My Friend Mike, Who is Dead Now

Let me tell you about my friend Mike, who is dead now.

I grew up in a tiny town. A rural area. I had friends, and very good ones I should make clear, but I never really fit in. Southern New Jersey wasn’t the place for me. I can’t remember a year going by during which I didn’t look forward to getting out and never looking back.

It’s not where I belonged. I doubt anyone else thought I belonged there, either.

I say this as context so that you’ll understand what it means that my friend Mike, who is dead now, was never anything but kind to me. Even when I was frustrated by who I was, what I was, where I was. Even when I treated others poorly and didn’t deserve kindness in return. Even when he no doubt knew that we’d graduate high school and move on and he’d never have to deal with me again. He was always my friend. Mike, who is dead now.

Someone described Mike, who is dead now, as a gentle giant. I couldn’t possibly choose two better words myself. He was a big guy. He always was. Physically imposing, but wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ve seen him laugh. I’ve seen him happy. But I never saw him upset. I never saw him sad. I never saw him angry. I never heard him say a negative thing about anybody or do a negative thing toward anybody.

My friend Mike, who is dead now, was soft spoken. He was funny. He had the biggest God damned heart. People go through life making friends and enemies but Mike, who is dead now, never seemed to get around to the enemy part. He was friendly to everybody. He hung out with the popular kids. He hung out with the outcasts. He hung out with the nerds. He was good to all of them. He was better than most of us deserved.

There was a sincerity about Mike, who is dead now, that it’s difficult to put into words. If you knew him, you’d know immediately what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, you never will, because he’s dead now.

He could have been a bad person. It was high school. He had the stature and strength and popularity to back it up. He could have been a jerk. He would have gotten away with it. It could even have been fun. A lot of people go that way when they have weight to throw around. I probably would have, too. But he didn’t. Mike, who is dead now, was humble. He didn’t think he was better than anybody. He was always there, this friendly, funny presence with the great big heart.

I have a lot of specific memories of friends from that time in my life, but I don’t have many of Mike, who is dead now. I think that’s because my fondness for him can’t be boiled down to a night of video games or a weekend of drinking or some ridiculous mischief we got up to together that we’d never dream of pulling today. Mike, who is dead now, was a more general part of my life. A constant. Someone always friendly and reliable and trustworthy. One who always played along if someone were teasing him, and one who never teased back.

When I left New Jersey, I lost touch with a lot of people. Including Mike, who is dead now. I had a new life to focus on, and they did, too. But time passed, and I started reconnecting with many of my old friends. After I lost everything a few years ago and was barely scraping together the money to rent a room and the energy to earn that money, when I started rebuilding myself personally, I reconnected with even more of them.

Mike, who is dead now, was one of them.

He looked so happy. Well, as happy as Mike, who is dead now, ever looked. He always seemed to wear the same expression. You’d see the real smile in his eyes.

Mike, who is dead now, seemed to be living a stable, healthy life, and of all the people I went to school with, myself absolutely included, I can’t imagine anyone deserving that more.

He had a beautiful family. He didn’t look a day older than the last time I’d seen him, nearly 20 years ago. I’d see him post photos of sunsets and beautiful mornings, better looking skies than anything I’d seen myself when I was in New Jersey, and he’d caption them with positive thoughts. Affirmations. And every so often he’d comment on something I had posted, just to show his support. That’s just who Mike, who is dead now, was.

On Feb. 1 at 6:37 pm, Mike, who is dead now, posted a long status update. He was venting about someone who had clearly treated him poorly. It was longer and angrier than anything I’d seen him post before. But I didn’t see this post until much later. I missed it, or overlooked it. A lot of people did.

That same day, at 11:32 pm, he shared an uplifting video with the caption, “That’s a beautiful story.” I didn’t see that post, either, but that’s more the kind of thing I expected to see from Mike, who is dead now.

On Feb. 4 at 8:34 am, a family member shared the news that Mike, who is dead now, passed away over the weekend. I was sad. A lot of people were. Everybody wanted to know what had happened to Mike, who is dead now. People reached out to me to see if I knew anything. I didn’t.

On Feb. 5 at 9:58 am, I learned he’d committed suicide.

Mike, who is dead now, killed himself.

I’ve had a number of friends die, and of course the old crew crawls out of the woodwork to post condolences. That’s okay. That’s how it should work. But I believe there’s a noticeable difference between those who offer condolences because that is the right thing to do, and those who are genuinely upset and will miss the person deeply, perhaps more deeply than they ever would have guessed. The latter is all I saw for Mike, who is dead now.

I don’t know what he struggled with. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know what he carried in his heart or his mind or what demons he fought every fucking day until he finally decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight them anymore. I don’t know because he never told me. I don’t know because Mike, who is dead now, never told anybody. He felt more comfortable taking his own life than he did reaching out for help.

And Mike, who is dead now, had a wealth of people who would have listened. Who would have tried to help. Who cared about him and loved him and are too late to help him push through.

Mike, who is dead now, took whatever he was feeling, whatever he was fighting, however deeply he was hurting, with him.

I’m sad and I’m angry and I’m frustrated and I’m heartbroken.

Because Mike, God damn it, I would have helped you. And I’m not alone. Seeing that you were happy, you were doing well, you were living a great life…nobody deserved that more than you. And just recently you posted kind words to me. And just recently you talked with a mutual friend and had her convinced you were doing great. And just recently you bumped into another friend in the convenience store and he couldn’t have been happier about how well you were doing.

And you killed yourself, Mike. You’re gone now. You aren’t coming back and if anyone knew what you were going through, we would have helped, dammit. If you needed money or a place to stay or a shoulder to cry on, we fucking loved you. And we would have been there. If we knew, we would have been there.

But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we never told you that we loved you. Maybe you knew you had friends, but didn’t know they were people you could trust. Maybe you didn’t know how much people actually cared and were willing to help. And maybe that’s because we’re fucking idiots and we never told you.

