Coolwood Books

The works of Jen and Michael Coolwood

Many Musings, Many Blogings

26/01/2018

I wrote an end of year Top Ten list at the end of 2017. I am uploading it now.

Life is hard.

 

LIST:

Top  ten TV shows of 2017

1)      The Good Place – Series 2

What is it?

The Good Place follows four characters who are in the afterlife. In this universe there is a ‘good place’ and a ‘bad place’. In series 1, the characters are told they are in the ‘good place’. But, as we found out at the end of series one (spoilers) this isn’t true. They are actually in the bad place, being tortured.

 

Why is it good?

I actually abandoned series one of The Good Place because I thought it wasn’t going anywhere. Boy, was I wrong. Series two starts off at some speed and then just picks up from there. Episode three, for example, covers over a hundred incarnations of Michael’s Good Place project. Series two has switched up its formula so many times, I genuinely have no idea where it’s going. No show has managed to consistently surprise me like The Good Place. It helps that the characterisation and comedy are really solid.

2)      Dark Matter – Series 3

What is it?

A science fiction show about a crew of mercenaries on the run from their past. It features great characterisation and a plethora of entertaining self-contained storylines.

Why is it good?

Dark Matter placed second on my list last year as well, that’s fun. Dark Matter is just really good television. It’s never really great but that’s okay. The story is well written and interesting, the characters show consistent growth and act according to their motivation… it’s just really good.

Sadly, this is the last series of Dark Matter we’re going to get as it was cancelled after the end of series three. This was seemingly to prove that we’re not allowed nice things. In order to rub salt into the wound, the infinitely inferior Killjoys (Dark Matter’s sister show) was renewed for two more series. Urg.

3)      My Hero Academia – Series 1 & 2, Little Witch Academia

What are they?

Two anime shows about life in a school for superheroes & witches respectively. I’m including anime this year because I went on my honeymoon to Japan last year and that got me back into anime in a big way.

 

Why are they good?

I’m including both of these shows in one slot because they’re basically the same show, it’s just one is designed to appeal to boys, the other to girls. My Hero is a long running action series focusing on themes of responsibility, ambition and abuse. Little Witch is a lovely, heart warming show about friendship, perseverance and bringing joy to those that need it. They’re both great. They boast great characters, good story and wonderful animation.

4)      Game of Thrones – Series 7

What is it?

Don’t play that game, you know exactly what Game of Thrones is.

Why is it good?

Game of Thrones is only this high on the list because when it’s good it’s really good. This series saw more than a few wobbles, though. Inconsistent plotting, constant disregarding of the laws of physics and endless teleporting armies and fleets. It also decided what the series really needed was to replace Ramsay Bolton with an equally annoying, boring character. Euron Greyjoy, I hate you so much.

5)      Lucifer – Series 2 / start of series 3

What is it?

A show about a crime solving devil. It makes sense, don’t overthink it.

Why is it good?

It really shouldn’t be. There is no way in hell (ha!) that this show should be as good as it is. Despite the, frankly, ridiculous premise, it manages to be really smartly plotted and has really grown beyond its crime procedural roots. Tricia Helfer was introduced as Lucifer’s mother/Charlotte Richards in series 2 and has really helped the show explore themes of maturing, betrayal and identity. It’s also really funny.

6)      Speechless – Series 2

What is it?

A heart-warming comedy staring Mini Driver about a special needs family.

Why is it good?

Its treatment of disability is wonderfully positive. It’s really funny and (as with basically every show on this list) it has really great characters. A stand out episode this year was the Halloween special where JJ taught an Exorcist-daemon about life with a disability.

7)      Recovery of an MMO Junkie

What is it?

A woman in her 30s quits her job and throws herself into living in a massively multiplayer online RPG. Hijinks, hilarity and romance ensues.

Why is it so good?

It’s an anime that stars a non-objectified woman in her 30s. This makes it almost unique for an anime. It’s just a really cute, heart warming story. It’s got enough plot contrivances to fill a standard Shakespearian comedy but I think it gets away with it. We’ll have to see how the series progresses (only six episodes have aired at the time of writing) as there is potential for the romance between two of the main characters to get a little creepy, but so far it’s really good.

8)      Doctor Who: Series 10

What is it?

Steven Moffat’s final series of Doctor Who. I fear I may cry.

Why is it good?

Fun fact, I initially placed this series much higher on the list. The final two episodes were so good, they pretty much eclipsed the rest of the series for me. I then went back and went through the episode list to remind me what the rest of the series was like.

Not Very Good is the short answer.

Most of the episodes had decent ambition but fell back on cliched writing. Some had a flimsy premise and failed to do anything interesting with it. Others fell into the trap that has plagued Doctor Who’s revival since its inception and relied on weak, hand-wavey conclusions.

Pearl Mackie’s Bill was a great companion who had a nice arc and Michelle Gomez’s Missy was just stunning. In fact, the characterisation in this series of Doctor Who was possibly the strongest it’s ever been. It’s just a shame the storylines weren’t there to back up the characters.

 

9)      Brooklyn Nine Nine – Series 5

What is it?

A sitcom about a group of misfit detectives in a New York police department.

Why is it good?

Remarkably, Brooklyn Nine Nine is still really quite funny. Sitcoms never usually manage to stay funny, let alone entertaining past their second series. Nine Nine has managed it!

10)  Robot Wars – Series 10

What is it?

A fighting Robot show

Why is it good?

I’ll be honest, this year Robot Wars is only here because there haven’t been that many good shows and I needed to pad the list a bit. That’s not to say the series hasn’t been good, it’s just nothing particularly wonderful. That being said, we have seen possibly the biggest surprise of any series of Robot Wars ever this year, in that Nuts 2 won a place in the grand final. Not by luck, not by a technicality but by being genuinely better than every other robot it went up against. And it went up against some pretty good robots. I don’t think anyone expected that. I’ll be so happy if it wins the series.

 

Top Two TV Disappointments:

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend series 3

Last year I was worried that the writers wouldn’t be able to keep up the quality of their work. I was right to be worried.

Teachers series 2

I remember series one being funnier than that was on offer in series two.

 

Top Ten Games of 2017:

1)      Hellblade

What is it?

A walkie-talkie/third person hack and slash game starring a woman with severe psychosis.

Why is it good?

It’s good just good, it’s great. The story is amazing, the graphics are wonderful, the gameplay is inventive… but most of all, this is a game that provided me with a completely unique experience. I have never felt like I understood what it is like to have psychosis before this game. I now feel like I’ve taken a glimpse into that world. It’s pretty bloody amazing.

2)      Prey

What is it?

Sci-Fi Dishonoured

Why is it good?

Prey took everything I liked about Dishonoured and turned it up to 11, whilst losing a lot of the more tedious stuff. Its middle act is a bit weak but I still love the freedom the game offers. The story is surprisingly smart and I had a great time with mimics.

3)      The Sexy Brutale

What is it?

A game where you prevent the murders of your best friends, who are caught in a time loop.

Why is it good?

It’s got a nice original gameplay gimmick (for those, like me, who haven’t played Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective) and a really good story. The design and characters are really good and it’s got some nice, if simple, puzzles.

4)      Echo

What is it?

A third person action game where the game learns from your actions and uses those actions as the basis for the AI.

Why is it good?

This isn’t so much a unique idea as a refinement of something that has been tried multiple times before. It works so well in Echo because it doesn’t try to hide the process by which the AI learns from you. On the contrary, it draws your attention to every new move it learns from you. Because of this, the game is never unfair, it’s just very brutal. It’s a great horror game. It’s oppressive and relentless. It also boasts a good story and wonderful art direction. It’s only so far down this list because there have been so many great games this year.

5)      Wolfenstein 2

What is it?

The sequel to my joint favourite game of 2014.

Why is it good?

It boasts the same awesome gameplay from The New Order, which helps a lot. It is quite a lot darker, at least in the early hours, which is both good and bad. There are a few dud levels and it does struggle to follow in The New Order’s footsteps. There are a few great moments and the gameplay is as good as it was… it’s just that there are a few mis steps and missed opportunities. We didn’t need to know the protagonist’s back story, for instance. Also, it’s a real shame we never really got to massacre the KKK, especially in the current political climate.

6)      What remains of Edith Finch

What is it?

