Who Wants A 2020 Retrospective?
So last year when I wrote a retrospective of 2019, I acknowledged, presciently, that “Non-shitshows are clearly just not on the table anymore,” and 2020 certainly bore that out. But I also said “here’s to me writing a 2020 retrospective before March of 2021,” and now’s my chance to go 2 for 2.
This ended up being very long and mostly about media I consumed. Just a media consumption kind of year, I suppose. I could write more about my thoughts and feelings in 2020, but does the Internet really need another Pandemic Polemic about how COVID-19 revealed, in a way that should be absolutely unequivocal to anyone paying attention, that capitalism is a broken, inhumane system that we’d all be better rid of? Does it need another white man lamenting how America is actually a hell of a lot more racist even than the previous three years had shown it to be, when this actually demonstrates nothing more than his own failure to pay attention? Nope! And that stuff wouldn’t be fun for me to write about anyway, even if I thought I had something new to say about it, which I don’t. So it’s music and video game opinions for you.The Internet doesn’t really need another white man bloviating about the stuff he likes, either, but at least I have some kind of unique personal taste to express here.
Though I was fortunate not to lose my job in the pandemic, for a while it seemed like the Done Thing was to use the shutdown as an excuse to take up a new hobby and the gusto with which some people did so was infectious. I got the bread baking thing out of my system a few years ago (and anyway by the time I started thinking about a new hobby all the yeast in the United States was gone) so due to some advantageous circumstances I settled on sewing. I’d done a small amount of it by hand before, but my partner actually had a sewing machine that she rarely used, so I took the chance to learn how to use it. Conveniently, masks were also an extremely good low-stakes starter project that could be done simply with old clothes using a pattern such as the one I quickly settled on as the most accessible: Protohaven’s Ally Face Mask. I moved on to hemming a couple pairs of pants and met with considerable success.
Sewing also dovetailed nicely with my decision, extensively and somewhat defensively explained and justified last year, to start wearing skirts. Sewing a skirt seems like the “knitting a scarf” of sewing projects: though there are many different styles of skirts, most of them are fundamentally a tube with a hem at either end, with possible stretch goals like an elastic waistband (pun intended) or pockets. For my first one, essentially a practice skirt, I used a sports jersey kind of fabric and seriously misconstrued the amount of fabric required by the pattern. Unfortunately, a first item of clothing is not the best time to be forced off-script, so it’s too narrow, which I don’t like because I tend to take big steps, and sort of just cheap and sloppy feeling in general.
My second skirt was a decent success, though. I’d picked up a bunch of upholstery fabric samples from a place up the street that was throwing them out, and in an excruciatingly slow and hesitant process, I sewed them together into a patchwork pattern and lined it with a fuzzy fabric that I’d purchased online. The result was quite heavy and fairly stiff, and the shenanigans I resorted to while seam sealing it made the interior look like a bit of a war zone, but the outside looks pretty okay. Ultimately I call it a decent success for a second big project.
Finally, at the very end of the year, I sewed a pair of basically close-fitting sweatpants, to be worn under skirts as an alternative to tights. The tailoring is basically nonexistent: they can be worn forwards or backwards and they look pretty goofy. But they’re not meant to be seen, and they feel fine and are plenty comfy. Not a bad way to wrap up the year in sewing.
Media and such
My music listening ramped up again in 2020, not directly because of the pandemic, but because of the Fridays where Bandcamp, the best music service on the Internet, waived its fees so that musicians would get 100% of the revenue from their sales. These days provided a good excuse for me to blow quite a bit more money on music than I might have otherwise.I do not and will never use Spotify. I recognize I’m in a position of privilege that allows me to spend more money on music than others might be able to, but as someone who enjoys music and wants to support its creation, I can’t countenance a service as musician-hostile as Spotify when an actually ethical alternative like Bandcamp exists. Where possible, I’ll link to albums I mention here on Bandcamp.
Not everything I loved in 2020 was released this year. PUP’s Morbid Stuff is a much more “dudes yelling” kind of affair than what I usually listen to, but what can I say? It makes being worn out and at the end of your rope feel like a party, which I’m sure we can all get behind this year, at least in principle. This album also gives me strong The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified vibes in places, though it’s generally more melodic and less chaotic.
