2023 has been a weird year. Long af on its own merits, but also felt like the never-ending year of 2020 might finally be winding down. We’re not post-pandemic, not really, but late-pandemic feels right — with some things returning to “normal,” and others settling into their permanent “new normal.”
Working in and around publishing most of my adult life, I’ve always had to live in the present and near-future, as magazines and books simultaneously exist in both timelines, so those who work with them do, too. Towards the end of each year is the worst because budgeting in media is one of the biggest leaps of faith that aren’t supported by VC fantasies, and spending the last month thinking about what I’ll (hopefully) be doing this time next year was exhausting.
2023 was a pretty good year for my personal relationship with immersive media, though. I enjoyed a range of new-to-me books, games, movies, and TV, while also uncharacteristically diving back into some old faves when I needed a bit of comfort food.
NOTE: This is a long one. Sorry, not sorry!
2023 was the first year in a while that I got a lot of offline, not-work-related, longform reading done, inspired by making it a priority post-Twitter, and boosted early on by the Year-Long Scavenger Hunt to make it fun. I started off by doing something I almost never do, rereading an old favorite: Fool on the Hill, by Matt Ruff. I first read it in mass market paperback when I was 19 or 20, discovered while working at a Doubleday Book Shop on the east side of NYC, and loved it in that unique way books can hit you at a young age. It became a touchstone, my literary Star Wars in a lot of ways, and I reread it a couple of more times in my 20s, while becoming a fan of everything Ruff wrote afterwards. While it has not aged well, it’s still an entertaining read and got my year off to a great start.
2023 was a year of new rabbit holes as I went DEEP into the world of Shadowrun. The game’s D&D + Cyberpunk setting is one of my favorites and although I’ll never play the TTRPG, the main rulebook and assorted multimedia lore were one of my favorite discoveries of the year. Just a couple of weeks ago, I read and enjoyed The Last Ronin, and am currently peeking into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-shaped rabbit hole, deciding whether to dive in or not. I also expanded my travels in manga, continuing with three more volumes of Witch Hat Atelier; enjoying Oishinbo‘s culinary Doonesbury vibe; and delighting in Clock Striker‘s Saturday morning cartoon-esque storytelling.
The surprise of the year was definitely Daniel Warren Johnson’s Do a Powerbomb, which was first recommended by a friend and later popped up again at the day job. There’s no reason it should have been as good as it was, and saying it’s about wrestling is true but there’s a lot more to it that can’t really be explained without risking spoilers. It was one of the most entertaining and unexpected comics I’ve read in a while, and I highly recommend it, even if you think you don’t like wrestling.
[LATE ADDITION]: The Mysteries by John Kascht and Bill Watterson; a picture book for adults; an old-fashioned parable for modern times; a subtle piece of art from a couple of masters. It’s not Calvin & Hobbes, but in my head cannon, this is the book Calvin wrote when he grew up, Hobbes still by his side.
In nonfiction, Clutter: An Untidy History and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning were an insightful combo (the latter discovered via the former), while The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop was an enlightening, nostalgic walk down a very foggy memory lane. My favorite, though — overall, not just for nonfiction — was longtime internet friend, Baldur Bjarnason’s The Intelligence Illusion.
When it comes to the current hype surrounding AGI and LLMs, whether you’re a true skeptic (like me) or a true believer, Bjarnason poured a well-researched glass of lemon juice into the greasy pool of incredulous media coverage, which hasn’t improved much all year. It’s accessible for anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes with a clueless executive or myopic developer — or, frankly, engaged with any of the technological “disruptions” of the past two decades — as Bjarnason rigorously unpacks the many risks involved with the most popular use cases being promoted by unscrupulous executives and ignorant journalists.
He brings plenty of receipts to support his observations, too, while also spotlighting areas where the technology might have legitimate potential for good. It became the backbone of my personal and professional take on “artificial intelligence,” and I’ve yet to see anything in the 6+ months since I read it to counter his analysis and recommendations.
By all accounts, 2023 was a banner year for gaming as there was an impressive number of very good games released this year. Unfortunately, because I’m as much about the backlist with games as I am with books — especially thanks to Game Pass — I played very few new releases and ZERO of the most acclaimed. Every game (and book) is new to most people, though, and my game queue (and TBR pile) prove it.
The year started with me fully immersed in the excellent Shadowrun Trilogy and taken together, could easily be considered my favorite gaming experience this year, and definitely among my all-time favorites. Recency bias is real, though, and as much as I still love the Shadowrun setting, I probably went too deep too fast and took a long break to jump into other games, one of which I ended up loving even more. (Discovering Subversion when I did also didn’t help sustain my Shadowrun immersion.)
Interestingly, The Lamplighters League was the one new game I was most looking forward to, because it was from the same developers as Shadowrun and it was a Day One release on Game Pass. While I enjoyed it for a few weeks, it didn’t quite have the appeal or stickiness of Shadowrun‘s setting, and I eventually bounced off of it. It definitely didn’t help that 80% of the team that created it were laid off two weeks after the game released due to disappointing sales. That sour taste will hopefully fade a year from now and maybe it’ll pop up as one of next year’s favorites.
Thanks to Game Pass, I had fun with several other new-to-me games —most notably Ghostlore, Midnight Fight Express, and Loop Hero — and spent a lot of comfort time jumping back into a few old favorites that still hold up: The Division 2, Titanfall 2, and For Honor. (If you play any of these, hit me up on Xbox: glecharles.) I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing Football Manager 2023 after jumping back into an abandoned RBNY save in the summer, and even wrote A LOT OF WORDS about it being the greatest RPG ever, which would make it safe to assume it was my personal game of the year… but it wasn’t.
