After such a tumultuous year, I wanted to share some of the books, games, movies, and songs that made my year a little better.
Now, something to keep in mind as you go through this list is that, as the father of a toddler, I do not have a lot of free time. What time I do have, I try to fill with as diverse a media diet as I can muster. This means that I was not able to read, play or listen to a lot of the things you will find on more exhaustive year-end lists. By the same token, I have a backlog of about a mile long that I try to get through, in addition to all the new stuff coming out each year. As a consequence, not everything on my list was necessarily released in 2020. I have not tried to make a list of objective “bests”. This list is very personal, and reflects what mattered to and had an impact on me.
With that out of the way, I hope you’ll enjoy this list of my favorite things of 2020.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Atomic Habits is a fantastically thorough examination of what it takes to break bad habits, and form new ones. The big takeaway for me has been the realization that resolutions or goals mean nothing, unless you incorporate them into your daily routines. Unless you commit to the small steps that eventually lead toward your bigger ideal. As Clear puts it, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This articulates something I’ve long felt to be true, and it has helped me greatly in kickstarting some improved habits this year.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I’ve had a passive interest in Stoicism for at least 15 years or so, and I can’t count the number of times I have heard this book mentioned in that time. I finally made time to read it this year after it was recommended by Derk de Geus in a podcast episode of Elite Game Developers. The book is a fascinating collection of the Stoic musings of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It’s a bit uneven and there’s a lot of repetition, but there is something endearing in it’s transparency and simplicity. There is comfort in knowing that the once most powerful man in the world struggled with the same problems and questions that we do.
Replacing Guilt, blog series by Nate Soares
Not exactly a book, this blog series by Nate Soares on guilt-free living is certainly as rich and cohesive as one. It starts by arguing that you should try to reach your goals with minimum effort, which was basically my high school mantra. From there, it opens up into a broad yet astute philosophical examination of what it means to live your life for yourself, free of external as well as internalized guilt. I’ve thought about this blog almost every day since I’ve read it, and I’m sure I will for a long time to come.
Almanack of Naval Ravikant, by Eric Jorgenson and Naval Ravikant
Now, I’ll confess that I haven’t actually read this book yet. BUT, the Tweetstorm that inspired it was perhaps the most impactful thing I’ve read this year, and for that reason I wanted to include it here anyway. Naval has some extraordinary ideas on life, wealth and philosophy, and he shares them with a conciseness that belies their complexity. This book contains more fleshed out versions of his ideas, as does his excellent podcast.
One Up, by Joost van Dreunen
Joost van Dreunen wrote this insightful primer on the management side of the videogames industry. Rather than taking a purely historical account, he considers the history of the videogames industry like an evolving chess board. Besides listing the player’s moves, he discusses the strategic reasoning behind them, and the impact they had on the game. Absolutely foundational text for anyone interested in the videogames industry.
Kentucky Route Zero, by Cardboard Computer
Kentucky Route Zero is a rare gem. It marries magical realism and the point-and-click-adventure genre in a way that is instantly compelling. You follow a group of people in their quest to find a magical underground highway, but the setting is ultimately just a backdrop to learn about the internal motivations of your companions. This game is weird, it’s mysterious, and I guarantee it’s like nothing you’ve ever played.
Final Fantasy VII Remake, by Square Enix
Final Fantasy is one of my favorite game series, and FFVII is one of my favorite entries (the very best one is FFVIII though, fight me). The stakes were incredibly high for this remake, but as far as I’m concerned they’ve managed to deliver and then some. The visuals are stunning, the combat is an engaging, real-time, action-oriented version of the turn-based battles from the original, and the way they ended the game has had me clamoring for a sequel since the second I finished the game.
Ghost of Tsushima, by Suckerpunch Games
Ghost of Tsushima is a serviceable game with a heartfelt narrative set in one of the most beautiful game worlds I’ve ever seen. Stalking around the game as Jin, the samurai-turned-assassin, is a lot of fun, but it’s the gorgeous vistas of feudal Japan that are the true star of the game. I had plans for visiting Japan last year that COVID-19 managed to screw up, so this was a very nice proxy.
