In my wrap-up of this year in which we’ve been doing things differently, I’d like to do exactly that: things differently. 2020 has been a rough year. Rough on all of us. We wrestled through a slew of negativity of various kinds — some hitting home harder than others, but emotionally draining nonetheless.
Dear passengers, welcome onboard Flight GU4N20 with service from real life to other worlds. We are currently first in line for take-off and are expected to be in the air in approximately two minutes time.
I probably speak for the both of us when I say I’ve had my fill of negativity. That’s why I’d love something positive for a change. This annual wrap-up isn’t centred around ranking games. I’ve been doing that for over a decade and a half and, frankly, the prospect of having to rank things tires me. Instead, you and I are going on a trip to revisit the worlds that have fascinated me this year. I specifically use worlds here, because I started reading books. Not the measly three a year like I did in my 20s, but almost tenfold in the year after I turned 30. Turns out, books can introduce awe-inspiring worlds in a fragment of time compared to games, especially when spare time becomes a scarce commodity, its success co-depending on your own imaginative abilities. Somewhere between Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth, I discovered a latent fascination with speculative fiction, in particularly those by black writers.
We ask that you please fasten your seatbelts at this time and confirm that you have no baggage to store under your seat or in the overhead compartments. We ask that you position your seat in a comfortable position for take-off. If your seat happens to be a lavatory, kindly note due that this will be a long read and therefore encourage a courtesy flush mid-flight.
As I reflected on why I played the games I played and read the books I read over the past few years, I discovered that what I really longed for was to get introduced to new worlds and to the beings that inhabit those worlds. That’s what drew me to Falcom’s Trails series as I played through the series back-to-back in 2015— but also what had me look elsewhere when the series’ world-building stagnated with its continuous focus on the Erebonian Empire and, by proxy, Crossb-
Please keep on all personal electronic devices, including laptops, cell phones or whatever you happen to be reading this on. Smoking is allowed, but not recommended, for the duration of the flight. Thank you for choosing Dodo Airlines.
We wish you a pleasant journey.
Between wrapping up aforementioned, really good visual novel and reaching the albeit bad ending of the stellar The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which for some reason took me an embarrassing four years, I introduced myself to the late Octavia E. Butler’s celebrated Parable of the Sower and its sequel, Parable of the Talents. This duology, written in the mid 1990s, is set in a 2020s United States where its collapsed society struggles to survive in the wake of climate change and corporate greed amid an ever-growing wealth inequality. The protagonist, a courageous, black, young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina, grows up in a gated community until the day its security is compromised and witnessed how her family getting murdered, forcing her to flee and survive in everyday chaos of this collapsed nation, driven by scarcity and plagued by violent looters. Believing humanity’s goal is to leave its nest, the Earth, to discover and inhabit others planets, she continuously develops, refines and challenges her own religion, known as Earthseed.
The Parables have arguably been the most gripping read ever for me, perhaps on par with Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Butler’s accessible and spare prose belies the weight of its matter. At times it became too much for me and I had to put the books away and actually process the gruesome, but imaginable horrors I’d been reading. I can’t think of another book that brought me this close to tears nor one that haunted me after bedtime with politics-driven nightmares of losing my family. Little did I know back in January how often the events of 2020 would (sub)consciously remind me of the gut-wrenching tales of Lauren Olamina. It’s not an enjoyable read, but I’m convinced you’ll grow as a person if you decide to give Parable of the Sower and Talents a shot.
Looking for something lighter next, I turned to one of my wife’s favourites, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, which stars the eponymous and rather eccentric librarian who fulfils his dream of visiting the mystical, isolated city of Weep. Somehow he there meets the blue-skinned girl of his dreams, adding another riddle to the pile of growing mysteries in relation to Weep. The book starts with amazing world-building and it’s beautifully written throughout. Although the book loses momentum halfway through before picking up the pace again toward its thrilling finale, I really liked the idea of an exotic, possibly lost city chronicled in ancient tomes no one has be able to visit — until you do, through the eyes of the protagonist. Similarities in that regard with my favourite Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, aside, I have yet to read Strange’s sequel, Muse of Nightmares.
