Best Games of 2018

I’m not the biggest gamer. I’ve gone through Go and chess phases. The longest was Go. I even competed in the Collegiate Go League on the University of Washington team.

Most competitive games have the same problems for casual players: losing skill isn’t fun. But maintaining skill isn’t fun either, because it involves spending inordinate amounts of time memorizing opening sequences and training “reading skills” with problem sets.

All this is to say that I’ve kind of fallen off the “competitive game” wagon in favor of more one-time narrative-driven stuff.

I won’t stick to things that came out in 2018. Early access makes things confusing. Some games just never officially release.

Everything will be newish and something I discovered this year. The categories will be non-traditional, since I didn’t play enough variety to make “best” choices of any genre.

 

Favorite Overall Game:

Hollow Knight

Hollow_Knight_cover

I know everyone has been saying this forever. This game is near perfection. The art is beautiful. The music is atmospheric.

It takes the classic Metroidvania formula and innovates it just enough ways to be completely fresh. It’s cliche to utter the words Dark Souls in a game description. But this is hugely inspired by Dark Souls.

It uses elegant environmental storytelling. It’s extremely hard but fair. There will be times you think something is impossible only to look up someone who did it without taking any damage and using the weakest weapons.

You can spend a hundred hours exploring everything. Every time you think you’ve hit the edge of the map, it opens up into even more new areas. Somehow every area feels completely different even though the art style and atmosphere stays the same.

It’s kind of hard to explain just how good this game is, because so much of its excellence is based on experience.

 

Nostalgia Winner:

Octopath Traveler

I used to love RPG’s like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy when I was a kid. Later in childhood I played things like Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. We were a Nintendo family, and after the mecca of RPG’s on the SNES, there were basically no RPG’s for N64.

So I haven’t played one in quite some time.

This game changed how I look at the genre. Maybe I’ve been missing out for a while, but I think they truly innovated here.

The way you play through the game is highly individual. There are eight starting characters. You can pick any one and work through the whole game as if that is the only story line.

Or you could pick any combination of two of them. Or all eight. Or any mix and match you think of! That’s a lot of possibilities. The battle system is really good, too. It’s not the old-school style where you just smash the attack button over and over, and then maybe heal if you have to.

Each battle is a fairly complicated puzzle to be solved based on resistances, shields, bonus attacks, character attack order, and on and on. Here’s a great description showing how “solving” the puzzle can help you leave with taking no damage:

 

Makes Me Consider Playing a Competitive Game:

Prismata

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Prismata is a brilliantly original competitive game. It has economic elements, card game elements, strategic elements, and many more.

It gets around the problems I listed in the preface above by having each game use a random set of units. It rewards clever, on-the-spot problem solving. One can’t memorize openings or tactics, because no two games will be the same.

Now, lots of card games do this, too. But this game has no draw luck, because there isn’t a deck. It’s the closest I’ve seen to a competitive game I might fully dive back into.

 

Shouldn’t Work But Turned Out Brilliant Anyway:

Slay the Spire

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This is technically still in Early Access, but it is a more complete game than most officially released games.

It takes the idea of a “deck builder,” like Dominion, and pairs it with a dungeon crawling roguelike. It’s kind of hard to describe more than that. It’s extremely fun.

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Best Books of 2018

I know this title is a bit misleading, but this is the same as I’ve done for the past ten years. These are my favorite books I read in 2018. Most of them were not published in 2018.

Best Literary Fiction:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Runner up:

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

This was quite good. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it’s a theme well worth revisiting. A life is more than the sum of its parts.

We all feel guiltier than we are. We all think we play a bigger role in other lives than we do. We can never know another self fully. Some things will forever be a mystery, and that’s okay. Secrets almost always cause more problems than you think they will. People are cruel. People are unbelievably kind.

The most interesting aspect was how the novel kept circling back to a few key events from different points of view to reveal more and more.

Best Mystery:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

Best Book on Writing:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

I’ve always thought of books like The Story Grid to be the gold standard on macroscopic elements of story. I’ve reconsidered my opinion.

This is the book all people should use in constructing an organic and compelling story. This teaches the essential elements without using a strict formula like other methods that follow the hero’s journey a bit closer.

Truby’s method is the way to go for original construction of a story with a character-centric focus.

Best Sci-Fi:

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (full trilogy) by Liu Cixin

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi.

Best Fantasy:

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is a tough one. There were times I couldn’t put it down; there were times I couldn’t pick it up.

Overall, Erikson is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. This universe is richly detailed, the characters well-drawn, and so much about it is completely original (none of the standard copying Tolkien but then change a few things to pretend like you didn’t).

