Vector 2014 Recommendations
This piece was originally intended for Vector’s annual round-up of contributors’ 2014 favourites and recommendations. Unfortunately I was too slow in delivering it and, as a result, there was no room for it in the magazine. Rather than chuck it in the bin, I thought I’d post it here. My efforts to proselytise games to the Vector readership will have to wait for another day.
I’m not in the habit of contributing to these annual round-ups since I tend to acquire, rather than offer, recommendations for the year’s best novels. Still, this year I’ve elected to approach the issue in a cross-media fashion, letting the rest of Vector contributor’s recommend the written fiction.
In gaming, 2014 is personally notable as the year I played From Software’s Dark Souls (released 2012). It is not a game for occasional players of games. Dark Souls is hard and it will punish the unwary – but it will reward the attentive, the thoughtful, and the dedicated.
Its difficulty is its most remarked-upon feature, but of greater significance is how the game’s mechanics tie into its overarching narrative and themes. Dark Souls is about the end of the world: a world so old and tired that even its creation myths have aged and died. It is a world that has been built again and again on the bones of what which came before, and is so bound up in the cycles of entropy that change feels impossible.
Dark Souls is a staggeringly successful execution of video game worldbuilding thanks to its marriage of mechanical and narrative design (rarer than one might imagine). Its sweeping story is rarely exposited directly, instead delivered sparingly in fragments of dialogue, item descriptions and visual motifs… with its hundreds of thousands of players left to slowly, gradually build up the bigger picture.
For the medium of sequential punching – comics – I must recommend Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye (words: James Roberts, art: Nick Roche). It may seem odd to single out the promotional media for a Japanese toy company. However, More Than Meets The Eye has achieved what I thought impossible: shifting my interest in this franchise from ironic, nostalgic attachment to genuine admiration and pleasure.
The series began in 2012 and has evidently been plotted a long way in advance. It tells a convoluted yet cohesive tale of space opera, exploration and friendship. Drawing on historically under-used characters, giving Roberts great scope for developing new relationships and stories, MTMTE has ably explored numerous themes through the lens of the four million year civil war that has always been the backdrop of Transformers fiction. Such themes have lately included social relations, caste systems, state surveillance, the rule and validity of law, coping with grief and loss, and working out one’s place in a post-war society.
MTMTE is also one of the funniest stories I have read in a long time, with the series’ humour largely arising naturally from the friction between its oddball cast. I do sometimes wonder if the humour would work as well for someone unfamiliar with Transformers lore, or with comics in general. I honestly believe it would: Roberts’ characters are endearing and memorable, and his comedy is born of them.
Finally, a non-fiction recommendation. Randall Munroe is well-known for his webcomic xkcd and its side project ‘What if?’ The latter is, in essence, a glorified Reddit AMA to which readers submit hypothetical scientific (ish) questions, and Munroe does his best to answer them. The questions and scenarios proposed are often ludicrous, and Munroe’s responses are usually equal parts rigorous and tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes he is clearly having such fun working out the answers that his speculation moves far beyond the boundaries of the original scenarios.
A book of these questions and responses was published in Britain in September 2014. It’s a hugely entertaining read for both its humorous elements and for the overt pleasure its author takes in speculating upon the improbable. The questions asked may not always be good, but Munroe’s answers usually are.