I finished Strange the Dreamer during our long-awaited return to Japan, a holiday sadly plagued and cut short by misfortune. Soon after arriving in Shikoku, my 9-months-old daughter started to show symptoms of a virus she contracted along the way, which not only kept us bound to our hotel rooms, but also awake at night to make sure to keep her hydration in check. While she started to recuperate after a local paediatrician in Takamatsu prescribed her medicines, infections back home were on the rise and rumours of locking down both the country and airspace aplenty. When our restlessness kept us both awake after visiting Matsuyama and Uji, we decided to scrap Tokyo and Osaka from our itinerary and head to the airport, hoping for a flight back. Finnair was kind enough to book us for the next flight back. We landed a mere ten minutes before the prime minister’s address to the nation, the first in forty years. No lockdown was announced, but we were glad to be home — the first, and probably last, time we were glad we had to leave Japan after ten turbulent days.
On the flight back — as we burnt through a pile of diapers and clothing we deemed more than enough yet turned out to be barely enough for a baby still sick-ish — I read N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month, a collection of her finest short stories. Know that short stories aren’t my thing (yet), but in anticipation of her then-upcoming The City We Became I gave it a shot anyway. Half of them resonated with me, in particular L’Alchimista, Cuisine des Memories (both reminded me of the magical cooking in Ghibli), The Effluent Engine, The Elevator Dancer, Stone Hunger (More Broken Earth? Yes, please!), and Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters. The short story The City Born Great served as the introduction to the first instalment of her latest trilogy and as the Brooklyn Bridge to the next novel on my list.
The City We Became is the first ebook I ever pre-ordered, and the first I read on the new Kindle I got for my birthday, which was quite the upgrade from my 2011 model without even backlight. If you’re anything like me, the setting and colourful cast of characters should be enough to get you excited for this urban fantasy novel. The City We Became takes place in New York City, in a world where great cities gain sentience through human avatars.
New York as a homeless, queer, black teenager falls into a supernatural coma and the avatars of its five boroughs are tasked to find and awaken him. Manhattan is a multiracial, amnesiac strategist capable of making their common enemy visible to ordinary New Yorkers; Brooklyn is a black, middle-aged rapper-turned-councilwoman drawing her strength from music; Queens, also known as Padmini, is a timid Tamil immigrant using her mathematical knowledge to manipulate reality; Staten Island, Aislyn for friends, a 30-year-old white woman living with her mother and abusive, racist cop of a father, possessing the ability to turn invisible; and, saving my favourite for last, The Bronx’s Bronca, an elderly queer woman of Lenape descent, equipped with a foul mouth, short temper, steel-toe boots and powers rooted in Native traditions, defending her local arts foundation from an alt-right group of artists. The boroughs join forces with avatars of other cities to battle an eldritch, lovecraftian horror while looking for the city’s avatar. If this somehow didn’t get your engine humming, let’s hope its potential to become an RPG will one day be adapted.
By now we’ve reached the end of March, a period marked twice on my calendar for two of the three games in 2020 I’d been eagerly looking forward to: Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Koei Tecmo’s Nioh 2. I’ve sank about 130 hours into each since their release, making these two the games I played most this year. As a responsible, new parent who now keeps an eye on age-ratings to make sure my daughter isn’t accidentally exposed to the bloody slaughter of yokai, these two games perfectly complemented one another: one would be perfect to play during hours when she’s toddling around, the other one would not be played outside her naps and resting hours.
While I don’t really know what to say about Animal Crossing, it still amazes me that once again it managed to keep my daily attention for three months straight. By that point, my wife and I completed our (virtual) house upgrades with (virtual) money to spare thanks to the wondrous world of turnips, and had our island Lyra inhabited by many beloved villagers — Raddle, Kabuki, Melba, Flora, Marina, Pashmina and Tasha. None of the major updates drew me back into the game, but I still occasionally play it for the seasonal festivities — or because our daughter learnt how to turn on the Switch and the game, only to puppy-eye us to play it so she can watch or clap along.
I wasn’t sold on Nioh 2 in the first half. It was enjoyable, sure, but I didn’t have a solid grasp on the new mechanics and, as someone usually not bothering with magic and items in these kind of games, struggled to find my foothold against the bosses in the second half of the game. I returned to the game after a brief break and started rebuilding my character, locating its shortcomings and shifting from the swift mid- and low-stance to the slower, but powerful high stance. This turned the game around for me. With my new poison-focused build I blasted through the second half of the game. In fact, the build was so effective that it carried me through Dream of the Strong, a more difficult mode with better gear, to the midpoint of Dream of the Demon, an even harder mode with — you get the gist. In hindsight, Nioh 2 was exactly what I was looking for: more of what I loved from the first game while refining its mechanics and introducing quality of life upgrades.
