Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Retrospective

So, 2015. While I feel kind of weird about looking at years as comprehensive “units” of our lives with their own trends, themes, and personal developments separate from other years, I also think these indulgent retrospectives are useful. They help us organize our thoughts on where we’ve been and where we’re going. They help us track our successes and failures and decide how we might improve for the future. It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of “New Year’s Resolution” rhetoric, laughing at the cliched influx of gym memberships at the start of January that don’t get used past March. But this kind of reactionary, patronizing cynicism is the exact thing I want to further cut out of my life, and other end-of year retrospectives I’ve read have echoed some similar sentiments. You could also argue that we should always be reflective of ourselves and set out to improve. But I find that self-reflection takes a massive amount of energy, and it’s hard to change or improve when you’re questioning every life decision or situation ad infinitum without actually acting (which is what the majority of this year has been for me). And the holidays momentarily remove us (at least partially) from the hustle and bustle of work and school, giving us some breathing room for this kind of reflection. Writing this is an indulgence for sure, but I think it’s a healthy one that I want to use as a tangible thing to hold me accountable for better behavior and attitudes for next year.

2015, for me, was kind of like this


2014 saw me climb out of the abyss after graduating from high school. It was the year I started to read and write more about games and developed great new friendships during my first semester at college. 2015 saw me struggle to stay afloat during an okay second semester, a long, lonely summer, and a kinda bad fall semester. Whereas I started doing so many things I thought I could never do in 2014, which hugely boosted my confidence and mental health, I feel like I stagnated in 2015.

But I should acknowledge that my stagnation in 2015 is largely a perceived one. I did some writing that I’m proud of. I was on a panel of young videogame critics alongside wonderful folks as part of ADAF. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in some of my classes. I came out as queer/bisexual. And though I failed to grow much externally, various challenges and failures this year made me grow internally.

I’ve tried to write some more about my feelings on 2015, but I haven’t liked any of the attempts I’ve put together. So instead, I’m going to write about the works of art that have impacted me the most this year to talk more about those feelings in a different context.

Before I do that, I just want to acknowledge the awful tendency I’ve had this year to try to play/read/watch everything I possibly could. According to a Google Doc I updated throughout the year, I played 104 videogames in 2015. That’s more than I ever have in a single year before, much more than the 60 I played last year. Granted, a lot (maybe even the majority) of those games were short, less than half an hour long #altgames. But my distanced imbibing of all those works has really hindered my abilities to focus and reflect on the games to get the most out of them. I approached games this way with a desire to be literate about as many games as possible. This approach failed wildly though; I probably couldn’t tell you much about a good chunk of the games I did play this year. What this behavior did was turn engaging with art into a mindless, endless cycle of consumption. I treated art the exact way that “cult-of-the-new ” technocapitalism wants us to. Consume, discard, do not look back. Steamroll through game after game, TV episode after TV episode, book after book. Being on Twitter often exacerbates this type of problem--with everyone sharing articles, games, controversies, shitposts, and a bunch of other things all at once. It’s very distracting! So there are some things I want to try to do to build healthier relationships with the art I engage with. For example, next year I’m forbidding myself from moving on to the next videogame on my queue before writing something--anything--about the last one. Not all of this writing will necessarily be published, and I might make exceptions for games I’m planning a longer piece for or allow myself to play 3 short games before writing my impressions. I hope this method helps me develop more intimate connections with what I play, allowing me to bring more to the works and get more out of them. I’m hoping I don’t play more than 50 games next year. I’m also going to try to establish more specialized interests within games. I want to focus on a few key AAA series (Okami, Metal Gear, Bayonetta, Metroid Prime), genres (hack ‘n’ slash, interactive fiction) and topics (relationships, anxiety, bodies, violence). This doesn’t mean I’m just going to stick to certain kinds of games, and what I’ve listed here might not even be what I decide to focus on. But it would be more productive to develop deep knowledge about a few subjects than vague understandings of everything.

Okay, so let’s get on with it. Here’s some cool stuff I looked at in 2015:

Grimes - Art Angels

I don’t really follow music, but it seems that every six months or so I find an artist or album that blows me away so much that I stop listening to everything else for a while. Grimes’ Visions was one of those last year, actually. But for the past two months, Art Angels has been all I listen to--when I wake up, in the car, in between classes, before I go to bed. I’m listening to it now! Listening to Art Angels is sort of like a “centering” activity; it simultaneously relaxes me and pumps me up. I just love Grimes’ vibrant bubblegum sublimity. I love the confident, high-energy “Flesh without Blood,” about realizing the need to cut a fairweather, false friend out of your life and “Kill V Maim,” about a genderfluid space vampire Al Pacino. I love the more mellow yet optimistic “REALiTi” and “Butterfly.” Parts of Art Angels are about dealing with friendships that may be enticing but either damaging, fake, or falling apart (“Flesh without Blood,” “Easily,” “Pin,” “REALiTi”), and a lot of it is about asserting a self (through music) amidst a lot undermining noise (“California,” “Belly of the Beat,” “Butterfly”).

