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Best of 2014: Television

January 3, 2015

More than any other medium — music, films, books or games, I consumed more television in 2014 than anything else. That says either something about my consumption habits or the bite-sized serialized format of television. Or it might say something about the sheer quality of that television reached in 2014. More than any other year, we had more variety and more quality on our screens. Part of it has to do with the changing landscape of TV,  with Amazon joining Netflix in producing their own shows with Transparent  and the networks ramping up their efforts to catch up in terms of quality. Part of the reason also has to do with the fact that television is quickly turning into a magnet for the discontented talent in Hollywood who are frustrated by the narrow vision and non-existent ambition of the film studios. TV, on its comparatively smaller budget and a potentially more persistent cultural currency has its own appeal. And 2014 saw television go […]

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Best of 2014: Film

January 2, 2015

2014 was a year where ambition transcended the film medium to greater heights than we had previously seen before. Whether it was the incredible cinematographic feat in Birdman, the breaking of cinematic boundaries in Jean Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language or even the multi-million dollar budget bringing Christopher Nolan’s vision to life on the big screen in Interstellar. There were grand realization of a decade long projects like Linklater’s Boyhood or the beautiful, heart-breaking end of a memorable studio’s era with Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. 2014 may not have had the same number of quality films as 2013 (which let’s admit it was an exceptional year) but what it lacked in quantity, it made up for it in sheer ambition and scale. If you ask me, I think films took more steps in 2014 than they have in the past 3-4 years. Each achievement — technical and creative have combined to give “the medium of 20th century” new life in the 21st century. So, without further ado, let’s get […]

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Best of 2014: Music

January 1, 2015

List making may be passe and boring, but the process of looking back at the year often provides an interesting perspective on the emerging patterns in culture. Moreover, it is also a way to look back at how your own interests have evolved compared to past years. Think of it as a diary entry, another blog, if that helps, that doubles as a recommendation of what I thought of as some of the best things in 2014. Music As always, it was a good year for music, if you knew where to look. Some genres had a slightly less impressive year like hip-hop but they made it up with some really good records. Lo-fi pop continued to emerge as a staple of underground scenes in Los Angeles, London and in different parts of Canada. Spotify dominated some of the big headlines, particularly with Taylor Swift’s much-publicized decision to pull her latest album “1989″ from the site. As much as she wanted, another female […]

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Settlers of Catan

December 26, 2014

Representation is a quality many designers consider as a holy grail, particularly the ones who like to think of their game as more of an experiential process than anything else. Evoking a feeling through its theme is an aspect that Settlers of Catan showcases through its simple design, which communicates large parts of its core mechanic through the Euro-centric ideal of settlers living within a mutually coexisting ecosystem with elegance. Settlers of Catan is characteristic of a common feature in the Euro board games genre and it is reminiscent of that continent’s history and consequent culture of settling, expansion and competition. Despite, the numerous wars in Europe over centuries, it’s has never been militaristic by and large and the expansion of land has always been borne from a desire for greater access to resources. This can largely be seen by the non-conflicting nature of Settlers and many other Euro board games that followed its success. This aspect of colonial imperialism […]

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Half Life

December 25, 2014

Few games have been as responsible for breaking down conventions of game narratives as Half Life was which not just introduced the concept of narratives coexisting with player agency but also experimented with its attempts to meld player identity with the character. One of the chief tools in Half Life’s arsenal was that is almost exclusively utilized environmental storytelling for all its narrative purpose and as a result never took away the control from the player. This consistent agency is surprising and refreshing for any first-time player, but even as someone who is revisiting Black Mesa, it makes you appreciate the efforts the designers put in fleshing out Gordon Freeman beyond the brief description that flashes out on-screen during the introductory tram ride. Any other game would have been satisfied with that, but Half Life had ambitions beyond that, which 16 years since, feel no less small. The moment the security guard greets you while letting you off the tram, […]