Speaking of “chaotic,” I also got pretty into 100 Gecs’s 2019 album 1000 Gecs this year, inspired by — what else? — people making jokes about them on the internet. The affection in the jokes was so palpable that it was enticing rather than off-putting, and my first listen to 1000 Gecs made me laugh out loud at its freewheeling audacity. It cleverly front-loads three of its catchiest but also most gimmicky tracks, all of which end with a hairpin turn into a blast of hilariously blown-out noise, but it doesn’t lag in quality for its entire 27-minute runtime. (I count the two sound collages “I Need Help Immediately” and “gecgecgec” in this, since they work so well as interludes that break up the sensory overload of the rest of it.)
I’ll be mentioning the spectacular Singles Jukebox again later in this post because whenever I want to read about a song I’m particularly enjoying, someone in their deep roster of writers has almost always said something vivid or delightfully on point. Jonathan Bradley opened his review of Money Machine with the following:
What I love about 100 gecs is the self-erasing sense of abandon in their commitment to shittiness: their constant doubling-down on their worst instincts, their ugliest sounds, and their stupidest ideas captures a vivid nihilism that strikes awe in its ability to destroy indiscriminately.
I’m not sure I agree that “nihilism” is the way to characterize this music but there definitely is a so-bad-it-wraps-around-to-good quality about it. Case in point: that review concluded with a score of 9 out of 10 from Bradley, but from the excerpt, it could just have easily have been a 2. That’s 100 Gecs for you.
Let’s move on to 2020 and get that other Singles Jukebox quote out of the way, since it was there that Katherine St. Asaph hit the nail on the head regarding Fiona Apple’s extremely good but still somehow overhyped Fetch the Bolt Cutters:
My stance: The Idler Wheel is Fiona Apple’s masterpiece, the genius coronation should have happened then, and in happening belatedly it happened for an album that, while good, is lesser… As Apple as a composer and vocalist has grown more freewheeling, less predictable, Apple as a lyricist has grown more didactic, not always for the better.
It’s strange: The Idler Wheel was my favorite album of 2012, and I don’t like Fetch the Bolt Cutters quite as much, largely for the reason St. Asaph mentions. But “Cosmonauts,” which seems like the song here that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Idler Wheel, is possibly my least favorite. And despite that I don’t generally care for more didactic lyrics, I do like Fetch the Bolt Cutters’s loose but clear overarching theme of solidarity, of women breaking age-old cycles that make them hurt each other for no good reason. I guess I just like the concept better than the execution, whereas the opposite was the case with The Idler Wheel (if it even had any kind of unifying concept). So my favorite tracks, despite that they lay their cards on the table quite clearly, are mostly the ones that lean into that concept: “Shameika,” “Ladies” and the title track.
So given that I was underwhelmed by Fetch the Bolt Cutters — though I did like it, don’t get me wrong — what were my favorite albums that came out in 2020?
I’ve liked Waxahatchee since 2013’s Cerulean Salt, though her intervening albums Ivy Tripp and Out in the Storm didn’t do quite as much for me. So I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by her new one Saint Cloud, especially after listening to the lead single “Lilacs” and hearing more of a country-ish, Americana-ish sound than I was prepared for, those genres being ones I’ve never really managed to crack. But it turned out that having as familiar a voice as Katie Crutchfield’s adopt just enough of a twang and no more was a good way to ease me into the stylistic mode of this albumJohn Darnielle accomplished a similar feat on “Waylon Jennings Live!” off last year’s In League With Dragons. Though he mercifully did not attempt to affect a twang, that song’s instrumental and melody leaned way harder into the country western idiom than anything on Saint Cloud.
. And I’m very glad it did, because she’s really firing on all cylinders here, using a fuller sound than on any of her previous albums to animate some of her absolute best songwriting. It’s front-loaded with the catchier stuff, which I usually hate, but the tail end of it is just a bit more somber and contemplative without dragging in quality at all. Just an absolutely wonderful album, fully deserving all the praise that’s been heaped upon it.
I also grew to love Bartees Strange’s Live Forever pretty quickly, for an album with so many different styles and influences on it that it’s difficult to pin down. Strange (né Cox) is a guy whose origin story in the popular imagination seems to be “the only Black guy at the National concert.”I don’t mean to be reductive with this; it’s basically the angle taken in the promotional materials for Bartees Strange’s first EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, which includes five covers of National songs. It’s a good hook but doesn’t fully do justice to the skill of his songwriting or the thoughtfulness of his approach even to those covers; I recommend reading the full description of the linked EP for a fuller picture of that.
