Happy Newest Year, everybody! I tend to resist the urge to reflect on the past year like everybody else does come January 1, because appreciating what you have and learning from your mistakes is a total buzzkill, but this year I couldn’t help it. It was a bit of a strange year for me. I had to deal with a few major personal stresses that I might elaborate on later (suspense!), and in all honesty there weren’t any really major triumphs to offset that (I haven’t updated Quinn Writes a Novel in a while because there’s really nothing to report - still no offers of representation, but the search continues).
But I did feel like this year had a real wealth of more modest pleasures for me, and in some ways that’s actually better. It helped me maintain a low-level positive mood throughout the whole 12 months, regardless of whether I was dealing with unpleasantness or not at the time. Many of these little things were fun nights spent with friends or family, exciting vacations or delicious meals, but a lot of them were simply new geeky bits of pop culture for me to enjoy. I’m a geek not because I play Dungeons and Dragons or spend time seriously considering the exact type of spaceship I’d like to own; I’m a geek because I love to get into things. When I pick up a movie or a novel or anything that looks appealing to me, I’m usually hoping I will love it enough to delve into the rest of the series, or the whole span of its creators’ body of work, until the well runs dry. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy disposable, one-hit pop fluff as well as anyone else. But the works I truly love are the ones that draw me inexorably into their world, in whatever form that world might take. Non-geeks want pop culture to be entertainment. Geeks want it to be a job. Yeah, it’s weird, but I’ve come to accept and embrace this part of myself.
So I thought I’d take a look back at the pop culture treasures and guilty pleasures that I discovered in 2010, and where they have me looking in this year ahead.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
My friend Chris recommended this to me years ago, but it was Netflix Streaming - that beautiful addiction delivery system - that finally put this Nickelodeon series right in front of me where I could give it a try. And I loved it. Brilliantly creative world-building, with a rock-solid foundation of engaging, three-dimensional, relatable characters. Plus, people shoot fire from their hands. It was also great to see an epic fantasy story that wasn’t tied down to a blandly white, male-dominated medieval England pastiche for once; this series took deep, well-researched inspiration from Asian culture across all its storylines and art direction, and it featured some of the best female characters I’ve seen on any TV show, animated or otherwise.
What it’s got me looking forward to: Next up from the show’s co-creators is Avatar: The Legend Of Korra, a new series set a few generations after this one with an all-new cast and storyline, but all the same bending fun I’ve come to love. Consider the ill-conceived film adaptation gone and forgotten.
If I was late on Airbender, I was way past due on this one. I was shocked to find that Joss Whedon’s space cowboy series only lasted for 14 episodes and a movie, given the still-rabid fanbase the show has (compare it to the decades of Star Trek or Doctor Who material, for example). It certainly keeps the barrier to entry low: I was able to leisurely watch the whole epic in just a couple of weeks. Though rocky at times - and what show, in its first 14 episodes, isn’t? - the series had a clear brilliance right from the start. Its take on the space opera was a novel one, its characters grew on me quickly, and even after Serenity managed admirably to wrap up the loose plot threads, it left me wanting oh so much more. That wistful musing about what could have been, as it happens, fits perfectly with the melancholy of the show, and I think that’s a huge part of why people are still thinking about it more than seven years after it went off the air.
What it’s got me looking forward to: Anything Joss Whedon does, I guess (yeah, I’m a fan now, disdain me if you must). I watched all of Dollhouse this year, too, largely to see what he could do with a still-cut-short-but-technically-finished series, and I enjoyed it. The Avengers should be fun; it’s only Whedon’s second film as a director, and I thought Serenity was even better than Firefly in terms of storytelling, so I trust the guy within the feature film format.
Yes, I’d like to be the 900th person to tell you that you should really check out this show, man, it’s as good as everyone says it is, and did you know it never won a single Emmy? It’s dense, expertly structured, and most of all it’s smart. I’m always thrilled to find TV that doesn’t talk down to me, so I’m more than willing to deal with the occasional conversation between two cops in which I can only understand a third of what they’re talking about.
What it’s got me looking forward to: I’ve still got four seasons to go, so my Netflix queue is going to be full for quite some time.
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
This one just barely makes the cut, since I watched it on New Year’s Eve (I was sick), and I really wish I’d gone to see it in theaters - partly for the awesome spectacle and partly to support its box office take. Still, I loved it all the same on home video. Edgar Wright has been a favorite of mine since Hot Fuzz, and this is something like the perfect material for him: a ridiculously over-the-top real-life video game about a young man stumbling into maturity. The result is great fun and some of the best use of CG that I’ve ever seen. The central love story was a bit weak - I never really saw much in Ramona as a character - but honestly, it doesn’t matter. I was in it for the crazy visuals and goofy humor, and Scott Pilgrim offers that in spades.
What it’s got me looking forward to: I hear that Wright is working on the third installment in his unofficial Simon Pegg-Nick Frost trilogy that includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Since a Scott Pilgrim sequel is highly unlikely, this will be pretty much the best possible substitute.
