enjoyed the story fine, but unless I’m missing something crucial from the previous games, it felt to me like total anime melodrama.

But that doesn’t matter at all when the developers are able to make gameplay this exciting. Somehow, almost every single mission is able to retrofit the basic mechanics of flight and combat into new scenarios, from the aforementioned stealth, to wave defense, high-speed bombing runs, and boss battles?! And it’s all done with an incredible sense of risk and and reward, with the higher-than-I-expected difficulty asking me to keep pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do, to the point where I felt I actually embodied the Ace pilot the other named characters kept calling me.

I’ve got a flight stick I haven’t used in quite a while that’s really tempting me with a replay on a harder difficulty to unlock more stuff, and after that, I’ll see about checking out the earlier entries, and maybe some spiritual successors as well…

I got in pretty late, but I easily consider myself an Ace Combat fan from here on out.

Doom Eternal

With it’s 2016 reboot, DOOM re-established itself as a pioneer in FPS design, eshewing the era of Call of Duty-style set-piece focused levels in favor of laying a box of tools at the player’s feet and saying “make your own moments.”

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the Call of Duty series (just less so recently), but there is nothing that gets the blood pumping quite like absolutely obliterating demons as the silent Doom Slayer. And if you ask me, Eternal moves that forward in the best ways possible.

The small change from the chainsaw being considered a last resort weapon to refill a plethora of ammo for everything to one of many more moving pieces not only refines the Doom combat loop to a razor sharp edge, but also makes it faster, much more mobile, and even harder.

Doom Eternal is an absolute butt-kicker in the “it’s my way or the highway” school of design, which turned a lot of people off, but I fell completely in love with it. Its rigidity is in service to make the player think more during encounters, changing the flow of using whatever is equipped until it’s out of ammo to split second decision making of which weapon or tool is most effective, again and again. It’s mentally tiring in that sense.

Maybe that’s partly why the levels are much more expansive, to break up the encounters with some collectible hunting, but even if that’s the case I still found them pretty lackluster as I just wanted more combat and less running around.

I don’t know where Doom goes from here mechanically, but if The Old Gods is any indication with its difficulty, I’m certainly not ready for it yet, but I’m more than willing to keep at it until I am.

Dirt 4 / Dirt Rally 2.0

Racing games are second only to shooters in the genres I completely devour. If there’s a good racing game, be it arcade or simulation-tuned, I’ve at least played it a bit.

That said, it takes a lot to get me excited for new racing experiences. Forza Horizon 2, with its well thought out open world, was the last one I found myself really amazed by, even though I’ve enjoyed plenty of racers since then. At least, until I tried some rally racing.

I never played the first Dirt game. After watching a review that tried it’s best to explain rally racing to a younger me, I blew it off. Dirt 2 and 3 were much more about rally cross than proper rally racing, which were fun for me, but once Dirt Rally 1 came out, I gave it another try.

Unsurprising to anyone who’s played that game, I found myself more often upside down than right-side up. I didn’t understand any of my co-driver’s directions, and I had no idea how to deal with long-term mistakes in the career mode.

Luckily for me, Dirt 4 provided a good starting point for this kind of racing to me. Taking this slowly at first, I finally understood what the numbers meant, how to e-brake around hairpin turns, and eventually was able to start taking home the gold, upping the difficulty, and learning further.

At this point in time, Dirt Rally 4 has become far too easy, but Dirt Rally 2 is still out of reach as my car once again slides right off the track, leaving me in a strange limbo. Part of me is determined to learn the handling in the simulation-physics in the rally offshoots, and though I haven’t had much luck thus far, how hard could it really be? Car upside-down.

It might just take more time than learning Dirt 4.

Hades / Gunfire Reborn / SYNTHETIK: Legion Rising / BPM: Bullets Per Minute

I don’t know what came over me this year to suddenly become a rogue-like fiend, but it’s a moment that seemed to go as fast as it arrived. For a scant couple of months, I could be found playing any number of these games, from the critically acclaimed Hades, to the indie Chinese darling Gunfire Reborn, the thoughtful SYNTHETIK: Legion Rising, or the rhythmic gunplay of BPM. None of them stick out to me as worth speaking about on it’s own, as aside from Hades I haven’t completed a run on any of these games yet, but even so, they’ll all really neat.

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to live up to the near-decade long eternal hype it built. Before it came out, I saw people chomping at the bit for any scrap of information they could get, even after seeing gameplay of the game that, in retrospect, looked like a riff on the modern day Deus Ex games. And upon release, for many folks, that just wasn’t enough. They were looking for something to move the genre forward, a design foundation upon which future games would build themselves, a la The Witcher 3 influencing the latest Assassin’s Creed games, but it wasn’t.