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Super Mario 64

December 24, 2014

Games, unlike other traditional forms of media aren’t purely a product of its creator. The meaning of play is derived as much from the mechanics created by the designer as the player who interacts with them. So, when I tried designing a run of trying to do a flawless run of a world without failing or having to backtrack, I stumbled discovered Mario 64’s most acclaimed element had a very critical flaw in it. The primary reason I chose to play through such a run was to see how Super Mario 64, being the trendsetter and the guidepost for 3D platformers fared in terms of pure focus on flow and fluidity. Jumping into Whomp’s Fortress in World 1-2, I realized that this was going to be a far more difficult run than I had imagined. According to the rules I had set for myself, I could neither take any damage nor could I backtrack which meant that once I had […]

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Myst

December 23, 2014

The exploration of static pre-rendered backgrounds forms the crux of exploration in Myst, one which not just evokes an eerie sense of detachment that you’d get from flicking through a series of postcards but also exemplifies its core essence of using the mystery of the unknown to leave gaps for the player to figure out as they explore its strange worlds. Blank slates are often utilized as ideal introductions to games so as to allow a player to familiarize with the world possibly with tutorials but Myst uses that to amplify its unique strengths by tapping into that unknown territory which the player explores and perpetuating a deep sense of mystery that dwells within its strange, almost surreal islands. As the player progresses through these beautifully striking pre-rendered backgrounds, their static nature almost lends to the opacity of the purpose. “Why are these boards just lined up around the well?” a first-time player of Myst might casually wonder. It’s important […]

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Bushido Blade

December 23, 2014

Minimalist and cinematic representation are often seen as polar opposites by gamers, often as two visual styles which portray information in different ways – the former through abstraction and the latter through realism. However, equating cinema as realistic and anti-minimalist is implying it resembles aspects of Hollywood rather than all types of films. Bushido Blade, which is already an abstraction of existing fighting game conventions, represents a cinematic style of Akira Kurosawa through that abstraction. As an exercise in minimalist representation, every element of Bushido Blade is essential, necessary and contributes to its intention to bring out the tension in the long drawn-out samurai showdowns in Kurosawa’s films. There is no fluff mechanic or system in Bushido Blade, which just like Kurosawa reduces the actors and props in the environment as the sole focus of the camera. There’s no distracting UI, no indication of combos, stamina or stats. None of that matters in a samurai fight. The central conceit of […]

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Kriegspiel

December 21, 2014

War has fascinated humankind for centuries, despite its horrifying and destructive nature. From Chess to Go, games have tried communicating the primal nature of humans fighting for their territories. As the earliest example of tabletop wargames, Kriegspiel brings out a nuance in that representation by simulating the tense albeit a detached experience of strategizing in a war-room. Beyond setting conventions that would be highly influential in the genre, Kriegspiel also contains crucial lessons that many games, even today overlook. Kriegspiel attempts to simulate a war-room like experience through a number of different ways, each introducing a vital mechanic that would go on to be influential in the genre. It simulates the Fog of War through a temporary uncertainty of troop placement before the war is declared. The ritual mechanic of placing a screen in the middle at the start, allows each player to place their units on their side of the board, while not knowing their enemies’ position. This uncertainty […]

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World of Warcraft

December 20, 2014

As someone sceptical about so many aspects of massively-multiplayer online RPGs, something wholly unique like EVE Online was far more likely to change my mind than a traditional, rooted to the core of its genre like World of Warcraft. Yet, WoW had a specific charm even if it failed to appeal to me on so many fronts. Questioning that charm today, I can think of only one answer: Azeroth itself. Despite having numerous NPC dialogues and quests as “content”, nothing about WoW’s storytelling is as effective as the sprawling and beautiful world rich in lore that it puts you in. Blizzard created one of the largest virtual worlds of its time with WoW and while the sheer scale of Azeroth contributed to the sense of freedom in making exploration an enjoyable break from the tedious role-playing grind, it also served in creating a sense of place for both the world and the character. Where your character resurrected established your avatar’s […]

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