A walking simulator about the Finch family who may be cursed or may suffer from being absolutely terrible human beings.

Why is it good?

Edith Finch made it onto this list because of the Cannery level. Those that have played the game know why. Generally, it’s a good walking simulator. It didn’t grab me as much as Gone Home and it’s not as inventive as either of Davey Wreden’s efforts. Still, it’s good, just (in my opinion) not great.

7)      X-Com 2: War of the Chosen

What is it?

It’s an expansion to one of my favourite games of last year.

Why is it good?

Well it’s not great. There’s a bit of a quality dip at this point on the list. War of the Chosen is good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not exactly mind blowing. It makes X: Com 2 a fair bit better, but it compensates for this by fucking the difficulty curve up really badly. For me, the game was either far too hard or annoyingly easy, depending on how the random elements fell. 

8)      The Surge

What is it?
A Souls-like game with fewer boss fights.

Why is it good?

I’ve never played a Souls-like game before because I hate hate hate boss fights. The Surge was pretty fun. The gameplay is good, the fight system is entertaining. I think the difficulty is a bit of a crutch. The game levels are really quite small and I’m suspicious that the game is so difficult in order to disguise the fact that this is a five-hour game stretched over thirty hours.

9)      Dishonoured: Death of the Outsider

What is it?

A stand-alone expansion for Dishonoured 2.

Why is it good?

It’s not really. Not that good anyway. Death of the Outisder really needs you to have played the expansions from Dishonoured 1, which I haven’t. So the plot had nothing for me. And when you’re not on board for the story, Death of the Outsider doesn’t have much to keep the player around. The levels are fine, but not great. It particularly suffers given it came out in the same year as Prey.

10)  Mass Effect: Andromeda

What is it?

The latest Bioware disappointment.

Why is it good?

It’s fine. It has some good characters and some good plot moves and some fun gameplay… but it’s nothing special. The days when Bioware used to be relied on to make the best games around are well and truly behind us.

 

 

 

02/11/2017 - Pre Production

I'm in pre-production of my next book, it's very exciting.

When I wrote my first book, I didn't even know I was writing a book. It just happened. I started off writing a short story that got really out of control. More or less the same thing happened with my second and third books (the third book is sitting on a hard drive waiting patiently. I haven't decided what to do with it yet.)

Since then I've become ever more enamoured by planning. The more I planned my work out in advance, the better the end result was and the less re-writing I needed to do. I've still needed to re-write an awful lot. The book I've just finished a draft of had to be completely torn down and restarted from the beginning. I made some characterisation mistakes which made it a lot less good than it could have been.

For the book I'm currently in the process of planning, pre-production is being amazing. I'm working on character journies, plot and world building. I'm doing this in Scrivener - a writing tool I've fallen in love with. I still need to make a few maps (something I thought would be a waste of time but turned out to be invaluable in the last book) and write a chapter by chapter breakdown.

What's surprising is how fun pre-production is. When I first started writing I avoided planning because I thought it would be boring. I couldn't have been more wrong. Endlessly re-writing things because you made mistakes in the early stages and can't work out how to fix them? That's boring.

 

30/05/2017 - A Writing Holiday

As you can probably tell, I don't blog much.

This is mainly because I have limited concentration for writing, so when I write, I want to be working on useful stuff. Right now, this means my books. But I'm on a little holiday from my current book, so I thought I'd do an update.

Why am I on a holiday?

That's an excellent question, voice in my head. I've been doing a writing course, that's why.

Why have you been doing a writing course?

Another excellent question.

I keep making elementary mistakes.

Well, that's a little harsh. Basically, my second novel, Confessions Of A Gentleman Arachnid, was a bloody mess when I first wrote it. It was only because I got a very talented editor on board that it turned out to be anything other than shockingly terrible. I learned a lot through doing that.

So, once Confessions was done, I tried to write a follow up to my first book: The Unexpected Death Of A Soldier. This did not work. This was mainly because I was trying to do a send-up of the story from the first Mass Effect game (this is too long a story to go into now) and it really just fell apart.

I then wrote the sequel to Confessions, the first page of which is down this blog somewhere.

I then hit a few road blocks.

I'd wanted to write a young adult novel for a while, so I tried to write one. After about four months, it became obvious that I had 45,000 words that had some potential, but was mainly one massive mess. So I wrote something else. This was... okay, but also had some pretty serious problems. I then wrote another thing. That's what I'm working on now.

This project (currently called 'Can Anyone Hear Me?' - I'm terrible at naming things) is going... mmm... it's going decently. But I reasoned that I kept... making... mistakes. Mostly to do with character motivation and narrative flow, so I decided to do a writing course.

 

Writing courses are quite interesting things. The one I'm on runs for twelve weeks and is done online. I was signed up for an in person one but I switched over. My disability was playing up and I didn't think I'd be able to attend the classes. Online is nice anyway. You chat with your peers on a little forum thing and watch videos of your teacher lecturing you.

The teaching so far has been... fine. I haven't really learned a whole lot but we'll see how things progress. The interesting stuff has been the round robin of feedback the course takes part in.

Every week, three students submit a three thousand word section from their work for the group to provide feedback on. You get feedback from the tutor as well as fourteen other people.

It's a quick and easy way of getting a lot of opinions very quickly, which is super useful.

The feedback I got on the stuff I've submitted so far was mostly wonderful. Glaring flaws I had not noticed were identified whilst some sections of my work were universally praised. That made me pretty happy.

What I found interesting was the massive variation of quality of the work on the course. Some students are really damned good. Others are writing at sub fan-fiction levels. This, it turns out, is actually quite useful. I've taken to reading people's feedback and checking their work to see if I should be taking their advice or not. I listen to the good writers more than I listen to the bad ones.

That said, a good point is a good point, no matter who makes it.

Anyway, I was implementing this feedback on my book. I'd been working on it pretty solidly for about three weeks. I find editing exhausting and frustrating. I was getting worse and worse at it. I'd started skipping sections and had largely managed to forget what I was supposed to be keeping an eye out for. So I decided to go on a one week holiday and here we are. Here is me, blogging. BLOGGING I SAY.

If I do some more of this, I might do something more interesting than just talk about my life. Maybe.

09/12/2016 - The 30 Day Video Game Challenge

(all in one day)

My buddy Steve has been doing a 30 Day Video Game challenge on Twitter. I didn’t fancy doing this as I knew I’d lose interest after a few days if I didn’t forget, so I went ahead and did it all in one go.

The challenge gave you a series of prompts (the stuff in bold). Here are my responses:

1)      Your first video game

It’s hard to tell but it was possibly Chuckie Egg:

 

2)      Your favourite character

I don’t have a single favourite so I’ll pick one form the list. I’ll go for the Narrator from The Stanley parable:

 

3)      A game that is underrated

Mass Effect 3. That game got so much hate despite being the best game in the series (in my opinion) both in terms of gameplay and story. Yes, I even like the ending.

4)      Your guilty pleasure game

I don’t feel guilty about playing things I enjoy so this question is invalid.

5)      Game character you feel like you are most like (or wish you were)

They don’t really make games about depressed administrators so I can’t answer this either.

6)      Most annoying character

Sera from Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don’t know if it was the way she was written or her voice actress but she annoyed the living shit out of me:

 

7)      Favourite game couple

I find it too hard to pick between Yenn & Geralt or Triss & Geralt from The Witcher 3 so I’m going to go ahead and pick Liara & Shepherd from Mass Effect 3.

 

8)      Best soundtrack

This is basically impossible to answer but the Thomas Was Alone soundtrack is probably the one I’ve listened to the most in my life because it calms me down:

 

9)      Saddest game scene

Thane’s death in Mass Effect 3 (Spoilers I suppose?) was unbelievably sad. This is all the more remarkable as before the scene I hadn’t given a single solitary fuck about that character:

 

10)   Best gameplay

Another question that is completely impossible to answer but possibly the purest expression of gameplay that is both simple and complex, easy to understand and impossible to master and utterly, viscerally satisfying is One Finger Death Punch:

 

11)   Gaming system of choice

The PC. I have an Xbox One but I only use it for watching television and playing Rock Band 4.

