james debate
james debate

Friday 29 December 2023

debbie debbies end of year awards 2023 best films music

It's that time of year again. The bubbly is uncorked, the salad forks chilled. The tables are set for an evening of debaucherous hedonism. Break out your finest evening wear and your dancing shoes, because tonight we are all going to the big show with VIP tickets. It's the Debbie Awards, the traditional end of year showstopper that celebrates the good, the bad, and the downright dazzling of the year gone by. 

As 2023 draws to a close, it stands out as a year marked by significant global transformation and resilience. The world saw substantial progress in the fight against climate change, with unprecedented international agreements taking bold steps towards sustainability. Technological advancements continued at a rapid pace, particularly in the fields of AI and renewable energy, leading to innovative solutions to long-standing challenges. 

On the cultural front, 2023 witnessed something of a content overload as the world continues to play catch up on all the delayed projects of the last three years. Music, theatre, film and videogames. Increasingly it's a challenge (but a good one) to keep up with everything. This means there is never any shortage of new culture, but it is not for the FOMO of heart. Despite its challenges, 2023 was a testament to human adaptability and the enduring spirit of cooperation in shaping a more hopeful future

Without further ado, let the curtain fall upon 2023 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months:

2023 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: The Bear (Hulu)
Runner Up: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (Paramount+)

best tv show 2023 the bear hulu

At a time when there exists more numerous premium streaming networks than hours in the day, it's only natural that occasionally, just occasionally, you will miss something good. I have to hold my hands up and say that The Bear's first season was that something for me. Well this year, with season 2, I made no mistake. The Bear is a tour de force of television. A raw look into the food industry, as capable of delivering tender character moments as it is scenes of stomach-churning intensity. The sixth episode of the season, Fishes, might just be the best episode of a television series I've seen this decade, and it's followed up by Forks, another episode that could well compete for that title. If you have not yet watched The Bear, do yourself a favour and do so now.

I'm definitely going to get some stick for this runner up prize. But you know what, I'm owning it. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' second season is not just fantastic Star Trek, it's fantastic television. It shows that the production team at Paramount have finally struck the right blend between drama and levity, but also that they are having fun in the process. This season features a number of bold creative decisions, including a crossover episode with an animated TV series that might just be the funniest episode in the franchise's history, and a fully musical episode that has to be seen to be believed.

2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: The Last of Us (HBO)
Runner Up: Daisy Jones & the Six (Amazon)

best new tv show 2023 the last of us hbo playstation pedro pascal bella ramsey

An increasingly competitive field, with an absolutely astronomical number of high quality new series released each year (hard luck on narrowly missing out, Scott Pilgrim). But this year's standout is a series that was named by many critics to be amongst the best of all TV series this year, The Last of Us. I'll admit I was caught off guard by this one. Videogame adaptations generally don't have the best of track records, and I wasn't a big fan of the source game in the first place. The Last of Us succeeds where others have failed by keeping the focus on the narrative substance of its source material, trying to find ways to make it accessible to new audiences, rather than lazily attempting to pander to fans of the game. The result is a masterful example of character-focused storytelling that manages to find the human element amid all the horror. Also, forget what I said above for The Bear. Episode 3, Long, Long Time might just be the best television episode of the decade.

Runner up goes to Daisy Jones & the Six, the adaptation of the wonderful novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It was always going to be challenging to make a one to one adaptation from a novel notable for its non-conventional narrative format. The result is a much more traditional form of storytelling, but one which still manages to capture the essence of the text; the frictional genius, the price of stardom, the interplay between art and life. That it manages to do so with a suitably catchy original soundtrack only sweetens the deal - you won't quite believe that these are the timeless hits they claim to be, but they're good enough that within the fiction you could believe. 

3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: Maestro
Runner Up: The Holdovers

best film 2023 maestro leonard bernstein bradley cooper carrey mulligan holdovers giamatti

I have to say, Bradley Cooper is a far better actor than I ever gave him credit. His performance in Maestro is nothing short of magnificent, such a total embodiment of composer Leonard Bernstein that at times you can scarcely believe it's actually Cooper on screen. His talents are equally matched by his co-star Carey Mulligan, one of the finest actresses of her generation, and a potential Oscar contender (albeit in a crowded field). Cooper may also be a better filmmaker than an actor. If his debut picture, 2018's remake of A Star is Born, hinted at his potential talent, his second film absolutely confirms it. Maestro is an impeccably produced visual treat with some of the most gorgeous cinematography I've seen in years. 

Coming in second this year is a film that seems to have flown under the radar for many. The Holdovers is the latest film from Oscar winning director Alexander Payne. Set against the backdrop of an American boarding school, Paul Giamatti plays a curmudgeonly teacher tasked with watching over the students who have nowhere to go during the holiday season. A heart-warming and poignant blend of humour with deep emotional resonance, the film skilfully balances its lighter, comedic moments with its more reflective, introspective beats, creating a narrative that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

4. The Debbie for Variety Show Host of the Year 
Winner: Hannah Waddingham

hannah waddingham game of thrones ted lasso home for christmas eurovision talk show host of the year 2023

Alright, we're giving this to Hannah Waddingham. Let's face it, it's Hannah's year. In 2023 the Ted Lasso and Game of Thrones star shot to "national treasure" status and has been the go-to option for charming British hosts, heading up a variety of events and specials, most notably Eurovision and her own Christmas special Home for Christmas. She's a talented actress, funny, great singer, and naturally charming. Let's hope to see more of this in 2024.