The best novels take effort to read, but this has so many characters, many of whom don’t intersect the first book in the series.

But I’ve put it on this list for a reason. I think it’s worth the effort now that I’ve spent several months away from it. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series next year.

Runner up:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I read at least three in this series this year. They somehow keep getting better. The formula has become a bit predictable: take traditional story monster like zombies or vampires or necromancers or whatever.

Each novel has a different one. Place this in modern-day Chicago. Hilarious chaos ensues.

What makes them so compelling is the premise of a modern-day wizard detective with all the hard-boiled tropes. Magical occurrences cause deaths in the real world. Most people don’t believe the magical part. The tension and fascinating worldbuilding Butcher creates to keep this alive is great.

They are also genuinely funny with recurring gags. They are light, fast reads. This makes you want to keep going from one to the next.

Certainly, the first few weren’t great, but all of the ones I read this year deserve a mention on this list.

 

Year of Required Reading, Part 0

As I said in a previous post, I’m going to make 2019 the “Year of Required Reading.” I want to take books that I was required to read in school and read them again to get a fresh perspective and to evaluate whether I think they are good choices.

I’m posting my list this early so people have time to give some input before I begin. I have some rules for how I’m choosing books. I don’t want to pick something I’ve read in the past ten years.

I’ve gone back to The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, A Separate Peace, and many others since school. These won’t make the list.

I also want to put a few “new” books on the list. Many schools have tried to encourage reading with modern YA books. These didn’t exist as required reading back when I was a kid. I’m also curious how these are.

My list so far.

Re-read:

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck. I decided fear shouldn’t be the reason I avoid a book. And let me tell you, I don’t have good memories of trudging through this as a kid. But I’m optimistic that I’ll appreciate it this time.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve never gone back to this. I’m expecting good things.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris) – Victor Hugo. Yes, I actually read the full, unabridged version of this book in high school for summer reading. I remember being completely blown away by it. I’d never read anything with such narrative depth and tragedy. It changed how I thought about books. And yet, I never re-read it for some reason.

Newfangled stuff:

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson. I can’t actually tell if this is “high school” level or lower, but I found this to be the most common contemporary book on the lists I looked up.

Looking for Alaska – John Green. I’m not sure there’s a more famous YA author out there right now. Let’s judge this! (Sorry, I promise to keep an open mind.)

Monster – Walter Dean Myers. This one is on here for me. It sounds seriously dark. It’s one of the only contemporary books on these lists that I found appealing based on the premise.

And that’s it so far. I only plan on probably one more in each category.

My knowledge of Shakespeare is quite weak. I’m tempted to add one of his plays. Let me know what you think. There’s still plenty of time to change any of these and add stuff.

Previous years:

Year of Giant Novels (2016)

Year of Short Fiction (2017)

Year of Mystery Novels (2018)

Social Media’s Negative Effect on Prose Style

I’ve noticed this strange trend in the prose style of novels, and I’ve wondered why it’s happening. I finally realized that the prevalence of social media is almost certainly the culprit.

I won’t try to write a whole thesis on the history of this type of thing, but I think it’s pretty commonly accepted that social trends can be a big influence on prose style.

Dickens was wordy because of how serialization worked. The modernists produced intentionally difficult and confusing writing to show how difficult and confusing the world was after the world wars.

And so on.

Here’s the old rule that’s been changing:

Show emotions using subtext.

Stating emotions outright is considered a bit of a faux pas for a reason. It’s a special case of the “show, don’t tell” rule.

When I first started working on my fiction, this came up everywhere. There’s a time and place where it’s acceptable to write: “Joe was mad.” But mostly, this is the result of lazy or untrained writing.

One can show so much more nuance with subtext. Why is he mad? How mad is he? How is it affecting his actions and choices?

Not to mention, showing the emotion makes Joe more human and three-dimensional, because there will be complexity and confusion about the answers to all the questions. It can also turn a passive statement of fact into action.

Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

The reader can interpret their own emotions into this. Most of the time when I see this rule violated, it’s because the writer doesn’t trust the reader. It shows up in addition to the action:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She wanted to upset Joe by flirting with someone else. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head, because he was mad.

Yeah. All that telling can be read into the scene given the context of the rest of the novel or story. Here’s what it sounds like removed:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

In real life, I’d try to flesh it out a bit more, but you see the point. Now, I obviously can’t prove that social media has caused this shift, but it makes perfect sense. As a culture, we’re inundated with people’s status updates.