12)   A game everyone should play

This is a stupid question because not everyone likes the same things. I’d like everyone to at least try The Witcher 3 because it’s my favourite game and no-one other than me and my wife have played it.

13)   A game you’ve played more than five times

By ‘played’ I’m going to go ahead and guess this question means ‘completed’ because any game I’ve played for more than a few hours has been played over more than five separate occasions.

The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve completed any game more than five times. Unless you count The Stanley Parable.

14)   Current gaming wallpaper

I’ve got a series of pictures from The Witcher 3 on rotation. This is my favourite:

 I bloody love this picture

 

15)   Post a screenshot from a game you’re playing right now

Hearthstone:

I'm not sure there was ever a time when I was  not  playing Hearthstone...

I'm not sure there was ever a time when I was not playing Hearthstone...

 

16)   Game with the best cut scenes

Another tricky one but I’m going to go with Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 as the cut scenes are literally the entire reason to play that game. The gameplay is fine but it’s all about the cut scenes.

 

17)   Favourite antagonist

Spoilers but Davey from The Beginner’s Guide is a seriously amazing antagonist.

18)   Favourite protagonist

Geralt from The Witcher 3 – the character that cemented the idea that pre-existing RPG protagonists are preferable to blank slates in my mind.

19)   Picture of the game setting you wish you lived in

I am well aware that wanting to live in the World of Darkness does  not  make me a sensible human being.

I am well aware that wanting to live in the World of Darkness does not make me a sensible human being.

 

20)   Favourite genre

RPG

21)   Game with the best story

For this I had to strike off all RPGs because they all have massively bloated stories. Adventure games are similarly gone… which basically leaves us with Walkie Talkies. With that in mind, I’m going to say Gone Home. It might not have the most affecting, emotional or complex story… but in terms of construction, pacing and overall quality, it is the best. In my opinion.

22)   A game sequel which disappointed you

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That’s a series that has never managed to make the original Modern Warfare’s magic reoccur.

23)   Game which you think has the best graphics or art style

Again, there are too many answers to this question but Braid is a personal favourite.

So pretty...

So pretty...

 

24)   Favourite classic game

This was a surprisingly easy one. The original Deus Ex. No classic game had such a great story or such compelling gameplay.

25)   A game you plan on playing

I’m planning to play Icey.

I don’t know if I’ll like it but it sounds really interesting.

26)   Best voice acting

The best cast of voice actors and actresses has to be the Mass Effect series. Apart from male Shepherd there basically isn’t a performance in that cast which is anything less than fantastic.

For best single performances I have to fall back on the usual suspects of Glados from Portal, the Narrator from The Stanley Parable and the Narrator from Thomas Was Alone.

27)   Most epic scene ever

It’s not actually great out of context but I’d go with the Victoria fight from Hitman Absolution:

 

28)   Favourite game developer

For sheer quality of games produced, growing steadily as a developer and for supremely ethical behaviour it has to be CD Projekt Red.

29)   A game you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

I really expected to hate Life Is Strange. I can’t even remember why now but I love that damned game.

30)   Your favourite game of all time

This is an easy one. The Witcher 3. No other game has such awesome gameplay, characters, story and design. It’s such an amazing game. I can’t wait to see what CD Projekt Red do next. 

 

06/12/2016 - The best games and television of 2016

Television:

It’s been a bit of an odd year for Television. Two of my favourite 2015 shows were renewed for a second series… but they wouldn’t broadcast until 2017. Doctor Who, similarly, took a year off. No, I have no idea why. Still, we’ve had no shortage of good shows this year. Some of them are even from the same country I was born in! How surprising, it turns out Britain still knows how to make good television. Who would have thought it?

Well, let’s get started.

 

1)      Game of Thrones: Series 6

What is it?

Don’t play that game, you know what Game of Thrones is. It’s everyone’s favourite fantasy series with dragons and mysterious frost zombies.

Why is it good?

So, it turns out that George R R Martin was holding Game of Thrones back. Significantly. Series six started slowly… but then again show me a series of Games of Thrones that doesn’t start slowly. Aria Stark was given something to do that wasn’t washing bodies (hooray) and managed to get her way out of that tedious plot arc in Bravos. Jon Snow did some Jon Snow type stuff, culminating in a wonderful and disturbing battle. Titanic shifts of power happened in the North, the Iron Islands and in Kings Landing. The Narrow Sea is finally being crossed and Dorn might have some fun stuff next series.

Series six did have some problems. Ramsey Bolton, for example, was a terrible character. He was nothing but an unrealistically evil villain. His role added nothing to the series that couldn’t have been performed by his father with none of the gratuitous rape scenes. Still, when it was good it was so good. Episode ten in particular was amazing.

 

2)      Dark Matter: Series 2

What is it?

A character focussed science fiction series about the exploits of a set of amnesiacs on the run from just about everyone.

Why is it good?

The first series of Dark Matter was really, unexpectedly good. Series 2 mostly matched that level of quality. It remained twisty and turny. Its focus on characterisation and plot was maintained, as was its dark sense of humour. Characters grew, other characters died, other characters regressed to earlier states. Series 2 was very good. As with Game of Thrones, it had a couple of wobbles… but they were nothing too bad. Dark Matter never quite rose to the heights of Game of Thrones but it didn’t have that series’ troubles either. Dark Matter isn’t truly great television. It settles for being merely very good. 

 

3)      And Then There Were None

What is it?

An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s best murder mystery novel.

Why is it good?

I’m cheating a little with this one as technically And Then There Were None came out right at the end of 2015. It was broadcast on the 26-28th of December 2015. My logic is it was too late for me to include it in my top 10 last year so I’m going to include it this year.

And Then There Were None did what I thought was impossible: It adapted my favourite Agatha Christie novel brilliantly. Changes were made (almost universally for the better) but the amazing oppressive atmosphere from the book was only enhanced on the small screen. There have been around twenty adaptations of Christie’s novel so far according to Wikipedia. According to reviews, most of them aren’t very good. It’s wonderful to finally have an adaptation that lives up to the novel. It even improves on it in some ways. I just wish they’d filmed multiple endings with different murderers for the purposes of re-watching the series. That would have been fun. 

 

4)      Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What is it?

An adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Susana Clark. Set in the 19th century it focuses on themes of knowledge, betrayal and passion.

Why is it good?

I was really glad this novel was adapted to this wonderful series. This is because I refuse to read the book. The audio version (I only really read audiobooks these days) is 32 hours long. I find that when a book gets over 14 hours long it could do with things being cut here and there. I honestly don’t know how I’d get through a 32 hour book.

Still, now I don’t need to! The series was beautiful, well written and extremely gripping. It was never quite as good as the shows placed higher on this list bust still, it is definitely worth a watch.

 

5)      Westworld

What is it?

An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s film of the same name. The series focuses on an amusement park where lifelike androids entertain their human guests.

Why is it good?

I watched the film of Westworld when I was little. Probably I was a bit too young because that film is really quite dark at times. Anyway, I was cautiously optimistic when I heard HBO were going to adapt it and, so far, my optimism seems well placed. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s well written, it’s well acted and it’s often extremely brutal. I’m more interested in certain plot threads than others (the show seems determined for me to care about Delores. I think I used to but I haven’t done for a few episodes now) but when it’s good it’s really quite good.

I don’t think the show really gets what it’s trying to be just yet. There are a lot of disparate elements floating around each other, occasionally banging into themes of identity and loss. Big questions are everywhere (what makes you, you? Etc.) but the show doesn’t really have one core storyline or theme with which to anchor itself to.

 

6)      Banshee: Series 4

What is it?

The final series of a show about an ex-convict who winds up as a sheriff in a small town. It’s a gloriously pulpy series rife with gratuitous nudity and wonderful martial arts sequences.

Why is it good?

Banshee Series 4 is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it pulled the series back from the pretty serious quality dip that was Series 3. Secondly, it ended the show in a way that was satisfying.

This cannot be understated. I have never seen a television show end well. When shows don’t get cancelled their quality tends to fade so much there’s no point in continuing to watch. Occasionally shows will be allowed to wrap up properly. Such endings are usually a mess where the lingering plot threads are tied up in a way which is neither satisfying nor entertaining. See the finale of Battlestar Galactica for an example.

The ending to Banshee isn’t perfect, by any means, but it is good and that makes it unique as far as I am aware.

