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Brad Shankar’s favourite things of 2021

Yes, this is a picture of 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but there's a good reason for that

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Jorge

It’d be too easy to introduce this with some reflection on how 2021 was a COVID-ridden mess, but really, we all know that. What more needs to be said on the matter? Instead, I’d rather look back on some of my “favourite things” of the year.

Of course, with much of the year still spent at home, many of my fondest 2021 memories come from the art I consumed, as well as the rare times I got to properly get out of the house. With that in mind, and in keeping with MobileSyrup tradition, here are my five favourite things, broken down by medium. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ll list four honourable mentions per category to round out my top five for each.

*Warning: Full spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home in the second category*


Favourite game: The Forgotten City

The Forgotten City golden statues

Image credit: Modern Storyteller/Dear Villagers

I made a point of playing as many new games as I could this year, and my final count puts me at just under 50. And yet, the one that I can’t stop thinking about is developer Modern Storyteller’s debut title, The Forgotten City. Impressively, the story of how the game got made — an Australian lawyer quitting his job to spend five years turning his Skyrim mod into a full-length experience — is worthy of significant praise in and of itself.

Of course, it also helps that The Forgotten City is just immaculately made. After creating your character, Modern Storyteller soon has you travelling 2,000 years into the past to discover what happened to a ruined Roman city. As it so happens, the city is being protected by the gods through something called The Golden Rule, which states that “the many shall suffer for the sins of the one.” The idea, as it were, is that this creates a blissful “utopia” for all of the city’s inhabitants. This also means that you have to be careful to not anger the gods through sinful action — either of your own doing or by provoking the mysterious people you speak to — as you carry out your investigation.

The Forgotten City slums

Image credit: Modern Storyteller/Dear Villagers

It’s a brilliant premise that works on multiple levels. Firstly, The Forgotten City is perhaps the best use of the “time loop” gimmick in a game to date. Should The Golden Rule be broken, you can zip back to a portal that resets the day while allowing you to retain any knowledge or items that you’ve gained on that loop. What’s more, you’ll be able to send the good-hearted Galerius off to complete quests you’ve already learned the solution to in previous loops, thus avoiding any tiresome repetition. Through these mechanics, The Forgotten City weaves a deeply engrossing and well-written yarn filled with all sorts of compelling characters.

But beyond that, the narrative offers a fascinating exploration of morality. That’s because The Forgotten City smartly acknowledges that what constitutes a “sin” is never fully defined by the city’s flimsy government. While murder, assault and theft are all clearly prohibited, there are so many loopholes that malicious people can exploit, like a merchant charging way too much for a deathly ill woman’s life-saving medicine, or a wealthy man blackmailing lower-class lovers to be his de facto slaves. The “system” — in this case, The Golden Rule — clearly favours the rich, who are all too keen to keep it that way. Through this, you begin to see Modern Storyteller’s smart commentary about, as its name suggests, our own society. All around, The Forgotten City is an outstanding achievement, and a must-play experience.

The Forgotten City is now available on Xbox consoles (including Game Pass), PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch (via the cloud) and PC.

Honourable mentions: Hitman 3, Life is Strange: True Colors, Deathloop and Metroid Dread

Favourite movie: Spider-Man: No Way Home (and the Appreciation of One Andrew Garfield)

Spider-Man: No Way Home Tom Holland

Image credit: Marvel Studios/Sony Pictures

In 2019, a few people hilariously got mad because I listed Avengers: Endgame as my favourite movie of the year. Never mind that I watched 80-plus other movies (including all nine Best Picture nominees), how I stressed that it was by no means the best that I saw, or, hell, why should anyone care one way or the other? Well, with the same caveats and justifications (plus some good ol’ fashioned spite), I’m now saying that Spider-Man: No Way Home is my favourite movie of 2021.

In many ways, it’s a story about second chances — not only for the villains and heroes of previous Spider-Man films, but for Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock (of Netflix’s masterful cancelled Daredevil series) and, especially, Tom Holland’s own Web-Head. Admittedly, I was way too high on the MCU’s decidedly Iron Man-heavy version of the character in previous movies, so I appreciate that NWH finally delivers real, emotional stakes while bringing the character to a less Avengers-dependent, more comics accurate status quo. Truthfully, I could be here all day writing about how much it’s a love letter to the character who’s meant the most to me since I was five.

But my absolute favourite part of NWH is how it handles Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, who’s been my favourite actor to play the character since he debuted in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man. At the time, I had just finished high school but was doing a gap year to figure things out. Seeing nearly everyone I know drift apart as they went off to university while I struggled with my post-secondary path and extreme introversion made me feel more alone than ever. Around the same time, I stopped talking to my father and most of his side of the family, which certainly didn’t help, while an international exchange program completely fell through.

That’s where Garfield’s Peter came in. Sure, Spidey’s always been the most relatable superhero, but the way Garfield’s Peter was specifically portrayed as this awkward loner yearning for his lost father gave me a web-slinger who I could connect to more profoundly than ever before. I certainly have many issues with the TASM duology, especially how Peter was “genetically destined” to be Spider-Man, but Garfield’s soulful performance nonetheless just hits me. I was in a darker place than I was used to, which made Garfield’s Peter — so earnest, passionate, resilient and wonderful despite his suffering — really inspirational. Imagine, then, how disappointed I was that the deeply flawed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would be his swan song. Seeing this broke my heart — not to mention Garfield’s, given his lifelong passion for the character.