And even beyond that, and the launch bugs obviously, the game is more bad than good on paper. Its story setup from the beginning of Act 2 onward is incredible in a very existential sci-fi way, but Keanu Reeves’ character never fleshes out to anything remotely interesting. The gang leaders are nothing more than paper thin voices on a tiny screen. Even most of the side quest characters that brought The Witcher 3 to incredible heights are poorly done here.

But even so, I still love this game.

I’ll be the first to admit that part of it is my love for flawed pieces of media, which I hope to one day explain further, but even that aside, I simply could not get enough of Night City. The way the neon landscape lights up the evening hours, how rain completely drenches the streets and its denizens, and the amount of purely unique things to look at kept me engaged for hours. Early on, when my main car was destroyed via a quest event, I was given an objective to fix this… halfway across the city. For most, it would be an easy time to jack someone else’s car, or fast travel, but I walked the entire way, respecting street signs, and just absorbing the atmosphere, and in those few minutes, Night City felt more real than any other one in games to me.

And just a moment ago, I did say that most of the side quest characters are done poorly, but that’s because the few that are done well do stick out to me. Maybe moreso because they’re held up by phenomenal moments rather than the characters themselves, but all the same, it made me tear up a few times, and I can’t not give that credit.

I don’t know if history will be kind to Cyberpunk 2077, nor do I know if it will even remember it, but for all its many flaws, inside the game itself and out, I know that I certainly won’t forget it.

Death Stranding

I think there’s a moment in Death Stranding that, in retrospect, becomes very indicative of the game, and also how one intends to play it.

It happens relatively early on, when Sam Bridges gets a call to scale up a mountain to head towards Port Knot City. It’s not an easy climb either, between the massive amount of tiny rocks and beached things swarming the area.

That, and in many player’s cases, they just got the MotorTrike. A way to finally cross longer distances at speeds impossible for Sam to do on his own two feet.

I myself took the drove the bike up to the beginning of the climb, saw the journey that lie ahead, and turned around. I left the bike in a cozy position at the nearest main building, grabbed some extra supplies, and headed back out on foot.

If other stories are any indication though, my decision wasn’t a common one. Most people didn’t want to ditch their hard-earned reward just as they got it because of some stupid rocks.

But I did, and in doing so, it was the first step into understanding Death Stranding.

Arguably more-so than in any of his past games, Hideo Kojima had a vision for Death Stranding, in story, gameplay design, and yes… music.

That was and will forever be extremely polarizing to many people. Games, much more so than other medium, have the ability to be experienced in many different ways, but with this game, Kojima says, “this is the way things will work.”

It’s not the only game like this that I played this year, but unlike DOOM Eternal and Dirt Rally 2.0, which set the bar extremely high and expect the player to leap over it, Death Stranding was effortless. Not just in terms of difficulty, as the game’s not hard, but in design.

Throughout the journey the player gets more and more gear to help move increasing amounts of supplies at once, but more than a few times, a roadblock will impede their progress, lest they rearrange some things and slow down. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve left a truck or bike at the bottom of a hill to climb it by foot, only to later see a collection of upside and long since abandoned trucks from other players who were too stubborn to do so.

Sometimes I didn’t want to have to make that sacrifice, but often times I took a breath, looked at my options, and almost always opted to take it at the pace I figured the game wanted me to. It’s a very forced kind of pacing in that way, but I had nothing but fun with it. From grassy hills and rivers, to rocky outcrops, and snowy mountaintops, I never got tired or bored of the sheer act of walking around, and in fact relished in the strange situations I found myself in, either through Kojima’s guiding hand, or through my own play and ideas.

I want to save more thoughts for a future video on this game specifically, but for now I’ll say this. Since 2014 I’ve been doing a yearly list of games I’ve enjoyed, and never once did I pick a specific “game of the year”. If I were to suddenly begin that trend this year though, Death Stranding would stand head and shoulders above any other interactive experience I had in 2020.

FILMS

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Prior to this film, my only past experience with Charlie Kaufman’s work is his writing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that makes much more sense stylistically after viewing I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

Based on the novel of the same name by Iain Reid, it’s about a woman who believes she wants to end a relationship with her boyfriend, but takes a road trip to meet his parents one evening. At least, that’s it on the surface, and if one begins to dig deeper, they’re at risk of never coming back up.

I don’t pretend to know everything that’s going on thematically with the film, especially after only a single watch and even with some additional outside material, but that’s what keeps it in my mind. For better or worse, many films these days, of any genre, have become easily digestible. Sit down, watch them, enjoy some laughs, scares, tears, or such, finish it and walk away. That used to just be the realm of low-budget low-effort shlock sent to die in a video rental store, but with the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, those are becoming more common as people enjoy watching things with their phones or iPads out. They don’t engage. They’re white noise to help pass time.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t miss a beat, though. Watching it with friends and trying to figure out what the underlying meaning was in real time invited discussion from the opening shot to the last one. Noticing the smallest changes in wardrobe or direction of the dialogue, little details that are never directly explained to the viewer, and ultimately leaving on a note that baffled me as much as it intrigued.