But Live Forever pulls from more widespread sources than that description might suggest to create something really vibrant, surprising and thought-provoking.
I keep thinking about lead single “Mustang” and how it relates to Bartees Strange’s inhabiting very white indie-rock spaces (indie rock itself, of course, having a lineage originating in Black music). Given that Mustang is the name of the “overwhelmingly white and racist sundown town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City”Per Live Forever’s press materials.
that Cox grew up in, it’s hard not to hear a line like “You’re screaming and cursing / I’m smiling / You’re killing me” as reflective of the experience of growing up Black in such a place. And given that Black people have been making art about such experiences for decades, and since that line is a near-exact interpolation of one in an Antlers song about an abusive relationship, appearing just before the kind of anthemic chorus you might hear in, say, a National song, it’s also hard not to hear it as a sort of plea: if I speak about this in your language, will you actually hear me?
Bartees Cox has said in several interviews that it shouldn’t be so rare or weird for there to be Black people in indie rock, or rock in general. But since it is still uncommon, it makes an already excellent album like Live Forever both more exciting and more meaningful.
Less genre-crossing and more just straightforwardly well-executed was Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher. At first it sounded like just a middle-of-the-road folk album with some interesting and effective production flourishes, like the otherworldly reversed-sounding guitar line in “Garden Song” or the slight vocoder-y vocal effect in the title track. But a closer listen kept uncovering more sweet, wistful melodies and striking turns of phrase: “I’m gonna kill you / If you don’t beat me to it” (“Kyoto”). “A copycat killer with a chemical cut / Either I’m careless or I want to get caught” (“Punisher”). “Swore I could feel you through the walls / But that’s impossible” (“Chinese Satellite,” emphasis present in the line’s delivery). “I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth” (“ICU”). The kind of lines that really draw me in: what’s she talking about?
Extremely Honorable Mentions
People in my family were all asking me for music recommendations, so I’m going to basically plagiarize my own email to them for other albums that I loved in 2020 but maybe a bit less then my top 3 above.
leon chang, return to bird world. An album which is a soundtrack to a video game which doesn’t exist, which is itself a sequel to another nonexistent video game which had its own soundtrack. The first bird world was fun but this one is just as good if not better and there’s even more of it. Despite that it’s pretty light and fluffy sounding, it’s also (to my ears) really compositionally and harmonically complex and interesting.
Open Mike Eagle, Anime, Trauma and Divorce. This is a very funny rapper’s account of his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, which was apparently actually 2019 though this album came out late in 2020. OME has done a lot of good stuff and I think this is one of his strongest albums. Most of the tracks on here are a mix between the total despondency of “everything ends last year” and the wisecracking of “wtf is self care” but I like those two as the extremes on either end of the range that this album sits in.
R.A.P. Ferreira, purple moonlight pages. R.A.P. Ferreira used to be known as milo but changed his stage name sometime in the last few years. I haven’t listened as closely to this as I want to yet, but every time I put it on I’m struck by how often he reminds me of Kool A.D. but with better quality control. This album is dense but I like “LAUNDRY” as a more plain-spoken (pun intended) way in. Hard to pick a fav though as this is pretty consistent.
Destroyer, Have We Met. I’m a longtime Destroyer fan, and this is one of my favorite Destroyer albums in a while. Big kinda 80s synth vibe to this, but no one writes an opaque-but-still-engaging lyric like Dan Bejar and he’s in fine form here. I don’t know if the opener “Crimson Tide” is the best thing here, necessarily, but it’s up there, and it’s certainly this album in a nutshell. Shout out, also, to “It Just Doesn’t Happen,” which despite that I can basically never make heads or tails of Destroyer lyrics, contains my favorite lyric of any song in 2020: “I find the silence unbearable / What does that say about the silence.”
The Mountain Goats, Getting Into Knives. Another band I’ve been into for years and years. This album is very good, not their best; a couple tracks would be skippable for me if I ever skipped tracks. For uptempo songs I think I prefer the more abstruse “As Many Candles As Possible” to the lively and horns-driven but straightforward lead single “Get Famous.” For chiller tracks I love the series of snapshots of a cross-country trip in the melodic “Picture of My Dress” and the subtle but unmistakable menace in the superficially pleasant-sounding title track and album closer.
