2020 was a year that upended all expectations. Though the threats that 2020 brought affected people in a variety of ways, for most it became a year of simple survival. For nerds, of course, we turn to the things that occupy our attention, inspire our imagination, or generate conversation. This year, we are looking at the things that helped us survive 2020. Today, co-host D. Bethel shares what kept him inspired throughout the year.
2020 became a year of self-reflection for most people; for creatives, it became a challenge to find inspiration in new places and ways. Working from home proved to be incredibly difficult when, all of a sudden, my creative, personal space became my classroom. Teaching, planning, and grading at my computer all day made it difficult to walk the two feet to my drawing table and work for another handful of hours on a Long John page. To that end, of all the things to provide inspiration, the sweet and sentimental video game, Spiritfarer, hit hard and unexpectedly.
On its own, Thunder Lotus’ newest game, Spiritfarer isn’t particularly notable. Yes, it looks very nice and the systems and loops are fun to juggle and the writing is top-notch. But it’s not revolutionary, at least not on its own. It’s just a good game. Honestly, that’s enough.
Spiritfarer is a management sim; playing as Stella, you takes over the role of spiritfarer––shepherding souls from death to the afterlife––from a retiring Charon. The majority of the game takes place on your boat that houses the spirits found along the way. During their tenancy, you talk to them, learn their stories, and help them get past whatever psychology holds them back from accepting their deaths. Once they have a moment of clarity, you take them to the “Everdoor” which sends them to their eternal home. For each spirit you recruit––taking the form of a different anthropomorphized animal––you do small quests to help brighten their moods. To do that, you grow crops, cook food, take them to specific locations, or harvest materials they want. With so many different spirits on your boat, your job is to keep all of these plates spinning while also maintaining your boat.
The thing about this game is not what it is, specifically, although––as I said––it’s very good. Instead, it’s about what it represents and what came before. Spiritfarer‘s Canadian developer, Thunder Lotus, is renowned for their amazing art and animation; what they can’t be accused of, however, is being stuck in a rut. Their previous game, Sundered, is a procedurally-generated Metroidvania. Before that, their first game, Jøtun, is an isometric 2D-Zelda-like that had you battling giant bosses to get into Valhalla (I played bothgames on the Dan & Rusty Video Game Power Hour years ago).
Every game differs wildly from the last, with the quality of art and music being the only link between them. This also makes them unpredictable, but not in a worrying, nervous way. There is no doubt that their next game will be beautiful and good, even if I have no idea what kind of game it will be, and that’s what I found so comforting about this game in a year like 2020.
While Spiritfarer is wonderful, I find its success validating for the mercurial ethos of Thunder Lotus Games, and for me. Though I’m slow with the output for my western webcomic, Long John, I also know it’s not the only story I want to tell. Seeing Thunder Lotus not only bounce between genres and styles without a care but to also be successful (in terms of execution) with every game they make shows me that a similar desire to bounce around with my own creative endeavors is not only possible but can absolutely work when done with integrity, thoughtful intent, and earnest excitement. Those qualities seep through Spiritfarer on every level (pardon the pun), and they were more than welcome in a year like 2020.
LET’S GET DANGEROUS: With the genius resurgence of Ducktales on Disney XD, fans around the world were delighted with the introduction of another Disney Afternoon fan favorite, Darkwing Duck, into the series during the second season. For the third season’s mid-season premiere, Disney released an hour-long Darkwing Duck-focused episode that delighted Andrew––who has watched all of the rebooted Ducktales so far––and D. Bethel––who has only seen a few scattered episodes. They discuss how the episode looks forward, looks backward, and looks inward in one of the most clever episodes of television either have seen in a long while.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew lives in bliss during CBS All Access’ 23 weeks of Star Trek, especially as the premiere season of their comedy-drama animated show, Star Trek: The Lower Decks, comes to a close, while D. Bethel lives vicariously through hopeful survivalists in reruns of the History Channel reality show, Alone.
Goodwin, Jazmin and Charles Riley. “Regal and Cineworld Cinemas Are Shutting Down Across the US and UK.” CNN, 05 October 2020.
ANY PORT IN A NERD STORM: Rather than blasting the news, Andrew and D. Bethel blur the distinction between nerdy news and Weeks in Geek with Andrew expressing his excitement for Star Trek: Lower Decks on CBS All Access, Dan’s strange sense of place after watching the HBO true crime documentary mini-series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, before they discuss the news of the upcoming live-action Mulan remake getting a simultaneous (albeit for $29.99) release on Disney+ and in theaters.
