Favorite Things of 2015
Here’s a list of a bunch of things people made that I really enjoyed in 2015—video games, online content, TV shows, and music. The list isn’t in any particular order. Enjoy!
Every Frame a Painting
I forget how I came across this; almost definitely via a link from someone I know. Whoever it was, thank you! This YouTube channel publishes extremely thoughtful and well-produced essays about movies and television, examining direction, cinematography, acting… pretty much every aspect of filmmaking at some point. It’s eye-opening and has also served to recommend some movies and directors I hadn’t heard of before. This series became a favorite in our home and now Gretchen and I will drop pretty much everything to watch a new episode when it comes out.
Heroes of the Storm
Blizzard, the company that has already hooked me on a number of other games (World of Warcraft, Hearthstone) developed this game as their answer to the popular “MOBA” genre (think League of Legends or Dota). It has a simplicity to it that I really like. It’s way more approachable and games only last 15-30 minutes instead of the 45+ minutes that a game from a competing franchise can take. I played a decent amount of this in 2015, getting comfortable with the controls and my preferences in play style, but I also got hooked on the esports scene for it, which is currently small but still interesting and I hope to see it grow in 2016.
I never got too into the previous Grimes album Genesis—I bought it when it came out, I thought it was a fine album but just never really stuck with it. From the first time I heard Art Angels in 2015, though, I knew it would be to that year what Mogwai’s Rave Tapes was in 2014. I loved turning it up extremely loud in the apartment while I worked, listening to it while walking around the city, and while traveling for the holidays. My favorite track, “Kill v Maim”, is so incredibly good and I’m so glad to have it. The only thing keeping this album from being my most-played album of 2015 is the fact that it came out in November, or else it would have stood so far ahead of the pack that I might have been embarrassed.
Disclaimer! Monster Factory is a YouTube series technically owned by my employer, Vox Media, under the label of the gaming blog Polygon. It’s a little bit surprising that a series of videos so disturbing and probably consisting of 30% its creators laughing on microphone would be willingly sponsored by a legitimate media company, but once you watch these videos, you will be entirely hooked. I don’t remember ever laughing as hard at anything than I and the friends I show them to laugh at these videos. They’re just incredible.
Carly Rae Jepsen is a musician who has now made two extremely good albums that are just front-to-back made of pop singles. It’s almost unfair how good her albums are; people who don’t really care could probably name 2-4 songs off of each album and tell you that they’re solid, some of the better pop songs of this decade, but if you listen to either of the two, and especially the new one, and really focus, it’s hard to find fault with anything on there. “Warm Blood” seemed a little risky at first when delivered as a single pre-release, but in context it’s wonderful, and even as a single it holds up to repeat listens. “Making the Most of the Night”, “Run Away With Me”, and “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance”, though, are incredible songs. This album is an extremely worthy addition to a music collection.
The Beginner’s Guide
I still don’t really know what I think of what The Beginner’s Guide, a short narrative game from one of the makers of The Stanley Parable, has to say in its story. I can’t even be sure that I’m interpreting it correctly! As one would expect from a Stanley creator, the meta-narrative, the twists, the comedy, and the weirdly gut-wrenching moments all intertwine to make a thing that you don’t feel like you’ve seen anywhere else. Whether the author’s point is in need of criticism isn’t of much concern to me, to be perfectly honest. What I love is that I’ve had some of the best conversations I’ve had about art, games, friendship, and human nature in a very long time in the wake of this game. I wouldn’t give those conversations with friends up for pretty much anything.
This cartoon on the Disney Channel has been kind of under the radar for too long. Probably because it’s not on any streaming services, which is a shame, but I’ve been an iTunes subscriber since I discovered the show halfway through its first season. This year, in the second half of its second (and final) season, the show took a narrative leap, advancing the story forward in a way that has hurt a lot of other mystery-based shows. But it payed off in a big way, and the revelations that came from that change kept us tumbling into the three-part finale, the last chapter of which is airing in February.