 

7)      Fleabag

What is it?

A BBC comedy about a foul mouthed woman and her quest for emotional and financial stability.

Why is it good?

The positioning of Fleabag in this list might be a little controversial. Certainly it was good. Occasionally it was great. It was emotionally raw and extremely funny. Still, was it better than the show in position eight on this list? Possibly not. What it is, however, is complete. I know how good Fleabag is. It’s very good. The show below this one might suddenly go off the rails next time it broadcasts an episode so on that technicality it gets stuck behind Fleabag. Hey, if life was fair my country wouldn’t have voted to Brexit.

 

8)      Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Series 2

What is it?

The second series of Rachel Bloom’s wonderful musical comedy about a neurotic but highly intelligent woman looking for love in a small town.

Why is it good?

Series two of Crazy Ex-Girlfirend is incomplete, so it’s hard to judge how good the complete series will be. So far it’s been… interesting. Things have changed a lot since the finale of series one. I honestly don’t know where series two is going to go from here. That’s exciting… but also worrying. Will the writers be able to maintain the level of quality they’ve managed so far? Time will tell.

 

9)      You’re The Worst: Series 3

What is it?

A black comedy about a series of objectionable people who make each other more mentally healthy through the power of companionship.

Why is it good?

It’s a shame to see You’re The Worst so far down this list. Series 2 was my favourite series of last year. I doubted series three was going to be able to live up to that, and I was right. It didn’t. Series three was a little worse than even I’d hoped, annoyingly. It wasn’t bad by any means, but there were a few contrivances and character developments that took the show one step closer towards being a Soap Opera. I enjoyed watching the series but the last few episodes left a bad taste in my brain. I’m not sure if I’m going to bother with the fourth series.

 

10)   Speechless

What is it?

A comedy about a family’s exploits and the challenges of caring for someone with cerebral palsy.

Why is it good?

Speechless is a tricky one. Only six episodes of the first series have aired so far but it’s a show I’m already very fond of. It’s hilarious and unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. I’m a big fan of any show that promotes disability awareness and Speechless gets so much right. They even cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the chap with cerebral palsy. I know it sounds obvious but this is actually really, really rare.

 

Honourable mentions:

Stranger Things! It was good but not better than other things on this list.

Wagnaria!! Is an absolutely hilarious and totally bonkers anime but, again, not as good as other things on the list.

Adam Ruins Everything Series 2! Or series 1.5 or whatever. The American series system is bonkers. Still, it continues to be a good show, just not quite as special now they've moved outside topics they clearly really wanted to talk about.

Last Week Tonight & Full Frontal with Samantha Bee! We've really needed biting news satire this year, more then ever. 

 

Disappointments:

Limitless was cancelled

What Was It?

Limitless was a television show acting as a pseudo-sequel to the film of the same name. Brian Finch takes a pill that unlocks his LIIIIIMITLES BRAIIIIIN POTENTIIIIIIAL. He then goes to work for the FBI solving crimes because of course he does. It was a really great, fun, silly show. It managed to occupy the space that has been empty since Leverage was cancelled. Unfortunately, because we cannot have nice things, Limitless wasn’t renewed for a second series.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt series 2

What was it?

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the new show from 30 Rock creator Tina Fey.

Why was it a disappointment?

Overall, the series was decent. It struggled to have anything to say for long parts of series 2. Titus reverted to being a tedious stereotype for episodes at a time. An excellent guest role for Tina Fey brought things together a little but generally the series was killed for me by an episode that wasn’t just bad, it was also massively racist.

 

Class

What was it?

Another in the long line of Doctor Who spin off shows. It followed six human teenagers, an alien teenager and an alien psychopath as they deal with various threats that emerge at Coal Hill School.

Why was it a disappointment?

The first episode of Class was great. It was morally complex, had a tense, interesting plot and did a lot with a limited budget.

Every subsequent episode I have seen (I watched episodes 2, 3 and 4 before I gave up) has been just your standard Torchwood/Primeval British story of the week disappointment. There was none of the awesome moral complexity that made episode 1 so interesting. The show just devolved into the same ‘Things are attacking! Teenagers implausibly stop the things’ storyline.

 

You’re the worst: Series 3

What was it?

We’ve been through this one already.

Why was it a disappointment?

Okay, this one wasn’t that much of a disappointment or it wouldn’t have ended up as my 9th favourite series of this year… but it was a pretty serious step down from Series 2. Things took a few crucial steps towards soap-opera territory. Characters had fights over issues I still don’t fully understand and one twist late in the series required one character to be so completely, artificially ignorant of another character’s personality it completely pulled me out of the show.

I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to bother with series 4 or not. I might just leave the show as a pleasant memory rather than watch it decline any further.

 

Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life

What was it?

A four-part series of specials reviving the classic show about a mother and a daughter who are also best friends living in a small town.

Why was it a disappointment?

Because everything about it was essentially lifeless? I only watched one of the specials, because I hated it so much I couldn’t watch the others… but the one special I watched (‘Winter’) was just an extended sequence of cameos. The show checked in on characters from the show in sequence. Here’s what Kirk is up to! Here is what Michelle is up to! Here’s a bit with Miss Patty! Here’s what wacky antics Taylor is inflicting on the town!

There was no story. Gilmore Girls has never really been comfortable with story but even the weakest episodes had a basic set up which led to conflict which was then resolved. Here… it was just a load of stuff that happened. I like the Gilmore Girls characters but after sixty minutes of just… nothing happening I checked out and never really came back.

 

 

 

Games

1)      The Witcher 3: Expansions

What are they?

Two 20+ hour expansions to the best game of last year, and very possibly the best game ever.

Why are they good?

I’m cheating a little here. Hearts of Stone and Bood & Wine were great… but they’re not stand alone games. They’re expansions to an already great game. I’m still putting them at the top of my list. This is for two reasons:

Firstly, they’re both massive chunks of content. If CD Projekt Red had released them together as a standalone title they would count.

Secondly, nothing better than these expansions came out this year. As with last year, we’ve not really had a great year for games. There were plenty of good games, but nothing amazing. Unless you count these expansions. Which I do.

 

2)      Dishonoured 2

What is it?

The sequel to Dishonoured, a stealth action game set in a steampunk/fantasy world.

Why is it good?

Dishonoured 2 is basically the game Dishonoured should have been. The design is better (and less grey) the city hubs are less tedious to get through, the voice acting isn’t the worst… generally it’s just awesome. My only real complaint is that there were no levels as spectacularly beautiful as Lady Boyle’s mansion from the first game but hey.

 

3)      Doom

What is it?

A remake/numberless sequel to ID’s 1993 classic FPS where you kill daemons from hell.

Why is it good?

I bought Doom when I was having a really bad day. I can’t remember what happened on the day exactly but I know everything was working together to make me really frustrated and angry. Then I played Doom… and the anger flowed out of me. Ripping the heads off daemons and punching through them with a double barreled shotgun is just magical for stress relief.

 

4)      X:Com 2

What is it?

The sequel to the critically acclaimed turn based strategy game X-Com: Enemy Unknown.

Why is it good?

As with Dishonoured 2, I think X-Com 2 is the game X-Com should have been. It’s more varied in terms of gameplay and you’re given way more options when it comes to your soldiers. It also doesn’t have a completely insane difficulty curve, which is what always killed my enjoyment of the first game.

 

5)      Inside

What is it?

The new game from PlayDead – the creators of the brilliant Limbo.

Why is it good?

Inside is a really interesting game. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was just Limbo again with a slightly different theme but that would be doing the game a disservice. Inside is mechanically more interesting than Limbo. It even has a story, albeit not a particularly complex one. I’m not usually someone who gives too much thought to environmental storytelling. I generally prefer things a little more on the nose… but Inside was wonderful in the way it conveyed ideas. It’s a really rare game that manages to both have a silent protagonist and a beautiful story.

 

6)      Overwatch

What is it?

A multiplayer only shooter from Blizzard

Why is it good?

It’s just so damn polished. It brings absolutely nothing new to the table but it remixes enough old ideas to make the game feel fresh. It’s more successful in that regard than Star Wars: Battlefront or Battlefield 1. It provided me with hours of quality multiplayer fun. If it had a few maps released every once in a while I might still be playing it now but we’ve had a grand total of one since the game was released six months ago. As a result I haven’t played it since October but never mind.

