The holiday season is well and truly upon me when I have a pile of presents to wrap, and I’m wringing my hands for a good introduction to my “best of” post for the year. Hey, what do you know, I just did it.
I have to admit, 2013 was a pretty fun year. Though I ran afoul of a few truly terrible films, movies, and games, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. However, television, at least in the conventional sense of the word, was almost exclusively a waste of time. Thank the gods for Netflix, premium cable, and web series. And on that note, let’s get right into it.
The fact that Spartacus was able to survive the death of Andy Whitfield is reason enough for Starz’s sword, sandal, and sex series to rate as best of the year. Then there’s everything else that the fourth and final season of Steven DeKnight’s series did well: powerful roles for females, openly gay lead characters, and battles more impressive than anything seen on Game of Thrones.
War of the Damned also saw leading man Liam McIntyre grow into his role as Spartacus. Though capable enough in his first season, Spartacus 2.0 projected an obvious sense of reservation about treading on the legacy of a dead man. McIntyre, ten years junior to his predecessor and relatively inexperienced as an actor, was good mind you, but obviously still trying to find his way with the character. For his grand finale, McIntyre owned the role and consequently excelled as the slave turned general.
Despite standing in the shadows of giants like HBO’s Rome and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the series took its own direction with the story of Thrace’s most infamous son. The writers seemed well aware of the fact that the history of Spartacus was written by Romans, who were never apt to make themselves look bad before posterity and the gods. Sidestepping any slavish dedication to dubious history, DeKnight’s series offered a version of the past that is arguably more balanced than what Kubrick offered on film.
Honourable Mentions: Bob’s Burgers season 3, Archer Season 4, Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad Season 5
Gravity might not be a perfect movie, but it is as close as I saw in 2013.
The intelligence of Gravity’s story and Alfonso Cuarón’s dedication to the physics of space yielded the first “hard” science fiction movie I’ve seen in ages. I don’t want to the be the guy who jumps right to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I can’t think of any recent movies which really compare to Gravity. Correction, I can’t think of any recent movies that compare to Gravity and aren’t abysmal wastes of time. Mission to Mars and Red Planet tried to offer some lip service to science, but then gave up on the effort by the end of the first act. Remember, boys and girls, it’s easier to tell a story about ancient aliens and killer robots than the cruel vicissitudes of momentum.
For me, the key difference between 2001 and Gravity, adjusting for about five generations of technology between the two films, is that 2001, though technically flawless, is overly drawn out and arguably quite boring. On the other hand, Gravity captured the reality of space at a pace befitting an action movie.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gravity found a place for a forty-nine year old actress as the lead character. I know, that shouldn’t be a big deal, but let’s not kid ourselves about how Hollywood treats women once they hit a certain age. Moreover, Bullock handled the role so well that I can’t imagine having to suffer through ninety minutes of Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, or Oliva Wilde as Dr. Stone.
Honourable Mentions: Pacific Rim, Europa Report
This one was a no brainer. Literary science fiction needs more writers like Ramez Naam. As a study in technology, politics, ethics, and the human condition (as well as other themes I’m leaving out because it is incredibly difficult to package a novel this complex into a single paragraph), Crux manages to walk a very fine line between ebullient optimism about a post-human future and a brutally honest representation of the environmental problems our world will face in the coming decades. Naam’s writing finds the perfect balance between the styles of Michael Crichton and Paolo Bacigalupi.
If the above were not enough, there’s a powerful empathy to the way in which Mr. Naam writes his characters. All of the key players within Crux’s post-human war on drugs are developed to the extent that their moral compasses, regardless of which way they point, make sense to the reader. Even when the story focuses upon a near-future Department of Homeland Security, there’s an obvious rationale to morally dubious actions, which in turn serves to fuel Crux’s key conceit: do the ends justify the means?
The debate ebbs back and forth between pragmatism and idealism, leaving the reader as the ultimate arbiter of which characters are on the wrong side of history and humanity. Is it the hacker? Is it the philanthropist-who-would-be-king? Is it the G-Man bound to defend the status quo despite his addiction to the future?
If science fiction is meant to be a morality play on contemporary events, then Crux is truly a microcosm for our world.
Honourable Mentions: iD by Madeline Ashby, Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos by James Marshall
I know I’ll probably lose some credibility among classic X-Com diehards for recognizing this as my BBGOTY, but there was really no competition in my mind. Branded as an expansion, EW took the core experience from XCOM: Enemy Unknown and roughly doubled what was already there, seamlessly weaving two new plot arcs into an already robust campaign. While the resulting changes maintained XCOM’s core experience, they also forced players to develop new tactics as they worked their way through a familiar but tactically evolved alien invasion.
While there’s always been a certain amount of freedom to choose one’s path within the X-Com games, Enemy Within took this to a new level. Very early on it presents players with an option to turn some of their soldiers into cyborgs – amputating their arms and legs in the process – or genetically engineered super humans. In terms of game play, these early advantages for XCOM make up for aliens that are much harder to kill on the higher levels of difficulty. As if, XCOM wasn’t hard enough on its own, EW found a way to make a “Classic Ironman” play though even more of a challenge.
Beyond that, there’s an almost intangible moral dilemma that comes with the expansion to Enemy Unknown. Imagine looking at a soldier modeled after a friend – standard fare in these games – and then weighing the tactical merit of injecting them with alien DNA or sticking their torso in an exo-frame. XCOM is smart enough to down play the ethics of this decision, but in doing so they put it at the forefront of my thoughts. Unlike Bioshock, where the morality of a player’s choices really don’t matter, XCOM: EW makes the choice an inherently personal question.
Honourable Mentions: Though I saw fit to leave this blank, Matt, my “assistant editor” and podcast co-host, would nominate Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm and State of Decay.
Even though Kerbal Space Program is still in development, it is one of the best games I have ever played. Stop and think about that for a moment. The game is yet unfinished, and already it has secured a spot in my all-time top ten.
Perhaps the simplest description of KSP is Minecraft with rockets, a robust physics engine, and no mining. In its current state, KSP is a self-guided sandbox where players design rockets and set out to explore planet Kerbin’s solar system. Therein, it rewards intelligence, patience, and creativity in equal measures. The opposite side of the coin is that KSP happily punishes hubris and stupidity, though watching a rocket explode mid-flight because bad design has led to its vibrating like a coal powered marital aid isn’t much of a punishment. It’s actually kind of awesome.
Despite its work-in-progress status, KSP is legitimately beautiful to behold, infinitely open to mods from a very active and supportive community, and challenging enough that I find myself daydreaming about rocket designs during business meetings.
Honourable mentions: Spelunky, Shadowrun Returns
She knows what she did. As for everybody else, buy her book as I originally had it up in the honourable mentions.
And that as they say, is that. Thanks to everybody who has stuck with my blog over the last year. I look forward to another year of ranting and reviewing for your amusement and education.