Owen Pallett, Island. A sequel of sorts to a previous high-concept album. From the first track, which spaces out about 80 piano notes across three minutes, it’s clear this is gonna be a moody album, but it’s really rewarded repeat listening for me and it’s not as dour as that intro makes it seem. Pallett plays a lot of guitar on this, which surprised me at first, but they’re still an amazing composer and arranger and both the fully soundtrack-esque treatment of “A Bloody Morning” and the tone-block flourishes on more straight-up folk songs like “Fire-Mare” are magnificent.
Carly Rae Jepsen - Dedicated Side B. I started dipping my toe into pop music a bit last year with Side A of this album. Side B is more of the same - really catchy, light and frothy pop music with a couple possible duds. Opener “This Love Isn’t Crazy” is probably one of the best tracks here, just a real sugar blast. But I also like “Heartbeat” a surprising amount for how mellow it is. The album has the strange decision to put two versions of the same track (“Felt This Way” and “Stay Away”) back to back, which I found confusing at first, but it’s grown on me as the distinctions between the two songs became clearer.
Other Releases From Previous Years I Liked In 2020
Moonface, This One’s For The Dancer & This One’s For The Dancer’s Bouquet (2018). Very long, as it’s basically two albums interspersed with each other, but those two albums are so sonically different it holds my interest for the whole runtime. The “Minotaur” songs are generally my favorites, somewhat surprisingly, based as they are on what I think my brother — who initially pushed this album on me — called “mallet percussion” (vibraphone, marimba, steel drums, etc.) and vocoder’d vocals. “Minotaur Forgiving Knossos” is the closest thing to a single and an easy song to love.
Christine and the Queens, Chris (2019). I got pretty into this for a couple months and then put it down but I’m still pretty fond of it. Dancey, synth-y pop music but with really fascinating lyrics about gender, aggression and alienation — and there’s a whole alternate version with the lyrics in French! For a song about despair, the melody in “Doesn’t Matter” is such a jam.
Musical To-Do List
Finally, some albums that I listened to a few times and liked ok, but not enough to say anything substantial about them, and that I want to revisit in 2021:
- Run the Jewels, RTJ4. This certainly doesn’t seem to be of any lower quality than their previous stuff, but I might be at a point of diminishing returns with these guys.
- Moses Sumney, græ. Definitely a demanding listen. I think it’s probably worth the effort but I haven’t cracked it yet.
- Fleet Foxes, Shore. Pleasant enough, but nothing on it has really grabbed me yet.
- The Microphones, Microphones in 2020. Another demanding listen. 37 minutes of continuous narrative is a pretty big commitment, attention-wiseAnd that’s after you get past the seven minutes spent strumming two chords.
, and the more I listen to this the more I fear it’s a bit too explicitly navel-gazey to be worth it for me.
Captivating Performances on YouTube
There are some incredible musical performances on YouTube. Here are a few that I found fascinating in 2020:
- bbymutha performing “Heavy Metal” for COLORS. COLORS is an absolutely spectacular series of single-song shows which puts each performer in a room with colored walls and a mic and that’s about it. So they tend to sink or swim on the charisma of the performance. bbymutha just spits straight fire with studied insouciance for 150 seconds here, and it’s the filthiest and most transfixing performance I’ve seen since Azealia Banks’s “212” video.
- Another COLORS show: JPEGMAFIA’s performance of “Thug Tears”. I’m still working out how I feel about JPEGMAFIA in general; he’s definitely got huge personality and tremendously forward-thinking beats and rapping, but his albums are a bit too sensory overload for casual listening. This single song is a perfect amount to take in, though. Whereas bbymutha’s COLORS performance was lowercase, JPEGMAFIA’s is spellbindingly all-caps, a stark contrast to the much chiller album version of this track. Over a glitchy, constantly confounding beat, Peggy dispenses histrionics with laser precision: he screams into the mic, looks on the verge of tears, vamps outrageously, and caps the whole thing off with a perfectly timed… well. Just watch it. I cannot stop watching when I put this video on.