I find myself relating a lot to the content of Art Angels, remembering the better times of the end of 2014 as certain relationships seem to fall apart around me in 2015. In particular I really like the way the album ends: “If you’re looking for a dream girl / I’ll never be your dream girl.” In “Butterfly,” Grimes presumably sings this lyric to a fanbase who often wants very specific things from her and her music. She rejects those impositions in order to develop herself and her sound on her own terms, a butterfly of her own creation. It’s a song about not being able to please everybody and accepting that. I often feel like I’m being pulled in different directions--between my “normal” friends in real life (read: “straight” and “““apolitical”””) and the volatile spaces of the games community. I often think I don’t fit in with either crowd, nor can I adequately perform for either. And I think I’ve figured out that that’s okay! And moving forward, I want to surround myself with people who’ll support me for being myself and for developing in ways I want to see myself grow.

Why you looking for a harmony?
There is harmony in everything
It’s a butterfly who waits for the world
To fly away.

Anyway, I love the shit out of Art Angels and definitely want to bring its cathartic energy with me into 2016.

J Bearhat’s zine Gay Apathy is earnest and hilarious and also sobbing softly in the corner next to an empty bottle of tequila. It’s also probably one of the best things a babyqueer like me can read. It expresses the anxiety of belonging to an identity fragmented beyond any stable recognition, one that’s become repurposed, repackaged, and redistributed alongside Gay Rights victories and cruising apps in the hellscape that is late capitalism. It features dream dates with boys behind your supermarket counters, a list of the freshest and totally-not-demoralizing gay aesthetics, Unresolved Gender Issues, Absolut Vodka, and Ellen Page!!!! It is very much a zine about a disconnect from the myths of The Gay Experience™ and a disconnect from other gays, and it’s beautiful.

Seriously, go check it out. J Bearhat’s other zines are also great. I especially enjoyed Date a Boy Who Travels and Corporate Interiors. Their work on is pay-what-you-want!   

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I understand why a lot of people don’t really like Buffy; it has a lot of representation problems (especially re: race). And some of its ideas about sex are questionable at best. But it turns out that if you put likable teens in your show and have them face Teen Things as well as campy vampires, I will like it. I spent my entire summer working my way through the seven seasons of Buffy, and I came to really love the charming characters and sometimes cheesy, sometimes brilliant writing.

This summer I felt pretty isolated from people as I simply cycled between being at work and being at home most of the time. After a month, I desperately wanted to go back to school to be with my friends. As Jackson Tyler says on the Metal Illness and Games panel for ADAF, watching TV/film (especially shows with ensemble casts) can be isolating because you’re explicitly distanced from the relationships that develop between the characters. It’s easy to look at connections and friendships on TV and go, “I want that!” That was very much my experience watching Buffy both because of the context of my summer and because, ya know, high school was Bad. I have really weird, uncomfortable feelings about my relationship to the show--how I projected myself onto the characters (especially Willow) as a sort of fictional replacement for my mostly empty real teenage experiences. This kind of relationship to a media object seems unhealthy to me, but a lot of people seem to inevitably develop these kinds of relationships to characters. In 2016, I’d like to try to understand more about why that is and how to negotiate the weird feelings I have about these kinds of engagements.

Anyway, it’s easy to become passionate about a show like Buffy--the characters are so likable that you want to see them written well. I think the show is more interesting for fumbling with themes and representations sometimes and succeeding at other times; its unevenness encourages the audience to discuss it more, which is probably why academia dotes on it. Willow is also probably one of my favorite characters of all time, rivalling Bayonetta for the title of favorite witch. :)

(Season 2 is my favorite, Season 5 is the “best,” Season 7 is the worst, and Season 6 is way better than people give it credit for okay bye)

Life is Strange (spoilers follow)

Life is Strange has all of the problems Buffy has, particularly for being a story about teenage girls created by mostly straight white dudes. It’s been rightly taken to task for its depictions of disability, race, and queerness (spoilers). But like Buffy, Life is Strange has great characters and an earnestness that I appreciate; it’s definitely a game that deserves nuanced conversations. Nobody else in the AAA space even tries to make young adult games about high school, so I’m happy Dontnod made a memorable attempt that got people talking. And I loved Life is Strange’s rewind mechanic that changes the dynamic of player choices.      

