It’s been a little while, but we’re still rumbling along the trail of games I really liked last year; I’m still illustrating each post with a set of posh felt-tips, and WWE All Stars is still the Greatest Videogame of 2011. But we’ll get to that. Bastion A unique voice. It’s something that’s all too rare in videogames – style, look, and feel all adding up to a coherent identity that feels new and vibrant. It’s what made Portal so special. It’s something Valve are good at, actually – look at the way TF2 built a uneven but hilarious world around a multiplayer team-based shooter. It’s the reason why people – thinking back to Psychonauts, and Grim Fandango – are excited enough about this new Double Fine project to donate three and a half million dollars towards its creation. Ico and Shadows of the Colossus have their own voices. So does World of Goo. It’s not a long list. At best, each year will produce a fistful. Of the games that came out in 2011, Bastion’s voice came through loudest. Which is impressive, given that Bastion is basically a tarted-up Diablo clone. It’s an action role-playing game (ARPG), which means you walk your little guy – in this case, the adorably tough, pudgy Kid – around the screen, picking up loot and clicking on baddies to make them explode, so you’ll get some experience points. It’s even more impressive given that Bastion takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, perhaps the most played-out setting in 21st Century pop culture. But the pleasure of Bastion is that it treads so close to the familiar, and then tweaks and builds on it, or introduces something completely new. That’s obvious from the moment you set eyes on it. Bastion’s squishily-proportioned, anime-eyed characters are set against delicately painted backgrounds. It’s beautiful in the way only game’s manuals used to be. All of which complements a fairly unique style, which lifts a little from steampunk – it certainly shares the same unhealthy preoccupation with cogs – but equally from the illustrations in children’s books. That combination, deconstruction, and recombination of familiar elements run through every part of the game. Not least, you know, the actual game bit. Familiar tropes are expressed in a fresh way. The rewards from levelling up turn into a brewery of switchable tonics; difficulty modifiers into a shrine to the gods; Achievements into sketchy notices, pasted on a monument to the dead. Into each and every corner, the game squeezes lore and history and, most of all, personality. They feel like a natural part of the world. But they also work very neatly as parts of the game. I never felt the need to turn on any of the shrines, to make the game harder, but each unlockable modifier finds something more interesting than just “more enemies” or “less health”, and can be combined as you see fit. The way that the ground rises up beneath your feet as you explore levels is an an elegant solution to the item-rich tangents each level offers. It can be easy to lose track of where you’ve wandered already, but here, there’s a simple test – does that path lead into fresh air? Then it’s not one you’ve already trodden. (Unfortunately, that fresh air is something you’re going to become quickly acquainted with – playing on PC, with keyboard controls, is jarringly inelegant. You see the world from a Sims-esque isometric angle which, coupled with the four directional options presented by W, A, S, and D, makes moving diagonally near-impossible.) But it’s also a subtle hint towards the game’s thematic underpinnings. From the very first moment, as the Kid rubs his eyes and gets up, his first footsteps narrated by a mysterious voice, the world is being created right in front of him. Bastion is all about storytelling. That mysterious voice, for example. Which belongs, it turns out quite quickly, to fellow survivor Rucks. Living on the titular chunk of earth, he provides the game with its narrative drive. And its narration. Like a kind of ethereal John Motson, he gives a running commentary throughout, in the most handsome bass rumble of a voice. He says things like: Rucks provides exposition, making his words the reward for progressing, taking the role often filled by experience points and levelling up, providing a reward for progressing. Or Rucks reacts to your choices, big or small. It’s one of the things which Human Revolution missed from the original Deus Ex, actually – that sense of feedback. After a mission, you’d get congratulated on taking the sneaky route, or chastised for sneaking into the women’s toilets back at base. So little decisions, like which pair of weapons to equip, will get a fitting comment: Or Rucks nonchalantly hands out tips, giving a little nudge in the right direction. Or just provides colour. It all works to consolidate the storybook feel set up by the visuals. It’s like playing a fairy tale. But, as in all the best fairy tales, there’s a hard edge to Bastion. As becomes clear in the final act. As the story lays all its card on the table, the storytelling motif is turned on its head, to remind you how blurred are the lines between telling tales and telling lies. The wait, as lines are fed drip by drip, becomes torturous. Pauses are perfectly spaced. Vital “but…”s are left hanging. And a rather leisurely game suddenly shifts to frantic. It’s that end-of-book feeling, as you race over words – or in this case, click desperately through fights – to find out how it all ends. Bastion isn’t a skinny game, but not a single element of it feels wasted. Everything threads together into one extremely neat whole. Elements borrowed from elsewhere and streamlined – the Bullhead Shield, which is hardly original in its ‘time the button press just right to counter’ mechanics, but is smooth and satisfying, and deserves an essay of its own. […]