 

7)      Hitman: No Subtitle

What is it?

The best Hitman game since Blood Money – you play an assassin whose job it is to wander around massive, lovingly crafted environments looking for inventive ways to kill people.

Why is it good?

First, I want to say that I enjoyed Hitman Absolution. It wasn’t better than Blood Money. I also don’t think it was any worse than Blood Money. It was different to Blood Money and the internet appears to have decided that was a bad thing. Hitman: No Subtitle takes the best bits of Blood Money and smushes them together with the best bits of Absolution. Most of the ‘innovative’ things in No Subtitle actually come from Absolution but hey.

The levels are great, although there hasn’t been anything as wonderful as the Heaven/Hell nightclub from Blood Money.  There’s lots to do and finding the perfect way to assassinate people is still awesome. It does have awful DRM, however.

 

8)      Firewatch

What is it?

A walkie-talkie (the less pejorative term for ‘walking simulator’ about uncovering a mystery in a remote woodland.

Why is it good?

It has really good character work, a compelling narrative and a fun focus on exploration. The opening is a bit heavy but there you go. There’s not much that can be said about it without getting into spoiler territory. It’s not as good as The Stanley Parable or The Beginner’s Guide but it’s still really entertaining.

 

9)      Titanfall 2

What is it?

The sequel to the original multiplayer FPS focusing on squishy humans and massive stompy robots. Now with a completely pointless single player campaign.

Why is it good?

Well the single player campaign wasn’t. Definitely not when compared to Doom. It was so linear and tedious. It lacked any challenge whatsoever. The storyline was also somewhat dubious. I was never given a reason to care about my side in the war, given Titanfall 1 had pretty clearly established that both sides were as bad as each other. The game seemed to think giving one side American voice actors and the other South African voice actors was enough to make me side with the former.

I’m just going to let that sink in for a moment.

The multiplayer game was still good, thankfully, although I’d rather have had some more maps. Maybe the team making that awful single player campaign could have made some? But no, that’s crazy talk. There were plenty of changes for the better, although I think Rodeo-ing Titans was nerfed a bit too hard. 

 

10)   Abzu

What is it?

An experimental exploration game about swimming around beautiful seascapes.

Why is it good?

Because it’s unbelievably beautiful and supremely relaxing. There is a narrative (of sorts) but it’s deliberately vague and not really worth mentioning. The game takes you on a magical journey that’s really stuck with me. It’s a must for fans of Flower (I’m told. I’ve never played it because platform exclusivity is fucking bullshit).

 

11)   Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

What is it?

The sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s an RPG set in a cyberpunk world where player expression through mechanics is encouraged.

Why is it good?

Well it wasn’t that good or it wouldn’t have placed at the bottom of my list but it had to be quite good for me to include an eleventh game on a top ten list…

Mechanically it’s still a fun game, although it’s basically Human Revolution again with better designed hub cities. Plot wise things are a total mess, but they were in Human Revolution as well. Mankind Divided loses points for being extremely short and for feeling really quite rushed in terms of story and structure. It doesn’t have the massive dip in quality that the last act of Human Revolution did… but then Human Revolution had a last act, whereas Mankind Divided kinda… doesn’t.

 

Disappointments:

The Witness

What was it?

Jonathan Blow’s high profile next game. You wander around an Island and solve 2d maze puzzles until you get bored.

Why was it a disappointment?

Braid was one of my favourite games ever so I had high hopes for The Witness. It disappointed me, hard.

The puzzle mechanics were tedious and uninteresting. Solving 2d maze puzzles was fun for all of about half an hour before I wanted to do something else. The game was also obnoxiously obtuse about what, exactly, you were supposed to be doing. It got to the point where solving the puzzles was the easy bit – working out what the puzzle actually consisted of was the challenge. I hate that shit.

I like walking into a room and knowing ‘I have to get thing A to point B’ and the challenge is working out how to go about doing that. The Witness, by contrast, has you walk into a room and go ‘I know there is a puzzle at point A. I don’t know how to solve it. Any of these things in the room might give me a clue to solve it… or they might be random bits of environmental junk. I suppose I just have to guess.’

There was no story to keep me interested, there was no music to soothe me. The game world was beautiful but even that faded as my frustration and anger with the puzzle mechanics grew. I hated The Witness and I was very grateful for Steam’s new refund policy after I bought it. 

09/10/2016

Work on the next novel is going pretty well (I'm nearly done with draft #1 whilst I wait for Three Arachnids In A Warship to be edited but in the mean time, I've got a new podcast! Because I got fed up with Soundcloud. Here it is...

 

 

21/03/2016 - First draft of new novel complete

Hi there, peoples. In celebration of the completion of the first draft of my new novel, I thought I'd post the first page of it here. Because why not, eh? Why not? 

There are several compelling reasons but I'm ignoring them.

Standard disclaimers apply: This is a first draft and, as such, things are very rough at present. It's not representative of the final quality of the novel. Anyway, here we go:

Three Arachnids in a Warship (to say nothing of the human)

Prologue:

I had always expected it would be my liver that got me. My liver… or possibly my heart.

I had been to see my local sawbones on several occasions to enquire as to whether it was my heart or my liver… or possibly my twilbo that was to be the death of me. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, when after one occasion where I had been prodded and poked and scanned it was announced that it was my brain that was to be the facilitator of my end.

“My brain?” I had asked. I expect a slight shudder ran its way through my voice.

“I’m afraid so, my lady.”

“Well what’s wrong with the blasted thing?” I enquired, poking a claw at my carapace to see if I could get at the organ in question. I couldn’t.

The answer the medic gave me was expansive and, if pressed, I would have to admit that I didn’t understand every single word of it. The word that stood out, though, was ‘mindvirus’. Apparently there are these that can sneak up on a lass when she’s shifting from one body to another. They’re very rare, although as you can imagine that was little comfort to me.

Still, I couldn’t be sure that the mindvirus would finish the job so I returned home and began to ponder in earnest as to what else might be wrong with me.

Barnes observed, after I related the news over dinner, that it was surprising that my brain would be the first thing to go. After all, I barely used the thing. Sarah told him to get knotted. Barnes told her she needed to stop using the table like our kind, she should be using the bowl he put in the corner for her. I told Barnes to lay off and Sarah thanked me.

One or two of Sarah’s bosom friends were on the doorstep when I sauntered out after sundown for my evening constitutional. I saw to them with my umbrella and they removed themselves to a safe distance. They complained a good deal as to my treatment of them but I pointed out that a lady has a right to an uncluttered doorstep. They didn’t seem to know what to make of this so I set my jaw at a noble angle and sauntered off towards the river.

I then remembered that the river had changed course last week so I had to saunter back past them.

I gave some thought to my condition as I walked. I had two years. Two years wasn’t so bad considered one day at a time, but what other condition could lie within me that might shorten this time still further? Perhaps this was the last time I would view the river that wound its way through this fair city of Blibbit.

Or perhaps I should say if I ever managed to find the river. Gracious! Maybe I’ve already seen the river for the last time…

I found the river on the stroke of the fourteenth hour, to my surprise, and I buzzed about looking for a bench that was near enough to see the sparkle of the moonlight on the waves but wasn’t actually underwater. I found one and convinced the humans that were playing with small circles of cardboard on it to give up their seats with the promise of half a crown. I sat. 

22/02/2016  - More nice people saying nice things about Confessions

Well, I must say it's lovely getting all these nice reviews for Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid. 

'...certainly one of the most original stories I've read, not least from the characters. Clodthorpe is a character who finds himself utterly out of his depth, which renders the action that much more entertaining and the supporting characters more valuable...'

Thank you to Rebecca over at Musings of Another Writer, for taking the time to review Confessions and making it such a nice one at that!  When you write a book such as Confessions, it can be worrying when people ask questions about 'target audience' and 'demographics'.  It's always reassuring to be reminded that the type of people who want to read about space battles and social foibles in arachnid society do exist - the demographic Confessions is aiming at is 'people who like fun and wit'. 