I wish I could have told you. I wish I could step a few days into the past and find that worrying post and reach out. I wish I could go back to high school and give you a big hug. I wish I could do anything at all to change where we are, right now, with you dead by your own hand because you didn’t think there was another way forward.

I hate that that’s where you ended up. I hate that you, of all people, were on the bottom, beneath something so heavy you had no hope of lifting it up. I hate that I’m out here writing about mental health and being open about my own struggles and trying like hell to help people avoid and deal with the shit I have to face every day and my friend, the gentle giant, the sweetest, warmest fucking guy imaginable, struggled and fought and lost without me even realizing it.

Please don’t be like Mike, who is dead now. Please, for God’s sake, reach out. Let someone know. Because somebody out there cares more than you think they do. And if you don’t believe that, then reach out to me and I’ll prove you wrong myself.

And if you’re doing okay reach out to someone today, tomorrow, the day after that, someone who isn’t. Reach out to the ones you know struggle and the ones you assume are fine because why wouldn’t they be. Reach out, damn it. Because people need you, and however open and accessible you assume you are, when they are losing that fight, they’re only going to see one way out, and it won’t be picking up the phone and calling you. So pick up the phone and call them.

Mike was my friend. In our most recent messages he was excited to be going back to school to get a degree. I was excited for him.

He’s dead now. Whatever he was planning or looking forward to, that’s where his story ends.

He was my friend. I wonder if he even knew that.

The saddest part of It’s a Wonderful Life, to me, has always been its ending. Yes, everything works out, but it’s terrifying that had George Bailey actually killed himself that night, his story would have ended there, without him realizing or knowing or understanding that there were so many people out there who would have helped, who wanted to help, who would gladly do whatever they could to help.

He didn’t reach out to them. He stepped out into a cold winter’s night and decided for himself that there was only one way out.

He never reached out. He never knew. Somebody else had to show him.

Understanding the Need for Representation

It’s my birthday today, and every year since this blog began I’ve used my birthday an excuse to write something personal. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. This year, it’s not.

Whenever people talk about the need for representation in media, I get it. I understand it. I see where they’re coming from. But I never really felt, personally, what it means to go unrepresented.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I was born into a Christian household. So were the vast majority of characters I’d encounter in film and on television.

As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted somewhat. Groups of friends get to have a black one, and even a girl one. Maybe there’s a Jewish one if the writers can think of enough jokes to justify it. Of course there are also shows and movies with predominantly female, black, or homosexual casts, but those are always easy to identify by sight and so anybody who doesn’t want to find themselves exposed to such things can keep away easily. Everybody wins.

This past year, I’ve been through a lot. (I won’t even begin to pretend I’m alone in that.) Good things. Bad things. Exciting things. But also something that, as I turn thirty-eight, I wish I went through a long time ago.

In 2018 I came out as asexual. I know that everybody has their own journey. I know that everybody comes out in their own way, in their own time. I know that there isn’t a right or wrong way to come to your own awakening.

And yet, if I can have the privilege of sharing the ugly side of a good thing, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t understand myself sooner. Angry that this is what I’ve always been without the vocabulary to express, understand, or process it. Angry that I wasn’t me.

Let me step back.

I remember one day in high school. My friend Nate had lost his virginity at some recent point. He was the first one in our circle of friends to do so, and he was telling us about it. We were kids. We were curious. We asked questions. I’m sure he was happy to be the center of attention on this topic.

He said, “The bad thing is that once you have sex, you start always wanting it.”

For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Around a year or so later, I lost my virginity as well, to a girl named Amy. Before and as it was happening, I didn’t feel like I really wanted it. I felt curious about it, for sure, and I was turned on, but I wasn’t…desiring it.

I remembered what Nate said. I figured maybe the first time you just sort of fumble your way through it anxiously, and you figure out what you’re doing and what you like, and curiosity gets replaced, gradually, by actual sexual desire.

It didn’t. Not for me. Not then, or at any point since.

But I didn’t know why. I became the next center of attention. Friends asked me questions and I answered them. I doubt I lied about anything but I’m sure I embellished. They wanted a story. I told them a story.

Maybe I just didn’t feel that way toward Amy. I liked her and I was attracted to her, but maybe there needed to be something deeper. Maybe when I was in a more serious relationship, with someone I cared about on a deeper level, everything would click.

I found that person in my next relationship. She was great, and I look back on the time we spend together fondly. We dated through the end of high school right into the beginning of college. I cared about her. I had fun with her. We had similar sensibilities and morals and senses of humor.

We had sex, a good number of times. And I still didn’t want it.

The more I reflect on these early experiences, the more I realize that it’s always been this way for me. I remember having the house to myself frequently with one girlfriend, but I never thought about or looked forward to having sex. I thought about watching movies and playing video games and laughing with each other. I remember another girlfriend saying to me — in a jokey way — “You don’t even like sex.” I’m sure she thought there was truth to that statement well before I did. I remember sitting in my car outside of a college party, listening to the Live at Leads version of “Magic Bus” with a girl who hadn’t heard it before. It was a nice moment. I enjoyed spending the time with her. We went back into the party, and then into a bedroom, and she wanted to have sex. I wasn’t interested. I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t. I felt terrible. I felt as though I’d led her on. I was embarrassed.

Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t impotence, because I could have sex…I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was gay, because I find women very attractive and have yet to be physically attracted to a man. It wasn’t low testosterone, because I paid for a test out of pocket knowing for sure that that would be the reason, but my doctor called a week or so later with the results to tell me that my testosterone was actually pretty high.

I talked to a few people about it. Not many, and probably not the right ones. One thing a girl I was seeing told me is, “You just haven’t had good sex.” I kind of doubted that. Without making any qualitative assessment, I was in the same boat by the time our relationship ended.

So I just kept trying. Dating. Pursuing. Sleeping with girlfriends. Sometimes once, sometimes many times. I kept having sex because I kept expecting something to click. Sometimes I felt obligated to do it. Sometimes I’d do it just so I wouldn’t disappoint someone. It was fine. It felt good. But it wasn’t anything I wanted.