A continuing look at games that I really liked, but not quite as much as WWE All Stars, in the year of our Lord 2011. Deus Ex: Human Revolution “He’s more machine now than man” – Benjamin Kenobi The Deus Ex series is about two things: the meeting of man and machine, raising the question of whether developing and getting stronger means losing your humanity, and, famously, freedom. You’re handed a level, one small chunk at a time, and asked how you’d like to approach it. To use the immortal Terminator 2: Judgment Day as an example – will you be the T-1oo0, infiltrating into your enemies’ homes and then running them through with razor-sharp arm blades? Or maybe an Arnie-style terminator, toting a mini-gun and launching maniacally as you bat away incoming rockets? Or the pacifistic PoNY-3000 (which only features in the version of the film that exists inside my head) preferring to just be friends, avoid the violence altogether… and putting the odd person to sleep if you really, really must? Like our last game, playing Human Revolution, you can feel the gravity of the seminal original, but in this case it’s a much looser adaption. Deus Ex was, after all, made by entirely different people over a decade ago. Born into our modern world of third-person cover and DRM, where everything has to be a shooter, it was only natural that this would be a very different game. Still, as much as Human Revolution throws out from the original – it rewinds the plot to the immediate future, ditching the whole cast in the process, trades in the grey and blue colour scheme for black and gold – it holds onto more. The cyberpunk setting, the customisable Six Million Dollar Man-style augmentations, the philosophical leanings. Most of all, it holds onto that idea of choice. Each level has a startpoint and an endpoint, but how you get from one to the other is up to you. There are connecting doors which skip out sections of corridor; ladders which take you to the roof, far above the action; ventilation shafts to crawl in. So that, then, is the core essence of Deus Ex. An overarching plot about control and loss of humanity, propping up a game that invites you to do what thou wilt. It’s not necessarily the most natural combination. But, for me at least, the way that freedom works is a perfect expression of the theme. It turns out, given all that choice, something flips deep inside me. I can’t choose – won’t, shan’t – and so end up searching for the most obscure route, the one they’ve hidden behind a series of crates and down a pit you can only access with the augmentation that negates fall damage. Then I’ll backtrack, and find another way I could have done it. I want to see the puzzle the developers have crafted for me from every possible angle. I have to see everything, I have to interact with everything, hack everything, (for a first-person action game, Deus Ex gives you a lot more possible verbs than just ‘shoot’, ‘jump’ and ‘stand out in the open until you die’), find every hidden vent, pick up every item. I’m not even a robot. I’m a hoover. It could be more open, of course. For all those extra verbs I mentioned, Human Revolution still manages to be slightly more limiting than the original Deus Ex, now over a decade old. It turns its attention instead to being slicker. The amount of thought that has gone into making the world futuristically plausible and beautiful, the nicely honed controls, the fact it actually has a story and some characters… there’s a lot of stuff to love here, even for hardened Deus Ex purists. A good example of this trade-off can be seen in the item glow – any object that can be interacted with has its edges picked out with a fuzzy gold light. It highlights how much scenery is decorative, tied down, and the relatively limited interactivity. No strength rating here. I believe it was mildly controversial, and can be turned off in the options menu, but I see no need. It fits nicely into the game’s aesthetic, makes diegetic sense, and makes it easier to spot hidden items and routes, which is exactly what my lizard brain wants. And it couldn’t possibly break the hypnotic effect a play session has over me. Human Revolution is one of those games that makes you constantly late. The type you struggle to tear yourself away from, a mysterious substance keeping your hands glued to the controller (…Oh, not like that. Ew. Grow up.) And the team at Eidos Montreal use the compelling systems of the game to immerse you in a sci-fi world stronger, even, than Portal 2‘s playful series of ideas – one which extrapolates headlines, technology, architecture and even fashion into something plausible and enticing. And, even after I’ve managed to power down the Xbox, a dip into that world leaves me seeing our own a little differently. Like the long sessions of Guitar Hero that translated all my dreams into five-colour blocks, like the week I longed for my own Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device. Like… a post-Christmas weekend back home, most of it spent with my nose pressed to the 38” flatscreen, controller in hand. It’s a nice day outside, and I almost feel bad about not leaving the house. Almost. I look out into the back garden, just as the sun clips the top of the fence. Its glow catches the edges of a shirt, hanging on the line, outlines it with a sharp halo of –gold. Ooh, I think. It must be interactive.
