March 2, 2024
brad-shankar’s-five-favourite-things-of-2023

Brad Shankar’s five favourite things of 2023

Beef, Baldur's Gate 3 and Past Lives

2023 was a rollercoaster of emotions.

With so much of my personal and professional time devoted to games, I took immense joy in seeing just how many quality releases we had this year, with some quickly becoming all-time favourites. At the same time, though, it was disheartening to see thousands upon thousands of game makers lose their jobs and then be utterly disrespected on the global stage despite their hard work and success. I will always love games, but it was a harsh reminder of how brutal and unjust the industry continues to be.

For that reason, I found myself taking several mini-breaks from games throughout the year for other passions, particularly film, television and podcasts. It’s partly why I enjoy this MobileSyrup annual tradition of recounting our ‘Five Favourite Things’ of the year — I get to talk a bit about subjects outside of gaming or other kinds of tech. This year, in particular, introduced me to some wonderful other media alongside some amazing games, so let’s get into it.

Favourite game: Baldur’s Gate 3

Baldur's Gate 3 party Image credit: Larian Studios

Ever since I was a kid, my favourite games have always been RPGs. Whether it was Final Fantasy VII and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in my preteen years or the likes of Mass Effect and Persona in my adulthood, there’s just something special about assembling a ragtag party and venturing out to save the world. It’s like the thrill of watching Luke Skywalker meet all of his colourful friends and take on the evil Empire, except you get to actually live it all out yourself.

Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 might be the perfect distillation of those feelings of wonder and adventure that I’ve ever seen in a game. Throughout my nearly 100-hour campaign, I grew more attached to my party of thieves, witches, vampires and druids than any other gaming cast in years. Astarion’s flamboyance and ‘chaotic evil’ attitude hides a deeply traumatized person desperate to escape his tormentor. Karlach looks like a fearsome demon, but she’s actually just a big puppy, full of sweetness, playfulness and longing. Shadowheart’s secretive and sarcastic exterior belies her painful — and oh-so-relatable — journey to reconcile with her religious upbringing. The entire cast is so well-written and acted that they truly felt like living, breathing people with whom I wanted to spend many, many hours.

With these characters at my side, I felt empowered to fully embody my character — whose shared biracial identity was frequently reflected in the many dialogue options — in a way I never had before in a game. It wasn’t about making the so-called morally “right” or “wrong” choices — it was about finding a balance between remaining true to the virtuous Paladin I had chosen and doing my best to do right by my friends. (That isn’t always easy when one of your party members is a hedonistic vampire.)

At the same time, BG3, with its central D20 dice roll mechanic, really leans in on the moment-to-moment variety and spontaneity of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop games. In so many other games, I get hung up on the idea of “perfect runs,” especially when I play a “hero” character trying to save everyone, but BG3 taught me to embrace the chaos once in a while. Every situation, no matter how big or small, can have wildly different outcomes, and it’s up to you — and some luck of the roll — to figure out how to move forward. My sneaky tiefling inmate rescue didn’t go to plan? The fun then comes from trying to protect the fleeing NPCs while the Warden and her mighty mages give chase. Shadowheart got blasted into a spider-infested pit, and my healing options are now limited? Well, I’ll have to make do without her. The enslaved factory workers I fought to save didn’t make it? If anything, that just gives their leader more of a poetically tragic “sole survivor” story.

These sorts of emergent gameplay moments, coupled with the incredible characters who populate them, are what make Baldur’s Gate 3 so memorable and, without question, my Game of the Year. (Special shoutout as well to Borislav Slavov’s magnificent score, which masterfully bounces between solemn ballads, rousing orchestral pieces and gloriously over-the-top villain operatics.)

Honourable mentions: Final Fantasy XVI, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, Alan Wake 2, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Favourite movie: Past Lives

Past Lives Image credit: A24

While there have been many stories about “the road not taken,” the achingly raw specificity with which South Korean-Canadian writer-director Celine Song explores that theme is particularly standout in a year of great films. Drawing inspiration from her own life, Song examines the deep connection between two childhood friends, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee), who were separated in youth when the latter’s family emigrated to Toronto. Fast forward nearly 25 years, and Nora has settled in New York with a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro), when she eventually reunites with Hae Sung. Lesser films would have squandered this premise on a sort of romantic comedy love triangle that pitted Hae Sung against Arthur, but thankfully, Song avoids that in favour of a moving mediation on the human condition.

With Hae Sung and Arthur representing her past and present, respectively, Nora’s journey in this movie, which includes navigating the cultural and language barriers between the two of them, ultimately becomes one of grief (lamenting the life she could have had with Hae Sung in South Korea) and acceptance (coming to terms with what’s been lost and finding a path forward). It’s a beautifully understated and cathartic film that isn’t afraid to just let us wordlessly linger with these characters and their complicated swell of internalized emotions, so masterfully conveyed by Lee, Yoo and Magaro. As a biracial man, Nora’s story, which involves reconciling her two radically different South Korean and Canadian backgrounds, only made Past Lives resonate all the more.

