In a weird turn of events, I have surprisingly little to say about games this year, which tend to be my bread and butter, media-wise. Instead, this year I read a lot more books and watched a lot more movies and TV. And, what do you know, they ended up being some of my all-time favorites! I’m excited for a lot of great games next year, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorites from all mediums from 2021.
Favorite: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
This book is hard to describe literally (in under five paragraphs), so I tend to talk about the vibes instead. Piranesi has this very specific type of surrealism and existential intrigue that I really, really love. The protagonist lives in a seemingly infinite, absurdist superstructure of ghostly museum hallways, and the reader is left wondering exactly how real that space is. It rewards your curiosity with beautiful prose, and lets you
gorge yourself on detail as the protagonist explores the house with meticulous scientific observations. Despite this, it’s also a strangely emotional work, where the protagonist lets you look at the world both with that scientific rigor, and a reverent awe. I could not put it down until I knew all the answers, and it remained compelling even after I knew them.
Runner Up: Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe
This is my favorite book about the modern American labor movement. It starts by exploring the past century of that labor history, and tries to understand how the cultural myths of “do what you love” became so pervasive. It avoids the class reductionism of other contemporary books I’ve read, and casually incorporates a wide variety of experiences into a very holistic view of labor movements throughout the country. Also unlike nearly most books on labor I’ve read, it understands the value of keeping the focus on individuals while looking at these larger structures. It is powerfully empathetic. It’s definitely the only time I’ve happy-cried at political writing.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Has some of the best scientific intrigue of any book I’ve read, and maintains it until the end. Probably Weir’s best.
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: A work that somehow manages to be filled with dick jokes *and* an emotionally honest look at romantic relationships. Comics, obviously, do not regularly get this intimate, but I rarely see this vulnerability even in more respectable mediums. If I hadn’t watched the Before Trilogy this year, it would be the best I’ve ever seen.
Dune by Frank Herbert: A wonderful focus on systemic thinking without losing sight of the individual. I am so, so glad the movie finally got me to read it. “A process cannot be understood by stopping it” will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Favorite: Dune – dir. Denis Villeneuve
I feel like I could rewatch this movie a hundred times and not get bored. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the book, condensing pages of expositions into a few, great shots. It understands the core of what makes this story compelling, and of what makes these characters so alienating. There were passages in the book that I didn’t really understand or resonate with until I saw them on screen. The Gom Jabbar scene alone is a goddamn masterpiece. I cannot wait to see where they go next.
Runner Up: Inside – dir. Bo Burnham
This one has been discoursed to death, and I don’t have much new to offer on it. However, it is the only work I’ve found that speaks directly to the personal experience of being stuck in the monopolized, algorithm-dominated social internet, and the mental hell that creates. The final verse of “Welcome to the Internet” is simply haunting, and the best words I’ve found to describe how the internet has come to feel in the past few years.
The Matrix: Resurrections – dir. Lana Wachowski: An incredible return to the heights of the series. Unlike the other sequels, the ideas it wants to discuss are woven perfectly into there script, not just monologued about. And it still managed to have fun along the way.
The Before Trilogy – dir. Richard Linklater: The single greatest character study of romantic relationships I’ve seen in film. Or any other medium. Before Midnight is so good it shouldn’t even exist.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – dir. Jon Watts: Despite being a complete mess of tone and plot, this is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in years. I’ve been lukewarm on Holland’s Spider-Man, but everything just clicked in this movie. I could watch the three Spider-Men riffing on shit for hours.
Favorite: Y: The Last Man – FX
This show got canceled after one season, so I have even more of an excuse to ramble about it. The comic was fine, but this show really pushed the source material into exploring complex ideas about gender. The comic is pretty narrow in its focus, but this explores the experience of so many people on so many points of gender spectrums, with unique experiences ranging from the traumatic to the transcendent. The creative team absolutely understands what makes this setting interesting, and if this doesn’t get picked up by HBO or someone, I will die mad about it.
Runner Up: Squid Game – Netflix
I have nothing to say about this show that hasn’t already been said. I loved the tension and intrigue of the first few episodes, and enjoyed it to the very end!
Mushishi – Artland: Probably my favorite anime visually, and just a soothing work throughout. Felt kind of like The Witcher, but much quieter and without all the sword fights and politicking. It’s very focused on folklore and superstition, with the protagonist serving more as a traveling healer than a monster hunter. Gorgeous soundtrack.