So, in the pub the other week, conversation swung to the best pop culture of last year, naturally. When asked about my ‘game of the year’, I refused to pick a single game. Further pushed, I picked WWE All Stars. It was a choice born partially of the thrilling novelty of such a pop/obscure pick, partially of intoxication, but mostly of total honesty.It is a choice behind which I will of course stand. It’s also a choice which got me thinking about how hard it was (and almost always is) for me to pick a single Best Game, and how I’ve completely failed to write anything about any of my favourites from last year.Consider this, then, a loose tour through all the games I really enjoyed last year, accompanied with some hand-drawn doodles, and why exactly WWE All Stars was the absolute Best Game of 2011. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s jump back to April, and take a look at… Portal 2 As the name suggests, Portal 2 was a sequel, with all the baggage that entails. Worse, it was a sequel to a truly brilliant game. The original Portal took a wonderful central concept – a gun that could shoot teleporting holes into walls – and expressed it perfectly, compressed into two and a half hours. On top of that, it added a classic antagonist in GLaDOS, some of the best jokes in gaming, and a song. It was a revolution, practically inventing the first-person puzzling genre, that seemed to come out of nowhere. Portal 2 wasn’t much of a surprise at all. Like all good sequels, it didn’t move away from the core principles of the original, but built on them. It kept the same setting – a series of test chambers in the Aperture Science laboratory. The same cast – silent Chell, ever-taunting GLaDOS. The same mechanics – solving spatial puzzles using your portal gun. It took all those, and then built on them. So, a journey beneath Aperture’s floors revealed the ruins of cavernous testing grounds from its past. The bumbling AI Wheatley (played by Stephen Merchant) and self-confident ghost of Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons) filled out the dramatis personæ. And the portal puzzles were expanded with physics-altering gels which could be guided through test chambers to make surfaces slippy, or bouncy. Most of it all, it adapted Portal‘s attitude and structure: a highly polished series of puzzles, bookended by chunks of narratives, with jokes. Portal 2 avoided the obvious pitfalls – pandering to the memes the original bred and sent out onto the internet; trying to turn the plot into something of world-shaking import; trying to repeat the surprise of that song – but, ultimately, it was more or less the same thing, stretched out and with some fancy bits added on. Which sounds really negative, but clearly that’s not the case. This is one of my favourite games of last year. Familiarity makes its structure – a series of chambers, bookended with a joke or bit of story – stick out a little too awkwardly, but it’s a better game than the original Portal in almost every way. It takes its extended length as virtue, providing more of an actual, story-shaped story, and a wider variety of settings and puzzles. Most impressively, Portal 2 manages to keep its difficulty curve every bit as smooth over those extra hours, with every new discovery telegraphed neatly and then built upon, and rarely repeats itself. I’d even argue Portal 2 is actually a funnier game. The jokes in the original mostly worked because they took the player by surprise. Abandoned laboratories are not a setting you expect to find jokes in, sci-fi puzzle games aren’t a genre renowned for their hilarity. It was a sort of comedy ambush. Portal 2 knows you know this, going in, and cuts loose with the jokes from the first comedy setpiece, which sticks you in a motel room and indulges in a spot of fourth-wall breaking ‘press A to speak’ action, all curated by Wheatley – the noisy robo-comic to your silent straight man, and every bit the equal of GLaDOS. It’s definitely the best written and acted game I played last year, and is in the running for best written and acted piece of 2011 culture full stop. It’s certainly the funniest. As a package, Portal 2 is so sharp that you hardly even notice its elegance until afterwards. When you do, it becomes clear how much silliness we have to put up with, how often people accept that the voice acting wasn’t too uneven this time as if that was something worth celebrating, how merely quite good plots have champions of the medium wetting themselves with excitement. Portal 2 is a darn good puzzle game. It’s not half bad as science-fiction. But mostly importantly, it is simply the funniest comedy game I have ever played. If it hadn’t been for that pesky original, Portal 2 could’ve had a shot at being the best game of all time.