I watched a lot of movies in 2023, but Past Lives was easily the most profound and soulful, and it’s one that I’ll be thinking about for years to come.

Honourable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Holdovers, Therapy Dogs

Favourite TV show: Beef

Beef Steven Yeun and Ali Wong Image credit: A24

Some of the most impressive artistic works are the ones that so skillfully blend genres and tones, and Lee Sung Jin’s Beef is a prime example of that. At first, it’s hilariously riotous; two strangers — Steven Yeun’s Danny and Ali Wong’s Amy — get into a road rage incident and begin a prolonged feud that leads to him urinating in her house and fleeing to the tune of Hoobastank’s “The Reason.” But that’s just the pilot.

In later episodes, Beef offers deep and dramatic dives into the complicated relationships between Asian-American children and their immigrant parents and the often-unseen Christianity of Koreans, while in others, it throws in biting social satire and even tense, psychological thriller elements. But all of that is rooted in Danny and Amy, two wonderfully complex and messy individuals who are so believably brought to life by Yeun and Wong. There’s a great deal of profundity in how this pair unpacks the shared existential sadness at the root of their enmity and ultimately attempts to overcome it.

Audacious and engrossing from start to finish, Beef is one of the best shows of 2023.

Honourable mentions: Jury Duty, Never Have I Ever (Season 4), The Fall of the House of Usher, Gen V

Favourite podcast: My Perfect Console

My Perfect Console art Image credit: Simon Parkin

I’m always looking for new podcasts, and Klein Felt, a former MobileSyrup contributor who’s now killing it over on The Direct as senior editor, recommended what would quickly become my favourite new audio show of the year. On each episode of My Perfect Console, English author and journalist Simon Parkin interviews a different guest about the five titles they’d include in their dream gaming system. Parkin has assembled an impressively varied lineup of guests that includes everyone from Community star Danny Pudi, Rick and Morty writer Heather Anne Campbell and award-winning journalist Ronan Farrow to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, former Naughty Dog writer Josh Scherr and Hades creative director Greg Kasavin.

Hearing such an eclectic group passionately discuss some of their favourite games would be interesting enough on its own, but Parkin, a brilliant interviewer, also challenges guests to choose titles that define particular moments or periods in their lives, be that a breakup, death, or other formative experiences. In between each pick, Parkin also asks guests about their lives and careers as a whole, offering a more holistic impact of games across all kinds of practices and, even some inspiration for those looking to follow suit. Some of my highlights were Canadian Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley talking about how Final Fantasy VI was the first time he saw just how impactful gaming narratives could be, Disobedience novelist Naomi Alderman explaining how Diablo II helped her through witnessing 9/11 firsthand, and how author and journalist Tom Bissell (The Disaster Artist) marvelled at seeing his firsthand experiences of the Iraq war were reflected in Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 2.

Come for the lovely discussion of great games, and stay for the surprisingly introspective and heartfelt discussions about life.

Honourable mentions: Podcrushed, Play, Watch, ListenSmartless, Script Apart

My dog, Bonnie

 

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On June 6th, we put down Bonnie, our family dog of 11.5 years, and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. While I have my own baggage in the form of paternal estrangement, I’ve been fortunate to have never actually lost a loved one, so this was certainly a new experience for me. It hit even harder because, for nearly half my life, it had been just my mum, Bonnie and me, and as an only child whose cousins have pretty much always been in other provinces or countries, I felt particularly attached to that trio. There really is nothing like the connection between human and pet, and so it’s… strange, to say the least, to rather suddenly lose that. No matter what was going on in my life, I could always count on that cute and cuddly girl to warm my heart. I miss her a lot.

But saying goodbye to Bonnie, coupled with a close friend losing his sister far too soon in 2022 and finding out this year that an aunt has terminal cancer, has also reminded me to cherish the time we have. Sure, that’s something we’re all aware of subconsciously, but we don’t often — if ever — think about that until it’s staring us right in the face. (That’s to say nothing of the people who have been — and continue to be — tragically killed in Ukraine and Gaza.) As a result, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of living in the moment. That sentiment has only been strengthened by what was easily the best professional 12 months of my life, affording me such wonderful opportunities as travelling to Los Angeles for Summer Game Fest and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 preview (a dream come true) or New York to play Final Fantasy VII Rebirth (another dream come true) to interviewing the likes of original Mario and Zelda director Takashi Tezuka, the cast and creators of HBO’s The Last of Us and BlackBerry co-writer/director Matt Johnson and stars Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I’ve been amid everything else.

And so, I close 2023 with my heart full — not just for the warm memories of Bonnie, but for the many opportunities I remain ever grateful to have gotten. My sincerest thanks to everyone who helped me get to where I am, and all the best to us all in the New Year!

Header image credit: A24, Larian Studios

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