I grew up watching television. Too much of it. I saw the characters there. I identified with some of them. I learned about myself from watching them. I was able to see how people like me failed or succeeded in what they set out to do.

But sexuality was binary. The vast majority of these characters were straight, a rare few were gay. I didn’t desire sex at all. I didn’t see that anywhere. Something was wrong.

A few years ago, Bojack Horseman had an episode in which Todd, played by Aaron Paul, realizes he’s asexual.

I’d heard the term before, but never looked into it or gave any thought to it. If someone identified as asexual, well…good for them. It’s not my business to go rooting around to figure out what it means. They’d arrived at their own truth, and that’s what was important.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to that episode, I did see something of myself in Todd. I’d rather not get too specific here, as I think I’m putting enough of myself out there as it is, but there was a moment — and then further moments — in his relationship with Emily that felt very, very close to home. To the point that it hurt.

Bojack Horseman primed me for identifying with it, I’ll admit. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, chronic unhappiness and as someone who used to have self-destructive tendencies, I see myself a lot in that show. Intermittently. Here and there. In a line or in a decision or in an inability to get one’s shit together.

And that’s okay. In a show covering a topic you’re familiar with, that’s almost bound to happen. As long as it’s written and acted well, I suppose, which Bojack Horseman is.

But I definitely didn’t see myself in Bojack’s hyperactive sex drive. The meaninglessness, sure, but not feeling compelled to have more and more and more of it.

And then Emily confronted Todd, with an openness that hopefully a lot of us can learn from. And, ultimately, Todd’s answer put things into perspective for me.

EMILY: What’s…your deal? I feel like you like me but you don’t like me, but you like me. And I don’t know what that is. Are you gay? […]
TODD: I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am. But…I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.

I turned the television off after that episode and I just…thought. As silly as it may seem, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.

Obviously there are many characters we don’t actively see having or pursuing sex, but the understanding was always that there were parts of their life we don’t see. If we were to follow them beyond the boundaries of a thirty-minute episode, we’d see them pursuing guys or girls and that would be that. There were characters who were horny and characters who were reserved enough that we didn’t get a glimpse into their sex lives. Everybody had a sex life, and the few that didn’t actively wanted one.

There were no characters that openly had no interest in sex.

Emily asks Todd that question because she’s hurt. She feels like she’s been led on to some degree, even if it’s clear she doesn’t think he did it on purpose. I had an Emily. I had a lot of Emilys. I didn’t intend to lead anybody on, but we’d go on dates. We’d hang out. We’d have fun. We’d flirt.

And then I didn’t want sex. And if we had it, I wasn’t pursuing more of it, even if I were keeping them in my life.

And I’ve hurt them. In large part I’m making an assumption there, but in one specific case someone reached out to me after I came out to explain how she felt. How I had confused her. How I’d upset her. She wasn’t blaming me. I had just been open about something that finally made sense to me, and she replied with her own openness about how it felt on her end.

I didn’t want to hurt or mislead or confuse anybody. I just…didn’t know. I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know that there were people like me. I thought there was something…wrong with me, and I spent too many years and too much effort with too many people trying to “fix” myself, get myself on the right track, feel sexual desire the way every single other person on the planet obviously felt it.

I later connected with a friend who was also asexual, though I hadn’t known that before. I found a community online that helped me better understand what I am, and that it’s okay to feel the way I do. I started letting people know ahead of time where I stood sexually. These are good things. But I wish I could have done them sooner. I wish I’d had the knowledge that this wasn’t a problem…this was just something I was, and I wasn’t alone. I could have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

I said above that I’m straight, and I am. I love women. I love romance. Dating is fun and getting to know a partner on a deep, personal level is fun.

But for all of my life I thought it was supposed to build to sex. Again and again and again to sex. And it didn’t for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I did it because I felt as though I needed to, that I should have wanted to, that this was the way things worked and I didn’t really have a place to disagree.

And I realize now why representation is important. For the first time, I experienced that firsthand. When we see people like us in the media, we know we aren’t alone. When we don’t see them, we suspect we might be. When there isn’t some kind of representative of who we are and what we want and how we feel, it’s easy to believe we’re missing something. We’re broken in some way. We aren’t who we should be.

I’m not saying I necessarily needed to see a character like Todd when I was a child, but I am saying that seeing him when I finally did helped me a lot, gave me a reason to research asexuality, and gave me a push I needed to understand who, the fuck, I was.

I didn’t even know that the thing I was was an option. And that’s terrifying to me. It’s sad that there are children and adults who don’t realize it’s okay to be who they are, so they try to be someone they aren’t, hurting others and themselves in the process, and never being truly happy with who they already are.

I guess it’s about right that here, in this monumentally shitty world that seems determined to get worse every day, that a cartoon about a talking horse would be the one place I’d find some honesty. I just hope it’s honesty that’s easier to come by in the next generation, for people who might need it even more than me.

Update: Book, Fiction into Film, Mega Man, more!

Right! So, it’s been quiet around here, I’m not dead, you know the drill. But since I haven’t updated the site in 2019 yet, I wanted to provide some information about what’s going on, tease a few features, and open something up to a vote.

First, the book.

I know, I know, I wish I could actually tell you about it. Hopefully soon. My publisher will have to do its own announcement first, and then I’ll never shut up about it, I promise.

Progress has been great. I sent them a complete draft toward the end of 2018, and they provided a lot of useful, extremely thoughtful feedback. I was happy with the draft (as far as drafts can make one happy), and they’ve unquestionably given me the tools to make it better.

Posting much of the feedback here would give away the subject, so I’ll instead just include this one general bullet instead.

That felt good to receive! I can sleep again knowing I didn’t submit a big heap of crap.

There were definitely a few things I did that they weren’t on board with, which is great to know. It’s impossible for me to experience my own work as a reader, so feedback like that is immensely helpful.

I will say that the book covers a topic I’ve discussed here before. Obviously this will cover it in much greater depth, but if you’ve been a reader of the site, I think it’s safe to say you’ll be glad when you find out what I’m covering.