Spiritfarer, by Thunder Lotus Games
The developers describe Spiritfarer as a “cozy management game about dying”, and that’s exactly what it it. It’s a beautiful 2D platformer/resource management game, in which you play a recently anointed ferrymaster for the deceased. You sail them across the seas and see to their needs, before you release them into the afterlife. The characters are very well-written, to the point where I honestly had a hard time saying goodbye to some of them. In a year where the feeling of isolation was never far away, a game built around personal connection was exactly what I needed.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, by Vanillaware
I absolutely adore Vanillaware’s games, and their latest effort is no exception. You play as a team of 13 teenagers-slash-mech-pilots fighting to stave off a Kaiju invasion, experiencing their story in bits and pieces. It’s honestly amazing to see how they manage to cut up a story in so many pieces each time, and bring them back together in a way that both feels earned, and stays tense until the end. The plot isn’t water-tight and there is a handful of tired Japanese tropes, but all in all this was one of my absolute favorites of the year.
Favorite movies & shows
The Queen’s Gambit
I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy a show about chess, but The Queen’s Gambit turned out to be one of the best shows on offer last year. Great performances by a stellar cast, an exciting and surprisingly wholesome narrative, and they somehow managed to make chess matches the most exciting form of competition I’ve seen all year.
You know you’ll get quality from a Disney Pixar movie, but this movie surprised me with its themes of introspection and purpose. Both main characters struggle in their own way with finding their purpose in life, and what it means to live up to that purpose. I have been struggling with the same question for some time now, and it was a strange feeling to watch a mainstream movie that deals with that question so directly. I think they did a stellar job of showing the struggle, without resorting to easy answers.
This was Michal and mine’s bingeshow for most of the year. It offers an intruiging glimpse into the lives of a razor gang in 1900s England. Set shortly after WWI, all of the characters on the show are in one way or another traumatized by its effects, and all the more interesting to watch because of it. Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby is the center of the show in every way, but if I’m honest my favorite moments are when Arthur shows up to shout “By order of the Peaky fucking Blinders!”
The Mandalorian is everything that drew me to Star Wars in the original trilogy when I was a kid, and that the recent trilogy by and large failed to deliver. The Mandalorian feels grungy, and tells more intimate stories that implicate a grander universe rather than shoving it in your face with endless CGI. Think Cowboy Bebop with for the Star Wars universe. The second season is even better, with a more focused storyline, familiar characters and an ending that was both satisfying and left me wanting more at the same time. Good thing there’s a bunch more Star Wars movies and shows coming to Disney+ this year.
Social Dilemma & A Life On Our Planet
OK so I sneaked two titles in here, because they’re basically the same documentary for different topics. Both are dramatized documentaries about something we all already know is Very Bad, and that we love to feel bad about. Both flatten the discourse to provide an easily digested narrative with clear players, offering some placating words at the end. Still, after watching both documentaries back to back and feeling appropriately depressed for a day or two, they did inspire me to take action. The Social Dilemma prompted me to review and reconsider some of my social media habits, and A Life on Our Planet triggered us to switch to a bank with a more sustainable investment policy.
Low Roar – Don’t Be so Serious
I got into Low Roar late last year, through Kojima’s one-of-a-kind game Death Stranding. It’s pure melancholy, and I put them on whenever I’m in, or want to get in, a melancholy mood. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to put them on this year.
Run the Jewels – walking in the snow
I first encountered RTJ on the soundtrack of Baby Driver, which I had on repeat for months. Their new album offers a scathing commentary on current events, with “walking in the snow” being the standout song in light of BLM protests. The music is raw, hard and angry. I can’t think of a more appropriate album to feature on the soundtrack of 2020.
Tim Maia – O Descobridor Dos Sete Mares
I had never heard of Tim Maia until he popped up in my Weekly Discover playlist, but boy am I glad he did. I love the cheerful, summery vibe of this song. Long after the summer faded in the typically rainy Netherlands, this song was my way of getting some of it back.
Bonnie Pink – 鐘を鳴らして
Every week, I get together with my brother Dennis to eat pizza, watch some Netflix and play games. Our current game is Tales of Vesperia, and this is the opening song. As a rule, we listen to it every time the game boots. Now, if you know the Tales series, you know that these games are LONG, so I’ve heard this song A LOT. Good thing it’s such a banger.
Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a beautiful song, but it’s on this list specifically for one verse:
You get discouraged, don’t you, girl?
It’s your brother’s world for a while longer
We gotta dance with the devil on a river
To beat the stream
Call it living the dream, call it kicking the ladder
Every time I listen to this song, I’m reminded of the world in which my daughter will grow up, and the many ways in which the odds are still stacked against her. It is a potent reminder of my responsibility to get her ready for the world, but also to do what I can to make the world better for her.