My Top Five Animated Shorts of 2013

End-of-the-year lists are typically, by their fashion, posted approximately before or at the end of a year. But I’m anything but typical. 2013’s seen its fair share of exceptional animated shorts. Working with ‘Awesome Robo’, I’ve had the privelege to discover and write about a dizzying amount of spectacular artists, kickass music, and breathtakingly beautiful short-films. Here are the choice few that really caught my attention.

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1. Keloid, by Big Lazy Robot

Keloid was the one of the first posts I ever wrote for Awesome Robo, and in a weird sort-of seredipitious way it felt like a full-circle moment. I remember (oh so politely) badgering my friends in early 2012 to watch this gritty animated teaser short that I excitedly described as, “imagine Se7en, only with Mechs.” Who would’ve though I’d be writing about the follow-up short nearly a year later for a major art-blog? Craziness. The “full-length” Keloid retains many of the characteristics that made the original so memorable, but escalates the scope of the initial conflict to a much larger and frigthening scale.

The dark, quasi-european metropolis of a not so distant future and Aaron Beck’s characterisically insectile, SWAT team mechs make their full-fledged return. Gone however is the shrill cacophonous soundtrack of Amon Tobin’s Machine Gun, as well as the sinister repartee of the malicious A.I. antagonist. Instead we have a balls-to-the wall action movie; rogue viruses co-opting lumbering military mechs that battle it out against the dwindling robotic forces that still pledge some loyalty(?) to the human race.

Whether Keloid as a project will continue is a question to which I don’t have an answer, but if nothing else, this short and the original trailer are enough to tide us over until BLR blows our minds with something awesome again.

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2. Myosis, Directed by GOBELINS pro

Myosis is so damn beautiful it makes my heart hurt. The short follows a man moments after he is torn from the woman he loves to be assimliated into  a dark shifting body of oppressive autocracy. But the man refuses to let go of his lover and, despite all odds, attempts to assert his freedom and come back to her. It’s equal parts visually and thematically inspiring; metaphorically and vibrantly colorful. The visual parallel between the amorphous fluidity of the two lovers (think Osmosis Jones) compared to the stark solidity of the black monolith in which the protagonist is indoctrinated is especially novel.

This is easily of the most gorgeous shorts I’ve seen all year, and that’s really saying something. Perhaps Myosis’ greatest strength is that manages to be both sensual and visually sensational without either overpowering the other. A moving testament to perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition; An act of defiance canonizing two stalwart lovers. C2C-Deltaa9-640x360

3.  Delta, Directed by CRCR

I had some brief but enjoyable experiences in high-school listening to the collaborative eccentricities of french turntablism bands such as Birdy Nam Nam and C2C, but this was one of my first times listening to the latter in many years. And what a re-introduction. Delta follows the story of an alien kingdom besieged by an ominous triangular harbringer of destruction drawing ever closer. The populace attempt to evacuate, a lone crier pronounces the destruction of the city and the exaltation of the Delta, and the warrior king futilely sends his armies in an attempt to defy the inevitable.

C2C’s track is a superb soundtrack; a funkadelic turntable dance track accompanying an impending apocalypse. Delta is a satisfying self-contained narrative, whose color palate and sci-fi strangeness brings to mind the surreal works of the late french illustrator Jean Giraud aka Moebius. If you be looking for one of the year’s best music videos, look no further.ContreTemps08

4. Contre Temps, Directed by:  Jérémi Boutelet and Associates

Y’know how I said that Myosis was one of the most gorgeous animations of this past year? Well I still stand by that statement, but Contre Temps sure does stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside it. French for “Against Time”, Contre Temps is the story of a chisel-chined, petticoated clock-maker fixated on the excavation & restoration of time-pieces in the ruins of a metropolis long-swallowed by the sea. One day, the clock-maker makes a precious discovery in the midst of his routine search of the city between the recession of the ocean. What follows is a life or death decision in which the clockmaker is forced to choose between preserving the past or living for the future.

Contre Temps is a gorgeous, near-seamless blend between dynamic, cel-shaded 3-D animation and static, portraitesque 2-D backgrounds. Corral-coated jalopies, barnacle staircases, and beautiful fluidity of a harsh, indifferent ocean are some of this animation’s main attractions. The shot framing of the short carries the weight of much of Contre Temps appeal (such as the fantastic one pictured above.)