Bethel, D. “News Blast: Three X-Films Announced for 2018.” A Website [ , ] For All Intents and Purposes. 23 April 2017. –– Where D. Bethel discusses the announcement of the New Mutants movie, along with the announcement of Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix. Deadpool 2 was the only film to release in 2018.
WEEK IN GEEK: This week, Andrew and D. Bethel let you in on the newest in modern entertainment. Andrew takes a dip into Nickelodeon’s 2005 animated show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, while Dan finds himself charmed by the 2015 RPG by CD Projekt Red, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Shortcast 76 – “A Sense of Place” (30 Nov. 2020): Where D. Bethel mentions Red Dead Redemption 2 in a conversation with Andrew (who uses Fallout 76 as his example) to talk about world-building in video games and how they can be subtle with giving information to players to draw them in.
“Playing the Menu” (20 March 2020): Where Andrew picks up The Witcher 3 after being inspired to do so by watching the Netflix show.
“A Casualty of the Rhyme” (22 May 2020): Where Taylor Katcher shows up to talk to the hosts about the Snyder Cut being released on HBO Max.
WEEK IN GEEK: This week, Andrew watches the trippy but artistic and engaging new Amazon Prime show, Undone starring Rosa Salazar, while D. Bethel––amidst all of his academic toil––finds time to be challenged and charmed by the actual roguelike deckbuilding phone game, Meteorfall: Journey by SlothWerks.
FALL (TV IS) BACK: With the summer doldrums of tv coming to a close, Andrew and D. Bethel discuss the Fall tv they’re looking forward to, including the debut of a new Doctor (and production team) with series 11 of Doctor Who, Andrew’s circumspect approach to the reboot Magnum and quizzical anticipation for Alton Brown’s Good Eats Reloaded, D. Bethel’s blind eagerness for the new season of The Gifted and Outlander, and both hosts’ skepticism of the new Riggs-less third season Lethal Weapon. It’s nerdy Fall tv front to back.
E3 tends to throw a lot of information––and games––at the public. D. Bethel has thoughts on a few of them.
Having been a console-first gamer my entire gaming life, I tend to pay close attention to the news and videos coming out of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). At this point, I don’t get particularly hyped about the games that get announced (I hear people that hit social media after a press conference exclaiming, seemingly in earnest, “I NEED THIS GAME NOW!” Chill, dude) especially since few games shown at E3 anymore are surprises, having been announced months or years earlier. If anything, being a guy who is way into process, I’m excited to see what state these previously announced games are in and what kind of games they actually end up being. It’s like a big public presentation of the middle portion of the transition from idea to final product.
With that in mind, there a few games really stood out to me, with a few that may have slipped under the larger coverage of the show.
The games I discuss in Shortcast 59 are only from the Sony press conference. Though I’ll be broadening my scope for this Spotlight, there was one game from Sony’s exhibition really got its hooks in me.
Sucker Punch is a studio with whom I’m nominally familiar. I never played the Infamous series of games, having been an Xbox 360 owner at the time of their release, but the idea intrigued me enough and the general response to the series was always positive, nor had I touched a Sly Cooper game as 3D platformers never really appealed to me despite the series’ general good regard among the community. With that said, I hold neither Sucker Punch nor their upcoming game, Ghost of Tsushima, to any metric aside from what they show of the game itself.
And what they showed of Ghost is fire.
In fact, it seems like a game made specifically for D. Bethel. According to Sucker Punch creative director, Nate Fox, Ghost is a wholly linear, narrative-focused game that takes the player through 13th century Japan in the midst of a war with the Mongols. With that, teenaged Dan, the Japanese history nerd, perked up. Additionally, it’s a historical samurai action game with no supernatural elements whatsoever as Sucker Punch aimed for “a grounded game.” Comicker D. Bethel, who’s making a western webcomic with no supernatural elements, perked up as well. Combined with the deliberate combat that looked similar (though let’s hope it’s not too similar) to Bushido Blade and Way of the Samurai, super gamer nerd Dan became invested.
Like with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption before it, the idea of a AAA grounded historical game that isn’t simply a tactical war game nor an RPG seems like an avenue less explored by big studios; so to see Sucker Punch tackle it (and with Red Dead Redemption 2 out this October!), I’m definitely keeping my eye on this one where, before, it wasn’t in my field of vision at all.
Sable – Shedworks (PC only at the time of this announcement) – Late 2019
Here’s where I walk back my console cred and mention a PC game. E3 held what it called its “PC Gaming Show” that showcased upcoming PC games in the same manner that other press conferences showcased console-focused games. Tucked among those games was Sable, and I can’t believe it’s real.
Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract.