The Witcher Season 2 – Netflix: This understands the soul of the series in a way the first season simply did not. I love where they’re taking these characters, taking inspiration from the books, but not letting it completely define their arcs. It gets that The Witcher is about alienation and superstition, not cool sword fights and shirtless Geralt. Though it does also have both those things.
Love is War – A-1 Pictures: The most fun I’ve ever had watching an anime. Two idiots are super into each other, but will use every trick in their Anime Bullshit Scheme arsenal to make the other person say it first. You’d think this would get old, but after binging two seasons in two weeks, I feel like I could watch this show for a dozen seasons.
This video became my personality for a solid month. It got me to watch the Before Trilogy and Boyhood, got me to start recording a second of video every day, and got me thinking about time, memory, and how my longest relationships – platonic and romantic – changed over time. Like everything Geller creates, it’s emotionally vulnerable and honest, and he has swiftly become my favorite games writer as a result. Also, buy Before Your Eyes; it’s wonderful.
Runner Up: Fandom’s Biggest Controversy – Sarah Z
“Our society is so heavily focused on consumption that we often can’t conceive of activism that is separate from consumption or consumption that is separate from activism. What media we consume is not only seen as expressions of our innate moral virtues, but often they are even seen as the deepest and most revealing expressions of those moral virtues.”
I’ve thought about this quote nearly every day since I watched this essay. On the surface, it’s about bullshit fandom drama, but uses that drama to incisively discuss larger cultural issues, something Sarah Z has gotten insanely good at. These feel like incredibly important cultural shifts that I just don’t see discussed as clearly and directly elsewhere. How this discussion seems confined to a video essay about the ethics of writing erotic fan fiction is beyond me.
Favorite: Emily Was Away ❤ – Kyle Seeley
This was a really personal game for me, and kind of messed me up for a week. I don’t know if anyone else will have the same intense emotional reaction I had to it, because I feel like this game was made specifically for me. I’m really interested in old social media and I grew up right around the time this is set, so this is kind of exactly my jam. It recreates the experience of using Facebook in high school, and works weirdly well as work of historical preservation. I’ve thought a
lot recently about how to preserve the social spaces of the older internet with tools like the Way Back Machine, but this feels like a more authentic reflection of what it actually felt like to be there. It tries to capture very particular experiences, like how people reacted to the technical weirdness of the platform. It tells a fairly forgettable high school romance story, but the format it’s told through is what makes it interesting. Short and bittersweet!
Runner Up: Subnautica: Below Zero – Unknown Worlds
I wrote a whole thing about this one, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Subnautica is one of my all-time favorites, and this expandalone did not disappoint. It polished Subnautica’s wonderful understanding of exploration to make the experience go down easier, and I had an incredible time exploring its new ideas. Playing The Outer Wilds DLC, Echoes of the Eye, gave me this bittersweet experience that I’ll never be able to play The Outer Wilds for the first time again, but this, fortunately, feels just like playing Subnautica for the first time again. I can’t wait to see what they do next!
Severed Steel – Greylock Studio: An incredibly slick movement shooter with near-endless slow-mo and beautiful movement mechanics. This is my new Max Payne, a game to zone out to and shoot-dodge through windows. Like Max Payne with Endtroducing playing in the background, it’s a near meditative experience.
Resident Evil 8 – Capcom: Not too much to add here, I love how Resident Evil finally figured out its tone and found a way to keep the wonderful format of Resident Evil 7 working. It even managed to be horny in a way that wasn’t *extremely* off-putting. I’m a little worried about the direction the plot is going at the end, but we’ll see!
Resident Evil 2 Remake – Capcom: I played this the year it came out, but this was the year I really got into it, and the rest of the franchise as a whole. I’m fully convinced that the series is in the best place it’s ever been, and I had so much fun replaying this on harder difficulties and challenge modes. The level design and control over tone and pacing is sublime, and I’m always finding new quirks or surprises. This might be my favorite of the series now.
Mass Effect: Legendary – Bioware: An incredible remaster of my favorite games. And a great excuse to play and talk about them again.
Neither of my brothers released an album this year, so I have no favorite music for 2021. However, both of my brothers are releasing albums next year. Look forward to the Rubio vs Rubio musical showdown, coming to you January 1st, 2023!