Read the full review here

06/02/2016 - Test your knowledge of Human Studies

Those who have read Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid will be aware that the narrator, Mr Milligan Clodthorpe, is quite the expert in Human Studies.  Subsequently the Human Studies Department at University of Oxenfurt (Ceres & Vesta Campus) have provided the following quiz to accompany the work and clarify a few of Mr Clodthorpes more unfortunate errors.

Take the quiz here

(If you put your email at the bottom, I will totally mark the quiz and send you your score.  I'm currently writing the sequel to Confessions and a bit of procrastination is always welcome...)

31/01/2016 - Spiffing review of Confessions from Starburst Magazine

"This is an elegantly written and extremely funny slice of surrealist fantasy from a writer who obviously loves the genre and has the ability to turn even giant spiders into sympathetic comic characters. Arachnophobes and arach-not-phobes rejoice! This is a darn entertaining read, no matter how many legs you’ve got!"

Those lovely chapettes and chaps at Starburst Magazine have written a jolly nice review of Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid.

Read in full: Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid, review by Starburst Magazine

23/12/2015 - The best games and television of 2015

Working out my list of best games this year was surprisingly hard.

The critical consensus appears to be that 2014 was this cultural dead space where nothing of real importance happened. That wasn’t really how I experienced it.

If you’ll forgive me for prevaricating slightly, here were my favourite games of 2014: Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Titanfall, Dragon Age: Inquisition, One Finger Death Punch, This War Of Mine, Alien Isolation, Transistor, The Banner Saga and Defence Grid 2.

When I look at that list, I see a lot of games that were attempted in 2015… but less well.

Rocket League was great but for sheer arcade satisfaction it had nothing on One Finger Death Punch. I love Evolve but it didn’t have the longevity or mechanical complexity of Titanfall. Dying Light was really fun but no-where near as fun as Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Soma was an interesting horror game but was leagues behind Alien: Isolation.

There are two areas where 2015 clearly beat 2014. One was in Adventure/Narrative focussed games. The second was the big RPG of the year. And on that note:

My top 10 games of 2015

1)     The Witcher 3

Yes. Last year, Dragon Age: Inquisition came out. A year later, The Witcher 3 really showed Bioware how it should have been done. The Witcher games have always flirted with greatness but never quite reached it. The Witcher 3, though, was stunning. The mechanics, design and story were all first rate. It’s my new favourite game of all time. 

2)     Evolve

There’s a bit of a quality gap between the games I put in first and second place.

Scratch that. There’s a massive quality gap. There was nothing else released in 2015 that came close to rivalling The Witcher 3 in terms of mechanics and story. If I was being honest I’d leave the second and third space on the list blank and restart the list at point 4.

Evolve, then. It’s a good game. It’s fresh, it’s interesting. It lacked game modes but had atmosphere dripping from the wazoo. People hated it because there was loads of cosmetic DLC available on launch. Of all the reasons to dislike a game, I think this is one of the stupidest. Evolve provided hours of entertainment for me and I’m really looking forward to the sequel. 

3)     Dying Light

I hate zombies. They’re one of my least favourite antagonists because there’s nothing new that can be done with them. Dying Light, though, proved that a purely iterative game can still be really fun. It boasts strong melee fights and an excellent parkour system.

4)     The Beginner’s Guide

The first of the great narrative games. The Beginner’s Guide isn’t anywhere near as good as The Stanley Parable was but it still tugs on the player’s heart strings and has a lot of really interesting things to say about creativity.

5)     Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide

Vermintide probably would have placed higher if it had been just a little bit more substantial. It has wonderful design, atmosphere and a solid melee system. It only has 13 maps, though, and given they take between 5 and 15 minutes each to get through, that’s really not very much. Especially as only about half of the maps are actually any good. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve played that bloody Horn of Magnus level.

6)     Rocket League

Rocket League is pure, disposable fun. It takes a little while to be properly proficient at it but once you are, it’s an absolute blast. I’m not hugely convinced about its longevity as it has even less variety on display than Vermintide but there you go.

7)     Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange is maddening. About two thirds of the game is stunning both in terms of narrative and character. It even has the gall to back this up with fun puzzle elements. It could have been one of the best games this year… were it not for the episodic format.

The episodic format (or, more specifically, the decision to end every episode with a cliff hanger ending) forces the game to make some seriously stupid narrative contrivances. One particularly shocking revelation at the end of one episode was immediately reversed at the start of the next with no lasting consequences.

Still, though, the game pushed through the worst of the cliff hangers and the final episode was pretty good.

Life Is Strange out Telltale’d Telltale because, whilst the decisions you make don’t really impact the game, because the game is primarily focussed with character rather than story, the decisions still feel like they matter, even if they don’t when considered in terms of the narrative.

8)     The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle is such a silly, meta game. I love it. It’s quick and disposable. It doesn’t have the lasting impact of Life Is Strange or The Beginner’s Guide but said what it had to say. It’s unique in its subject matter (a game about development hell? Yes please) and its mechanics (exploration/puzzle solving/vampirism/level design). It didn’t rock my world like some of the games on this list but that doesn’t stop it from being entertaining and thought provoking.

9)     Tales From The Borderlands

The story and characters of Tales From The Borderlands are great. There are couple of dodgy narrative choices but they don’t ruin the overall experience. It’s by far the funniest game on this list and has a lot of fun with the Borderlands universe. The only reason it’s so low down on this list is: The gameplay actively detracts from the experience. Its standard Telltale slow walking, threadbare puzzles and quicktime events. Life Is Strange really showed how narrative Telltale-style games should be done and Tales From The Borderlands suffered by comparison. Still fun though.

10)  Carmageddon: Reincarnation

Carmageddon: Reincarnation is fun and silly. It’s also only on this list because I haven’t bought Her Story or Undertale yet. Enjoy being on my top 10 because of a technicality, Carmageddon!

 

Games that disappointed in 2015

I played two games this year that really disappointed me. Here’s why:

Games of Thrones

Tales From The Borderlands showed how Telltale’s model of adventure game can survive when the focus is on character and humour. Game Of Thrones showed that Telltale’s model completely falls apart when the focus is on player choice and narrative... when the narrative is tedious and the player choices make no impact.

Here was my experience with Game Of Thrones:

I’d make a choice as a player, the game would then spend ages yelling at me for making the wrong choice. So I’d make different choices and change my strategy. Those choices were wrong as well. I started not responding to obviously rhetorical questions during character exchanges because I was fed up with the characters yelling at me. The characters then yelled at me for not interrupting them.

I know some people say that Game Of Thrones (the TV show) works because it’s grim but that’s not actually true. It works because it’s a grim world spattered with humour, fun moments and tense but enjoyable battles. Game of Thrones (the Telletale game) had no humour or levity. It had no way to get through it without feeling like you were playing the worst possible version of the story… because every version was the worst possible version.

On top of this, it also has the same terrible gameplay of Tales From The Borderlands.

Game of Thrones is a poster child for gaming missed opportunities.

 

Fallout 4

I didn’t really get on with Fallout 3 or New Vegas because I didn’t like the gameplay. The shooting was unresponsive and lacked punch. It also had a host of weird gameplay contrivances that took me out of the experience. Why does hitting someone with a baseball bat do more damage than shooting them with a pistol?

Anyway, I was hoping Fallout 4 would fix these issues.

It didn’t.

The gunplay in Fallout 4 was as unimpressive as the gunplay in Fallout 3, but with the added unfortunateness of combat being focussed on way more than in Fallout 3.

I also realised that one of the only things I really loved doing in Skyrim was exploring the wonderfully designed landscape. Those mountains! Those snowy plains! Those elegantly designed towns!

Fallout 4 is many things but it’s not a beautiful world to explore… and that meant (along with the unimpressive combat) it had nothing for me.

 

Broken Age: Part 2

So yeah, it turns out that Tim Schafer really doesn’t know how to run a project. Broken Age: Part 2 was a mess. It revisited the same locations from part 1 (none of which really deserved to have more time spent in them) and made a series of contrived plot leaps.

It was a mess, and a completely avoidable mess at that. Broken Age was late, way over budget and failed to be the old school point and click adventure its Kickstarter campaign promised. A lovely visual style and great voice acting is no good if the content is terrible.

