Monday, January 29, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #3s

Here are the third best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#3 Podcast: Friends at the Table

I'm using Friends at the Table, here, in the broadest sense. 2017 has been a huge year for this scrappy, emotional, radio drama of an actual play podcast. The main feed is more or less the same as it has been since it started in 2014; Austin Walker, host and GM, tells collaborative stories with two groups of players. The year began with a holiday special set in Marielda, a town that was set up in the previous partial season, Marielda. Then there was the remainder of Winter in Hieron, the third season and a direct sequel to the show's first season, Autumn in Hieron. Once that wrapped up in late June, they have moved on to Twilight Mirage, a season set in the same world as the second (COUNTER/Weight) but far in the future. I establish all this to say that, like COUNTER/Weight, I'm not completely sold on Twilight Mirage just yet. I think both seasons have really fantastic premises, and do interesting work, but there's something that just doesn't quite click.

The reason I say in the broadest sense is because this year, they opened a Patreon and spun up a few new podcasts. A $5 pledge gives you access to:
  • Bluff City: A monthly game using different roleplaying systems, all set in a shared city.
  • Tips At The Table: A write-in heavy advice podcast responding to reader questions about playing or GMing tabletop roleplaying games.
  • Live At The Table: A monthly one-shot with a different system every time, and no shared theme.
  • The Clapcast: A short monthly outtakes podcast.
All of which are interesting in their own ways. Tips at the Table is my personal favorite, as an always simultaneously erstwhile & aspiring GM. Not just because it exists, but because the discussions often function as ways of saying: enjoy yourself and make hard decisions if you have to, and here is how that might happen. I'm also in love with Bluff City as a concept and often enjoy it quite a bit in practice, though I haven't dedicated enough mental energy to it to put it up there with, say, the Hieron seasons so far.

All of these nitpicks and particularities aside, listening to this group of people play tabletop roleplaying games is an edifying and instructive and exciting experience more often than not. Everything from the tiny, world-changing off the cuff decisions that players make to the exciting rules uses that Walker both makes and sells work for me.

#3 Film: A Taxi Driver

Another example of the political cinema coming from South Korea, this movie focuses on a titular taxi driver (Kong Sang-Ho) who, down on his luck, tricks his way into a fare for a German journalist attempting to bypass a blockade and document the Gwangju Uprising as it happens. He succeeds and, despite his opposition to any politics of resistance, becomes something of a minor hero among the students opposing - by direct action and insurrection - an incoming regime.

I don't know that I have a ton to say beyond that. It is the kind of movie that has compelling shots but not anything that necessarily lingers or changes your perception of cinema. It is slightly overlong, and the character development is often telegraphed in a way that lessens its impact. Bits and pieces border on emotionally manipulative, and others simply fall flat. But it's also a compelling document about insurrection, and a story that fundamentally revolves around the transformative politics of taking and being in space. For those reasons alone I adored it politically more than any other film this year, and that means a lot to me, so here it is.

#3 Album: Forgotten Gears by RoughSketch

I wish I had heard this album earlier, because while there is no way it could have taken the number one spot, it's likely that with some time I'll be able to articulate my feelings on it with more clarity. It's been a few years since I got super into J-Core for a minute, and RoughSketch's "Funky Neet (side note: I just got the NEET pun/relationship to lyrics like "no money, no job, worker is loser" and "I am parasite," nice) is still in many ways the song that I think best encapsulates what I loved about it at the time. The bulk of Forgotten Gears doesn't quite do the same thing as that song does - it is much more interested in building out little music-box phrases interpolated by the crunchy fucked drums than using those kicks around weird spinny truncated synths and anti-work lyrics - but it does still kick fucking ass.

#3 TV Show: Lady Dynamite (season 2)

Maria Bamford had a hell of a year. Old Baby, her standup special for Netflix, is almost certainly her best, is one of the best of the year (in a year where I watched a surprising amount of standup specials), and might well be an all timer. The second season of Lady Dynamite also aired and, despite it not being at all what I had hoped from the show initially, it turned out to be much better than I anticipated, and even than the first season.

There are missteps, of course. This season introduces a flash-forward storyline, and its first occurrence might have been the single funniest moment on television in 2017. Unfortunately that aspect also tends to contain the aspects of the show that fall flat most often.

#3 Videogame: Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

You can probably look to just about any games site to find out what is interesting about Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. It's a game where you cause the sparks that might set the revolution in a Nazi-occupied America. It handles tone-transitions in a way that games simply don't anymore. It has weird difficulty spikes, even for someone who plays a lot of games, that are kind of a bummer. It is, in other words, good in a way that games aren't supposed to be, with exactly the flaws that always make them insular.

If there's a thing to take away, though, it's that this game is targeted at Gamers. Not just in the sense that it was developed and marketed in such a way as to exclusively appeal to them; that would make it no more than most of this list. It is also targeted at gamers, in the sense that people who base their identity on this particular type of consumption are exactly the sort of people who will mindlessly struggle through dull challenge in order to prove themselves adept at their craft. The difference, and I promise that this is a big one, is that this game tells the opposite story. Instead of that grinding mediocrity being praised as hypercompetence, as it is everywhere else, The New Colossus recognizes it as part of a larger whole, which it then goes on to thematize and write around in a brilliant way.

B.J. Blaskowicz' father is one of the most important characters in videogames for this reason: shown at the top of the game as abusive, prone to domestic violence, racism and antisemitism, and being incompetent at business in a way that isn't flashy, he is ultimately a villain because these politics he holds allow him a comfortable mediocrity that only requires him to sell out his wife and child to the Nazi party. He is the image of mediocrity that gets sold as competence by games, and he is also a fucking Nazi.

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