I intended to jump straight into Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes V: Cagesong of the Ocean when I finished its predecessor, A Tear of Vermillion, back in 2016. After the eventful second half of that game, Cagesong didn’t click and I returned it to its shelf at the beginning of chapter 1. This year I gave it a second shot and wrestled through its early hours until two familiar faces from Cagesong’s predecessors started to lay out how this game would tie the other two together. It’s a typical Legend of Heroes game in the sense that it starts off really slow, but once it gains momentum you’ll start to sacrifice precious hours of sleep for it. My earlier worries whether it would deliver as an interquel — is that a word? — melted under the black sun as I sat through its majestic finale, one of the two moments that got me truly emotional. Let’s hope this trilogy will receive a localisation worthy of their brilliance one day.
At the start of the summer, I wrapped up Square Enix’s Dragon Quest Builders 2, which was sheer fun from beginning until the end, impossible to put down. By the time the credits were rolling, I was still on such a Dragon Quest high that I dug out my Nintendo DS Lite and Dragon Quest IV to finally finish it.
Itching to read more of Octavia E. Butler’s work, I turned to her Patternist series and read the books in chronological order, meaning her debut novel last. The Patternist quadrology starts with the elegantly written Wild Seed, which depicts the relationship of fascinating and fear between two Africans in the 17th century: Doro, a millennia old body snatcher, and Anyanwu, a mere centuries old shape shifter with restorative powers. Doro has been running a secret program to breed super humans and hopes, joins, forces and threatens Anyanwu to join it to have her special abilities passed down to future generations. His program results in a group of networked telepaths, the eponymous Patternists, by the time of the second novel, the thrilling page-turner Mind of my Mind. The third novel, the relentlessly visceral Clay’s Ark, introduces the titular disease that plays an important role in the last novel, Patternmaster. This is where all the build-up comes together: the telepathic Patternists and their ruler, the Patternmaster, are under constant attack by the animalistic Clayarks as the quest for his successor begins. Even now, I don’t know whether I would recommend the chronological or publication order to read. For the narrative, chronological worked wonders yet returning from Butler’s more refined writing in Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark to the much rougher Patternmaster was rather jarring. If this didn’t entice you to give this series of rather short books (less than a 200 pages per book) a go, you can also look forward to Amazon’s planned adaptation of Wild Seed.
At the crossroads of games and books lies Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future, a novelisation of the original plans for its four latter DLC episodes, of which only Ardyn’s was partially brought to fruition. The book actually blew me away with its compelling writing and excellent translation, providing a satisfying true ending route both the game and fans deserved, all while honouring the regular ending. Whereas Episode Gladio, Prompto and Ignis expanded the scope of the main game’s story, focusing on the aspect the game couldn’t address thanks to the focus on Noctis, the book’s interwoven episodes of Ardyn, Aranea, Lunafreya and Noctis expand on its story and world, introducing a brand-new character, fitting perfectly in a cast named after ‘night’ and ‘moon’. And speaking of which, Lunafreya never got her chance to shine in the game, spending most of her time off-screen to pave the way for her betrothed. She may have received the short end of the stick in the game, but after The Dawn of the Future this strong, courageous oracle ranks among my favourite characters from game’s universe. If you decide to return to Eos and finish Noctis’s tale, do buy the well-produced hardback for the gorgeous artwork and concept art in the back.
After finishing Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in June and taking a necessary break from lengthy role-playing games, I returned to my big screen in August for the third game of 2020 I’d been eagerly looking forward to: Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Hajimari no Kiseki, sequel to Trails of Cold Steel IV and supposedly starting point of the series’ second half. As a spiritual successor to Trails in the Sky The 3rd, it resorts mostly to recycled assets to wrap up lingering plot threads from the Crossbell and Erebonia arcs, offering an unmaintainable amount of playable characters to, you’d think, give fans everything they could ask for.
Where it shines, however, is where it stops treading familiar soil. With no need to introduce the vast majority of its cast, the formulaic approach is gone and instead the game drops you at the action’s outset to reach the chapter’s climax in ways I usually couldn’t predict. The route featuring three new characters, supposedly penned by younger staff members, was often hilarious and engaging, and continuously refreshing. Without the burden of expectations and a zenith to write to like the Cold Steel quadrology, Hajimari’s relatively silly but most endearing story blows a necessary fresh wind through the continent of Zemuria. Greater than the sum its parts, it’s a game that didn’t need to be but I’m really glad it is.