I’ve watched the trailer a few times and I know it’s a game, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of game it is yet. The visuals stunned me. Surely a lot of people are going to be calling this a “hand-drawn” game, which it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s doing some high-level and artistic cell shading that eerily––EERILY––evokes the work of French cartoonist, Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius). Most accurately, it seems to be an homage to his long-running Métal hurlant (a magazine Giraud co-created and was published in the US as Heavy Metal) strip, Arzach.
Created by the two-person UK developer, Shedworks, their main source of inspiration seems to be from the strides in open-world development that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made than directly trying to interpret the work of Giraud into a video game space. Instead, the game apparently focuses more on the exploration and interaction with this breathtaking landscape rather than on RPG-like character growth and battle. Apparently, there’s no combat at all in the game, which is an intriguing proposition (No combat?! How is that even possible?!?!) that brought with it, to an extent, an internal sigh of relief. Finally, something different aside from just the visuals.
My joy doesn’t come from gleefully pointing out that this game seems to ape Mœbius’ style or comic at all––there’s no joy in that––but that this game vivifies his aesthetic perfectly. This must look like what the artist had in his head from which he could only capture still frames and arrange them on a page. Of all the games being written about, Sable genuinely gave me pause.
Sea of Solitude – Jo-Mei (PS4, XBox One, PC) – Early 2019
As an academic English person––albeit one who specialized in Composition and Rhetoric––whenever popular culture reveals a literary depth to it, it draws my attention with laser precision.
I heard on a podcast––sadly, I don’t remember which one, but probably Waypoint Radio––about a game shown during EA’s press conference that caught people off guard because Cornelia Geppert, the creative director of German indie studio, Jo-Mei, got surprisingly emotional and thoughtful when presenting the game, Sea of Solitude.
While “getting emotional” seems to be a highly subjective term––Geppert comes across as more nervous and genuinely excited to show off her game at the largest gaming trade show in the United States––her candor with the game’s themes andwhat they are trying to say with the game surprised me more.
A major argument in the discourse around games is that they are superficial entertainment, escapist power-fantasy exercises and that’s the baseline level of appreciation for them. Some even argue that such an angle should be our only appreciation of them (“Keep politics out of games!” “Keep your X agenda out of games!” “Games should be more like they were before!” etc.).
The problem with that is games are made by people who think very hard about their games. Like with any creative product (or any product), the consumer doesn’t usually see the majority of effort that went into making it. That’s part of why we are so quick to offer hot takes on games, movies, comics, toys, videos, etc. We are reacting to the product put in front of us, not seeing the complex web of thought, ability, and troubleshooting behind the shiny veneer. To an extent, good games look effortlessly made.
Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract. This has become more visible as creators have been more vocal with their process. From Hideo Kojima’s thematic and increasingly abstract approach to his Metal Gear Solid series to the small and decisively personal games like Brothers and Papo y Yo, consumers are seeing the level of critical and artistic effort creators put into their games.
Usually we hear these things after a game’s release. That Jo-Mei presented their literary ambition first, before the trailer, partly illustrates why I liked their segment of the press conference so much. This seems like a huge step forward for the developer whose previous games don’t seem like anything that really broke through to the larger critical discussion.
Luckily, the game looks stylish and fun––like LIMBO or INSIDE crossed with a post-apocalyptic anime––I’m excited because it piqued my academic interests while also being a game that––superficially––looks like it’ll be a fun time.
E3 has been particularly exciting this year. After a year or two of the industry being hit hard by extreme successes (2017 was an outstanding year for games) and existential dilemmas (voice actor strike, labor issues, continuing GamerGate behavior), seeing good games at the show as well as developers tackling some of these issues (both positively and negatively) head on puts this E3 ahead in a lot of ways. At the very least, we get good games out of the static as developers, journalists, and players try to move the medium forward and upward.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew talks about the premier of the new (and final) season of Star Wars: Rebels while D. Bethel talks about Netflix’s new based-on-a-true-story-kind-of David Fincher-led crime drama, Mindhunter.
SPOOKYTOBER: In celebration of the scariest month of the year, Andrew and D. discuss a movie each that really, truly gave them the scaries. Andrew discusses the cult classic, Jacob’s Ladder, while D. discusses the forgotten gothic horror of The Others.
Episode 20 – “Hydra Healthcare”: A previous Spookytober episode where, in the discussion, D. and Andrew discuss the video games that scared or unsettled them.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew dives into Paizo’s newest RPG, Starfinder (starts at 2:34), while D. Bethel checks out the premier episode of Disney XD’s reboot of DuckTales (19:46).
REAL MONSTERS: (30:45) Dan and Andrew just hang back and have a conversation rather than a guided discourse about Nazis in popular culture. They go all over the place, but hover around the topic of how (and why) they’re used in fiction.