All of that is to say that I’m currently working on the second complete draft of the book, which consists of a major rewrite followed by lots of and lots of editing and polishing. I owe them this draft by the end of February, and I expect to turn it in much sooner than that. Once that happens, I’ll be posting here regularly again.

Well, “regularly.”

I do have a number of things I want to cover when I have the bandwidth. For starters, it’s safe to say I’ve spent enough time with Mega Man 11 now that I can write its Fight, Megaman! entry. You’ll notice it wasn’t in my best-of-2018 list, but I don’t hate it and I know I’ll have a lot to say.

I’ve also spent a lot of time with Fallout 76, which has become less of a video game and more of a flaming dumpster tumbling down a mountain. Which is a shame, because its dire reputation is both well deserved and unfortunate. You’ll notice it wasn’t in my best-of-2018 list, but I don’t hate it and I know I’ll have a lot to say.

There’s also a whole piece I’d like to write about Prey‘s approach to ethical conundrums. You’ll notice it was in my best-of-2018 list, and I nearly discussed my (very positive) feelings about this aspect of the game there, but saying anything of substance will be impossible without major spoilers, so I’m going to confine it to its own post. In the meantime, go play Prey.

In February, I’ll be reviewing another show in its entirety, for those missing the ALF reviews. It’s a worse show than ALF, but it also didn’t last as long, so we can call it a draw. Stay tuned for more information on that.

I have my three films selected for this year’s Rule of Three, and I think it will be an interesting study. You can look forward to that series starting up, as always, on April 1.

And, finally, I want to spend time this year writing more Fiction into Film entries. I always have good intentions with this series, and it’s one of my favorite things to write, but it also takes a lot of time and energy, so when those things are at a premium, this is the first to go.

However, as your reward for being patient, I thought I’d open up the next Fiction into Film to a vote.

Below are a number of entries I’ve wanted to write for a long time. These are adaptations I know I’d have a lot to say about, and the reason I haven’t covered them yet is simply because I haven’t gotten around to it.

After this draft of the book is complete and submitted, though, I will begin work on whatever wins the popular vote. You’re welcome to vote here in the comments, on Facebook, through email, on Twitter…any way you like. Just let me know which one you’d prefer to read about, and that’s what will get my attention. I’ll announce the winner as soon as my draft is complete, so I don’t have a firm date yet. The end of this month is probably a fair guess, though, so vote now!

  • Catch-22 (1961/1970)
  • The Long Goodbye (1952/1973)
  • The Hotel New Hampshire (1981/1984)
  • Jackie Brown (1992/1997)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973/1999)
  • Ghost World (1997/2001)
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970/2009)
  • Submarine (2008/2010)

As always, thank you for your patience and for your readership. You’ll get something great out of the quiet time, I promise.

Vote!

My 10 best games of my 2018

As I said last year, I don’t usually do an annual best-of games list because I don’t usually play many games close to their release. Once again this year, though, I did, and what I played felt like it was absolutely worth spotlighting.

So here we are again, yes, but I have the same problem I had last time: I want to include games that I missed out on the previous year. Games that would have made my list had I gotten around to them.

I’m still not quite sure of the best format to use for something like this, so I’m just going to stick three 2017 highlights in their own list, and then move on to my favorite 10 from 2018. My only real rule is that remakes/remasters don’t qualify…even though this year saw a mountain of truly great ones. Shenmue I & II, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Lumines Remastered, Katamari Damacy Reroll, and a bunch more.

The probably obvious caveat here is that I haven’t played every game this year, including some high-profile ones that, to be honest, I’d probably love. No Spider-Man, no Red Dead Redemption 2, no Hitman 2…I’ll get to them, but not in the last week or so of the year.

My 10 best games of 2018 (2017 edition)

3) Prey

Prey is honestly the game that made me want to reach back into 2017 and spotlight it…and, obviously, it didn’t even end up being the best game I overlooked that year, which says something.

This was a massively pleasant surprise. I didn’t get around to it initially because the reviews were middling and I figured I’d wait for a sale. I regret that, because I wish I could have shown my support to the game with a full-price purchase.

Prey is difficult to discuss without spoiling some of its magic, suffice it to say it’s a sci-fi horror adventure that takes place on the space station Talos I in the immediate aftermath of horrific tragedy.

You are Morgan Yu, and your goal is…well, that’s your call. You can try to salvage what you can of the research that went wrong. You can try to escape and never look back. You can sacrifice Talos I — and yourself — to prevent the still-unfolding catastrophe from reaching Earth.

I’d be overselling the game to say there’s limitless freedom, because there certainly is not, but Prey is impressively versatile in ways so passive and quiet that a good deal of reviewers overlooked them. I remember one sequence midway through the game during which I really wanted some supplies behind a crate that was too heavy to move. Strength upgrades were available to me, but I had passed them up in favor of other things that I thought would be more useful. I couldn’t get to the goodies I wanted.

For whatever reason, I decided to fire my weapon at the crate…and it moved, just enough to make me realize I could blast it out of the way with enough firepower. And that was the moment Prey revealed itself to me. It’s not a matter of killing or avoiding an enemy…you can repair a turret to kill it for you, or hack a terminal to lock them in a room, or scale a wall to avoid them entirely, or or or or or. I returned to earlier areas of Talos I that I thought would be inaccessible until I found the right abilities, only to find that, actually, I just had to learn how to use the abilities I already had. Nearly every “lock” in the game is one you already have a key for, if you know what you’re doing.

Additionally, Prey has some of the best sidequests I’ve ever encountered, which surprised me considering the fact that just about every character is a torn, burnt, disfigured corpse on the floor somewhere. Reading two halves of email conversations, finding notes, listening to recordings…nothing about Prey‘s execution in this area is groundbreaking, but the writing is phenomenal. You learn about games the crew members invented and played to stave off boredom. You uncover a secret love affair that’s genuinely touching. You follow the stories of colleagues who knew something was awry but were silenced, one way or another, before they could speak up.