Most of the stories we read are people blatantly telling us their emotions with no subtext. I did a search for the word “mad” on Twitter. Here’s the most recent one:

This is pretty typical. Social media posts tend to be a raw, unfiltered dump of how someone feels. Most social media posts are accompanied by a picture or video. This does the hard work of apt description for the writer.

I don’t want to come off as saying this is “bad.” Social media posts are a completely different medium and serve a different purpose than long-form writing. It’s okay to have different conventions.

What I am saying is that these conventions have started to bleed into longer writing merely because it is what we’re used to now. Very few people read blogs or books or magazines or newspapers these days.

Almost all reading is now done from social media posts.

I have no statistics to back up such a claim, but leisure reading is at an all-time low and the average American spends over 2 hours a day on social media. So I’d say it’s likely true.

I know what you’re thinking: 99% of everything is crap. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about trends in case I’m reading a string of crap that no one thinks of as good. Well, the inspiration for this post came from reviewer trends.

Many prominent reviewers in the genres I follow have written that certain books have “good writing” when these blatant “mistakes” are all over the book. It got me wondering why reviewers have been desensitized to the emotion dump and have even come to think of it as good writing.

Unfortunately, I blame social media.

Bullet Journal: Becoming Intentional

I do something called Bullet Journaling. I’ve done it for several years as a way to stay organized. If you look this up and you’ve never heard of it before, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by how complicated it is.

But it only looks that way. Once you do it for a few months, you start to see how simple and beautiful the system is.

The word “journal” is a bit confusing. It’s not a place where I write my feelings or whatever. A bullet journal should be thought of more like a highly efficient planner designed to help you achieve large, unmanageable goals by breaking them into simple tasks.

I couldn’t imagine writing a novel without this method anymore.

What does this have to do with intention?

Intention is one of those concepts that got a bad reputation from New Age gurus of the 90’s. I can almost hear Deepak Chopra saying something like: “Set an intention for the day and it will be manifested.”

That’s not quite what I’m referring to. One of my favorite writers, Anne Dillard, wrote in The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim.

The concept is so obvious that it’s easy to forget. We often think that as long as we have long-term plans and goals, the meaningless tasks of the everyday don’t really get in the way. But, without intention, your days will fill with these tasks and activities, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve spent a whole life that can’t be gotten back doing essentially nothing you consider valuable.

Okay, so we can answer the question now. Intention, to me, is simply taking stock of the way in which you spend your day, so that you end up spending your life the way you intend.

This is why I opened with talking about the Bullet Journal method. The design of that system forces you to rethink what’s important on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis.

It has you “migrate” tasks. When you do this, you ask yourself: is this vital? Is this important? Why?

If the answers are: no, no, I don’t know, then you remove it from your life. Don’t overthink it. As soon as you start making excuses, you start filling your life with stuff that doesn’t matter to you. This means you’re committing to living a life that isn’t meaningful to you.

Make sure you’re intentional about how you fill your day.

Let’s take a simple example. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, but you’re too busy. Somehow the day just gets away from you. In your daily log, start tracking an hourly log to find out if you’re doing things that aren’t intentional.

You have some Twitter feeds that focus your news articles. This was meant to save time in the beginning. But now you realize a bad habit has formed where you go down the comments rabbit hole and the trending topics and on and on. The first hour of your day is shot, you’re filled with rage, and you haven’t even read any actual news articles yet.

You relax with some Netflix at night. But you started that one series that everyone loves. You just don’t get it. It adds no value to your life. But you keep going, because you might as well finish it now that you’ve started it.

And there was that time you wanted to know how hard it would be to make French Onion Soup from scratch, so you looked up a Youtube video on it. The sidebar recommended Binging with Babish and Alex French Guy Cooking and French Cooking Academy (all excellent, by the way).

All of a sudden, you’re subscribed to a dozen great cooking channels giving you hours of video every week. You feel compelled to at least watch a few, because, hey, you subscribed. There’s like, some sort of obligation there, right?

Maybe that last one wasn’t you (hint: it was me).

But you get the point.

Little things become habits really fast. Habits expand to fill those gaps in your day. If you were to ever stop and take stock of this, you’d find several hours a day you could have been learning piano. That Netflix series alone commits you to 60 meaningless hours of your life: gone forever. Sixty hours can get you through the beginner stage—easily.

Ask yourself, was that worth it? In twenty years, will you think it was worth it when you still haven’t even sat down at the piano, and now it feels too late? (It’s not too late; this is just another excuse.)

And maybe you’re thinking: but turning my brain off after a stressful day, watching something I don’t care about is exactly what I need to sleep better. Getting frustrated learning the fingering of a B-flat scale is the opposite of relaxing (seriously, that’s a messed up scale compared to literally all the others).