5. The Debbie for Rising Star of the Year 
Winner: Jack Wolfe

Jack Wolfe Shadow and Bone next to normal breakthrough star of the year 2023

Always a tricky contest to award, not least of all because by the time the year comes to a close, most of those rising stars will have risen and no longer be a prospect of the future. This year's prize goes to a young actor who has been making a lot of noise in London musical theatre, Jack Wolfe. 2023 has turned out to be a breakout year for the actor, earning wide acclaim and awards recognition for his role in the Pulitzer prize winning musical, Next to Normal, which is making a West End transfer next year. This year also saw Wolfe take his first starring role in the successful Netflix series Shadow and Bone. Whether it's in theatre, television, or film, there's a lot of hype about this young man and a sense that he could catch fire in the next couple of years.

6. The Debbie for Web-Show of the Year 
Winner: Did You Know Gaming?

debbies youtube webshow video blog channel of the year did you know gaming 2023

If you're a fan of gaming and the Internet, chances are you will have come across this blog and web series. Did You Know Gaming has been around forever, enlightening audiences with geeky game facts and trivia. Until now it's just been one of those bits of institutional Internet fun, the kind of thing that will get bounced around social media without much thought paid. The last year has seen something of a reinvention, a shift towards far more substantial investigative work, with serious research, in depth interviews, and some truly major scoops. 

No longer just obscure and quirky trivia, but uncovering lost and cancelled games, never before seen footage, including from some major franchises including Sonic the Hedgehog and the Legend of Zelda. As a perennially online geek myself, I thought I had heard everything, but some of the content they have been putting out this year has been truly eye opening.

Music, Art & Theatre

7. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: Patriots (Noel Coward Theatre)
Runner Up: Next To Normal (Donmar Warehouse)

patriots putin berezovsky next to normal best theatre 2023

2023 has, quietly, been one of the better years in theatre that I can remember. I can only apologise that there are a number of excellent productions that will not make this list, and even among the two I have named here, it's so close that the difference comes down to almost a coin flip. Either one of these productions would have been a worthy winner in another year. But ultimately, I have decided to give top prize to Patriots, the latest production from legendary writer Peter Morgan. Patriots unwinds the messy story of Russia's fall from communism, the rise of the oligarchs and, in particular, the conflict between Vladimir Putin and Boris Berezovsky. This is such a complicated, convoluted series of events, but one that is so pivotal to understanding modern geopolitics and so much of the military and political conflicts in the world today. That they were able to take this story and make it so accessible and entertaining, is really something of a miracle. Patriots is not just excellent theatre, it's essential.

Despite my fervent praise for Patriots, on another day I may easily have gone with Next to Normal instead. That this is only the eighth musical in history to win the prestigious Pulitzer prize should give you some idea of its substance. I'll not say too much, as it is best to go into this one completely blind, but suffice it to say this production plumbs some very deep and dark places, boldly addressing the topics of mental health and treatment. Yet, it does so in a way that is strangely energizing, owing much to its tight scripting, catchy music and some dazzling performances. Next to Normal is transferring to the West End in 2024. If you haven't yet seen it, make sure that you do.

8. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: Javelin - Sufjan Stevens
Runners Up: For That Beautiful Feeling - The Chemical Brothers, Fantasy - M83

javelin sufjan stevens chemical brothers beautiful feeling fantasy m83 best album 2023

Folk musician Sufjan Stevens has a particular sound that he does well, and on his latest album Javelin, he does it spectacularly well. This is an album of crystalline, perfectly composed tracks that lean heavily into his intimate, singer-songwriter stylings, but with a level of multi-instrumental polish in the production that belies the artist's increasing confidence and technical adroitness. This is, perhaps, best accomplished in a Running Start, a song of singular longing that starts off sounding like a sweet, sunny composition of late sixties folk pop, before bursting into a flying instrumental finale. The more on-the-nose-edly titled Will Anybody Ever Love Me? is another instant classic slice of pop goodness. But perhaps the standout here comes in the 8 minute epic, Shit Talk

2023 also saw a strong return to form for The Chemical Brothers. The venerable electronic music artists have been making music since before I started listening to music, but latest album For That Beautiful Feeling may rank among their best work, certainly in the last fifteen years. Lead single The Darkness That You Fear is a hopeful, driving epic, named by this blog as the best track of 2021 and certainly among the best tracks to be released in the 2020s so far. Elsewhere, Live Again is a mesmerising, irresistibly danceable rave of a track. Spectacular album.

And in third place, the latest adventure from French synth-pop outfit M83, Fantasy. While it may not reach the heights, overall, of the band's finest work, Fantasy nevertheless presents a collection of fantastic individual tracks that bely the group's mastery of their craft. The soaring Earth To Sea is probably the pick of the tracks, but together with lead singles Oceans Niagara and Amnesia they form one of the most compelling opening salvos of any album. This is music you want to just dive into and swim.

9. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: the record - boygenius
Runner Up: A Producer from Vienna - Filous

the record boygenius filous producer from vienna filous best debut album 2023

2023 has also been a very strong year for new musical artists. This year's winner, boygenius is an artist whose debut album the record has been named by many critics as among the year's very best from all artists, old and new. Having previously burst onto the scene in 2018 with their eponymous EP, this first full length LP has been coming for a while, and it's safe to say it did not disappoint. A raw, confessional style album that weaves the unique voices of the band's three creatives, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker into a cohesive vision. It's a balance of styles: the delicate acoustics of Cool About It with the more powerful, resonant moments of Not Strong Enough. But the highlight track has to be True Blue, an introspective, beautiful piece of music. 

A similar story for the runner up position. Austrian DJ Filous emerged way back in 2015 with a highly successful EP and has been slowly working his way to a full LP release in the years since. In 2023, this finally came to pass with A Producer from Vienna, a debut album that is as diverse and creative as one would expect from his past work, featuring collaborations with an array of elite artistic talents, including the Kooks with Hey Love, and Daoi Freyr with Sabada. A strong and confident debut piece of work. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

10. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: Earth to Sea - M83
Runners Up: Sightseer - Nation of Language, Running Start - Sufjan Stevens

earth to sea m83 fantasy best song 2023

A competitive year for music then, even more so when it comes to specific tracks. For this year's top prize, however, there was one clear standout. Earth To Sea is the stand out track from M83's new album, Fantasy. An absolutely blazing anthem that drips with the nostalgia of 1980s Hollywood, evoking a sense of adventure and, well, Fantasy.

Our first runner up is Nation of Language with the highlight track of their 2023 album Strange Disciple, Sightseer. A rich and layered blending of nostalgic 1980s synth-pop with modern indie sensibilities, Sightseer epitomizes the signature sound of NoL. Something timeless, mesmerising and quite special.

Finally, third place goes to my pick of Sufjan Stevens' Debbie Award winning album Javelin, Running Start. This is classic Sufjan: sparse, intimate acoustic notes with lyrics that only get better the more closely you read them, building towards a bold and stunning breakdown in the final third of the track that sweeps you off your feet. Possibly one of the best songs he's ever written.

11. The Debbie for Live Concert of the Year 
Winner: Stars

stars best live performance concert 2023

We're going full dad-rock for this year's live performance prize. Canadian indie rockers Stars are a seminal group for the angsty teens of the early 2000s, but unlike many artists of that ilk, their work holds up, with classic tracks including Your Ex-Lover is DeadTake Me to the Riot and Dead Hearts. The band have lost none of their edge over the years and this year's tour, in particular, was just an overflow of fun, with special guests, fun anecdotes, an amusing bait and switch, and great music. Just an overall fantastic night out.

12. The Debbie for Art Exhibition of the Year 
Winner: Hallyu! The Korean Wave - V&A

korean wave hallyu v&a victoria and albert london best art exhibition 2023

The V&A in London has put on some excellent exhibitions in the last few years, celebrating disparate cultures, pop movements and specific artists in memorable fashion. Their 2023 headline was Hallyu! a deep dive into South Korean culture that has increasingly taken the western world by storm with the prevalence of K-pop, K-drama, and global smash hits such as Squid Game and Gangnam Style. All this and more is represented in this vibrant and colourful exhibition, well worth an afternoon in South Kensington.

13. The Debbie for Book of the Year 
Winner: The Wager - David Grann

the wager david grann killers flower moon best novel book 2023

The Wager is historical non-fiction, telling the true story of the HMS Wager, which shipwrecked in 1781. Several months later, a group of survivors return to Britain to be greeted as heroes. A further six months on, a second group of survivors return, accusing the first of mutiny and murder. David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has pulled off something remarkable here. Taking us step by step through the ill-fated voyage, from its conception and preparation, to the first weeks of the mission, the ensuing shipwreck and establishment of a makeshift settlement. 

I am not a big non-fiction reader, but then I never imagined that non-fiction could be as gripping or as exciting as The Wager. The attention to detail, the psychological insight, the historical context. It's all impeccable and really brings the reader into the story. For a non-fiction novel to have characters who are so vivid and well-explored, a setting and narrative that is so immersive, is truly impressive. 

Business & Technology

14. The Debbie for Scientific/Technological Breakthrough of the Year 
Winner: Alzheimer's Immunotherapy

alzheimers immunotherapy best important technological breakthrough 2023

2023 saw significant breakthroughs in Alzheimer's immunotherapy bringing renewed hope to what was once seen as a uncompromising and irreversible illness. This year's developments increased our understanding of the role of the immune system in Alzheimer's pathology, leading to the development of innovative immunotherapies. 

These treatments, aimed at targeting the underlying causes of Alzheimer's, showed promise in clinical trials by reducing amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, key hallmarks of the disease. The year may mark a turning point, demonstrating efficacy in halting cognitive decline. While more research is needed, the 2023 breakthroughs offered a ray of optimism for hopes that this could one day become a fully treatable condition.

15. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: Nintendo Switch

nintendo switch indie zelda virtual console best console for gaming 2023

This year saw a bit of a quiet period in terms of new videogame systems, with the latest generation now in full flow, and the next at least a few years away from reveal. Despite this, the Nintendo Switch pulled out a few new tricks that make it worthy of praise. 

Firstly, this year saw the release of the Nintendo Switch Online service, essentially the "virtual console" of this generation. Among the various online and multiplayer focused services, NSO also offers access to a staggeringly large library of classic games from generations gone by, including the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and even non-Nintendo systems like the Sega Megadrive. This makes it immediately one of the best gaming libraries accessible anywhere. 