Prey is far better than it was given credit for being upon release, and if you skipped it, you really should pick it up sometime. Come for the scary monsters. Stay for the fragile humanity.

2) What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is a dramatic masterpiece, not just within the medium but in general. I have never, in my entire life, been moved so deeply and so unforgettably by a video game.

The game is a walking simulator, to use that needlessly disparaging term, but it’s one that any fan of narrative, of characterization, of family dynamics, of simple storytelling truly needs to experience. There are important lessons here, for readers and for writers alike.

I’m being purposefully vague, so please don’t correct me in the comments, but you play as Edith Finch, who returns to her childhood home with adult eyes. The things she assumed were part of the standard childhood experience are revealed to her now as something quite different, and we piece together along with her the tragic history of the Finch family. Her family. Our family.

By exploring their old bedrooms, each of which has been sealed up and preserved like a shrine to the Finch who once occupied it, we learn about who these people were. And then we take control of them, one at a time, to live out their final moments. By the time we leave one room and move on to the next, we’ve genuinely gotten to know somebody. Somebody who…well, somebody who is already gone, leaving behind the clutter of who they used to be in a house that nobody will ever clear out. Their rooms are frozen in time, but time itself refuses to freeze.

Some of these vignettes are sad. Some are funny. Most are both. What Remains of Edith Finch is a series of emotional gutpunches that assemble into a profound statement about identity, about destiny, about personal growth. Every one of them matters. In an industry that loves to celebrate its own games for lasting hundreds upon hundreds of hours, What Remains of Edith Finch is a brief experience built of brief experiences. It gives you what it gives you, and then it moves on. Like each of the Finches themselves, it doesn’t stick around long. Just long enough that you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

I’ve liked a lot of video game characters. I’ve laughed with them and been afraid with them and I’ve helped them along. Then I eject the disc or the cartridge and get on with my life.

In sharp, painful contrast, I spent a part of my life with Edith Finch. I got to know her better than I think I will ever know most people. I cared about her. She mattered to me without me even realizing it.

You know.

Until it was over.

1) Nier: Automata

I’d be hard pressed to think of many years in which Nier: Automata would have had to fight very hard for the top spot. Not only was it one of the best-made games I’ve ever played, it was one of the most impressive.

There are games that play well, that look good, that sound great, that have intriguing stories, that have memorable characters…and then there are games that do all of these things, with each element of the experience working so perfectly in tandem, that it feels like it crossed over from another dimension in which they make games far better than we do.

Nier: Automata is one of those rare glimpses into another world, and I am privileged simply for being here to experience it. The soundtrack alone feels like something so beautiful we have no right to even come near it.

The story centers on a war between machines, with players taking control of the humanlike 2B in her battle against far less advanced, more obviously robotic enemies. At least, that’s how the first run of the game goes. The second time through, you play as 2B’s companion, 9S, experiencing the same story from a different perspective, filling in some narrative gaps, answering questions, raising a few more…

And then there’s the third time through, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that this time you play through a sequel story with a decidedly schizophrenic approach that both sheds light on and complicates both halves of the previous story.

Yes, Nier: Automata requires three playthroughs to even truly experience, but it rarely drags. The player-controlled characters all handle differently, and while 2B is damned good at bruising her way through hordes of enemies, 9S is far weaker and relies on his hacking ability, which takes the form of a shoot-’em-up minigame. You may play through the same story twice, but everything about it is different, simply by virtue of experiencing it through a different set of eyes. And this is triply true for the third run…

It’s impossible to say much about the game without spoiling some of its many surprises, but I will say that if you think you know the twist, that’s okay; you don’t. A number of reviewers — most infamously Yahtzee, who seems to play games just long enough to find something to complain about and nowhere near long enough to realize the game addresses his complaint — patted themselves on the back for guessing what they referred to as the “twist.” Play it yourself, though, and you’ll realize that that’s not a twist at all…it’s merely a plot point, and the story is far larger, more urgent, more compelling, more important than any singular reveal could ever account for.

The twist is what happens inside, to you, as you guide one group of robots against another, and learn more about human nature in the process than any video game should be able to teach us.

Buy it. Play it. Nier: Automata is a fucking masterpiece.

My 10 best games of 2018

10) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I was in a very small minority that believed the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was the best in the series, which I believed right up until the Wii U and 3DS versions came out.

Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl definitely made the series more interesting for serious competitors, but I wasn’t one of those. I’m still not. I never will be. The appeal of a series in which Kirby swallows Mario whole while Samus shoots at them and Link hurls bombs all around is its sheer fun factor, at least for me. That’s also why I don’t care at all about the rubber-banding in Mario Kart games. These things should be chaotic, beyond the point of fairness, because that’s what makes them fun.

Melee felt bigger, but was less interesting. Brawl felt like it tried to introduce some fun things (such as Assist Trophies and Smash Balls) that were far more annoying than they were probably meant to be.

Course correction came with the Wii U and 3DS games, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate manages to please both the silly and serious fans in seemingly equal measure…something I honestly would have thought was impossible.

Its default settings thrust me right back into exquisite chaos, and anyone who doesn’t like that can tweak any setting imaginable to better suit their desires…and then, brilliantly, save a variety of these settings for easy switching depending upon who you’re playing with.

It’s easily the best game of the series, and while I may have ranked it higher if I’d spent more time with it (it’s only a couple of weeks old as I write this), I probably wouldn’t have as a result of its appallingly poor online performance. It’s better than Brawl in the sense that one might theoretically be able to play a match online, but it’s far laggier and less reliable than the Wii U and 3DS entries. I have no clue how or why it took such a large step backward in that regard, but it is definitely unfortunate, because every other element of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is perfect.

9) Bleed 2

Bleed is a game I missed as it was an Xbox exclusive, but I grabbed it in a sale last year when it came to PS4. Since then I repurchased it on my Switch, just to support the developer (…well, and for the portabilty, because the game is perfectly suited to portability). It was a smooth platformer/shooter that wore its brevity and simplicity on its sleeve, and I found myself doing what I rarely have time to do anymore: replaying it over and over again.