People, especially people writing in certain types of magazines, occasionally talk about soundscapes, about how the way in which an album or song is laid out can feel like a sort of immersive environment. Well, says Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, that game is for wimps. In the space of one released-for-free mixtape, The Weeknd established a whole world. A world where – as pretty much everyone who’s written about, or listened to, the music will tell you – it is constantly the early hours of the morning, where it’s cold and smoky outside, where the party is always just ending. A world with the colours turned down slightly, viewed through a lens smeared with vaseline … or are your eyes just bleary? With its sort of Noir R’n’B (as in the black-&-white motifs, sure, but also the femme fatales and troubled masculinity of the lyrics, the quivering motel neons in the music) House of Balloons manages to transport all this to the space between your eyes and ears. It’s a weird kind of Tolkeinesque world-building by way of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.This was effortlessly sustained by the other two parts of the mixtape trilogy The Weeknd released in 2011, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, which served more or less as expansion packs. The former just adds a slightly different colour palette, the Vice City to House of Balloon’s GTAIII. Accordingly, I was hoping December’s Echoes of Silence might be his San Andreas, in terms of expanding every bit of ambition in the original to obscene proportions.It’s not, but it does sharpens the aesthetic to a lethal point, then turn it back on pop, to shows how it’s not all that far from, for example, the work of Michael Jackson – it opens with a cover of MJ’s Dirty Diana, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the original, just filtered through that unmistakable Weeknd worldview. The three albums have distinct personalities, but there’s the intertextuality runs deep, and each can be played back to back, flowing almost imperceptibly into one another, to create a two-hour mood piece. It’s testament to Tesfate’s masterful control over the aesthetic parameters of this world– so much so that it’s jarring to hear Superhero and Party, tracks from around 2008, released recently, when he was doing something completely different, closer to trad R’n’B, and frankly much less interesting. The Weeknd snuck into an incredible number of corners during 2011 – the music I talked about when I was drunk, slipping it into playlists so everyone else could hear it, owning the week I lived in a hostel in Bath and playing at being a games journalist, being the only album on the my mobile’s SD card, so soundtracking a lot of morning tube journeys and late night walks home. (This piece is a palimpsest, etched over the remains of something I wrote back in June, about the joys of playing House of Balloons back to back, on constant repeat. I ended up back-to-backing the album, with barely an exhale between end and beginning, for pretty much the entire next six months. I still have absolutely no idea of most of the lyrics.) There’s a sense that perhaps I’m enjoying something beyond the music, something that exists in the images it sets off in my head, in the meeting point between the videos and photographs and what other people said. That tends to be at least inherent in the criticisms of The Weeknd (of which there have a been a lot, often from writers whose opinions I respect) – that somehow these aren’t songs that Tesfaye is selling. And, okay, compared to, say, Childish Gambino – to pick another artist whose work I enjoyed immensely in 2011 – the pleasure is less immediate, the songs are less likely to grab me by the lapels while I’m listening to them. Admittedly, a lot of the time, I let The Weeknd slip into the background, using it as a sort of musical wallpaper, while something else goes in the foreground. But if it’s ambient, it’s aggressively ambient. It’s the kind of wallpaper that, suddenly feeling overly sensitive to everything, you rub your fingers over, and appreciate every inch of texture. It’s music that feels physical, in every possible way – not just how it occasionally taps into your muscles and makes them jump and twitch in the nearest approximation of dancing you can manage on the morning commute, but like its ideas form something three-dimensional, so dense you could almost reach out and touch it. And it is dense – all this information is condensed down into these small aural packages, like Grant Morrison hyperstorytelling or something. But, yes, perhaps I don’t enjoy House of Balloons in the way I do other music. The lyrics don’t mean a lot to me; to be honest, I can’t participate in the discussion about whether the songs are misogynist or misguided, because the words are just extra sounds to me. Which is fine, because the sounds are the whole point of the thing. Tesfaye has a delicate voice, which generally sits on top of the song, skimming along the surface, while in depths there are these bassy, creaky thumpings. In the space in between, all sorts of stuff can happen: The Beach House sample Loft Music squashes out of shape, so it feels like an uncovered artefact of ancient pop rather than something from 2008. The bit where a woman’s voice joins in on The Party & The After Party, throbbing just under the song. The statement-of-intent looping squeal that introduces House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls – and from there, the song slides into a fluid underlying push/pull, with just the slightest buzzy echo, before introducing all sorts of other sounds and layering them on top, or underneath. Every single moment on House of Balloons sounds absolutely gorgeous – whether through headphones, my old beaten-up laptop speakers, or my relatively good sound system. There are entire clubs’ worth of […]