The second feather in the Switch's cap comes from its support of indie game developers. Between a streamlined dev kit, more favourable online shop policies, and regular official showcases, there isn't a better system for small developers looking to break into the industry.

16. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch)
Runners Up: Alan Wake 2 (PC, Xbox, Playstation), A Highland Song (PC, MacOS, Switch)
Honourable Mention: Starfield (PC, Xbox)

zelda tears of the kingdom switch nintendo alan wake 2 starfield highland song playstation pc console game of the year 2023

First let me preface: 2023 was an absurd year for gaming. One of the best single years I can ever recall, in terms of releases. This was the year that all the delayed and postponed games of 2020, 2021 and 2022 finally saw release. The result is a year that was so ridiculously stocked with significant games, that barely a week went by without some major release. So before I announce this year's winners, I would like to give a shout out to all the incredible games that, in another year, would surely have made the podium or even taken the top prize. Games such as Baldur's Gate III, Octopath Traveler II, Hogwarts Legacy, Seasons, Final Fantasy XVI, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, The Pale Beyond, Oxenfree 2, and Spider-Man 2. Just listing those out really hits home at how remarkable this year was for gaming.

With that said, let's get to this year's winner. Even with the incredible array of titles released in 2023, one game still managed to stand out for me. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom represents one of gaming's great developers at their absolute pinnacle. A title which takes the formula of a game widely considered one of the greatest of all time, and makes it even better, even more brilliant. It's a title that puts barely a foot wrong anywhere, a landmark title against which all open world games should be measured.

As for a runner up, this was a tricky one - and again to all those I mentioned in the first paragraph, I really feel for you, you were all very worthy of a mention here. Ultimately, I award second place to Alan Wake 2. The first game in this series, released some thirteen years ago following a notoriously difficult and protracted development, was a flawed, but brilliant psychological horror game that stood out most for its (at the time) revolutionary blending of multimedia formats: film, 3d graphics, literature, and its presentation which blurred the lines between all three. While a direct sequel has taken a fittingly long time to arrive, developers Remedy have spent the years building on this talent with their other titles, most recently 2019's Control, and with each release they just get better and better at it. The result is another masterful horror game, with impeccable presentation, brilliantly bonkers creativity, and some of the best atmosphere I have ever seen created in a game.

For third place, A Highland Song. In contrast to the other, more prominent releases here, A Highland Song is the latest title from indie developer Inkle. A title of deceptive simplicity that reminds us that clever game design does not necessarily require a big team or budget. A beautiful and evocative title that puts players in the shoes of Moira McKinnon, a young girl running away from home to see her uncle at his lighthouse on the coast. Players navigate Moira through a series of highland vistas, stunningly rendered in watercolour style, in a game focused on exploration and (minimal) puzzle solving. This title is an absolute treat for the senses, but while the surface quality may dazzle initially, what ultimately shines from this game is the clever design. This is a title built with replayability in mind. Each subsequent playthrough allows you to keep all of the items and maps that you have found, meaning that you are constantly finding new routes, new stories. Gradually you will find that you do, in fact, learn these hills like the back of your hand. It's a sublime example of exploration gameplay at its best and most organic.

And because I still haven't spent enough time talking about videogames, I want to make one special shout out for Bethesda's new RPG Starfield. There are few treats in gaming that compare to a new Bethesda open-world RPG, and while Starfield is clearly a flawed title, it still contains that trademark magic. For all its problems, this is ultimately the game that I spent the most time playing in 2023, and a title that will continue to get better and better through expansions and modding. That merits a special mention, even if its flaws out of the box are too noticeable for me to reasonably give it a top three position.

17. The Debbie for Company of the Year
Winner: Ambr

ambr wellbeing startup company of the year 2023

For me, well-being and mental health could well be the new killer app. This is, or should be at the forefront of all good companies' thinking in 2024 and I can see it becoming a massive area for new business. One such business to emerge in 2023 is Ambr, a new app that empowers individuals to take control of their mental health through daily mindfulness and meditation practices. What sets Ambr apart is its personalized approach, tailoring meditation recommendations based on user feedback and progress. With its soothing visuals, calming sounds, and a library of resources to enhance mental resilience, Ambr serves as a valuable companion on the journey to inner peace and mindfulness in the digital age.


18. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Erling Haaland - Manchester City

erling haaland manchester city best footballer player in the world football 2023

This was not a difficult prize to award. Erling Haaland is the best player in the world right now, and he has had the standout season to boot, scoring a record 36 goals in his debut Premier League season whilst winning a historic first ever treble for Manchester City. It's difficult to draw conclusions so early in a player's career, but right now there is no indication that Haaland is going to slow down. Still just 23 years old, it seems pretty likely that Haaland will be a player that dominates world football for the foreseeable future.

19. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Jude Bellingham - Real Madrid

jude bellingham real madrid england best young footballer player in the world 2023

But Haaland won't be alone in the footballing firmament of the 2020s and 2030s, and one player who might well be joining him is Jude Bellingham, this summer's new signing for Real Madrid. Bellingham is a player who has drawn a considerable amount of hype over the past few years, despite having only just turned 20. But few could have imagined the instant impact he would have at Madrid, with 17 goals scored in his first 21 games. It's an astonishing outlay for any midfield player, much less one so young arriving at such a massive football club. Bellingham is the real deal and is likely to be a star for years to come.

20. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year 
Winner: Unai Emery - Aston Villa

best football manager in the world 2023 unai emery

In a year where the managers at more prominent clubs either lived up to lofty expectations or, in some cases, failed spectacularly to do so, there are a few names from the less expected clubs that manage to stand out. Aston Villa manager Unai Emery is perhaps the manager who has most seen his stock rise in 2023. Little was expected of the man who flopped at Arsenal, taking over a club near the bottom of the Premier League table, but his transformation has been instantaneous. 

Since joining at the tail end of last season, Emery's side rose from the foot of the table to Europa League qualification. This season has been even more remarkable. Half-way through the season and Aston Villa find themselves in third place, just one point off the top spot. That they are contenders for the top four seems obvious now, but at this point you'd have to consider them also potential title challengers.

21. The Debbie for Football Club of the Year 
Winner: Manchester City

football club of the year 2023 manchester city

It is difficult to award this prize to anyone other than Manchester City in a year where they have achieved that rarest and most highly acclaimed of feats, the treble. Last season saw the Citizens win the Premier League title, FA Cup and the Champions League. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply a par performance from a club with near limitless finances. But as other clubs have proven, there is much more to success than just spending money. You need to spend it in the right way and City have consistently done so. It's not just about signing the right players, it's about putting in place the right infrastructure, facilities, youth set up, coaching. Manchester City have done it all right, and this, not just the money, is the reason why they are the best football team on the planet right now.

Current Events

22. The Debbie for Politician of the Year 
Winner: Hakeem Jeffries

hakeem jeffries politician of the year 2023

For a moment I considered going a bit farther afield for this prize this year. I could have mentioned Olaf Scholz, navigating his way through perhaps the trickiest political circumstances in Europe, or Albanese's popularity in Australia, or Kishida's resurgent Japan. But in 2023, I truly think Hakeem Jeffries needs commendation for his leadership of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives. 

Not only did Jeffries lead his party to a historic overperformance in the 2022 midterms, but under his leadership the party has continued to overperform in the off-year elections in spite of an incumbent President with mixed popularity. Add to this his ability to operate and maintain the dignity of his caucus amid the unprecedented chaos of the House Republican leadership, that constantly changing, childishly infighting leadership, and you really have to give him credit. Increasingly likely to take the gavel after next year's elections, Jeffries' reputation has seen quite the rise over the past 12 months.

23. The Debbie for Scandal of the Year 
Winner: The criminal prosecution of Donald Trump

biggest political scandal 2023 trump prosecution criminal charge indictment conviction traitor

It couldn't really be anything other than this, could it? A President of the United States had never been criminally indicted prior to 2023. Now it has happened 91 times. In the past year, Trump has been criminally indicted for multiple counts of financial fraud in New York, electoral fraud in Georgia, and Federally for stealing and hiding classified documents and for conspiring to rig an election. 

I feel like we've become so desensitized to his scandals and obscenities that news like this has a tendency to wash over us. So take a moment to step back and absorb these facts, that the former President of the United States is facing criminal charges for the highest and most serious of crimes, crimes that could see him locked up for the rest of his life. It's going to be a busy few years of these historic criminal trials, the likes of which have never been seen. You thought the last few years were crazy? Buckle up.

24. The Debbie for Cause of the Year
Winner: Responsible Use of AI

responsible use of ai artificial intelligence displacement disruption privacy ethical most important issue 2023

The use of Artificial Intelligence has been one of the hot topics of technology for the past several years. Discourse can vary from the sober to the very alarmist and even scaremongering. Now, I am not one of those who fears that AI is going to end the world, or even that it's going to take all our jobs and plunge the world into an era of poverty and servitude. I think it is a tool like any other that will revolutionise how we do things, and reshape our idea of productivity and work for the better. However, what I will agree is vitally important, and what should be the greatest focus of the AI discussion, is how to use this technology responsibly. 

Deep fakes, revenge porn, political propaganda. This technology is becoming so powerful that it's increasingly difficult to tell the real from fake. Figuring out how to manage this will require a great undertaking. I don't know if it will require regulations or restrictions on the technology (in my opinion, trying to put the genie back in the bottle is futile, someone will find a way around), or a greater education effort to help people understand that they can't necessarily trust what they see any more. I'm not worried about our robot overlords taking over the world, I'm worried about regular shitty people using the technology in a way that detriments others.

25. The Debbie for Person of the Year 
Winner: Jack Smith

jack smith person of the year 2023

Sometimes a great man is not the person who makes a great noise or shakes the world, but merely someone who does great things without fuss. The last several years have not been kind to the rule of law in the United States, or the reputation of the nation's institutions. At every turn, they have failed to bring justice to obvious unlawfulness. As a nation we just assumed that flagrant corruption and criminality in the highest ranks of government couldn't happen here, because our institutions would be too strong, too clever to allow it. That this failed to happen has shaken the national confidence in a profound way that I don't think has been truly appreciated yet. 

Step up Jack Smith, the right man at the right time. Smith has quietly, diligently and professionally executed his duties as the special prosecutor in charge of the Donald Trump investigations. He has worked without giving in to political pressure from both sides, guided by the very simple notion to uphold the rule of law to the letter. In doing so, he shattered the malaise that had begun to set, the nihilistic view of institutional weakness, of defeatism that we were powerless to right the wrongs in our country. He has proven to us that the institutions still work, and that in this country "right" still matters.