Bleed 2 was an easy purchase when that came out this year. It seemed like it would be little more than another set of Bleed levels and, minor tweaks aside, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s all I wanted.

You take control of Wryn, a girl with an exceptional command of both firearms and aerial acrobatics. The plot is barely an afterthought; it’s the gameplay that’s front and center. And though Wryn’s movement at first feels floaty and imprecise, it honestly doesn’t take long to master. And I can say that, because I am absolutely terrible at most shooters.

With the ability to launch Wryn multiple times (in multiple directions) during a single jump and the ability to slow time on command, playing Bleed 2 is an elegant dance of graceful brutality. Bullets and obstacles and enemies come from all angles, and you’ll have to learn how to snake around, over, behind each of them in the blink of an eye. Speaking of which, blink a few times before you start playing, because you won’t be able to during the game.

That may sound intimidating, but Bleed 2, like its predecessor, welcomes all comers. It’s exactly as difficult as you’d like to make it, and there’s no shame in playing through each level a few times on the easiest, most forgiving setting. In fact, that’s probably a pretty smart approach. Once you have a handle on what to expect, you can crank the difficulty up as many notches as you like and really test your abilities.

The entire game can be blitzed through in just a few minutes, and you’ll have fun for that time. But replaying levels at higher difficulties, squeezing off tricky shots while deflecting projectiles and weaving through swarms of enemies, feeling your heart speed up to keep pace with the pounding soundtrack…it becomes transcendent.

Bleed 2, again like its predecessor, provides some of the best arcade-style action out there. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s willing to teach you how to play it in the most rewarding way. And that’s worth learning.

8) Dead Cells

I want so much to love Dead Cells, but instead I have to settle for merely liking it quite a lot.

I think the game reaches a bit further than it really should, and the seams show too clearly as a result. It wants to be a procedurally generated metroidvania, which sounds like a great concept, but the limits on its procedural generation means you can’t backtrack to explore previous areas with your new tools, stripping it of the defining trait of metroidvanias. Instead, it’s just a roguelite with permanent upgrades, no more metroidvania than Rogue Legacy or Spelunky.

Dead Cells took two incompatible genres and tried so hard to make them work together that it’s frustrating to see how far short it falls of its own goal. What it does offer, though, is quite good.

It’s brutally hard, which is to be expected, but almost always rewardingly so. The nature of procedural generation means there are certainly times during which you’ll end up swarmed by powerful monsters and have very little chance of getting out alive, but it also means that other runs will hand you incredible weapons and items out of the gate, meaning you’ll barely struggle until the late stages of the game.

And that’s part of the fun. You get squashed like an ant; you squash everything else like an ant. The invisible hand of fate casts the dice, and while you aren’t told where they land you’ll sure as hell figure it out.

It’s a compelling gameplay loop. You find some items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. You come back to find more items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. But each time, you become just a little better equipped, and you’ll make it reliably further. It’s not a unique formula, but Dead Cells handles it well. Many was the time I sat down for a single run or two through the game and ended up playing for more than an hour.

The game’s main problem is that it doesn’t realize what it already has. It doesn’t need to inelegantly cram two genres together when there’s a single genre it does quite well. It doesn’t need to be constantly winking at the fourth wall and throwing cutesy meta jokes at the player, because it has an affecting, brooding atmosphere that should carry the experience instead.

Dead Cells doesn’t understand its own attributes, but even the lumpy, unrefined game we got is much better than most other developers manage throughout their entire careers.

I just wish, to paraphrase a Frank Zappa album title, it would shut up and play its guitar.

7) The Messenger

When games look back to the NES era for inspiration, they tend to focus on Mario titles, Zelda titles, or, more rarely, Mega Man titles. That’s okay; it’s a testament to the quality of those games that they serve as enduring inspirations decades later. The Messenger, though, finds its inspiration in Ninja Gaiden, a notoriously difficult action platformer that was among the most addictive and compelling on the console.

The Messenger is essentially a spiritual fan update, tightening the level design, eliminating the outright unfair moments, and turning Ninja Gaiden into the smoother experience it always should have been, an engaging and simple adventure from point A to point B, with a direct emphasis on moment-to-moment combat.

At least, that’s what The Messenger is at first.

Before long, the game reveals itself as something else entirely. You earn the ability to return to previous stages with your more recent upgrades, finding longer, more interesting paths than anything you’ve seen before. You find portals that allow you to travel back and forth in time, giving the game a new visual style, a remixed soundtrack, and clever puzzles requiring an understanding of what a certain section of stage looks like in two timeframes at once. You are given quests by NPCs in areas you previously blew through in a whirl of steel.

The Messenger is a game full of surprises, and while the narrative ones weren’t always great, the gameplay ones certainly were. The time-hopping mechanic is possibly the best implementation of such an idea I’ve ever seen, with the sly pun of console generations representing the leap in actual, human generations.

There are also multiple ways of solving problems. A few times I found myself at the end of a puzzle without having used a number of things that were clearly carefully placed around the screen. If you have a mastery of your tools, you’ll be able to skip over certain crutches that less-skilled players will have to rely on.

I rarely have time to 100% games anymore, but by the time I finished The Messenger I knew I wanted to go back and find everything I missed. I did, and while the actual reward for doing so was a bit underwhelming, I felt great for having done it.

The Messenger is the best Ninja Gaiden game right out of the gate, and then it becomes its own kind of even better game from there.

6) A Hat in Time

I already provided some thoughts on A Hat in Time, so go read those so you know just how impressive it is that a game with that many faults is ranking pretty damned well on this list.

In the months since I’ve played A Hat in Time, I still remember it, think about it, smile at it. The only reason I haven’t gone back to replay it and find some collectibles I missed is that there are new levels coming in a future update, so I’ll save my second pass for that.

A Hat in Time is just a lovely, charming experience. And while you (and I!) can sit around at pick it apart and shine a light on its flaws, we can’t rob it of its addictive, adorable fun.