The pre-New Years blogfest didn’t quite go as planned, thanks to the intrusion of pesky real life, and my own stupidity in underestimating the effort required to read and summarise an entire years’ worth of film reviews. I move into a flat in London tomorrow – an event aligned so neatly with the start of the new year I’m finding it difficult not to self-mythologise, but also meaning I won’t have broadband for a little while, but I’ve got a few end-of-year articles I’m hoping to polish and put up here. Watch this space, but for now enjoy this month-by-month account of the year in music (and double your fun with this YouTube playlist, featuring all 12 songs).JANUARY Kanye West – All of the LightsOr, how I discovered that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had been my favourite album of 2010 all along, I’d just never listened to it. Running some beautiful strings and piano into big, punch-to-the-face beats, punctuated with those horns, there is always at least one thing going on. All of the Lights also features some of Rihanna’s finest work (and, in the video, the most I’ve ever understood why the entire universe fancies her) alongside a great segment owned by Kid Cudi, and appearances by Fergie, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Tony Williams, Alicia Keys, La Roux, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis. It should be a mess but Yeezy, in full 21st-Century-Brian-Wilson mode, stitches it all together perfectly to make an instant classic that would soundtrack the climax of every house party for the rest of the year.FEBRUARY Kimya Dawson – Walk Like ThunderFrom music that sounds best at 2am coming through a stack of speakers, via a wall of human flesh that’s screaming a rough approximation of the lyrics, to headphone music for those 2ams spent alone. Walk Like Thunder is a 10 minute epic that fully earns its length. The listener is trapped in a confessional booth with Kimya’s voice and sparse atmospheric music, only blooming out at the very end into an Aesop Rock cameo. It’s pretty blunt, lyrically, but I’d venture that’s the point – people do everything they can to avoid talking about death, and maybe that should change.MARCH Rebecca Black – FridayAm I being contrary? Well, maybe a little. (I briefly considered including Swagger Jagger instead, playing the same role). But I’ve genuinely got a lot of joy out of this song over this year – some of those lyrics are genius in their banality, if your mind is pitched just right, and it’s sweet-natured enough, and I think it’s unfairly become a byword for rubbish pop. Rubbish pop is mediocre, and the mind-blowing literality and creepy older rent-a-rapper of Friday is not that, by any yardstick. This goes out to all those 344,303 dislikes on YouTube – grow up, it’s at least pretty good.APRIL Childish Gambino – BreakJanuary, redux. All of the Lights was so good it stretched into two of my favourite songs of the year – this is a remix, kind of, but it’s so much more than that. It’s in a relationship with the original, definitely, referring back and twisting its lines, but picks something new out of it – a sort of melancholy sweetness – like a friend telling you the answer to one of those Magic Eye puzzles. And then Mr Glover does his thing, dropping some nicely dense lines thick with reference, wordplay and an almost unhealthy interest in Asian women in a way that reminds you that in his other life, Donald is a well-loved comedian and writer. The meeting of those two simple ideas – cartoony rap and confessional emoting – would spark a love affair that lasted all year.MAY The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Glass Table GirlsThe most important thing I heard all year. 2011 was the year I really got into hip-hop and R’n’B, and Kanye and The Weeknd (and Miles “Strong Opinions” Bradley’s Tumblr) are probably equally responsible. It’s already pretty obvious that the three mixtapes The Weeknd released this year will be leaving grubby pawprints all over pop for some time to come. (Plus, last night Christopher “Mancrush” Sparrow pointed out to me that it should be pronounced The Weakn’d. That kind of hidden-in-plain-sight wordplay would pretty much guarantees The Weeknd a place on this list.) I’m not specifically thinking about this track here, mind – anything off of House of Balloons is good with me. Less than than individual songs, it’s the aesthetic choices, and the trail of thick gloomy atmosphere it leaves, that have stuck with