All of that is important context for why I absolutely ugly cried seeing Garfield’s Peter first appear in the movie — after all of his amusing lies, bless his heart. Sure, I also loved seeing Maguire’s Spidey again, but my personal bond to the second cinematic wallcrawler gave his appearance a real gut punch. And it wasn’t just that I was seeing an old friend on screen again — I was seeing him, in some ways, better than ever. Removed from the clunky universe building, frequently awkward writing and corporate meddling, the strengths of Garfield’s Peter — that somewhat quirky and self-deprecating personality mixed with deep emotional sincerity and animated physicality — really got to shine.

I love that Emma Stone’s Gwen was still a meaningful part of his story; while her death has made him both rageful and neglectful of his civilian life, that pain is also something he desperately doesn’t want Holland’s Peter to have to go through following the murder of his Aunt May. I love that he’s clearly been so lonely and full of self-loathing that just a little bit of love and encouragement from his fellow Spider-Men, particularly Maguire’s, proves genuinely therapeutic for him. And I love how the moment Zendaya’s MJ begins to fall, Garfield’s Peter immediately springs to action and saves her, preventing another Gwen-like tragedy — the kind he’s undoubtedly tortured himself by playing it out incessantly ever since — and becoming relieved to the point of tears. In what’s really just a third-act supporting role, Garfield artfully manages to steal the entire damn show. There’s a reason people are now clamouring for Garfield to get another solo movie. While I, too, would kill to see that happen, I’m overjoyed to have at least gotten this little bit of closure.

Honourable mentions: The Power of the Dog, C’mon C’mon, The Green Knight and Tick, Tick… Boom! (if you couldn’t tell, I’m a big Andrew Garfield fan)

Favourite TV show: Mare of Easttown

Mare of Easttown Kate Winslet Evan Peters

Image credit: HBO

At first glance, Brad Inglesby’s Mare of Easttown might seem like another police drama, but it’s so much more than that. In fact, it’s a near-perfect mixture of so many things that I adore: a powerhouse lead performance, an engaging twisty-turny murder mystery and a poignant family drama.

Even if some late plot developments can feel a little hokey, Kate Winslet’s magnificent turn as the gruff detective Mare Sheehan completely sells them. That would have been enough to keep me intrigued, but it helps that the character is layered — a mother who has largely shut out her friends and family in a futile attempt to avoid processing her grief over her son’s suicide. The supporting cast proves just as strong, be it Mare’s funny-yet-tragic mother Helen (Jean Smart), her sweetly supportive friend Lori (a particularly excellent Julianne Nicholson) and charming detective partner Colin (Evan Peters). Practically everyone in the series’ remarkably well-realized Philadelphia town harbours their own secrets, and it’s through them that we get weighty explorations of themes of grief, addiction, infidelity, abuse and motherhood. It’s a consistently gloomy show, but it sure makes for some affecting drama.

Mare of Easttown is streaming exclusively on Crave.

Honourable mentions: Ted Lasso (Season 2 — screw the haters), Mythic Quest (Season 2), Midnight Mass (Season 1) and Loki (Season 1)

Favourite podcast: Script Apart

I’ve always found screenwriting to be so intriguing, but it’s taken me until the pandemic to actually seek out some podcasts about the process of actually penning a screenplay. My favourite so far is Al Horner’s Script Apart, in which the British journalist interviews the screenwriters of many prominent movies, like Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard) and Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7). No doubt owing to his prolific journalistic career, Horner has an eminently likable interviewing style that feels both laidback and insightful.

Some standout Script Apart episodes for me this year include James Gunn (The Suicide Squad), Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Last Night in Soho), Bob Gale (Back to the Future) and, as a special treat for gamers like me, Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross (The Last of Us Part II). But my favourite was easily Meg LeFauve on Inside Out — not only one of my top Pixar movies, but most beloved movies in general. Hearing from LeFauve about how collaborative the other Pixar creators were and the way the story evolved from a simple “young girl tries to choose potato chip flavours” premise to “young girl processes her sadness over moving and growing up” was especially impactful. Whether you’re a cinephile or a casual moviegoer, this is definitely worth a listen.

Honourable mentions: Play, Watch, Listen, Smartless, Happy Sad Confused and Triple Click

Favourite activity: Gratitude

 

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A post shared by Brad Shankar (@bradshankar)

There isn’t really a strict category to lump this all into, so I’ll just use this space to briefly reflect on some of the miscellaneous things I’m thankful for this year.

In February, I got LASIK eye surgery done, and it’s been wild to not have to wear glasses for the first time since I was six.

The following month, I had the honour of interviewing Hironobu Sakaguchi, the legendary creator of Final Fantasy, my all-time favourite gaming series. One week later, I kicked off my monthly Canadian developer interview series, a passion project in which I’ve gotten to spotlight the inspirational work of many talented homebred creators, like accessibility consultant Steve “The Blind Gamer” Saylor, prolific books/comics/games writer Sam Maggs or the trio of Montreal developers working to promote women in gaming.

And during the summer, some friends and I went to Vancouver and Victoria, which was my first prolonged time in B.C., not counting a brief (but wickedly cool) Gears 5-related work trip in 2019. I’ve never been outdoorsy, but being able to hike through parks, ascend mountains or even just relaxing on the ferry was so refreshing after everything.

Throughout all of this, I also just took the time to appreciate how fortunate I am. From the opportunities I’ve had, both personally and professionally, to the real friends and family who’ve stayed close during everything, I try not to take anything for granted.

Honourable mentions: Not really applicable here, so I’ll just shout out to anyone who’s read my work this year. Thanks to everyone for your support! It really means a lot.


Happy New Year and all the best in 2022!

Header image credit: Sony Pictures

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