Great! You’ve answered the why. The Netflix series has value to you. You’re doing it with intention. Don’t cross that off your list. Maybe it’s that Twitter hour in the morning you can cut back on. Maybe right now isn’t the time to learn an instrument, and that’s okay, too.

Intention is what matters.

I’m not advocating everyone use this method.

This was actually just an extremely long-winded introduction to say I’m getting intentional about a few things I haven’t questioned for a while.

Every year, I put up a Goodreads tracker on the blog to show my progress on reading 52 books a year. For something like five years, I’ve read 60+ books a year. As a young, immature writer, this was hugely important.

As I learned about prose style, genre conventions, story structure, characterization, dialogue, etc, I was constantly testing it against a huge variety of books. I saw people who followed convention, people who didn’t, if it worked, and why.

In other words, when I started this practice, it was extremely useful. It had value to me. I did it with intention.

Recently, I’ve re-evaluated this practice. I’m getting rid of it. At this point, I find myself stressing about reading books I don’t enjoy just to check off an arbitrary counter. I’m obviously going to still read, but it will be more intentionally chosen and at whatever pace fits that book.

And let’s face it. I’ll probably still get through 40+ books a year. I’m just not going to have the stress associated with it anymore.

I get that I’m being a bit hypocritical or even egotistical with this, because I will continue to recommend other writers do the high volume method. I think most writers greatly undervalue the process of critical reading for the improvement of their writing. Quantity trumps quality until you reach a certain threshold.

Another intentional practice was mentioned in this post. I’m cutting out forced blog posts and only doing ones that I think add true value to the blog: no more stressing about “Examining Pro’s Prose” or “Found Clunkers.” All of my most read and liked posts were one-off things I was inspired to write anyway.

I’ll also use this time to announce next year’s reading series. I’m still getting value from the “Year of…” series, because I’m focusing on and learning about a very specific thing when doing it.

Ironically, in honor of intentional reading, I’m going to do the “Year of Required Reading.” I want to revisit some books I was required to read in high school and see what I think of them now. I also want to read some books required of students that I didn’t read to see if these modern additions are good ones.

I think it will be a fun series, though it might cause some comments from concerned parents if I think a required book just doesn’t live up to the hype.

So far I’ve only decided on To Kill a Mockingbird and something by Steinbeck (leaning toward Of Mice and Men but could be convinced to do The Grapes of Wrath with argument).

I’ve gotten intentional about a few other personal things that don’t need to be discussed here. But I thought I’d give a bit more explanation about some of the changes.

For those curious, here’s an overview of the Bullet Journal Method:

Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

Let’s Get Experimental

multicolored abstract painting
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do on this blog. I’m not thrilled about “book reviews,” not that I do those often, because there are a million reviews out there for every single book. No matter how good mine are, they won’t add much to that noise.

I’m also not thrilled with the “writing advice” type of posts. Again, there’s a million articles saying exactly the same types of things I say.

Back in July, I wrote something called Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction. It was an experimental piece of writing. It was part essay, part narrative, part literary criticism, part fiction, part nonfiction, part writing exercise in imitating DFW’s style, part philosophy, etc.

It’s not very easy to describe. The point was to have each piece reinforce the other bits.

It took everything I had to bite my tongue when people seemed to think it was just an essay trying to make the straightforward argument that Infinite Jest is about addiction. I still don’t want to overly describe it, but I think it’s fair to say, pretty much everyone missed the point.

(Like, did people really think I was consuming Infinite Jest everyday just like an addict and obsessing over its meaning just like the characters did with The Entertainment, and even waking up with withdrawal symptoms in an increasingly frantic narrative voice despite it being a written essay?)

Anyway, that was partly my own fault. I haven’t really done stuff like that on this blog. It’s also the type of thing I like doing more than the other stuff. It feels valuable and creative in a way the other stuff doesn’t. It adds something to the blogosphere you can’t find in a million other places.

It also feels somewhat particular to this medium in the sense that book reviews and writing advice is so much easier to digest through a Youtube video or podcast. Video and audio have cornered the book review/writing advice market.

Experimental essays that dive into social commentary and philosophy and literary criticism are better suited to the written word, in my opinion. Being, you know, essays.

What I’m trying to say is that I want to cut back on writing a post every X days by riffing on a poorly constructed sentence just because that’s all I could come up with. Instead, I want to focus more on these harder to produce, more creative posts that are unique to me.

I will keep doing the “Year of …” series, because I’m pretty excited for the one I have planned next year (and The Name of the Rose is pretty great). I also expect to keep doing some book reviews and writing advice things and random things that pop up. I’m just not going to force it.

Good luck!