Social & Lifestyle

26. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: Weisses Rössli

weisses rossli zurich best restaurant 2023

I award this year's best restaurant Debbie to the gem of Zurich's culinary scene, Weisses Rössli. In a town where restaurants often veer between very simple traditional fare, and over-the-top extravagance for the Zurcher 1%, Weisses Rössli gets it absolutely right. This is honest, Swiss cuisine, but executed to an outstandingly high level of quality. 

The food is both beautiful and delicious. Our meal included a coconut pumpkin soup that was among the tastiest things I've eaten all year, a perfectly cooked venison with chestnuts, and a mascarpone mousse for dessert that was almost too pretty to eat. The wine list is also excellent. The Barbera I had was so deep and dark you could sink into it, like being kissed by a decadent velvet sofa. Yeah, I'm going back here, and I need to find where I can get a few bottles of that Barbera.

27. The Debbie for New Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: De Juwelier

de juwelier amsterdam best new restaurant 2023

The newest venture from Amsterdam's celebrated two Michelin star restaurant Restaurant 212, De Juwelier is an intimate affair, with just a few tables and some bar-seating, but a menu no less ambitious. De Juwelier's thing is using every bit of the animal. Suffice it to say, if you are a vegetarian, this isn't the place for you - having said that, their mushroom soup was delicious. The restaurant's signature dish is a mushroom bone marrow dish served in the bone. While the food may be a touch adventurous for some, it is completely unpretentious, cosy, and absolutely delicious. A real gem on the canals. 

28. The Debbie for Club/Bar of the Year 
Winner: The Bell

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There's few things as great as a classic English country pub, and The Bell in Langford is as close to the quintessential experience as you will find. A historic building in picturesque Oxfordshire building. Warm, cosy interiors, crackling fireplaces, serene garden seating. The fact that it is home to a highly acclaimed restaurant only sweetens the deal. The Cotswolds are home to some of the finest pubs in the world, but The Bell still manages to stand out as a jewel in the English countryside.

29. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Mauritius

mauritius best holiday destination 2023

2023 was a year for far-flung adventure. Swimming with the dolphins, hiking through the rainforests, haggling in the local markets. Or if you're like me, reclining on the beach with ceviche, fresh fruit and a cocktail. Mauritius, set in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is renowned for its breathtaking beaches with crystal-clear turquoise waters, lush, mountainous interiors, and vibrant coral reefs. What sets Mauritius apart is its unique blend of cultures - a fusion of African, Indian, European, and Asian influences - that is reflected in its cuisine, music, and festivals, providing a truly multicultural experience. Additionally, the island has made significant strides in sustainable tourism, ensuring that its natural wonders are preserved for future generations. 

30. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Boeri Barbera d'Asti DOCG Superiore Pörlapà

red wine boeri barbera d'asti docg superiore porlapa best wine 2023

I've already touched on this within the Weisses Rössli review above, but the Boeri Barbera d'Asti DOCG Superiore Pörlapà is about a gloriously decadent a red wine as you will ever sip. Impossibly deep and dark, velvety smooth, surrounding you like a plush velvet armchair. Senses of leather, oak, and clay of the deepest caves. Calms the soul. Probably cures disease. A truly exceptional wine experience. 

31. The Debbie for Tipple of the Year 
Winner: Rushen Cottage Sloe Port

best tipple liquor alcohol 2023 rushen cottage homemade sloe port

And finally our award for best tipple, we're looking close to home. That's right, the best drink I've had the pleasure to sup in 2023 is the sloe port hand-crafted right here in Rushen Cottage. Sloe is a slow process that takes place over several months. Combining the leftover sloe berries (after making sloe gin) with red wine, sugar and brandy for fortification, results in a delightful port with the smooth taste of a mellow honey. A perfect way to close out an evening, and I still have a few bottles.

Well there you have it, another year in the books. Here's to 2024 being a year of peace, good health, and further progress. See you there!

Monday 18 December 2023

The tradition continues. 12 months, 12 books. The year is coming to an end and, don't you worry, The Debbie Awards are coming up. But before we get to that, let's warm up with The Ephemeric's now annual book review, a curated list by your faithful blog-enthusiast of whatever the heck I happened to feel like reading over the past year, old and new.

one book every month year challenge 2021 ephemeric

January - "Really Good, Actually" by Monica Heisey

Starting off with something on the light and relatable side. Really Good, Actually is the debut novel by Monica Heisey, known for her work as a writer on the hit comedy series Schitt's Creek. 

A novel about break ups, coping and moving on. That about sums it up really. This novel was fine. Not as funny, nor as clever as it tries to be. Most of RGA's 400 pages delve deeper into the neuroses and insecurities of its narrator, but these attempts at coping with pain through wit mostly come off as glib, while there's not enough of an emotional conclusion to really justify this journey. There's little here that's especially insightful or new, but for the right audience I can imagine this being worth a read. 

February - "In Ascension" by Martin MacInnes

We're not off to the best start here. On paper, Martin MacInnes' new novel In Ascension sounds like it should be right up my alley. A young deep-sea oceanographer in the Netherlands, whose unique skill-set sees them drafted into an experimental mission to investigate an anomaly in space. 