The show is ending voluntarily, the creator claiming that he always had a very specific story arc in mind. And I believe him! The show has had just enough room to explore its mysteries and characters, and the creator already has a development deal with Fox for his next show. I can’t wait to see what he does next, and I’d recommend going back and checking out Gravity Falls so when that new show comes out you can say you already knew how hilarious and wonderful of a story he was capable of.
Vlaada Chvátil is a fascinating game designer. He’s known for making games like Galaxy Trucker and Mage Knight: The Board Game, both pretty complex games that tabletop gamers know and love. More recently, though, I’ve discovered Pictomania and Codenames, and both are wonderfully designed party games that people of any skill level can play. Codenames is a word game, but rather than the kind where you’re forced to spell things or have a vocabulary full of arbitrarily large words, it’s all about the use of language to relate concepts together through synonyms, hypernyms, and even wordplay.
Codenames is a team-based game, and it’s up to the designated clue-giver to point the rest of their team to a specific set of words on a grid made up of randomly drawn word cards. The clues they give can only be one word, meant to direct them to certain words, and one number, which tells the guessers how many words on the board the cluegiver thinks can be tied to their clue. It’s then up to the guessers to point out the words on the board that belong to their team, while avoiding words that end their turn, words that belong to their opponents, and one word in each round that will cause their team to lose immediately. It’s a fascinating look into group dynamics and the difference of how people think about how words and ideas are tied together. It’s stressful, hilarious, agonizing, and fun, and rounds are relatively fast and can be repeated as many times as you want, with more than enough cards to play many rounds in one sitting.
The Adventure Zone
The McElroy Brothers (Justin, Griffin, and Travis) have a veritable podcast empire at this point. They’ve been doing their flagship podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me for nearly six years and it’s got a huge fanbase. Each of them has at least one other podcast, and Justin and Griffin do a lot of comedy video content in the same vein for the website Polygon. I never got too into any of their podcasts, though, until I gave Adventure Zone a try. It’s basically just the three of them sitting down with their dad and recording a D&D campaign, but for that genre of podcast, I think it’s transcendent—they go off-topic just enough to let their senses of humor shine, all while running through incredible adventures full of hilarious and fascinating characters. The production quality has slowly gotten better and better and as they become more powerful the scale of their adventures has begun to reach that of some of the most epic fantasy stories in our culture. The only downside to The Adventure Zone is that it only comes out every other week. I listen to each episode as soon as it comes out, and I highly recommend starting at the beginning, as some characters keep coming back and knowing the full story of this band of adventurers is one of the greatest joys the internet can bestow upon you.
At its core, Quiplash is a party game with some ties to party games with “judges” like Apples to Apples, Balderdash, or Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a tabletop game per se, though, as you play it by running the core game on a TV or monitor via a game console, set top box, or PC/Mac (it comes packaged as part of the “Jack Box Party Pack 2” on PC, Android, and some consoles, and is sold separately on Apple TV) and control it by having every player (the game supports 3-8 people, with room for more to act as the “audience” during the voting phase only) log into a web interface on a phone, tablet or (in a pinch) laptop. The “Party Pack 2” comes with other games, but Quiplash is a stand-out: every round, it privately shows each player two writing prompts to which they must respond, things like “what you’d do if you could time travel”, “the worst theme for a high school dance”, or something like that. The answers are freeform with a reasonably character limit, and each prompt is only shown to 2 of the people playing.
After the writing phase is over, the game on the TV runs through each of the prompts that it passed out, pitting the two answers submitted against each other. Everyone who didn’t write an answer for that prompt gets to vote on their favorite, and the votes are translated into points, which tally up over the course of multiple rounds. The whole thing is hilarious and fun, and while some of the prompts invite salacious replies, the game itself is rarely explicit in and of itself, leaving it up to the group to decide on what an appropriate (and successful) answer entails. This means the game plays well with lifelong friends, coworkers, family, and anyone else you can get in front of a TV & an internet connection. It’s a shame that this game requires an internet connection—the fact that it runs through its developer’s online servers means that someday, it will no longer be possible to play Quiplash, but in the meantime, it’s a lot of fun.