Things I Loved: Summer/Autumn 2020
While the world may feel like it’s ground down to a halt this year, there’s no shortage of great media out there: here are some recommendations.
A Short Hike
There’s been some Gamer Discourse™ lately, though when is there not. It echoes a question that people have been asking for centuries: is length all that important?
The responses have ranged from level-headed (former Sony chairman Shawn Layden saying it isn’t viable for every game to be gargantuan) to…not so level-headed (see: Troy Baker responding to a perfectly normal tweet with a Theodore Roosevelt quote).
Gaming has never been running low on quality titles that you can complete in an afternoon, but I struggle to recall a release that has managed to wow me as quickly as A Short Hike has.
Created by Adam Robinson Yu, A Short Hike shares a wee bit of DNA with fellow indie darling Celeste with its mountain metaphor and a delightful cast of zany side characters. Where the two diverge is with gameplay: Celeste was the evolution of the 2D Mario formula while A Short Hike concerns itself more with the likes of Spyro, especially with its flying mechanic.
I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent gliding around Hawk Peak, diving into geysers for a second wind while the adaptive soundtrack scores my flight. The main quest may take you as long to complete as the latest episode of the hottest new Netflix title, but A Short Hike’s impact feels as weighty as a game with quadruple its budget and teamwork behind it.
While we’re on the topic of whether or not games are too long, here comes one that threatens to drain away a hellish amount of your free time: perhaps even some of that time you should be spending productively.
On the surface (hehe), Hades may seem like just another rouge-like title, a style of game that can be as rewarding as much as it can be masochistic. After playing through your first of many runs you’ll realise how Hades isn’t content being invited to Binding of Isaac and co’s party. It wants to rewrite the rule book, burst through the front door and make you demonstrably attracted to the majority of people it brings along with it.
Story-wise there’s a lot to dive into, but the main gist is that you are Zagreus, son of Hades, who wishes to escape the underworld and reach Mount Olympus in order to…well, I’ll contain myself and let you find out the rest.
We’ve gone through iteration after iteration of Greek mythology in the cultural zeitgeist but what Supergiant Games have achieved here is worthy of applause (and indeed a few awards). From your interactions with the Olympian Gods who wish to help you in your plight to the other noteworthy individuals who join you in the house of Hades, I never once skipped through the dialogue due to how well characterised everyone is — right down to the flying Medusa head maid.
Of course, this is a game after all, and everything in the gameplay department is terrific. The aforementioned Gods offer you boons, essentially powerups that are taken away after you die (which is often). When used in conjunction with the various weapons on offer, the possible combinations are seemingly endless — I’ve put around 25 hours into Hades so far, and I’m yet to have a single identical run.
Continuing with this party metaphor, I recently managed my first escape, and after I processed the fact that I had finally done it, Hades turned around and said to me “Finally, you’ve made it — now let the real party begin”. I guess I better get ready for the afters…and the afters’ afters…and the afters’ afters’ afters…
Jump Rope Gazers
The Beths’ 2018 debut Future Me Hates Me was one of the best albums I heard that year, energetic performances and eclectic lyrics were abundant, so a follow up was always going to be at the top of my most anticipated list.
I’m Not Getting Excited kicks off things in scuzzy fashion and shows that The Beths haven’t run out of their magic juice, a power-pop one-two punch that perks my ears every time. It makes perfect sense that after having a beloved first record revolving around self doubt that this song about not letting yourself to get carried away or enjoy moments is what opens their sophomore album.
You could give this record a surface listen and say it’s more of the same, but that’s not the case. Lyrically it focuses less on just the self and more on uncertainty and anxiety in relationships, both platonic and romantic.
Then you’ve got tracks like Out of Sight, my favourite of the lot that jumps from shoegaze to midwest emo, all without sacrificing Liz’s sardonic lyrics. The slower cuts like the title track show that the band don’t operate effectively on just one level and when it comes to what you’re expecting from them, tunes like Acrid show that The Beths’ formula isn’t close to wearing thin.
One of the best follow up albums of the year and one of my favourite 2020 albums in general.
This is it; this is the Bladee release I was waiting for, the one that would win me over. I knew it would happen, and I’m glad that my patience has been rewarded.
Bladee has, for me anyway, finally channelled the emotional potency and versatility of his peers that makes 333 an album I’m on board with for more than just the production. Reality Surf is one such moment, Bladee levitating above enchanting vocalising to express a genuine wish for his lover to see the beauty he does.
This situation gets flipped on Don’t Worry, Bladee lulling his partner and himself into this fake sense of security that he’s going to be fine which the rest of the album shows isn’t quite the case.
Even the songs that don’t play into this earnestness like 100s are still pretty amazing, that drowned out Dire Dire Docks percussion, that nuclear reactor bass explosion — prime early 2010’s Yung Lean.
This may be the accessible, refined work that could win over countless people who never wanted to send in their Drain Gang applications. With 333 and Starz, cloud rap is having a fairly good 2020 thus far.