Warhammer 40K has always lived on the periphery of my geek radar. I’ve never played it, but only D&D rivals it in how aware I am of its existence, particularly as the game people politely make fun of Henry Cavill for being very into. Back in June, the excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast did an episode called “Warhammer – The Heavy Metal of Board Games,” and my curiosity was finally piqued. I knew I was never going to get into the main game as my languishing collection of diecast cars might roar to life and run me down if I started painting miniature Space Marines for fun, but I also knew there were a bunch of video games set in that world across several genres that might be fun. Then, Rogue Trader hit my radar and I was almost hooked — until I realized it was going to be a game that would inevitably need a good patch or three to really find its footing. (Some people like reading ARCs, I prefer the final product.)
And then, while browsing the Xbox store to see what other Warhammer 40k games were available, I found Inquisitor – Martyr on sale for a ridiculous $9.99, including all but the most recent DLC. I hit YouTube to get a feel for it, and when I realized it might be the Diablo clone I’ve been looking for (Ghostlore came close but was a little too clunky on console), I clicked Buy and… jumped into one of the most batshit crazy settings I’ve ever experienced!
As action-RPGs go, Inquisitor – Martyr scratches that Diablo itch, and I actually prefer its mission-based setup over a fully open world. Its core mechanics are pretty intuitive if you’ve ever played an ARPG, which is good because the tutorials are buried in a glossary, and I was nearly finished the main story before I fully understood how health worked. (Notably, I never died on Normal settings anyway, because it’s a game designed for adults with limited time!)
There’s also enough depth to the crafting and enhancement systems that I’m already happily dipping into the endgame for a bit before I jump into the expansion to try out the new character, Tech-Adept, and see where the main story goes next. If you’re into ARPGs, I’d highly recommend this one, but cannot speak to its faithfulness to the Warhammer setting.
MOVIES (aka, STREAMING?)
One thing the pandemic absolutely wrecked was my interest in seeing movies in theaters anymore. It’s not even about health risks at this point, just that I’ve become very comfortable waiting for a movie to pop up on one of the too-many streaming services we pay too much money for. Or not! It also doesn’t help that none of the movies I made an exception for ended up rewarding that effort. D&D: Honor Among Thieves, John Wick: Chapter 4, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One were all generally entertaining*, but I left the theater each time realizing they would have been just fine on our TV and couch at home.
(*JW4 was too exhausting, offsetting its potential to be generally entertaining, and GotGV3 was not entertaining at all, actually. It simultaneously killed my interest in seeing any more MCU movies in theatres, and any curiosity I had about James Gunn taking over DC’s movies. I think he’ll be a good fit for them, but he’s definitely not for me.)
Of the movies we watched at home, The Celebration and Force Majeure were entertaining off-radar recommendations from my film nerd son; Werewolves Within was an unexpected and underrated delight; and Catherine Called Birdy was notable despite being a Lena Dunham film, totally thanks to the wonderful Bella Ramsey.
True to form, my favorite movie of the year wasn’t a new release, and I didn’t see it in theaters: Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s the kind of movie I’m always leery of, an out-of-nowhere indie darling that garners widespread acclaim. I’m allergic to hype and usually have to let something like that sit for a while to temper my expectations and give it a fair viewing. That was probably going to take another year, though, so we finally watched it, and it really was as good as everyone claimed it was! In some ways it was even better, because I’d avoided major spoilers and was pleasantly surprised by Stephanie Hsu’s performance, which didn’t seem to get anywhere near the attention Jamie Lee Curtis’ did. Curtis was fine but also very obviously Acting™, while Hsu pulled off a far trickier emotional roller coaster that could have ruined the whole movie if she faltered.
I’ll have to watch it again in a year or two to see how it holds up to second viewing, but I suspect it will.
TV (aka, STREAMING)
With movies increasingly becoming an at-home experience, we’ve definitely gotten our money’s worth out of our 10-year-old TV this year, mostly thanks to some excellent TV shows — old and new. TV is the only medium I’m likely to be somewhat current with, although that depends on the streaming service as I refuse to deal with Apple TV, no matter how much acclaim a few of its shows have gotten.
Picking a favorite is much harder because we watch A LOT OF TV, and recency bias is definitely a factor. Highlights of this year included a few specific episodes of Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning — Sue (4), Godfrey (5), and Doug (7); Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico; The Last of Us; Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and Lower Decks (yes, I’m a converted Trekkie now!); Dark Winds S1; The Horror of Dolores Roach; The Other Black Girl; and most recently, Our Flag Means Death. We also binged all six seasons of Better Call Saul, and while I didn’t love all of it — Justice for Howard! Justice for Lalo! Justice for Kim! — and it almost lost me in season 5, I appreciated what it was mostly pulling off. There’s absolutely no reason that show should have worked, especially after I watched a couple of the Breaking Bad episodes Saul was in for context before the final four episodes, but it did.
My absolute favorite TV show this year, though, was the final season of the sublime Reservation Dogs. I can’t think of another show that delivered such a perfect ending — and did so long before wearing out its welcome. Episode 5 seemed like a weird interlude before slowly revealing itself as the foundation for the whole season. Episode 8 could have been the best finale any show has ever gotten, but they had two more surprises that managed to stand on their own without diluting what came before, nailing down the Best Final Season nod.
Every major character and several secondary ones get a meaningful moment. Some loose threads are tied up, while most are left dangling, confirming everyone’s lives will continue on in complicated ways, just without us watching. It’s the epitome of “leave them wanting more,” and while I would love more, I hope they resist the temptation.