me.JUNE Emmy the Great – A Woman, A Woman, A Century of SleepAnd Emmy returns from the wilderness semi-unrecognisable, having shed some of the folkiness and acerbic one liners in favour of grander sounds and more obscure lyrics. It’s all a bit rather more grown-up, and you sense that, in another life, this is the year Emma Lee Moss would have moved from short stories to writing novels. That’s rarely something I mean in a good way, but the razor-sharp confidence of Emmy Mk 2 makes for something fully the equal, and opposite, of all the old material.JULY Drake – Marvin’s RoomBy this point, the year’s ruling aesthetic was official set – moody late-nite R’n’B/hip-hop full of loneliness and isolation and unpleasantly irresponsible drinking. Marvin’s Room is simply a fine example of that. It employs beats that sound the way H.R. Giger’s industrial/organic artwork looks, mixing straightforward rap verses with sung choruses which stretch out Drake’s voice into something quivering and completely separable from the rest of the sounds. Meanwhile, snippets of phone conversation flit in and out, repurposing the skit tradition into something that fits the post-Weeknd aesthetic.There’s something about its deployment of the n-word that I’m not fully comfortable with, and the slow-motion repeat of the bridge is only just on the right side of being silly, but Marvin’s Room provides a stylish bridge between House of Balloons and the Chris Rock guest appearance on My […]
Aiding me today in my recap of 2011 is Monsieur Timothy Maytom – Agent of B.A.D.A.S.S., blogger extraordinaire and, I learnt this year, all-round top bloke. Last year, he picked Donald ‘Childish Gambino’ Glover as his Person of the Year, and I spent most of this year catching up and realising he was right at all along. Who will be this year’s best human? Amy Poehler Last year’s Person of the Year, Donald Glover, was about recognizing a somewhat meteoric rise to fame. Not to reduce what was surely an awful lot of hard work by Glover, but his story is one of making the most of some very good opportunities. This year, we look at someone that has had a longer path full of a lot of hard graft, and no one could deny that she deserves every plaudit that is thrown her way. Amy Poehler started out at Chicago’s famous improv theatre Second City, going on to be a part of the influential group Upright Citizen’s Brigade. From there, it was onto Saturday Night Live, and a well-known spot co-hosting the Weekend Update segment with Tina Fey. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey tells of how Amy shot back at Jimmy Fallon after he called a bit she was doing ‘not cute’: “Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not [especially – clean language ed] care if you like it.” This is the year when Poehler truly did what she wanted, and not only do I like it, I bloody well love it. Parks and Recreation, which Poehler currently stars in, as well as produces and writes, is probably the best comedy on television at the moment. It does what no other comedy right now does, which is fight back against the 21st Century trend of meanness in humour. It doesn’t truck in cynicism, or wallow in embarrassment, or sit on the sidelines, snarkily commenting in a superior tone. Instead, it embraces and celebrates friendship, hard work and idealism, all while staying side-achingly hilarious. It manages to sneak (and sometimes trumpet) a feminist message onto US network TV without anyone pitching a hissy fit, and has assembled one of the best ensemble casts around. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a fantastic comedy creation, balancing competence and intelligence with naïveté and well-intentioned over-ambition. Her slow-burn romance with Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt has been sweet and relatable, and her relationship with Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins is one of the best-realised friendships on television. The episode that Poehler wrote this year, The Fight, delved into that friendship as the two had a very drunken falling out, and resulted in a truly hilarious half-hour of television. Poehler was honoured this year with Variety’s Power of Comedy Award, where she gave a fantastic speech, that also saw Will Ferrell and Nick Kroll make out in the background. On a slightly more sober day, she delivered a speech to the graduating year at Harvard’s Class Day, where, between jokes and Bostonian accents, she spoke of the importance of humility, collaboration and how improvisations rules apply to real life. She’s also one of the minds behind the website Smart Girls At The Party, a brilliant community for young girls championing feminism. Poehler’s talent, hard work and wisdom make her my Person of the Year. In every stage and aspect of her career, she has demonstrated the power of collaboration; that two people can make a change that one can’t, that asking for help can sometimes produce results one couldn’t dream of. In the year that saw the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, in the age that champions crowdsourcing and kickstarting, it’s a timely lesson, and we’re lucky to have someone out there leading by example.