I don’t think I completely understand the film yet, and maybe I won’t ever, but there’s a part of me that enjoys that aspect of creation. Leaving people with an experience to chew on rather than swallow and forget moments after the screen goes black.

ALBUMS

Brave Faces Everyone | Spanish Love Songs

Spanish Love Songs “Brave Faces Everyone”

The title Brave Faces Everyone, in retrospect, may not have been the mood of 2020 as I sunk so deep into despair that even putting on a brave face felt like a monumental ordeal, but it strikes me as a 2021 outlook.

Much like Touche Amore’s Between The Brightness and Me, Spanish Love Songs’ newest record is a beautiful stew of noisy guitar riffs, rattled drums, and desperate, pained vocals begging to be noticed and understood.

I’ve been a fan of this kind of music for some years now, but not since 9Tails’ single Warm have I felt so called out personally, and in this case it’s not one track; it’s the entire album.

In a span of four short lines, songwriter and vocalist Dylan Slocum manages to pierce right to the heart of the older generation of emo music lovers.

You twenty-nine year panic attack You’re not the fashionable kind The kind where you wake up and say “Man, I just wanna survive”

Unlike most of the works by up and coming solo artists like HKTwentyOne, TheBreathingBackwards, and Guardin who are intermixing rap with emo lyrics, this isn’t an album above love and love lost. It’s a work about being loved, and the desire to belong and feel like things are going right for just one tiny moment of your life.

Near the end of last year, I began to reflect more on my age. Twenty-seven years old, only a few out of college, and thinking I had done nothing right since then. Lost. Confused. Tired.

And when I heard the first track of Brave Faces Everyone-

Have you ever felt lower than everyone else? I’m feeling lower than anyone else ‘Cause everything’s lower than everything else I wanna see how much lower I can go

I felt so seen, so visible suddenly. It can be hard to listen to because of that.

But the comparison to Touche Amore’s work is intentional here, because one thing I loved about that album is that the narrator of the works starts in a deep ravine, seemingly far beyond helping hands, but Jeremy Bolm ends the work with,

For what it’s worth, I’m sorry And at the end I swear I’m trying

So while Spanish Love Songs’ newest songs of pain and hurt may begin with

On any given day, I’m a six of ten

I reflect more so on the very end of the journey, with

We don’t have to fix everything at once We were never broken Life’s just very long Brave Faces, everyone

There’s a sense that, at the end of the journey, there’s a preverbal light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s not one that unrealistically says everything is fine, but rather that we’re still trying, and that that’s enough.

YOUTUBE CREATORS

ThorHighHeels

ThorHighHeels sat in my YouTube “watch later” playlist for some months before I finally got around to him, mostly because upon first glance, his real “out there” style of design didn’t at all jive with the much more utilitarian works about games I’ve enjoyed by people like Chris Franklin and Noah Caldwell-Gervais.

Only when I dared to finally jump into one of “So I’ve Been Playing” videos did I finally understand the appeal. Thor may not like every game he plays, but he’ll be dammed if he can’t find some way to spin it positively. He revels in the weird, the jank, sometimes the outright broken, and no matter what, tries to come out of it with a positive experience.

From someone who’s hated their fair share of games, and has friends who can make entire evenings of railing on them, I found myself unexpectedly gravitating more towards his content as the year wore on, entranced by every thing he brought to his channel like it was some kind of magical edition of show-and-tell. The sheer positivity was impossible to escape, and I loved it.

ThorHighHeels makes weird videos with weirder transitions and graphic design, but just in the way he can’t seem to hate on a game, I can’t seem to stop watching him glow about them.

  • See also: his music under Adolf Nomura. He did the soundtrack for Umurangi Generation most recently.

Music | ThorHighHeels (bandcamp.com)

Sisyphus55

The work of Sisyphus55 might seem crude at first, between it’s simple stick figure drawings and less-than-stellar microphone quality, but his works were some of the best content I experienced last year. Quiet and studied, for most of his works he explains the nature of certain philosophers or psychologists, their history, teachings, and what lessons to take from them, but I rather enjoy his more personal guides. Read on paper in his published transcripts, they can feel dry, like a high-school or college level philosophy 101 paper, but in the dark of night, Sisyphus’ work comes alive in those tiny stick figures and soothing toned vocals.

I can’t say he’s the most articulate at explaining these people and problems, a thing he himself admits to, but maybe in spite of, if not because of that I find it all the more endearing. It feels more personal that way.

  • See also: his podcast with rotating guests. His first episode is about I’m Thinking Of Ending Things alongside an album that tries to musically present the sensation of dementia.

Published by

Sam Callahan

Filmmaker by day, writer by night.

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