I played the first four episodes of Life is Strange right before I went back to college for the fall. I expected a semester in which everything would fall into place for me. But most of my relationships and plans didn’t meet those expectations, largely because I acted as if conflicts and desires would sort themselves out on their own. The happenings (and often, non-happenings) of this semester started to deteriorate my mental health, and I played the conclusion to Life is Strange over Thanksgiving break--when I was at my worst this year. And I still don’t know if I’ve processed the ending right. The game’s ending is cheap, emotionally manipulative, and judgmental, but it is also the logical development of the game’s plot. You can see the final choice coming probably by the end of Episode 1. So why was I so upset about it if it was everything I expected? I guess because it was the most explicit time the game looked me in the eye to say that the way I wanted the world was wrong--that if I wanted to have my way, natural forces would destroy the world for everyone else. Life is Strange tells me I’m selfish for wanting to be happy, and I’m scared that it’s right. And I want to be able to accept that since I’m usually on board with games that decentralize and deny the player’s wants (MGS2, Stanley Parable, Spec Ops). But Life is Strange seems more like a personal accusation than those other games. I guess that’s because MGS2 and Spec Ops say it’s bad to want to be a videogame war hero, an idea I can get behind, whereas Life is Strange says it’s bad to want to be gay in love. Obviously that’s reductive--obviously that’s not what Life is Strange is trying to say. The game wants to say that you can’t have a perfect life, and trying to control the world and other people to have a perfect life is wrong. But to stake that conflict entirely on a queer relationship? Maybe it’d be less of a problem if more games had diverse queer representations to begin with, but really--

--it just makes me feel like the Devil. Life is Strange makes me feel like the Devil, and shames me for it.

We Know the Devil makes me feel like the Devil, and loves me for it.

Out of everything I played, watched, and read in 2015, I’ll remember We Know the Devil the most. It’s far and away my favorite game of the year and could easily be considered one of my favorite games ever. I really appreciate that this game exists as I ride out these last few months of being a teenager.

We Know the Devil is a visual novel different from the more traditional Western magical girl stories of Buffy and Life is Strange because not only does the world hate its teens, but the teens hate themselves. They’re not even really trying to save the world either--they’re just trying to survive it.

I went to Catholic school all my life, so being queer was essentially not an option, what with people around me saying that being gay is at best something to be controlled and repressed and at worst just inhuman. And I was very good at repressing queerness in high school (so was everyone else it seems--I don’t know if anyone else in my class was out at the time), even though that must have compounded my self-hate back then. The characters of We Know the Devil also live in a world where being queer means being the devil, and the trio struggles to hold their friendships together amidst their self-loathing and shared isolation. I see a little bit of myself in all the characters’ responses to their pain. Jupiter tries to hide her desires by trying to be perfect, Venus hides her fears by being a pushover, and Neptune hides her pain by being cold, bitter, and mean. There’s a character who I identify with the most, but I’m, uh--*snaps hair tie against wrist*--not telling. Just go play the game.

The three protagonists of the game are all lovable, and the dynamics between them are hilarious and heart-wrenching. Aevee Bee’s writing is consistently amazing, maneuvering flawlessly between passive-aggressive jokes and tender heart-to-hearts. Mia Schwartz’s character designs are beautiful and fit each character’s personality wonderfully, and Alec Lambert’s soundtrack flits between warm and harrowing synths.

You play the game by pairing up two of the characters in different scenes, and the one most often left out is taken by the devil at the end of the game. The game depicts how friendships often unintentionally come at the expense of other friendships, and the final scene is a metaphor for being left to deal with your pain and unfulfilled desires on your own. This system makes playing the game so guilt-ridden because none of the characters deserve to be pushed out. The game’s three endings simulate some of my experiences of loneliness this semester. I’ve several times been upset (along with drunk) about feeling unable to share feelings or Real Shit with certain people. Because the few times I have, I feel like I’ve been either hand-waved or met with little reciprocating honesty. It’s the worst feeling in the world to have people you trust shut you out like that, and I’ve sort of “lost it” a few times. Someone has videos of me babbling about subjectivity and yelling about “what’s wrong with me!” and being a “negative ball of negative awfulness” ~to no one in particular~ at 2 AM. That’s what being the Devil is. The Devil’s the only one who’ll hold you in those situations.

But the times that friends have taken care of me this year have meant the world to me. The game’s “true” ending shares the beautiful possibility of a community of friends in which no one gets left out. It’s presented as an ideal that takes work and effort but certainly isn’t impossible. That ending inspires me to put in that work both for myself and others in 2016--to love myself and find others who can know the devil with me. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m definitely going to try to be better to myself and the people around me.

I just heard it’s on Steam Greenlight. Please go vote for it!

Honorable Mentions

Bayonetta 1 & 2
Jessica Jones/Daredevil
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
FKA twigs- M3LL155X
The Beginner’s Guide

In between semesters, free from a good deal of responsibilities, I have all this energy re: making 2016 better. And I don’t want this energy to die out by the time I make it back to campus. So I really want to hold myself to higher standards, to improve my craft, my relationships, and my self.

Thanks to everyone who’s been awesome and supportive this year! Here’s to building something great in 2016.

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