- mclusky’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” is a compact, snotty classic chunk of nasty noise. July Talk’s cover somehow manages to improve on the original in some ways, bumping the tempo a little and bringing a different, more focused kind of intensity to the lead vocal. There’s nothing groundbreaking about it but it’s another video I can’t stop watching thanks to the overwhelming energy of the performances.
- My friend linked me an artist named Shawn Wasabi who performs lively and involved music — sort of halfway between 100 Gecs and bird world — on a grid of 64 (or, sometimes, 16) indistinguishable circles. His videos keep the focus on his hands, where it belongs, and they are fascinating. I almost can’t imagine how one would learn to perform something like this in real time; when I do imagine it, though, the dedication it must take seems off the charts.
- In 2007, Owen Pallett performed a cover of Destroyer’s “An Actor’s Revenge” which was so nice he had to do it twice, the second time with a special guest. OK, I’ll spoil it: the special guest is Dan Bejar, looking like he’s having as much fun as he’s ever had in his life, which is to say: a tiny, nearly imperceptible amount of fun. Clearly the gleeful exuberance of the other two participants is such that it breaks down even the defenses of Mr. “I’m not really into funny shit” himself.
- Moving a little further out into the realm of the esoteric, this Zs performance is probably actually a pretty standard one as far as Zs performances go, but it’s notable for being a decent recording, which seem to be in short supply. Here they’re playing the last three songs on their 2015 LP Xe. Zs plays pretty “difficult” music but it’s still remarkable to see it performed. The transitions between uncannily precise rhythms and free-jazz freakout breakdowns in the opening twelve-minute “Corps” are seamless and astounding. So are the jarring shifts between the mechanical-sounding substrate that makes up most of “Xe,” its outbreaks of thudding cacophony, and the melody that gradually appears, as though fighting to be heard amidst all the other goings-on. Every transition between the three motifs seems to happen at random, but the three band members execute it in lockstep every time, with no sheet music and only infrequent eye contact to indicate they’re even playing the same song. It’s often atonal and occasionally quite a squall, but also virtuosic and fascinating to watch.
- Out in the far realms of unlistenability, there’s this totally bewildering performance of a Brian Ferneyhough piece by Séverine Ballon, on an absolute punching bag of a solo cello and with some electronics that amount, as far as I can tell, to some several-second delay on some portions of the piece. The piece itself feels like it’s pushing the serialism of Boulez to the breaking point: maybe there’s some structure buried in thereIn fact there almost certainly is some structure. Samuel Andreyev, who has a wonderful channel in which he analyzes some incredibly recondite music, gives a Ferneyhough string trio the old college try in this video. It’s about as straightforward as you’d expect from listening to the piece.
, but it’s abstracted beyond recognition to a casual listener such as myself. But it’s also dynamic to the point that the performance could be easily described as athletic. Ballon scrapes and slaps the cello’s strings, whaps its body for percussion, plays pizzicato and harmonics, and then finally actually picks up her bow two and a half minutes in, whereupon things really get interesting. Overall, the amount of concentration required of the page turner seems superhuman, to say nothing of Ballon herself, and while the music is obviously way out in the outer reaches of modern incomprehensibility, it’s amazing to watch it performed.
- Reeling it in a little, there’s Zebra Katz’s video for “Ish”. I’m not gay and I don’t go to clubs, so I’m trusting the word of various Internet denizens that this is basically gay club music. The bass certainly sounds like it would rattle the eardrums of anyone in a club playing it, and Katz certainly dances like a man possessed in the video, but there’s something more to this video: I don’t think I’m misreading it to say Katz and the director are bringing some real creepy, unsettling energy here. But it’s captivating too, so here it is.
- Finally, and maybe most normie, there’s this Phoebe Bridgers + Arlo Parks cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” It lacks the showiness of basically everything else in this list. But few people these days do sad like Phoebe Bridgers, Arlo Parks is a lovely pianist and harmonizer, and this is just a quiet stunner of a cover song.
I don’t know if I played more games in 2020 than in previous years, or just put more effort into writing about them. But this section is considerably longer than it’s been for the last couple years. Where possible, I’ll link to the actual website for games I mention. Failing that, I’ll link to itch.io, the Bandcamp of PC games.
Roguelikes and Thoughts Thereon
Continuing in my tradition of playing mostly roguelikes or -litesHenceforth just “roguelikes,” in the broad sense of procedurally generated games with permadeath, with or without metaprogression. I’m aware of the contoversy surrounding this term, this is how I’m using it here, don’t @ me.