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
OK, I didn’t actually discover Kanye West this year (remaining unaware of the guy for the past few years would have taken some serious effort), but this year marked the first time I actually sat and listened to one of his albums all the way through. I picked the perfect album with which to do so; MBDTF was hyped as Kanye’s Thriller, and its widespread popularity and critical acclaim made it easy to draw that comparison. It’s big, it’s dense, and it never gets boring from start to finish. Not a lot of artists really take the time to craft albums anymore in this age of digital quick fixes, but the cohesion and flow of this one make a good case for keeping the format alive. I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop, so I can’t really approach a work like this critically, but frankly, I didn’t have to in order to enjoy it.
What it’s got me looking forward to: Following something like this is going to be a doozy, even for a wildly ambitious egomaniac like Kanye. Still, I’ll be interested to see where he takes his music next.
A Game of Thrones
I mentioned how much I liked that A:TLA was a fantasy that wasn’t a blandly white, male-dominated medieval England pastiche. George R.R. Martin’s series certainly looks like that at a first glance, but there’s much more going on here than your typical glorified Tolkien fanfic. It’s a gritty, personal, realistic take on politics and intrigue in a brutal medieval world. There’s not a lot of magic or dragons (though it does contain both, served sparingly), which keeps the focus largely on relatable characters and their labyrinthine network of alliances, hostilities and betrayals. I don’t often give books 400 pages to really hook me, but I’m glad I did it with this one.
What it’s got me looking forward to: I’ve still got the other three currently available books in the series to check out (which hopefully will give Martin time to get off his laurels and finish writing the rest of them already), but I’m really looking forward to HBO’s adaptation of this book, thanks to some pitch-perfect casting and really promising trailers.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author N.K. Jemisin’s first book is an epic fantasy that reads nothing like typical epic fantasy, in a good way. It’s a fantastically creative and multilayered story of gods, demigods, royalty, and power, and a young woman coping with forces trying to control her from all sides. The follow-up, The Broken Kingdoms, was just as good or better. What’s more, Jemisin is a prolific blogger and has a lot of really insightful things to say about fantasy writing and the world at large, particularly where issues of race and privilege are concerned, so her blog makes for a nice companion read. Stuff like this makes me really glad to be reading fantasy that’s actually being released now, as opposed to catching up on the giants of the genre from decades in the past, like I usually do.
What it’s got me looking forward to: The final volume of the Inheritance Trilogy (not to be confused with Christopher Paolini’s, shall we say, not-as-good Eragon series) is due out this year, and Jemisin also recently reported selling a new cool-sounding duology set in an Egypt-inspired fantasy world.
Just Cause 2
Yahtzee, one of my favorite gaming critics, just named this as his game of the year, so it wasn’t just me who got way too into this ridiculous sandbox action game. It’s like Avalanche Studios were taking notes when I was playing with my action figures as a little kid and just made a game out of it - all of it. Set loose on a gorgeous, massive 1000 square km archipelago, with jungles, deserts, snowy mountain peaks, and an endless supply of disposable enemy soldiers, the player is basically free to cause ludicrous amounts of fiery explodey chaos, any way they please. Sure, there’s also a stupid plot and a series of boilerplate missions, but I spent 50 hours playing this game and pretty much never touched them. This is the kind of game where I would steal a speedboat, crash it into an airstrip, and surf on the nose of a plane as it took off before tethering it to a passing helicopter and parachuting away as both of them smashed into brilliant explosions, all in the five minutes after I sat down to start playing. That’s all you need to know.
What it’s got me looking forward to: Just Cause 3 is apparently going to be set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, so I’ll be interested to see where that takes the gameplay. More than that, though, I’d love to see someone license the incredible engine behind this game and do something else with it - the sheer scope and detail of the world is so amazing that you could make practically anything with it, from flight simulators to fantasy RPGs to some new open-world genre no one’s tried yet. Let’s get on it, developers.
The other game I poured hours of my life into this year was also by a Swedish developer, only this time it was one single guy and the game wasn’t even in beta yet (it is now, and only costs 15 euro!). The fact that one person was able to create something of this scope and sell, as of this writing, nearly a million copies of it with no marketing budget tells me that this is a glimpse into the future of gaming. The gameplay follows suit: it’s a true sandbox game, maybe the first I’ve ever played. The game creates procedurally generated terrain for you, all made up of one-meter cubed blocks, and every single block in the world - as well as the various animals and monsters that roam it - can be altered by the player in some way. This means you can dig through the earth, harvest minerals, build structures to the limits of your imagination and do pretty much whatever you want. By making the world just threatening enough to give the player stakes (at night, the world is swarmed by deadly monsters, so you have to build or dig to keep yourself safe) the game speaks to something primal and incredibly powerful in the human psyche: build to survive. Once you’ve done that, build just for fun. Just Cause 2 was all about the joy of destruction, but this game is about the joy of creation, and I can’t recommend it enough.
What it’s got me looking forward to: The game is still being developed as we speak, so this should be a fun and exciting year for the thriving Minecraft community. I’m particularly interested in seeing what kind of mods start cropping up once full support is available. Even the game as-is holds nearly limitless possibilities in its enormous code-generated worlds. But more than anything, this game gets me excited about games in general, and where they’re headed. For players, there has never been so much choice, and never have games offered so much agency for players to make the game’s world their own. For developers, never have there been more tools and libraries so freely available, to say nothing of distribution channels and the chance to actually make money on these things. For someone who’s already dabbling in indie game design and plans to do a whole lot more, things are looking better all the time.
Here’s wishing you a great year of getting way too into things!