On the surface, it has all the makings of some classic speculative fiction in the style of The Abyss, Sphere and the writings of Emily St. John Mandel. The reality is quite different. MacInnes makes the bold choice of relegating this big, book-selling mystery to the background of the piece, focusing instead on the psychology and personal foibles of its characters. This in itself wouldn't be an issue if the characters were more compelling, but they are just so fragile and unstable that it simply doesn't ring true that such people would be chosen to go on such an important and delicate NASA mission. Add to this the unjustifiably glacial pacing, overly poetic language (eg: "Earth, the infinitesimally small star") and the frequent digressions into family history/traumas that adds little to the plot, and this just comes off as an unsatisfying read.

March - "Victory City" by Salman Rushdie

Now we're talking. Salman Rushdie's latest epic is a vast and ambitious tale of magical realism, following the life and legacy of a grief stricken young girl who is given the power to breathe an entire empire into existence, only to be consumed by it over the centuries.

The brilliance of Rushdie's work lies in how it captures the complexities of real society through its fantastical allegory. The tangled threads of politics and religion, the irascible nature of the many, and how the tendrils of history can be set by a person's actions. While the mechanics of this world may be far removed from our own, the depth and detail is such that you'll believe it's a real place (the faux non-fiction style helps), and that's pretty remarkable.

April - "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" by Gabrielle Zevin

Taking a break from new releases to catch up on one I missed from last year. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow was one of the hype novels from 2022, picked by many as the best book of the year. I can see what all the fuss was about.

This is a story spanning decades in the life of two game developers, their friendship, their creative endeavours, their romances. I went into this expecting some geeky references and a breezy romcom type story, but what's here exceeds that by far. This is multi-layered, superbly characterised, and always fresh, resisting the urge to fall into tropes. There's no drag in this novel, it keeps your attention riveted until the end. I can't recommend it highly enough.

May - "Biography of X" by Catherine Lacey

What starts off seeming like a nostalgic throwback to mid century glamour quickly develops into something of far greater ambition. This fictional biography of X, an iconoclastic artist and writer, ends up constructing an elaborate alternate history of the United States, as seen through the lense of its central premise. 

An absolutely fascinating piece of work that, for the first 75%, serves as a masterclass in worldbuilding, tracing the timeline of this familiar, but radically changed world, and how this affects our society and the cultural zeitgeist across the decades. If anything, it almost gets a bit too lost in its alternate history, under-developing the more personal narrative that runs through the life and career of its leading figure. This ultimately leads to an ending that sputters out to a degree once the (far more compelling) historical exploration run dry. Still an exemplary piece of writing. Thought provoking, clever, and embellished with a delightful attention to detail in its fictional bibliographies, photographs and source documents.

June - "Cuddy" by Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers is one of those writers that you either love or hate. To call him brilliant only tells half the story. Truly there are few authors out there who push the limits of the creative form in the way that he does, and Cuddy is a perfect example of this.

Myers' work tends to draw on local folklore and history. When done well (see last year's The Perfect Golden Circle) this can make for a delightful and charming viewpoint of bucolic Britain. Cuddy follows very much in this spirit. A retelling of the story of the hermit St. Cuthbert, unofficial patron saint of the North of England. Told in four distinct parts presenting a variety of viewpoints from different times and societal elements, but crucially all written in a completely different literary format. One part takes the form of an epic poem, another bursts into stream of consciousness. This is unfortunately part of the problem with this piece; different sections will appeal to different readers, and with such little continuity in narrative or style from one part to the next, it can be a challenge to stay engaged. While I generally like Myers' work, I struggled with this one. For me it is just too self-indulgent, too focused on the technical theory behind it, and not enough on what actually makes for a compelling story.

July - "The Ferryman" by Justin Cronin

This one was... almost a delight. Set on a seemingly idyllic island, founded by an elusive genius and isolated from the outside world. The Ferryman owes much to Ray Bradbury, as well as the dystopian science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. The island's citizenry enjoy long, fulfilling lives until the monitors in their arms detect that their psychological wellbeing drops below 10%, at which point they are ferried to an outside facility, where they are processed, reborn, and return to society fresh, memory wiped, and ready to start a new life. 

For the most part this works. The premise is intriguing and the writing is compelling from the start. This is mystery-box storytelling, but it's an example of it being done well. At least until the ending. I don't want to spoil anything, but it's a bit of a cop-out. Nevertheless, it's clear that the point of The Ferryman is not simply to solve the mystery. It's about loss and familial relationships, about power and institutional corruption. But when the framing device for these themes is such a compelling mystery, you can't help but be disappointed when the solution amounts to so little. This is nevertheless a thrilling and enjoyable ride, so we can begrudge it a slightly underwhelming conclusion.

August - "The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece" by Tom Hanks

I like Tom Hanks. Do you like Tom Hanks? Who doesn't like Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, the good folks at Knopf like him so much that they just didn't have the heart to edit his work. Hanks recently met with a positive reception for his work writing short stories, and TMoAMMPM was intended to be his big, awaited debut into longform fiction. It's not without its charm. 