It has a lovely visual style (with the hand-drawn static images perfectly capturing a Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic), a remarkable soundtrack, and quite possibly the most varied gameplay in any 3D collectathon platformer.

Hat Kid as well is such a well-developed character…not in the sense that there’s much depth or complexity to her, but because absolutely everything about her informs a recognizable and consistent personality. Her animations, her abilities, her design…she’s having a ball in this game, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

There were no shortage of throwback games this year, as this list and many others will attest, but A Hat in Time did the best job of nailing that carefree feeling you used to get from sitting on the carpet and playing a new game long into the night. It doesn’t just take cues for its presentation from those retro masterpieces of your youth…it inherits their spirit.

5) Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball platformer, which is a combination of words that should make any healthy human being cringe. Every review of this game I saw before playing it made some comment along the lines of “this shouldn’t work.” Those reviews were positive, and I assumed that was because Yoku’s Island Express worked well enough for what it was. I never dreamed it would actually work brilliantly.

In the game you take control of a little dung beetle, rolling a big ball of…well, anyway, Yoku ends up becoming a postman, rolling all over (and above, and below) an island to deliver mail. Of course there’s also puzzle solving, combat, exploration, and so on, nearly all of which is handled by playing pinball with little Yoku.

This shouldn’t work.

I love pinball, but I’ve never been very good at it. I suspect most people who love pinball aren’t very good at it. It tests my reactions far more than it tests my ability to think ahead, or my accuracy, and any time I end up with a half-decent score, it’s because luck was on my side.

That’s fine. I can enjoy pinball without knowing what I’m doing. But there’s no way in hell I should be navigating a platformer, a genre reliant on precision, that way. Yoku’s Island Express, though, never becomes frustrating, and the times it gets closest to being frustrating have to do with puzzle solutions, not with pinball sequences.

I’m not entirely sure how it achieves this, but it’s certainly helped by the fact that Yoku never dies; you can always roll your ball back to whatever pinball sequence you’ve failed and try again. And when you’re relying on flippers and bumpers to navigate around the map, they are each carefully positioned to aid your progress rather than hinder it. You get the fun of pinball without the steep demand.

Yoku’s Island Express is a triumph in a way Dead Cells was not; this mix of seemingly incompatible genres feels graceful and correct. Whatever difficulties the developers encountered getting pinball and platforming to work together, they clearly worked hard to identify not just functional but elegant solutions to the problem.

It’s fun, beautiful, charming, and has one hell of lovely soundtrack. It shouldn’t work at all…and yet it’s better than most of the games I’ve played this year.

4) Dragon Quest XI

Most of my friends love the Final Fantasy series, and while I can understand why, it never quite grabbed me. Having said that, I did enjoy Final Fantasy IX a hell of a lot, and the little I’ve played (so far) of Final Fantasy X is promising. I hope to get to that one properly in the new year.

But the other games in the series…the older ones, the newer ones, the celebrated ones…they’re fine. I admire them, but I never actually want to play them. (And, to be frank, I had to take a long break from Final Fantasy IX before I worked up the interest to come back to it.)

But Dragon Quest?

Jesus goodness do I love Dragon Quest.

I really can’t explain why this series grabs me in all the ways Final Fantasy doesn’t. Maybe it’s because the cartoony aesthetics are more pleasing to my eye. Maybe it’s because it takes itself just seriously enough not to be ridiculous, but not seriously enough that it won’t stoop low for a good joke. Maybe…it’s just a better series.

I wanted to skip Dragon Quest XI because I knew it would eat up so much of my time, but I couldn’t. I broke down and bought it on release and invested more than 100 hours in it, which is a serious rarity for me. And while it didn’t do much that earlier titles in the series hadn’t already done, it did just about everything perfectly.

I’ve heard other fans describe Dragon Quest XI as comfort food, and I can’t think of a more accurate descriptor. It’s not meant to be dismissive; it’s a chance to have another helping of something you know you love. And, sure, it may not feel all that different from the helpings you’ve had before…but you love it enough that that doesn’t matter.

Dragon Quest XI is a perfectly tuned experience. If you’ve played and enjoyed any of the previous titles, you’ll find yourself in a similar place this time around, but with so many of the rougher edges sanded off.

The one area in which it might flag a bit is the narrative, which is by no means bad but also is nowhere near the kind of story that requires 100 hours to tell. Having said that, it’s something of an achievement that the game stays fun for that long without the strength of narrative to prop it up.

There’s nothing revelatory about Dragon Quest XI. It’s just Dragon Quest in its purest form.

And, honestly, that’s enough.

3) Iconoclasts

The Game Boy Advance was so perfect for comic book-like graphics, it’s a shame retro-styled games tend to focus on the NES/SNES eras for their visual inspirations. Iconoclasts, deliberately or not, reminded me in all the right ways of the GBA’s particular brand of presentation, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

I’m glad I did, because far from being the sunny throwback I expected, and admittedly would have been just fine with, Iconoclasts was downright revelatory. It’s a fairly simple 2D platformer that managed to weave a better, more affecting story than most RPGs I’ve played. It’s a brilliant tale told as simply and quietly as possible, which only makes it more powerful, and it has a downright unprecedented skill with characterization that I don’t believe any other platformer has topped. It’s an achievement for the genre, and one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

You are Robin, a working-class mechanic living under the oppressive regime of something called The One Concern. The adorable blonde collection of pixels seems as though it belongs in a much happier game, living a much more carefree life, fighting a far less threatening force. But Robin didn’t choose to be here. Nobody did.

Throughout the adventure, you meet and team up with other characters, all of whom, potentially, have a lot to offer your budding rebellion. None of them live up to their own potential, giving the narrative, at times, a very effective feeling of hopelessness, even as you make progress. It’s nice to have these characters along, because it prevents you from feeling alone. But it’s easy to see that when you’re fighting an organized, established, well-armed oppressor, the actual strength you gain in numbers is negligible.