For me, the most telling thing about Broken Age is this: In the Fig crowdfunding video for Psychonauts 2, Tim Schafer stands in front of banners for Double Fine’s previous games. There’s a Stacking poster, a Brutal Legend poster, a Costume Quest poster and a Massive Chalice poster. No Broken Age, Tim? No Spacebase DF-9? You know? The other game that got crowd funded and was then abandoned after it became clear you didn’t have the organisation or budget to complete properly?

People haven’t learned, though. At the time of writing, the crowd funding campaign for Psychonauts 2 is 87% complete with 20 days left on the clock. It’s going to get funded no matter what I say. I hope Psychonauts 2 isn’t the monumental disaster Broken Age was… but I suspect it will be.

 

 

My top 10 TV shows of 2015

I love television in the way I used to love films. I find there are way more interesting things you can do with the longer format of television than there is with 90-120 minutes of film.

This year has been a pretty good year for Television, even if several previously great shows had extremely disappointing series’ this year. First, what was good?

1)     You’re The Worst: Series 2

You’re The Worst is a sitcom about two people who are both objectionable, rude and selfish… but because they have found each other and have become reluctantly romantically involved they start to become happier, healthier people. It’s a show that enjoys depicting selfishness but doesn’t idolise its main characters. It doesn’t shy away from how deeply unfulfilling their lives are… and that comes to a head in the second series.

There is some truly masterful character work in series 2 that elevates the show from a fun, silly, brutal sitcom into something altogether more complex and nuanced. It’s always been a clever show but in series 2 it became a clever show with something really important to say. I can’t spoil what this was but believe me, it pulled it off spectacularly and with serious skill. And it managed all that whilst still being funny. Somehow.

2)     Doctor Who: Series 9

When Doctor Who is great it’s like nothing else. Its high concept brand of cleverly plotted silliness is feel good television for all the family. Too often, though, it suffers from sub-par writers filling individual series’ with disappointing episodes. Series 9, though, was wonderful. It switched to a new format (2 episodes per story was the norm, rather than the exception) and dedicated real time to character arcs. Also, after two series of wasted potential, Jenna Coleman’s Clara was finally given an interesting role!

3)     Last Week Tonight: Series 2

Last Week Tonight is the news show all news shows wish they could be. It’s funny, insightful and actively revels in tackling difficult subjects. The jokes occasionally fall flat but given it’s a weekly news show that’s more than forgivable. Also, it’s good to see John Oliver finally getting good work.

4)     Man Seeking Woman: Series 1

Man Seeking Woman came out of no-where. I have no idea how I even found it… but I’m so glad I did. Man Seeking Woman does for romantic sitcoms what 500 Days Of Summer did for Romantic Films. It’s a wonderful show because, watching it, I was never sure if what I was seeing was actually supposed to be happening or if we as the audience were supposed to be seeing an exaggeration of what the lead character was seeing.

It’s hard to explain, so here’s an example: At the start of the first episode, the lead character gets dumped. Months later, he’s then invited to a party by his ex-girlfriend. He thinks she wants to get back together but he finds she’s got a new boyfriend. And he’s Adolf Hitler.

Literally. Hitler.

It’s a show that plays with the really fun idea that of course the lead is going to think his ex’s new boyfriend is awful… and that gets represented as the character being Hitler… but because the show plays it entirely straight and the other characters around the lead think that it’s perfectly okay for his ex to be dating Hitler… it’s got this beautiful tension that kept me guessing as to what would happen next.

Man Seeking Woman was consistently hilarious and wonderfully directed. It was consistently the most inventive show this year (or possibly…. possibly ever…) and deserves more attention than it got.

5)     Limitless: Series 1

Limitless has no right to be as good as it is. It’s a TV show follow up to the film of the same name: A loser gets a pill that supercharges his brain. He can learn anything, do anything (if he’s given an hour to study it beforehand)… and because of this he’s hunted and captured by the FBI and they get him to work for them.

Limitless is mostly a procedural show. Every week there’s a Thing That Needs Dealing With (although thankfully it’s not always a murder or a robbery, sometimes it’s something more mundane but character driven) and the main characters deal with it using the lead’s fantastic drug.

The reason Limitless is more than just another procedural with a gimmick is this: It’s concerned with style and tone moreso than any other procedural since Leverage. It’s unbelievably fun and silly. The main character is charming and witty. He’s also maddening and the show has great fun pitting him against his stuffy FBI co-workers.

The show also has fun by breaking the 4th wall. The main character is a civilian so isn’t allowed to go and arrest suspects… so instead the show depicts what the main character assumes happened during the arrest. He does this in many ways but my personal favourite was this when an arrest was presented as the opening titles to an in universe 70s cheesy cop show.

The creators of Limitless could have done what the superbly disappointing Minority Report tv show did this same year: It could have sloppily adapted an existing property and hoped that the name recognition would be enough to draw viewers. Instead, Limitless was given the space to become its own thing. Its own fun, silly, ridiculous, entertaining and occasionally emotionally raw thing.

6)     Into The Badlands: Series 1

The first (mostly) serious show on this list. Into The Badlands is a post-apocalyptic show set in the ruins of a southern US state. The known world is overseen by five Barons. They’re portrayed as plantation owners (although the show avoids racial commentary, probably wisely). Guns have been outlawed completely and so law (and the will of the Barons) is enforced by ‘clippers’ – martial arts masters.

The show is a martial arts show. There are two or three really good wushu fights per episode. They’re really good. Occasionally brutal and always spectacular. Into The Badlands has taken a cast and crew who really know their fights and just let them build a show around it. It’s great. It’s what I wish Marvel would do with their films.

Into The Badlands is a good-but-not-great show. It’s a must for martial arts fans. A second series is yet to be commissioned but I hope it gets renewed. With a longer series (series 1 was only 6 episodes) and more room to express itself, a second series could become truly great.

7)     Dark Matter: Series 1

Dark Matter is a rare example of science fiction done right. It’s set of a space ship in the far future. The crew wake up having had their memories wiped and gradually discover that they’re a crew of mercenaries wanted across the galaxy for the horrible crimes they’ve committed. The tension that lasts throughout the series stems from the characters struggling to either distance themselves from their pasts… or give into them.

The character work is extremely strong and, whilst there is a fair amount of annoyance rising from the characters not sharing vital information with each other for no good reason, it’s really well plotted.

The low budget does occasionally get in the way but mostly Dark Matter is a good, solid show. It wouldn’t be particularly notable were it not for the almost total lack of good science fiction on television.

8)     Brooklyn Nine Nine: Series 3

There’s nothing I can really say about series 3 of Brooklyn Nine Nine that hasn’t been said about series 1 and 2… and that’s a really good thing. It continues to be a really funny comedy series. Considering we have now had 55 episodes of the show, maybe 50 of which have been good is pretty astonishing. Most comedies manage between about 10 and 20 good episodes.

9)     Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The pilot of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a bit of a roller coaster. The first five minutes were amazing. The subsequent 17 minutes were (in my opinion) terrible. The characters were clichés, the set up was tedious.

Throughout the series, though, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt grew into its own show. The characters got sharper and moved further away from stereotype (I’m looking at you, Titus)… it just got a lot better. The only reason Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t higher on this list is it just can’t stand up next to the other really great comedies we’ve had this year.

10)  Adam Ruins Everything

Adam Ruins Everything is a show where charming loser Adam Conover deconstructs aspects of society that aren’t given enough scrutiny like charity drives or the restaurant industry. The show examines the problems prevalent in the subject of the episode and explains what could be done to fix them. It even cites its sources. It’s pretty damn fun. It’s consistently funny and manages to not be overly preachy most of the time.

It’s good but in any other year it wouldn’t be top 10 material. It is in my top 10, however, and that is because:

 

2015 had a lot of really disappointing television

If you look at my top 10 television shows of 2015, you might come to the conclusion that I really like comedy and don’t really like drama. After all, only two of my top 10 shows consider story and character to be more important than comedy (Into The Badlands & Dark Matter) unless you count Limitless.

This isn’t because I dislike drama shows. Far from it, I love drama. The problem is 2015 is the year when a lot of my favourite drama shows went completely off the rails and nothing really popped up to replace them… except Into The Badlands and Dark Matter. Let’s work through 2015’s disappointments, shall we?