, I enjoyed Dead Cells a lot. But I already wrote about that.
Like everyone else in the world, I also played Hades and loved it: all its gods and mortals are so charmingly rendered that you just want to keep spending time with and developing your relationships with them. So while the core gameplay loop is engaging and well-executed, I think where Hades really raised the bar for video games is in its successful marriage of narrative and procedural generation. So many other roguelikes have sketchy storylines: some that might be interesting but are only hinted at or dispensed in scraps without getting in the way of the gameplaySee: Dead Cells, Nuclear Throne, The Binding of Isaac.
, some that are basically just generic and uninteresting skeletons to hang a game onSee: almost all roguelikes, honestly, but Crypt of the NecroDancer, Slay The Spire and Rogue Legacy as a few high profile examples. You get it, if you know any of these games. The same kind of “story” the original Super Mario Bros. had.
. Hades was probably the first roguelike I’m aware of to really put its story front and center and succeed. I take some issue with how it drags its game-ness out even after its own epilogue; this was easily solved, in my case, by simply not playing anymore rather than submitting to the Heat grind, but I wish it had just ended, decisively, rather than petering out in this “until you get bored” kind of way.
I guess that Dead Cells, and before it Nuclear Throne, had a similar kind of unsatisfying deflation when I stopped playing them, but it maybe took Hades, a game that seemed more like it could have had a real end, to make me realize that I don’t like how most roguelikes end. Because most of them don’t. Either you hit some kind of skill cap, where it becomes too much of a grind to make any further progress, or you “finish” the game and it contrives a flimsy-at-best excuse for you to keep playing, and then you do until you don’t anymore.
I get that some better or more dedicated players than I might get some satisfaction out of getting to 32 Heat in Hades, or finishing Ascension 20 in Slay the Spire, or getting all the achievements in basically any game ever released on Steam. But for those of us without the time or skill or both to get to that point, this type of “post-game” content can feel like just more filler that keeps the game from being a complete and bounded experience. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well. I just know that I can’t think of a roguelike that I stopped playing because I felt like it was finished. I always just kind of stopped.
Anyway: I played a few other roguelikes in 2020, none of which were an exception to the above. I bounced off Caves of Qud pretty quickly: it was too opaque and punishing, and had the same problem as ADOM: an overly prescribed early game that has you doing one of a few “starter quests” repeatedly as you get the hang of things. I might have to try it again at some point, but the prospect feels similar to trying to get into Dwarf Fortress.
In some ways, Children of Morta is a less-refined Hades. Like Hades, it’s procgen but with heavy meta-progression and a story-centric approach to the genre. But its pixel art and gameplay are a bit rougher and a lot more generic, its characters and story somewhat less compelling. Still, it was worth playing all the way through. I haven’t dipped into the New Game+ that was released after I “finished” but I’m suspicious that it’s more of the content-itis I mentioned above.
Wizard of Legend and Moonlighter are pretty much your standard story-lite action-roguelikes in the vein of Rogue Legacy and ilk. The latter’s shopkeeping mechanic is cute and equal parts fun and tedious, but the story is nothing and the game as a whole is a fairly “numbers go up” randomized-Zelda-dungeon affair. It has a New Game+, of course, but I couldn’t see the appeal at all. Wizard of Legend leans more to the “action” side of the spectrum, forgoing story pretty much entirely, and is a somewhat “purer” gaming experience for it, but still feels mostly like a time-killer. I found the bosses somewhat overwhelmingly difficult, though I did manage to beat it (again, notwithstanding the post-game whatever), and your choices of equipment seemed to suffer from too much breadth.
Gerty worked surprisingly well for me, considering how slow-paced it seemed initially: the digging-centric navigation was novel in an action-roguelike and it felt a bit different from most of the other top-down games I’ve played recently. Still, the main “story” was over pretty quickly, and by that time I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to try for the better ending that I assume it was possible to get by jumping through certain hoops in a normal playthrough.