I had so many wonderful deja-vu moments to animated show like Big O and the Aeon Flux short “Tide” while watching this for the first time, not to mention one particular chase scene that reminded me BioShock. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, Contre Temps may be one of choice few animations shorts I would sincerely like to see turned into a full-length feature. Regardless, I hope to see the team behind this collaborate on more projects in the future.
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5. The Scarecrow, Directed by Moonbot Studios

This short garnered an overwhelming amount of accolades when it first premiered this past September. The Scarecrow is impeccably animated, if narratively heavy-handed commercial for the Mexican Food chain Chipotle denouncing factory farming  and antibiotically-infused livestock. However, the double-standard disacknowledgement of Chipotle’s own troubled relationship with antibiotic meat and the short’s faux-vegetarian appeal to higher integrity has not been lost on its critics. All that glitters is not gold.

Still, the short remains a phenomenal piece of animation with intricately crafted backgrounds and a likeable, empathetic protagonist. Scarescrow resembles a straw-headed Abe of Oddworld fame, caught in a macabre disney-esque reality bent sideways with looming skyscrapers painted sickly shades of saccharine sweet, all the while bordered by stretches of agricultural desert. A literal food desert.

I haven’t even mention the real centerpiece of the entire ad; a hauntingly dystopic, chillingly beautiful rendtion of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” by the unimitable Fiona Apple. For her contribution alone, I name this one of my favorite shorts of 2013. One does not have to choose between being a socially-conscious consumer and a appreciator of impressive animation. I highly recommend you watch the short for yourself and reach your own decison.

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Steam Machine + Steam Universe Impressions

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Steam Machine: An Alternative to the Next-Gen?

Imagine a next-gen console that came in various consumer-chosen models, each with their respective tiers of hardware specs and price ranges, that ran through an intuitive open-source OS and a massive online distribution system  that offered access to nearly every major and independent title in modern gaming? For some, this is the fever-pitched dream of the all-too-hopeful enthusiast trying to keep the ever-encroaching tide of invasive DRM-laden gaming and closed-console dominance at bay. But with the introduction of the Steam Machine, Valve Corporation might just succeed in making that dream a reality. But will it take hold, and for how long?

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‘Routine’ is like a First-Person Dead-Space, except if it was actually Scary

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I don’t know exactly where or remember when I first heard about Lunar Software’s Routine, but I definitely know it’s stuck in my mind ever since. Routine is a neon-tinged, cerebral sci-fi first-person horror game set on an abandoned Moon base.  You play as an engineer responding to a distress call (sound familiar?) Your job is to find enough data to uncover the truth behind the strange disappearance of everyone stationed on the Lunar Research Station.

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The game’s website promises an immersive, non-linear experience exploring a derelict space station, deadzone ironsight aiming with a multi-use modular pistol, and a brutally merciless Permadeath system with full-body awareness accentuated with the awesome Oculus Rift peripheral. Run, Think, Hide, Shoot, and Survive against a host of psychotic drone robots, an automated security system dedicated to liberating your skin from your skeleton, and whatever unfathomable cosmic horror that happens to be left dead and dreaming beneath the station’s crisply antiseptic veneer.

Routine’s technically-exquisite Alpha footage brings to my mind two unapolegtically favorable comparisons.  The first is obviously Dead Space, but the second is a little more obscure. Nevertheless, this game looks like  what the original Dead Space should have played like.

Where Dead Space emphasized desensitizing, gratuitous body-horror devoid of the phantasmagoric nuance of the genre’s forebears, Routine looks promising because it puts atmosphere first, stoking the terrifying long draw of brewing fear past the brink of bearability before exploding into a fierce, deliberately disadvantageous confrontation. That, and it looks like you’ll actually be doing some actual engineering in this game (e.g. computer hacking, mechanical node switching, etc.) instead of just chopping Eldtrich flesh ghouls in half with comically-overpowered laser pointers.

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My other comparison is that of the 2012 Half-Life 2 mod  BLACK SNOW by Team MONOTHETIC. The BLACK SNOW mod is probably one of the most terrifying and thoroughly satisfying horror games I’ve ever played; a brilliant homage and diligently thought-out video game equivalent to John Carpenter’s The Thing. If Routine approaches even a fraction of BLACK SNOW’s execution, I’ll call it a victory for horror fans everywhere.