Orange Is The New Black: Series 3

Orange Is The New Black, at its best, is a great slice of life drama with compelling characters. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal nature of prison life but also has enough comedy to stop the experience being maudlin. It is slightly too fond of its characters (very few people in this prison are actually bad people, most of them are there because of circumstance or how life is unfair… which is a discussion for another time) but generally it’s pretty damned good.

Series 3, however… disappointed. It was just a bit soap opera-y. Character motivation took a step back and contrivances took a step forward. The show’s continued reliance on the character of Piper is the main problem, I think. The most compelling plots from Series 3 had nothing to do with her, whilst her stories weren’t compelling or interesting. They were concerned with wacky hijinks about used underwear.

A wacky subplot about used underwear could have been fine… but the show devoted way too much time to it and it put Piper in the spotlight when nothing about the story deserved to be centre stage.  Dogget’s story was much more brutal and compelling… but because Dogget isn’t ‘the main character’, her story was merely a subplot.

Series 3 lacked the focus on narrative that made series 1 & 2 unmissable and didn’t have anything to replace it with except melodrama. Although it was good to see Ruby Rose getting work.  

Banshee: Series 3

Banshee managed to be amazing television for two series. I should be grateful that it made it that far. It shouldn’t have. A Cinemax show about an ex-convict who becomes a sheriff of a small town with Amish gangsters and amazing fight scenes? That’s fucking madness. There’s no way that show should be good… and yet it was. For the first two series.

Series 3 of Banshee wasn’t bad exactly… but it did spin its wheels. It introduced a new antagonist and then contrived as many ways as possible for the cast to interact with them. The Chayton Littlestone storyline wrapped up in a slightly satisfying way but… none of the stories really grabbed me.

This would be enough to keep it from my top 10 by itself but the biggest sin Series 3 committed was culling its female characters.

Banshee has always had strong female characters, for all that they are all sexualised beyond realism. Series 3 killed off Siobhan and Nola cruelly and under flimsy pretexts, leaving only two strong female characters left. I’m not quite as checked out of Banshee as I am with Orange Is The New black. In my experience, when a show has started to take on Soap Opera tones, there’s no coming back. Banshee is wrapping up next series, though, so it might be able to pull things back a little. Particularly as it has a great set up.

Orphan Black: Series 3

Orphan Black is another show that has no right to be as good as it was for the first two series. Compelling characters and nail biting storylines helped but Tatiana Maslany is the main reason the show is as good as it is. She’s so good at portraying different characters I often forget that, when she’s on screen as two people, there aren’t actually two people there, it’s all the magic of television.

Series 3 wasn’t exactly bad but it did suffer from having too many storylines. The first six episodes were really good, they had a great crescendo and a series of wonderful payoffs…. And then the show inexplicably continued for another 4 episodes. The stakes were just raised a little bit too high for my taste. Series 3 didn’t feel like a personal story, it felt like a grand narrative, which doesn’t suit the show in my opinion.

Also, where the hell was Michelle Forbes? Why introduce one of my favourite bloody actresses at the end of series 2 and then not have her in series 3?

Overall, it says a lot about Series 3 of Orphan Black that Alison’s sub plot was my favourite part of the series… but it didn’t interact with any of the main plots at all.

Game of Thrones: Series 5

Series 5 of Game Of Thrones was the most disappointing series since series 2. Every plotline seemingly spun its wheels. Kings landing ended up much as it started. Across the narrow sea, things are much the same as they started (except Denny’s now been captured. Yay.) The North is much the same as it was at the start of the series. Aria became an assassin and then spent half the series washing bodies.

The only really awesome thing that happened in series 5 concerned the white walkers. Hardhome was a stunning episode.

One good episode, though, does not save a series determined to maintain the status quo. If this is George R R Martin’s grand vision I’m not sure I’m on board.

True Detective: Series 2

Why?

Why?

 

Why why why why why?

Jessica Jones: Series 1

Jessica Jones started badly (in my opinion) but grew into itself after the first few episodes. It had compelling characters (once the narration stopped ruining the protagonist) and its plot was pretty interesting. The abuse allegory that is central to both the protagonist and antagonist was compelling and deep. In fact, for the first eight episodes I was sure that Jessica Jones was the first Marvel property I’d seen since Iron Man 3 that was genuinely good….

And then episode 9 happened. And then episode 10 happened… and everything that was good about the show was replaced by the same comic book devices I hate in Marvel’s other properties. Nonsensical character motivations, a complete disregard for logic and common sense, a focus on empty spectacle above all else, endless bloody co-incidences to drive the plot forward and extremely dodgy morality.

Jessica Jones started as something different to the usual Marvel comic book bullshit and should be applauded for managing to avoid falling into the same traps its fellows fell into for eight episodes. Of all the disappointing shows on this list, I’m most upset about Jessica Jones because it was doing so well to avoid the usual comic book bullshit… and then it just gave in.  

 

 

13/12/15 - Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid, OUT NOW! (Plus behind the scenes Soundcloud ramblings)

So Confessions of A Gentleman Arachnid has been out for a week or so now!  I'm really pleased that it's out in time for Christmas but will be doing a big publicity push in the New Year (no point in competing with all the Christmas themed stuff).

Anyway, in the meantime, I made a 20 minute behind the scenes audio blog (alog?) thing about where Confessions Of A Gentleman Arachnid came from and why I made certain decisions with the characters and the narrative...

It's basically 20 minutes of me talking about my process. You've been warned:

(Minor spoilers for themes and non-plot events in the novel.)

27/11/2015 - Going to Press

Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid is going to press today!

The plan is that the book will be available for Christmas in paperback and as an eBook.  To be the first to hear when the book is available, sign up to my mailing list.

And to tide you over until you can read the full book, here's the final front cover: 

Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid, to be released December 2015

20/10/2015 - Tension and Predictability

So I want to talk about tension and predictability using the Chronicles Of St Mary’s series as a set of examples.

For those that haven’t read it, Chronicles is a series of time travel novels. There are historians who go back in time and witness historical events. There are fun characters and cartoonish antagonists and a series of really strange sex scenes which make me think that either the author is kinky in a way I’ve never encountered before or that she’s only ever heard about sex from her friends describing it to her.

But anyway. It’s a good series. Sort of.

Book 1 is genuinely good.

Book 2 gets good a third of the way through. It’s absolutely bananas before that.

Book 3 is really bad for reasons I talked about on my Soundcloud


Book 4 brought things back somewhat.

Book 5 really wasn’t very good

Book 6 was legitimately terrible and killed my interest in any further books.

There are two problems that hound this series from about half way through the first book right up until book six.

The first problem is this:

Jodi Taylor, the author, is incapable of having some historians go back to the past, have them witness a historical event and then have them come home. Something always goes wrong. This usually means they are frantically scrambling around to get home before a volcano explodes or they get trampled to death by mammoths or something.

Now: Drama comes from tension. If the book was about historians going back in time, seeing some stuff and coming home with no sense of danger, that would be dull. It would lack any tension. It would lack any drama. The thing is, when the drama always comes from the same source, it gets really predictable. I’d find myself quite enjoying an extended historical section and wondering if maybe, just this once, Ms Taylor would break the pattern of having something contrived go wrong but no. Of course not.

I understand that there needs to be tension but this can come from any number of sources: It could be inherent in the historical scene, it could emerge from conflict between the characters or they could encounter an unforeseen issue.

The second problem I have with this series is directly caused by the first problem: The need for something to always go wrong causes the characters to act in some really stupid ways.

In one chapter, the historians are being chased by guards. They’ll be imprisoned or executed if caught. One of the characters needs to use the toilet. Instead of going: “I’ll wait” or “I’d rather wet myself than get my entire team imprisoned or killed” the character gets the team to wait whilst they nip behind a bush.

Of course, the team gets caught, because the entire function of the character needing the toilet was to get the rest of the team captured for the sake of drama.

There’s this fundamental conflict in the St Mary’s series. On the one hand, the characters are smart and capable. They’re unprofessional but always get the job done. On the other hand, they constantly make idiotic decisions (many of which are out of character. Or at least, in books 1-3 they’re out of character. By book 4 they’re more the norm than anything else) for no reason other than to create drama.

I just wish a little bit more time had been spent on scenes like the one described above. If you’re going to have the team get captured, at least come up with a faintly plausible way to have it happen.

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