Steredenn is a procedurally generated shmup. I liked it a lot but got pretty hung up on the big difficulty spikes on the last two bosses. And since the boss fights are basically the same every time, this took a lot away from what I enjoy about procgen and led to a sort of stressful experience wanting to get the right set of equipment for just those bosses by the time I reached them. In much the same vein, Lazy Galaxy: Rebel Story had a surprising amount of story for the type of game it was. Like with Hades, I found myself drawn in by the interactions between the characters, who in this case come from wildly different backgrounds but all have a common enemy. The writing was either clumsy or poorly translated in a lot of cases, but I found it pretty charming nonetheless, and played it quite a bit more than the wildly unbalanced gameplay might have otherwise warranted.
I finally played Kentucky Route Zero. It’s kind of the opposite of the roguelikes mentioned in the previous section, as far as “gameplay” goes, but pretty engrossing in its own way. There’s a lot to analyze about it, and other people have done so extensively enough that I don’t feel I have anything to contribute. But even without picking it apart, and even though I never really cottoned on to magical realism, it’s affecting, and its atmosphere is probably unmatched among any game I’ve ever played.
Steven Universe: Save the Light was charmingly animated and a surprisingly decent Super Mario RPG-esqueBy which I mean, basically a JRPG but with: some light platforming and treasure hunting during map traversal, encounters visible (and in some cases avoidable) on maps, and timing and other minigame-esque elements during battles.
JRPG. But I don’t have too much patience for JRPG tropes anymore, the small number of vocalizations for the characters quickly became tiresome, and its story failed to capture what made Steven Universe special. I got near the end but didn’t finish it.
SteamWorld: Dig 2 was fine. Like the first, it was plenty engrossing during its playtime, but didn’t improve on its predecessor in any notable ways.
I played far more of Starbound than I think it warranted. It was the first game I think I’ve ever played that really goes hard on the open world / resource collection / crafting thing, and I think I got caught up enough in that loop to overlook how the environments are all kind of samey, the platforming and combat all kind of janky, the crafting and building all kind of tedious and pointless. I think it was worth getting some experience with the genre, but I doubt this particular game is an exemplar of the form, and regardless, I think it’s probably a type of game I should avoid in the future.
Lenna’s Inception is a gem of a game. On Mastodon I described it, somewhat pithily if I do say so myself, as “Undertale – EarthBound + The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” I stand by that description now, although the last part of the equation would be much more accurate if replaced by the Link to the Past randomizer. It’s a charming little thing, worthy of playing through once and then, if you’re anything like me, immediately a second time to make sure you see all there is to see of the quite surprising story. The procedural generationDespite having procgen I don’t consider Lenna’s Inception a roguelike, as it lacks permadeath.
means that the world and dungeons lack character, but it also makes playthroughs after the first go down easier. This review makes a good, detailed case for the game’s general excellence, and the dev wrote an interesting postmortem about the development and marketing.
Speaking of gems, and charming little things, Butterfly Soup is another game that is both. It’s a straight up visual novel that is, per its developer, “about gay asian girls playing baseball and falling in love.” That’s true, but it doesn’t really do justice to how sharply the game captures the banter of a bunch of precocious high schoolers, or how deftly it balances that banter with the pressure cookers of their home lives. It’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, a little bit obnoxious in that way that high schoolers are, and just sincere enough to be moving without being maudlin. And it’ll only take you a few hours to play through. And it’s pay-what-you-want. You should just play it.
Some Closing Stuff
I mentioned TV in previous years, but there wasn’t really anything I felt strongly enough about in 2020 to write about a lot. The Good Place, which I didn’t finish up until it showed up on Netflix, wrapped up satisfactorily, but its fourth season was even less thrilling than its third. It was fine. Those first two seasons were lightning in a bottle. She-Ra also finished up well and cutely enough but didn’t leave a lasting impact. Carmen Sandiego was fun and had style in spades but needed more mytharc and less Heist of the Week, to borrow some X-Files terminology, plus it had a pretty bad case of Mary Sue-ism and required a bit more suspension of disbelief than I was able to maintain.
I didn’t read for shit in 2020. Probably the most interesting thing I read was Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race, and I think I’d already read enough about race in places on the internet that not a lot in it was really eye-opening to me. I read it and talked about it with a bunch of other white people and signed up for a local mutual aid Patreon and started being more liberal with my money when fundraisers for Black folks would come up on my timeline on Mastodon. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not doing a lot, but I’m not doing nothing.
And that’s it! I started writing this damn thing like two weeks ago and I’m tired of it. If I have anything else to say about 2020, I’ll say it later in 2021.