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Lunar Software have yet to announce a definitive release date, but odds are pretty favorable that with their recently ramped-up press initiative, the humming neon-saturated light at the end of this game’s long development tunnel is nearly in sight. Let’s hope for a Routine-rich end to 2013!

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: ‘A Case To End All Cases’

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‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ is a first-person, supernatural horror game from “The Astronauts“, an independent game developer that, like so many its other peers, was formed by ex-employees of a major video-game developer (in this case Epic Studios-owned “People Can Fly, creators of Painkiller and Bulletstorm). The game first showed up as a blip on my radar when Kirk Hamilton wrote a Kotaku post focusing on the developer’s impressive online promotional comic this past July.

Impressive digitally-painted panels, disillusioned noir-infused dialogue, and a beautiful  low-key piano track looping in the background do much to stir one’s initial curiosity, but do little in the way of holding one’s attention. So it got shuffled to the back of my memory. Until now.

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Our hero seems to be in a bit of trouble.

The Astronauts have released the first formal batch of screenshots for the game since their announcement and they do look gorgeous. In “The Vanishing”, players assume the role of “retired” paranormal private detective Paul Prospero (AKA the man taking it easy in the promotional comic).  

Prospero has been enlisted to investigate the disappearance of Ethan Carter, a young boy who had contacted previously about strange markings and paranormal activity in his hometown. While on the case, he must contend with foes both human and anything but to get to the heart of the truth behind Carter’s disappearance. The game is said to be built around a “Weird Fiction” angle, a sub-genre of speculative fiction centered around the absurd and disturbing erosion of an otherwise tepid reality by malicious “alien” forces.

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I suppose the main draw of my attention stems from the way the game’s presentation, from its story to its location and even to its graphics, seem to emulate the vibe and aesthetic of Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, one of my favorite games of this past generation. A jaded every-man thrown into a rural setting slowly being twisted and corroded by malevolent supernatural forces that apparently only he can sense or stop? Looks like a dead ringer to me.

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But seriously though, I sure there’s more than enough variety between the two titles to differentiate them despite initial appearances. I’m hungry for an experience like Alan Wake, a psychological-horror experience laden with niche pop-cultural and classic horror literature references. Linked below is tantalizing and subtly unsettling  promo video for the game. I don’t like the looks of that teddy bear.

According to The Astronauts’ Website, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is inspired by the weird fiction stories and other tales of macabre of the early 20th century”, and  is a game “to be played at night, alone, and with headphones, coming to PC in 2013.”

With the release of a new generation of consoles and high-profile first party titles, I wonder how a niche horror title from a small team will fair in the last quarter of 2013. Still, I’m optimistic and look forward to seeing what The Astronauts can offer us in the months ahead.

You can check out The Astronauts’ Official Website Here, as well as the the Game’s Impressive Promo Comic Here.

Let’s Watch Legend of Korra: Season 2 Predictions

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[This post will contain spoilers for the ‘Avatar’ series up until the first episode of Season 2. This goes without saying, but even so. You have been forewarned.]

One of my favorite shows of 2012 was ‘Legend of Korra’, the successor to the Nickelodeon smash-hit series Avatar: The Last Airbender which aired from Spring 2005 to Fall 2008. The series follows the adventures of the eponymous Korra, a seventeen-year old “water bender” and the reincarnation of the previous series’ protagonist Aang.

The Avatar is a human being endowed with the ability to manipulate the forces of nature (Air, Water, Earth, Fire) and acts as a mediating force of balance between not only the separate nations of mankind, but also as the human emissary to the Spirit world. Last season, Korra came into here own by mastering all four of the elements (a trial that each Avatar must complete) and defeated Amon, the reclusive masked orchestrator  of  technologically advanced secessionist movement hell-bent on usurping the Bender-dominated government of Republic City (Avatar’s equivalent to New York/Shanghai) and installing a regime of fascism under the guise of “equality”.

One of the reasons why ‘Korra’ appealed to me so much, more even than its predecessor series,  is because it was able to astutely depict the stark philosophical dichotomy between two opposing yet complimentary forms of Fascism (Oligarchy of Natural Talents vs. Faux-Egalitarianism) all under the guise of a teen-drama animated series.

That’s damn impressive, and serves as another palpable example in the argument that animation, no matter what the intended audience, is capable of inciting significant and insightful debate and reflection in many audiences regardless of age group (if they would only give it a chance!)