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” An iconic quote from an iconic movie that rings through my head whenever a critically acclaimed but overlooked show gets a second wind. Freaks & Geeks is the first to come mind, the celebrity status of its cast and online blogs like Tumblr helping it find a new home with a new generation.
Clone High has had a similar trajectory. Created by then underdogs Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Spiderverse, Lego Movie) along with Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, this animated show should have been a runaway hit. How could it not, what with its original, ripe concept of being — you guessed it — set in a high school full of famous clones.
Sadly it never quite took off: mixed reviews from critics, low ratings and a controversy worthy of its own piece lead to its untimely cancellation.
While it was already worthy of cult status during the 2010s, Clone High has none other than TikTok to thank for the hoards of love and affection it’s recently received. Ever the hipster, I was on this hype train as early as 2016, but boy am I happy to see it finally get the acclaim it so rightfully deserved. While it may not have aged perfectly the teenage melodrama, huge heart, and Babe Ruth comedic batting average makes it an easy addition to my favourite animated shows list.
What’s better is that not only is it free to watch but it’s also set for a reboot. No details as of yet regarding whether certain characters will return or if it’ll be following directly on from that cliffhanger but regardless, there’s never been a better time than now to check out Clone High.
Patience is a virtue, and fans of animated shows will know this all too well. Sure, your Simpsons and Family Guys will premiere annually, destined to go on forever but fans of shows like Venture Bros (R.I.P) will know the waiting game all too well.
I bring this up as Close Enough, created by Regular Show’s J.G Quintel, seemed to find itself in this precarious scenario. We knew it existed. It was slotted to premiere as early as 2017 yet nothing — until now.
Admittedly it’s fairly apparent that this show has been lying on the shelf collecting dust for a few years — remnants like flossing and a Turn Down For What parody would have felt dated by 2017 standards, let alone now. Thankfully these moments are far and few between, Close Enough managing to avoid a sophomore slump for Quintel and arguably looking more promising than Regular Show did at this point in its lifespan.
Close Enough revolves around Josh and Emily, two young 30-somethings as they traverse parenthood, existential crisis and romance. While such a plot could sound bland on the surface, those familiar with Quintel’s work will know the hijinks that will ensue. A millennial murdering night club; a supernatural sitcom house; a time-controlling snail, voiced by Noel Fielding. These are just a few of the scenarios presented by the show, all of them as much of a delight to watch play out as it was to write them out in this very sentence.
While it rocks a 12 rating, allowing for some more leeway than you’d get on Cartoon Network, the violence and raunchiness are never played off just for the sake of it. For a show with penis inflating clowns, I’m eager to call Close Enough a tasteful show and one that I hope to see blossom over the coming years.
The Midnight Gospel
Not content bringing up just one creator attempting to follow up an iconic Cartoon Network series, here’s The Midnight Gospel!
While it may sound like an obscure 70s Jazz project, it’s actually the latest work from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward along with Duncan Trussell who voices protagonist Clancy Gilroy as he travels to strange and fascinating worlds on the brink of destruction.
The places Clancy explores are all wonderfully animated and fleshed out, seemingly so they can grab a crumb of attention from the podcast subjects he meets — oh, forgot that wee detail. You see Clancy isn’t going to these planets in some heroic manner, instead making what are called spacecasts. While I assumed the interviews were all original, it turns out these are taken from Trussell’s own podcast, so the fact they don’t stick out like a sore thumb is an achievement in of itself.
From talking with a medical specialist about drug legalisation to discussing meditation and spiritualness with a convicted murderer, The Midnight Gospel ensures that it’s neither a shallow show saved by its trippy aesthetic or a podcast unable to stand on its own two feet.
Lastly, as much as I don’t want to spoil the show, I cannot recall the last time I cried as hard as I did at The Midnight Gospel’s final episode. One of the best bits of TV I’ve seen all year and very likely ever. Don’t be surprised if this makes its way onto a lot of “Best of 2020” lists.
Everything I’ve listed so far will take you anywhere from 40 minutes to hundreds of hours to fully experience. BIGTOP BURGER is an exception to the rule, an 11-minute delight that you’ve got no excuse to give a go.
Following the antics of a burger van crew, BIGTOP BURGER takes the formula established by many a workplace sitcom and turns it up to 11: think The Office if ran by a calmer but no less chaotic Pennywise.
With programmes like BoJack Horseman and the aforementioned Midnight Gospel, there seems to be a common expectation of animated shows to be about something. While I’m all for more experimental and “meaningful” shows, BIGTOPBURGER is a welcome reminder that you can go the Seinfeld route by being about nothing at all really while still being endlessly entertaining.
Thank you for reading all the way through — hopefully, something here has caught your attention and will become a highlight for you like it has for me. If you want to hear more of my thoughts, you can follow me on Twitter, Twitch and YouTube.