Thinking back, the ‘for some reason’ it took me four years to finish The Witcher 3 also applies to Sukeban’s VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action: they’re too good to end, but whereas Geralt of Rivia’s sprawling journey easily lasts over a hundred hours, Jill Stingay’s bartending adventures ended in about 15 hours. I loved every minute of it, from meeting new clients and learning more about returning customers to the graphics, character designs, music and writing, it was sublime throughout. I played VA-11 HALL-A in short sessions, savouring every minute of it, and it actually took me buying Supergiant Games’s Hades before I was willing to trade in Glitch City for something else — that being the Underworld.
I’m not really into roguelikes, with the exception of Spike Chunsoft’s Shiren the Wanderer and, apparently Hades. I haven’t given it the time it truly deserve, that is, I’ve barely made it out alive once before my motivation to try again waned and Yakuza Kiwami drew me in, but its excellent core gameplay loop of making every run worthwhile made its addictive charm hard to resist and, every time I gave in, to distance myself from Zagreus’s misadventures again. Especially after having read Stephen Fry’s whimsical Mythos earlier this year and the Greek pantheon still fresh in the memory, it was a pleasure to see Supergiant’s interpretation of these gods and the interaction between them.
To undoubtedly much dismay of at least two friends, I’m going to grand jeté over Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice — a beautifully written, rather comfortable and slow-paced high fantasy tale — and Anna Kavan’s Ice — a haunting, surreal story of an unreliable, hallucinating protagonist pursuing a fragile girl to the ends of an apocalyptic world — and land before another talented black writer I thankfully discovered this year. Nnedi Okorafor writes not afrofuturism like aforementioned Butler but africanfuturism and africanjujuism, subcategories of science-fiction and fantasy, respectively, usually set on the African continent and more directly rooted in African culture, mythology, spirituality and cosmology than afrofuturism. In Binti, which I read in a single sitting back in Takamatsu, the eponymous, Himba-inspired heroine is accepted into the prestigious intergalactic university Oomza Uni but finds her transit ship is hijacked by jellyfish-like aliens on the way there. Who Fears Death tells an engrossing feminist, dystopian, coming-of-age tale set in North-East Africa about a daughter of rape seeking vengeance by honing her mystical powers. Both Binti and Who Fears Death feature simplistic prose I now associate Okorafor’s writing with, but both were also so imaginative that I can’t help but keep her on my radar.
I’d like to end my great escape 2020’s itinerary by taking us to the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, also the title of— there she is again—N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel and first book in the Inheritance trilogy. Throughout three books, she crafts a fascinating realm inhabited by gods, mortals and in-betweens that by no means can do justice in this single paragraph but will definitely try to entice you. The world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdom is ruled by the Arameri family from the safety of their pearl-white palace floating the city below, both inconveniently named Sky. In the first book, family head Dekarta summons his granddaughter Yeine Darr, who grew up in a matrilineal warror clan, across the world to force her into her cousin and niece’s power struggle to succeed him. The second book shifts the focus to the city below, where the blind street artist Oree Shoth ekes out a living selling trinkets to tourist and returns every night to her silent, homeless room mate whom she found in a muckbin. The third book is narrated by the godling Sieh (“see-ay”), also known as the Trickster who promises to reliably and truthfully share what happens centuries after the first two books.
The world and its history are carefully, gradually and cleverly revealed and expanded to support the story’s direction. Over the course of three books (plus one really worthwhile novella), the series also introduced a vast pantheon of, and classification for, gods and godlings as well as a great variety of mortal races, the lands they inhibit and professions they’re engaged in, such as scriveners, scholars who study the god’s language which allows them to cast limited magic. After the Broken Earth trilogy and the start of the Great Cities trilogy, the Inheritance trilogy marks the third time Jemisin charmed me with her compelling writing style and amazing world-building abilities. Not recommended for people who regard sex as an act only to be enjoyed by mortals of the opposite sex. Since I also read her enjoyable Emergency Skin, a solarpunk novella written entirely from the second-person perspective, I sadly have only two unread Jemisin novels left.
On behalf of Dodo Airlines, the imaginary crew would like to welcome you to back to real life.
We will be arriving at the gate momentarily. Please remain in your seats with your seat belt securely fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete stop at the terminal gate. Please check your surroundings to confirm you brought no belongings before leaving the aircraft. If you are connecting to another flight, we wish you a most pleasant continuation of your journey. If your final destination is real life, please proceed to the baggage carousels to retrieve your imagination.
The outside air temperature is minus 5 degrees Celcius with a fierce wind coming from the northeast. We hope you had a pleasant flight and hope that you consider aforementioned destinations for future solo travels. We are pleased you chose to read with us today. We wish you a good evening and a blessed 2021.