But I’m digressing from the intention of this article. I’m not here to convince you to watch Legend of Korra (though a polite nudge of suggestion doesn’t hurt), but rather to offer my own predictions, hopes, and expectations for the second season, which just last Friday aired its one hour season premiere and will continue to air throughout the rest of 2013. The hour-long premiere offered the promise of multiple new faces, the return of older and more significant players, and the incitement of a Civil War waged within a larger natural disaster that Korra must face. So without further prologue, let’s get started…

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1. Koh the Face Stealer will be a major player in the struggle between the Human and Spirit world.

The title of this year’s season is “Spirits’. Every season of Avatar including the first season of Korra has been named after one of the four elements of the planet. With the conclusion of last year’s season, The Avatar must move forward to become a major player in not only the human world but also the spirit world. But there are other threats that vie to eliminate or manipulate the Avatar to further their own aims. One of the most deadly spiritual adversaries the Avatar has encountered is Koh the Face Stealer, a gigantic anthropomorphic centipede with the androgynous face of a human. Koh can adopt the face and form of whoever he consumes, and will murder and consume any person who exhibits fear or emotion within his domain.

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With the albeit totally confirmed reappearance of the giant Owl Wan Shi Tong and his ethereal library of forbidden knowledge, I think it’s safe to assume that Koh will be a major force in the conflict between the Human and Spirit world. Why?  Because he’s one of the most powerful, malevolent, and enigmatic characters in the world of Avatar, and a perfect spirit world counterpart to Korra’s uncle Unalaq in filling the void left by Amon’s departure (We’ll get to him in a sec…). He already has a known history of encounters with two previous incarnations of the Avatar, neither of which were ended on particularly pleasant terms. He’s killed the wife of one of the past incarnations of the Avatar, Korra’s water-bender predecessor Kuruk. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see this guy pop up again, and when we do it will most likely be no good.

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2. We have not seen the last of Amon and Tarrlock.

Speaking of Amon, I don’t think he’s gone yet. Or his brother Tarrlock for that matter either.  Although both of these important tragic figures died in the last episode of the previous season, in perhaps one of the darkest and unsettling moments in the entire series, I don’t believe that they’re gone for good. Why you might ask? Simple. Amon and Tarrlock live on in the spirit world, and perhaps in one way or another will come to help Korra achieve balance between the two worlds. Amon was one of the fiercest, morally-opaque and compelling villains that the show has ever produced. The initial question of his identity and his subsequent popularity among the show’s fan-base catapulted ‘Korra’ to a level of popularity not even seen by ‘Avatar’. Seeing a repentant “post-megalomaniacal” Amon living out in the spirit world is too tantalizing an opportunity to pass on. And Tarrlock…well, one can’t exist without the other, can they?

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3. Varrick will either prove to be a duplicitous snake-in-the-grass, or a surprisingly noble ally to the cause of peace.

Look at this guy’s face. His weaselly, self-serving demeanor. His utter disregard for anything other than himself. If ever I saw the face of an unapologetic snake-oil salesman, it’s Varrick. But ‘Korra’ has done nothing if not defy expectations of character morality. Asami, the tragic but stalwart advocate of peace and coexistence is a championed example of this. I could be reading Varrick all wrong, I’ll openly admit to that. The determining factor of a static or dynamic character is in evidenced in how they do or do not change throughout the course of a story. I’ve only seen about one episode of this guy; an over-enthusiastic buffoon with way too glowing an opinion of himself. I’ll suspend my skepticism until I’m proven right.

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4. Anyone’s Guess.

Anything other than that is an open-ended guess on my part. One of the major emphasis of this season will be relationships, especially those familial. Korra will have to act as a unifying force between the culturally warring factions of her people, evolve through her conflicted respect and resentment for her Air-bending mentor Tenzin, her relationship to the spirit world and her Avatar predessecors (especially that of Aang and Wang, the first Avatar), her budding yet troubled relationship with Mako,  and her relationship with herself. Getting older, wiser, assuming responsibilities. Growing up.

I’m really looking forward to the new places this season is going to bring fans of the show, both literally and thematically. And even if you’re not a ‘Korra’ fan or have never seen an episode of the original series, I highly suggest you give it a shot. Take it from a late-comer, it’s not as hard as you think to catch up on the important stuff 😉

‘SUPERHOT’ is an Inspired, Downright Infuriating Action-Puzzle Shooter

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Holy crap, that was a trip. When can I play it again?!

