Monthly Archives: December 2013

The 2013 Stuff Awards: Best Video Games

I’m a gamer. I typically get at least one new video game every month, not counting inexpensive downloadables. I say that only to point out that no this is NOT complete list of all the games I got this year. :P Anyway, in my opinion 2013 was, above all, the year of high quality PlayStation 3 games, I’ve gotta say! However, there were also a number of games for other systems that certainly rank as favorites of mine. Here are my favorite games of 2013:

1) NI NO KUNI: WRATH OF THE WHITE WITCH (PLAYSTATION 3)

This is what American gamers and critics call a “J”RPG. The Japanese themselves dislike the “Japanese” qualification. For those who don’t know, however, a “J”RPG stereotypically is a more or less traditional kind of RPG that revolves around telling a story, whereas a stereotypically Western-style RPG would instead place almost all of its focus on exploration, action-oriented combat, and *grumbles* online multiplayer functionality. As someone who strongly prefers the more traditional, story-oriented formula when it comes to RPGs, I didn’t really care that much for some of the “J”RPGs the reviewer praises like Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story. They were a little too stylistically Western for my taste. This game, however, genuinely stays true to the Japanese cultural tradition of focusing on telling a high-quality story and, unlike so many other RPGs that have been made in 3D,  it does so without sacrificing the quality of gameplay. It matters to me because RPGs are my favorite genre, but only when they’re done in this style. I rarely get into what we might consider more Western-style RPGs, by contrast. Story-wise, the powerful themes here revolve around emotions…and Studio Chibli is on board, need I say more??! Well okay yes I need say more, but for more info on that and the details of how this game works, I’ll direct you to the review below!

2)  THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS (NINTENDO 3DS)

This game was originally conceived as a remake of the classis Super NES title The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but wound up becoming an original Zelda title in the course of development. It is indeed thematically very similar to A Link to the Past, but with lots and lots of noticeable differences. For me, the main and most important difference is the emotional depth of the characters. The quality of storytelling here is definitely better than in the original. However, the gamer also enjoys a greatly increased ability to explore and do what they want in their own preferred sequence in this title at the same time, which makes this adventure title all the more enjoyable. Trust me, if you haven’t played this game, you’re definitely missing out! I’ll leave the details to the reviewer below, as he sums them up quite well.

3) THE LAST OF US (PLAYSTATION 3)

I’m not normally a fan of the survival-horror genre, but this is a gigantic exception to that rule! The Last of Us has one of the deepest and darkest storylines of any game I’ve ever played and it’s told with a film-like level of mastery and emotional depth (which is tragically rare for video games). Thematically, the setting is apocalyptic and every detail subtly conveys a very anti-humanist message about the power of nature over people and the overwhelming power of the survival impulse. It also breaks with many traditions in Western game-making, including not only with the prevailing one-sidedly gunplay-centric standard gameplay style of the survival-horror genre, but also in other ways. For example, in keeping with its anti-humanist themes, this game, heaven forbid, does not revolve around player choice and free exploration, but around the telling of a dramatic, emotionally-dense story: the quality that I see most often in traditional RPGs, and which forms the essential reason why I like that genre best overall. The Last of Us shows that this kind of depth can be successfully converted to other genres! THAT’s what’s truly exciting about it! As always, I’ll let the reviewer fill you in on the details.

4) PUPPETEER (PLAYSTATION 3)

YaY, a cute-goth game!! :) That’s EXACTLY my style! That is to say that this is thematically a highly enjoyable mixture of the dark and the kiddie. Genre-wise, this is a side-scrolling platformer, which is fine by me because I’ve always liked that genre! You (appropriately) play as a boy who has been turned into a puppet and gets his head torn off and finds himself on a quest to resurrect the Goddess who can recover the stolen souls of the Earth’s children from her estranged love, the self-proclaimed Moon Bear King. The whole game takes place on ever-changing play-style sets. The storytelling is great and highly amusing and the gameplay is very fun. THIS GAME SHOULD BE FAR, FAR MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN IT HAS BEEN!! Get it! Check out the review below for more details.

5) RAYMAN LEGENDS (WII U)

As you gathered from my remarks on Puppeteer, there are two well-pronounced sides to my personality: the normally very serious and dark (but good) side…and the completely zany and childish side that sometimes comes out to play, if only to give my default critical thinking mode a well-deserved rest. This game plays entirely to the latter pole of my personality and it does so marvelously! :D Rayman Legends is an incredibly fun, creative, absurd, cute, and hilarious platformer with both lots of action and puzzle elements thrown in. And, bonus, there are female characters for me to play as! (Not the most common feature in video games even today.)

6) SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD (WII U)

Been waiting for a high quality, MULTI-PLAYER, 3D Mario platformer for ages? So have I. THIS IS IT!! In fact, this is the only Mario platformer that I would honestly say is more enjoyable with two or three companions than it is in single or two-player mode. Specifically, we’re talking cooperative play here: you work as a team to get through levels. Playable characters include not just Mario, Luigi, and a bunch of Toads (like in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise), but also Princess Peach…and my favorite Mario character, Rosalina, who first appeared in Super Mario Galaxy! The cat suit is not only an awesome, cute, and fun addition, but a very functional one at that, and there are lots of other innovations to this game that make it really stand out. You can learn about many of them in the review below. Again though, I must stress: 3D…multiplayer co-op that’s actually functional! It’s hard to get better than that when it comes to platformers!

The 2013 Stuff Awards: Polly’s VMAs

1) BLURRED LINES PARODY “SEXY BOYS” BY MOD CAROUSEL

Sorry, I have to give this well-deserved parody of Robin Thicke’s  chart-topping Blurred Lines video (you remember: the one Thicke and Miley famously “danced” in approximate simulation of at the MTV VMAs?) the top spot on my list. It’s still my favorite music video of 2013 hands-down! :P Yeah I know most parody videos aren’t very good. Trust me, this is the exception to that rule! It contains essentially the same content as the original, but with the gender roles reversed (and reversed more precisely than in the other parodies I’ve seen). Yes guys, this is how ridiculous the original looks to us! If after viewing this you cannot figure out what sexual objectification is and why it’s degrading, you’re beyond hope.

2) “ROYALS” BY LORDE

No this song is NOT overplayed! How many other mainstream songs are there out there confronting the music industry’s perfectionist (i.e. elitist) portrayal of the youth? (For that matter, how many female artists out there today succeed based more on their talent than on their ability to remove their clothes?)

3) DAFT PUNK’S ENTIRE NEW ALBUM

*waves hand in Jedi fashion* You don’t need a video to enjoy this music.

4) “GREYEN” BY MERGING MOON

This is Japanese thrash metal, and it’s pretty damn awesome! I mean if you in any way like metal, that is. This isn’t a typical low-quality artist that the genre rakes in by the dozens. This is almost (old) Metallica level talent we’re talking about here.

5) “THE FOX” BY YLVIS

Oh come on, it’s 2013! You know damn good and well that this ridiculously cute comedy video is one thing about 2013 that will be remembered for all of eternity. If you don’t like it, go crawl back in your hole! That’s what the monkey says. :)

The 2013 Stuff Awards: Best Films

This year I’ve decided to break down my arbitrary annual “awards” into smaller, separated pieces so that I can more fully show how I feel about the last year. I’ll cover various media in a few individual entries, then deal with political awards later (perhaps early next year). This entry will be solely dedicated to a list of my favorite films of 2013.

(Note: I reserve the right to alter this film list at a later date depending on how I feel about the forthcoming movie Mandela and perhaps also depending on how I feel about the new Hobbit movie after I see it.)

1) THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

Is there any doubt? Of course Catching Fire was my favorite! I consider the Hunger Games trilogy the most important film series of the decade at least and perhaps ever. It deals centrally with the subject of imperialism in way that’s both fantastical (which is preferable to me) and yet in the most honest way I’ve seen a film series do before. Of central importance to yours truly is the series’ breakdown of societies into exploiter and exploited populations. It’s rare for a high-budget, high-quality, blockbuster production to get that dynamic right. I think it’s very important to though because it’s the truth of how global class divides break down in a broad and sweeping sense. The series harshly critiques the lavish lifestyles of the privileged and their revolting sources of amusement while holding up the simple goodness of the poor and oppressed: something our society rarely does. And speaking of revolts, that’s precisely what the book series, and therefore the film series, conveys as the solution. Unlike less intelligent productions though, revolutions are not idealized in this series, but shown to be filled with suffering and moral complexity and that one should not enter upon them lightly, but only upon genuine necessity. Plus, unlike the overwhelming majority of Hollywood productions, this series has a well-cast female lead who doesn’t into one of a handful of neat little gender stereotypes, so there’s another plus for the trilogy in my book (er…film…?). :D