Okay, we’ve got roughly a week of 2011 left, and a little less than that until finally get to my #1 Favourite Friday Film, so let’s try and quickly recap all the culture that mattered, starting with my favourite comic series of the year… Journey into Mystery(Written by Kieron GillenArt by Dougie Braithwaite, Richard Elson, and Whilce Portacio) “Ink is how words are chained to paper. Words are ideas, cast down from the Platonic firmament to this Earthly Hell. But even so, no matter how far they’ve fallen, words and what we can make of them are eternal,” says the Devil, as he feeds some poor innocent into a meat grinder to make ink. “You will live forever. You’re becoming part of a story far bigger than you could possibly imagine.” As statements of intent go, it’s hardly the most subtle. Yet coming from the mouth of Mephisto, resuscitated by writer Kieron Gillen as a wonderfully theatrical, mutton-chopped vessel of hot bubbling charisma, it is entirely charming. And he’s not even the main character. Not in the top ten, probably. The main character of Journey Into Mystery (probably) is Loki Laufeyson, God of Mischief, half-brother of Thor, as recently played by the handsome Tom Hiddleston… Oh, and in the Marvel Universe he’s currently a child in his young teen, but don’t worry about that too much. The point is, the comic bends pleasingly to his character. It’s the extension of Gillen’s work on Thor, but where his brother is a hulking great hero of the most ancient type (that is, the type that hit people with hammers), Loki is a much more interesting proposition. This is a tale which, as Loki himself puts it, “involves a little reading and even proper punctuation”. Comics are so singularly ruled by superhero stories. Naturally, the focus is on action scenes – which, oddly, is something I’ve never thought think the medium handles particularly well. With time in the hands of the reader (for those of you haven’t read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a clumsy recap: each panel represents a single moment, and by moving your eyes between panels, you push time along, at your own pace) there’s no room for the fluidity of movement of, say, a Bruce Lee film. Only two moments truly exist: the one before a punch lands, and the one after. Action scenes work on such a primal response that the effort of stitching these together yourself into a single action – so often the magic of comics – often strips away the effect. So it’s nice to see Journey Into Mystery is a superhero book dedicated to solving its problems – the same, world-threatening problems – with violence of a more wordy sort. The first arc, spanning a suitably epic 10 issues, ended with Loki besting The Serpent, Fear Itself’s Big Bad, by merely changing the story. introducing a detail to the Serpent’s legend that gave his character a weakness. He did this, of course, using a magic pen. As I say, it’s never been particularly subtle about its themes: the end of the first issue (#622, this being comics) dove into that black hole at the bottom of a question mark. The most fearsome monsters in the story are summoned by speaking their name. The Devil, to recap, turned some unfortunate bloke into ink. It’s a book about magic which reminds you that spells are just a series of words. Compared to Gaiman’s Sandman, say, which it occasionally feels similar to (its love of meandering mini-plots), and often feels like a reaction to (see Nightmare, a clear parody of Sandman’s protagonist Dream), the focus is less on the power of stories and more specifically on the power of words. Perhaps unsurprising, given that Gillen spend the last decade working as a journalist. But it’s an interesting choice, in a medium that sits at the crossroads between text and image, and it could mean the former overwhelms the latter – after all, there are rather a lot of caption boxes. But the art is always given the space to tell the story. It’s not the reason to buy the comic – given my preference for clean cartooning, Braithwaite, Elson and Portacio all lean a little too much on the side of scratchy pencils for my tastes – but Braithwaite and Elson in particular are a perfect fit. Still, you come to Journey into Mystery for the words. And on that front, it’s bloody good value – those gloriously florid captions and sharp, slightly-too-witty-to-be-thought-up-on-the-spot speech balloons fill the pages. At its best, this is a comic which feels like the finest pub conversation, insightful and incisive, with a friend who has drunk two or three of their chosen tipple. And only rarely does it have that ill-advised next drink, and allow things to spill over into dreadful, boring fisticuffs. This isn’t about that Thor chappie, after all – it’s a story about Loki. And when he’s such good company, Journey into Mystery is enough to make you wonder why he wasn’t the star all along.