SUPERHOT is a short, browser-based First-Person shooter set within a white walled, unconnected set of nondescript corridors and warehouse. The main draw of the game is in its use of time and movement, namely that time will slow to a crawl and in some cases outright stop as you stand still, speeding up and resuming its natural state only when you begin moving yourself. The game had already premiered earlier this year, becoming a showcase winner at the WGK 2013 Game Developers conference, and with the effusive praise of tech writers and veteran gaming icons alike I can totally see why.


“Brilliant. FPS where time moves only when YOU move. Slick, clean, even the tutorials don’t f&#k around.”
Cliff Bleszinski, Co-creator Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal, Gears of War.

“Like you’re playing through Quentin Tarantino’s version of the Mad Men opening credits.”
Philippa Warr, Wired

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“Imagine a FPS where time only moves when you do? Oh, it’s been done. #superhotgame”
@PeterMolydeux

“…like Braid With Guns”
Mark Serrels, Kotaku

By way of this short online proof of concept, the developers behind SUPERHOT have created the abstract minimalist video-game equivalent to a John Woo action film. SUPERHOT combines the frenetic chaos of a cinematic shootout with the meticulous precision and coordination of a puzzle game.

The developers are currently petitioning for the game to be selected for the Steam Greenlight program. If they get enough support, a full-fledged version of this game could be commercially released, and wouldn’t that just make one mistake (i.e. the absence of such a game) all right and well in the world?

Seriously, go play this game, it’s wicked fun!

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And go vote for it on Steam Greenlight!

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#SUPERHOT

Gone Home: ‘Every Love Story is a Ghost Story’

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You come home to a house that is not your own. But this is your home. The date is  June 7th 1995, and for over a year you’ve been on an abroad trip touring through Europe as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Your parents and younger sister Sam have moved into the estate of a late relative in your absence. You take a taxi from the airport and arrive at the front porch just ahead of a massive storm that rocks the county. Travel bags piled in a heap, You find an ominous note tacked to the front door signed by your sister. The words “Don’t look for me“, “I had to do it“, “Meet again someday” nail themselves at the forefront of your mind. You find the spare key and open the front door, stepping into a house that is not your own.

‘Gone Home’ is a first-person, interactive mystery game produced by indie game developer “The Fullbright Company”. The game drops you into the shoes of Katie Greenbriar, who must search through her new family home in order to answer the most salient question. “What happened to your mom, dad, and sister?”

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The adventure is marked along the way by spoken excerpts from Sam’s private journal, documenting her first year at her new school, her personal journey of maturity and her blossoming revelation of self-identity. To go into anymore detail would be a supreme disservice to how the game tells its story (i.e. a spoiler). These excerpts guide the narrative and the course of exploration throughout the game, as I moved from one corner of the house finding keys and passages that wrap around back to where I needed to go.

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I think that one of the biggest strengths of ‘Gone Home’ is that the compulsion to investigate and delve into the story says a lot about how the “character” of a living-space says about the character of those who inhabit it. A crumpled piece of paper, a hand-scrawl note on the underside of an envelope, a bottle perched on top of a bookshelf; We know these characters, their quirks, concerns, and conscience, by the little innocuous details they leave behind, sprinkled about the house.

The “level” design of this game is a pure labor of love, a typical 90’s suburban household captured with such a keen verisimilitude that the game almost feels like a time machine skipping back to a quiet pocket of private history. Pizza boxes, discarded pieces of clothing, cassette tapes and couch cushions, the artifacts of a rich inner family life are yours to explore and piece together. Environmental storytelling is king here, ex-developers of Bioshock 2 count among some of the members of the Fullbright Company’s development team and it abundantly shows.

A “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” reference?

My initial play-through took me around 2.5 hours to complete, not including the time I spent gawking at the scenery and puzzling together theories in my head along the way. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t really discovered “everything” that the game has to offer, as one minor but persistent mystery still eludes me.

By the end of the game, I loved Sam as though she were my own sister. I was happy for her accomplishments, wounded by her challenges, proud of her growing maturity, and concerned for her deliberate attempts at misguided teenage rebellion. By the end of the game I had the answer to almost all my questions, and I will sincerely miss my time with the Greenbriar family.

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Gone Home is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, through the Steam store and direct sale.