Highlights of 2015

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After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!


Review: Game of Thrones Season 5

source: HBO

Warning: If being elbows deep in an Orange is the New Black marathon prevented you from watching the finale, you may want to click away for now. This review contains spoilers for all episodes of the Game of Thrones television show.

Disclaimer: I have not read the books…yet.

The fifth season of Game of Thrones had its final episode Sunday night and, if you were hoping for an action-packed finale, I’m willing to bet you weren’t disappointed. ‘Mother’s Mercy’ flitted from character to character, spending only a few minutes with each as dangling plot points were wrapped up and new storylines were set in motion.

Considering the number of plots David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D for short) were juggling this season, the change of pace is no surprise, but it is a departure from the show’s structure to date, which packed its most shocking moments in the 9th episode of each season. (See: Ned’s betrayal, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Oberyn v The Mountain – episode 9 has historically been no joke!)

Apart from some exposition in Meereen, every scene in the finale contained a substantial turn of events, which encapsulates what I believe was both the greatest strength of this season and it’s biggest weakness. Season 5 featured a few of the most shocking scenes to-date, but at the expense of the things that make the story a stand-out in the fantasy genre: dialogue and character-building.

One of my favorite parts of this season was that finally, after a whole lotta talk, winter came. The characters were constantly talking about the White Walkers for the first four seasons, but aside from Sam and Jon’s run-ins, the wintry zombies hadn’t done much of anything. And then episode 8 gave us one of the best ‘come at me bro’ moments of television history.

But…what happened before that?

Not a lot. Most of the season’s issues were resolved within a few episodes, albeit with violence and death as is the Game of Thrones way. The moment between Stannis and Shyreen in episode 4 feels like a cheap set up for her horrific death in episode 9, and the third infamous rape scene of the show didn’t really move anything forward at all. Dany’s marriage lasts all of a few weeks and D&D even introduce an instant fan favorite just to kill her in the same episode.

Subplots like the Sand Snakes and the Faceless Men drag until the final episode, and even then Myrcella’s death by poison feels somehow less impactful than Joffrey’s, while what happened to Arya isn’t clear. Of course, with so many characters in one story, it’s impossible to showcase everyone’s faves in each episode, much less be exciting and meaningful 100% of the time. But really, was Brienne just staring at that tower window for an entire season?

The thing Game of Thrones does best is skillful, unexpected character pairings: Arya and The Hound, Sansa and Tyrion, Olenna and Littlefinger. Once an odd couple is established, their adventures together allow both characters to grow and give the audience further insight into their personalities. Yet despite Tyrion teaming up with Jorah or Sansa marrying Ramsay, this season felt particularly bereft of a Jaime and Brienne in the bathhouse type of scene.

Of course, D&D did set up some great pairings for the coming season. One of the highlights of the finale was Theon and Sansa jumping from the wall of Winterfell, and whether/how they escape Ramsay will be interesting to say the least.

I’m also looking forward to Tyrion and Grey Worm working together to run Meereen, and think Lady Melissandre must have returned to the Wall for a reason. I can only hope our beautiful cinnamon roll Jon Snow will be subject to some Lord of Light action a la Beric in Season 3.

As the show has caught up with and branched off from the books, new possibilities have opened up for Game of Thrones that have both readers and show viewers eager to see what happens next.

While this season never quite found its legs, the finale still packed an emotional punch and I’m excited to see whether D&D can continue to hold their own as they tell their story in tandem with George R. R. Martin’s. I hope they’ll recapture some of what made the first few seasons great.

What did you think of this season? Who is really dead? Share your thoughts in the comments, but please tag book spoilers and leaks from future seasons.