2) 12 YEARS A SLAVE

2013 saw the issue of racial oppression in America, particularly of black people, discussed in a much bigger way than it has been in a long time and the world of film reflected it. There were a number of quality productions this year tackling the tortured history of black people in America spanning from the days of slavery to those of institutionalized segregation and the civil rights movement of the ’60s and down to the present. I’ll promote each one of those quality productions in that order, such as to put these various oppressions in their chronological sequence. This first film was based on the incredibly powerful true story from the days of slavery in America:

3) THE BUTLER

Next we travel forward in time to the occasion of the  famous March on Washington (where, among other things, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech), witnessing the tail end of the Jim Crow era through the eyes of an African American White House butler. This film was inspired by a true story.

4) FRUITVALE STATION

Finally, we take a glimpse at what life is like for far too many black youth in today’s America; a look at the relationship between black people and the so-called criminal justice system we have in this country. This is the true and timely story of events that took place just a short number of years ago. It’s release couldn’t have been timed better: appropriately, it came out shortly after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, as if destiny had intended to show us that Oscar Grant was hardly the only one.

5) FROZEN

Surprised to see me recommend a seemingly typical Disney cartoon? That’s because this is NOT actually a conventional Disney picture at all! Frozen is based loosely on the 19th century fairy tale of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. Contrary to the impression that some parts of the trailer below might give you, trust me when I say that this is basically a serious movie that does NOT revolve around a goofy snowman character. It’s also a very good movie with a surprisingly feminist undertone. The film leads you on for a long time to believe that there will be a conventional Disney ending where a convenient romance solves all problems, but the solution to the kingdom’s crisis turns out to be a very different, and far more refreshing, one than you’d expect. I won’t spoil more than that except to say that there’s also something of an anti-Western (and more specifically anti-colonial) undercurrent here that surprised me too, and in a good way. In these and other ways, it’s not what we’ve come to expect from Walt Disney Pictures. It’s better! In fact, many critics are calling Frozen a masterpiece and Disney’s best in decades. I can’t disagree.

6) ELYSIUM

When was the last time you saw a socialist Hollywood production? Yeah those don’t come out every year or even every decade! This, however, is one of them. It’s not just me opportunistically saying that to pimp off a movie’s plot line and it’s not just the people you might expect to accuse all left wing populists of “socialism” saying as much either. More objective reviewers have said that as well. Variety, for example, has described Elysium as advancing “one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory, beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well.” Blomkamp, the South African-born director, has explained that sections of Johannesburg and Bel-Air and Beverly Hills respectively inspired this picture, with the former being represented by the Earth (the polluted slum where the impoverished masses live in the mid-22nd century) and the latter two by Elysium (the problem-free haven of luxury where the wealthy live). In his words, “I don’t think the film is speculative science-fiction. It’s so much more a metaphor for today in my mind.” This film is, in other words, a sharp critique of both social and economic equalities and oppressions. Personally, I agree with David Walsh’s review of this film for the World Socialist Web Site: that there is lots of good here, mostly to be found in the plot’s underlying socialist ethos, but that despite that fact, this cannot be described as the best movie of the year due to the occasion poor choice of storytelling ploys (like the ending wherein the protagonist goes superhero). In spite of those occasional tasteless artistic missteps though, the timeliness of the film’s basic point about global inequalities cannot be denied. I must therefore recommend this movie.

Polly’s Film Collection Edition Four: The Century of the Self

What follows is an excellent documentary from about a decade ago that documents the ways in which the science of psychology was applied over the course of the 20th century, perpetually to back up existing power systems. It provides a lot of very interesting info! For example, did you know that advertising once relied on rationalist principles, appealing to people’s needs (i.e. expounding the practical applications of a product) instead of manipulating their emotions? It’s true! The difference was the application of propaganda to the world of commerce under a new name: public relations.  It also documents how psychology was systematically used to shift America and the larger capitalist world away from needs-based consumption to wants-based consumption, to promote a vision of a utopian capitalist future amidst the Great Depression in order to shore up the public’s waning faith in the system, and to promote the restriction of people’s impulses in order to keep them docile…then, seeing that experiment as a failure, the unleashing of people’s emotions in safe, non-political avenues. Those are just some of the many fascinating topics that Adam Curtis covers in the documentary below. It should prove very enlightening to learn of the various ways in which you’re being subconsciously manipulated by very wealthy and powerful people on a continual basis as you go through your daily routine.