That’s not to say the game is all that difficult. Most of the trickiest bits are puzzle-centric, and the penalty for failure is, at worst, starting a room over again. But the narrative sells the danger, the stakes, the urgency of doing, somehow, what you know you’re not equipped to do.

With minimal dialogue, simple character design, and backstory parceled out just enough that you have some sense of what’s happening, Iconoclasts manages to build a a remarkably rounded and realistic set of characters.

I came to know these people. I understood them. Even when they did something I wished they wouldn’t do, I understood why they did it. Toward the end of the game a certain character behaves in a certain way that should have frustrated me, except that it was so perfectly earned that I instead had to admire the way Iconoclasts built to that frustrating and yet fully understandable moment.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the pixel art gorgeous, and the gameplay rewarding. On top of all of that, Iconoclasts manages to be genuinely funny at times while always taking itself seriously. Dead Cells had to resort to winking at the audience. Iconoclasts finds moments of levity in the world it actually occupies. One of those approaches is infinitely more rewarding than the other.

2) Hollow Knight

I have a weakness for simple games. Games that understand what they’re doing, do it well, and keep it interesting. Nintendo has long been the reigning champion of this kind of game, turning Mario’s jump, for instance, into something that stays interesting across dozens of levels in dozens of games.

Hollow Knight understands how to keep simplicity interesting as well as Nintendo ever has, and it also adds layers of optional complexity that keep you learning all the way through the experience.

Hollow Knight is about a fallen civilization of insects. You play a cute little greyscale bug that wields a nail like a sword. So far, so adorable. But its gorgeous hand-drawn style aside, this isn’t a cartoon world. This is a dead world full of dying characters. The atmosphere is sombre and morose. You’ll find a new toy that you’re excited to play with and it will ultimately, unavoidably, lead you to new reminders that this universe has more of a past than it has a future.

Moments of levity only serve to remind you how much was lost. An elderly stag beetle with aching joints ferries you back and forth across the map, reflecting on what once was. A brave adventurer you meet early in your journey is a corpse you find much later. A cute little pillbug mines away, singing a happy tune…succumbing slowly to madness…eventually no different from any other enemy. You slay her. It’s a mercy.

Hollow Knight manages to weave a story of remarkable — but usually only suggested — depth. It keeps you on its own narrative surface. You can learn more about who you are, about what happened, about why your journey matters, but only if you look for it and almost never will you get a straight answer.

It’s a massive game that repeatedly feels like it’s ending only to open up again and again into new territory, and it never once feels like it’s dragging. It’s full of fantastically designed boss fights and surprisingly sympathetic characters.

Hollow Knight, without any question whatsoever, the best metroidvania I’ve ever played.

1) Celeste

As much as I love Hollow Knight, there was no doubt in my mind that Celeste would take my top spot. I hope you realize just how much that says in itself.

Celeste is a brutally hard screen-by-screen platformer in the tradition of Super Meat Boy, but where that game (and just about every other one that took inspiration from it) relished the opportunity to beat you down, Celeste works very hard to lift you up.

It isn’t easy. It starts off difficult and gets harder every single time you think you’ve gotten the hang of it. But it actively encourages you to keep going. It speaks reassuring things to you in its loading screens. It reminds you openly that optional pickups and levels are, indeed, optional. It encourages you to push through even when it feels impossible…even when you’re sure it’s impossible…

…which, beautifully, is also the game’s story. We play as Madeline, a young girl determined to scale a difficult mountain. Celeste is that mountain, and Celeste is the game in which you scale it. It’s Madeline’s struggle that becomes yours. You work together to accomplish a singular goal from opposite sides of a screen. And the frustration you’ll feel throughout the game is Madeline’s frustration as well. It’s a game that connects you directly, emotionally, with the character you play.

Madeline is hounded by anxiety, by depression, by crippling self-doubt. Like last year’s big surprise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Celeste is a game about mental illness. But whereas Hellblade placed you in Senua’s mind — hearing and seeing and pushing through her various hallucinations — Celeste is external. We see her the way anybody else would see her…not as the nervous failure she believes she is, but as an innocent girl dangerously unprepared for what she’s facing. The more time we spend with her, the more we understand what’s happening in her mind. Why this foolish excursion is so important to her. Why she refuses to be satisfied with anything she’s accomplished, always bracing herself against whatever comes next.

I never finished Super Meat Boy, though I genuinely loved it. At some point it got too difficult for me, and had I kept trying I would have eventually succeeded. But I didn’t keep trying. I had my fun, and seeing it through to the end didn’t matter. That game joked about the irrelevance of its own story, and that was part of the fun.

Celeste takes itself, and its heroine, and its subject matter, seriously. And I did finish it. This game got too difficult for me, too…but by the time it did, I knew Madeline. And I couldn’t leave her shivering in the snow, reflecting not on how far she’d come but on how much she’d never overcome in the future.

I helped her overcome. It was important to do so. She needed someone. Playing Celeste, you get to be her someone. And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you do help her…

Well, you helped a friend. For now, at least, you gave her a reason to believe in herself. And that’s not something either of you are likely to forget.

What were your favorites of the year? Let me know what I missed!

Ho ho ho, it’s bed time

I have to admit, while I didn’t expect to take a break after this year’s Xmas Bash, I’m very glad I did. It feels good to just do…nothing.

That obviously won’t (and can’t!) last forever, but for now, I hope you’ll understand if I take the end of December off.

I won’t be completely gone. At the very least, I want to post a best-games-of-my-year list like I did for 2017. I’m still trying to decide on a format, though, since once again I’ll be allowing games I missed from the previous year.

And though I say I’ll take the end of December off, I’m actually working on the second draft of my book. The publisher got back to me with feedback that was thorough, useful, and honestly flattering! The rewrite won’t take nearly as much work as the first draft did, but there are a few things I’ll need to really rework, so it’s no small task, either.

So…be patient. Enjoy the holidays. Hang out with friends, exchange gifts, consume alcoholic lactose. You’ve got better things to do than check a blog!

I’m not gone…just enjoying a few deep breaths. I’ll be back soon.

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