TMoAMMPM is about the making of a movie, specifically an adaptation of a (fictional) graphic novel. Hanks wants you to see literally every aspect that goes into making a movie. Set across decades, we see the inspirations behind the graphic novel, explore the backstory and personal troubles of its writer. We see the studio execs, their thought processes, their compromises as the search for a commercial way to bring a product to screen. We see the Hollywood stars they cast, the scriptwriters who chop, change, subvert and combine the original source material with other works. We see how the sausage gets made, basically. Nothing wrong with that, but it drags. Unfortunately, much of this just isn't that interesting, and I say that as someone who is obsessed with the movie industry. There is so much unnecessary detail, so many characters introduced, their backstories explored in detail for no reason and then dropped. There's very little narrative drama or conflict. It's 450 pages, most of which are just random scenes being filmed, actors going into makeup, crew discussions. Someone needed to take a hatchet to this manuscript.

September - "The Wager" by David Grann

My word what an outstanding piece of work. The Wager is historical non-fiction, telling the true story of the HMS Wager, which shipwrecked in 1781. Several months later, a group of survivors return to Britain to be greeted as heroes. A further six months on, a second group of survivors return, accusing the first of mutiny and murder. David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, has pulled off something remarkable here. Taking us step by step through the ill-fated voyage, from its conception and preparation, to the first weeks of the mission, the ensuing shipwreck and establishment of a makeshift settlement. 

I am not a big non-fiction reader, but then I never imagined that non-fiction could be as gripping or as exciting as The Wager. The attention to detail, the psychological insight, the historical context. It's all impeccable and really brings the reader into the story. For a non-fiction novel to have characters who are so vivid and well-explored, a setting and narrative that is so immersive, is truly impressive. 

October - "Pushing Ice" by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is one of the best writers of hard science fiction in the business today. I was impressed enough from my reading of House of Suns last year that I decided to follow it up with another of his works, one that had been highly recommended to me.

Pushing Ice is set in a mid-21st Century where Humanity has started to expand into the Solar System. A mining crew is suddenly diverted on a secretive mission, after it transpires that Saturn's moon Janus has left orbit and is quickly leaving the Solar System. What follows is a dizzyingly big adventure that takes the reader to the edge of the universe and thousands of years into the future. The elements of this story may seem familiar, but what sets Reynolds' work apart from that of his peers is his commitment to hard science and the strikingly fresh interpretation he applies to just about every concept. A fine, memorable novel.

November - "The Bee Sting" by Paul Murray

I picked this one for November on the back of some rave reviews and a nomination for novel of the year in some quarters. Rarely have such accolades led so far astray. On the surface, The Bee Sting is a pastiche of a classic familial melodrama. Husband in financial difficulties, estranged wife, children each with their own set of growing pains and struggles. Each chapter follows one of the four main characters as their disparate threads slowly build and intertwine into an intense finale. 

There's nothing wrong with the general narrative here, but neither is it as fresh or essential as it tries to be. Certain sections are also clearly more interesting than others. The wife's chapters in particular, which occupy much of the mid-section of the book, seriously drag down the pace, with almost 200 pages written in non-stop stream of consciousness. That brings us on to the length. At almost 700 pages long, this novel is an absurd slog that is simply not justified by the content. So much character backstory is unnecessary, so much is repeated ad infinitum. So many good story-beats are then milked to death with a 100 page follow-up that adds nothing. Towards the end, the novel tries to work in a little bit of climate anxiety to try and a bit of substance, but it's just kind of there, and not at all integrated into the rest of the work. Every so often, you see a novel that gets praised for checking boxes, rather than for its success as a whole. I suspect this is one of those novels.

December - "Yellowface" by R.F. Kuang

And finally we have Yellowface, a first foray into literary fiction from R.F. Kuang, an author best known for her work in the fantasy genre. Yellowface focuses on two writers, more frenemies than friends. One is an overnight success, the toast of the literary scene. A queer, ethnic minority, and a genius to boot. She ticks all the right boxes to become a media icon and a celebrity. The other faces much more of a struggle, unremarkable in both her talent and her backstory. The first writer dies suddenly, leaving behind a manuscript for her next masterpiece. The second writer is the only person who knows of its existence, and publishes it under her own name.

What follows is a delicious and darkly comic satire of the publishing industry and of modern culture in general. It's a funny, clever and compelling story that always feels on the verge of falling apart, and it just keeps you glued to the page. Yellowface was recently named Goodreads' novel of the year, and it's definitely a good shout that I highly recommend.

So there it is. Twelve months in books. Can I keep it going another year? You bet, because reading is awesome.

Saturday 4 November 2023

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Joseph Fiennes
Theatre National/Prince Edward

dear england gareth southgate harry kane football world cup joseph fiennes james graham rupert goold national prince edward theatre best 2023

Of all the figures that one could have chosen from Britain's extensive pantheon of folk heroes, England manager Gareth Southgate might seem like an odd choice to make the subject of a theatrical production. 

Southgate was a prominent footballer of the 1990s, most notable for missing the penalty that cost England a place in the final of Euro 96. After many years of middle management in the national set up, he has more recently become known for his impressive work, in turning England into a respectable football team, including guiding the side to a first major tournament semi-final since 1996, and a first major tournament final since 1966.

But throughout his career, Southgate has shied away from the limelight. He's not the flashiest, nor the most charismatic. Even now, at his greatest prominence, the clear preference is to not be the focus of attention, deferring credit, instead, to the accomplishments of his players.

So the choice to create a major stage production about Southgate, before his tenure at England has even come to an end, no less, is an intriguing one. But then, that's what Dear England is about: challenging our preconceptions of leadership, of traditional masculinity. 

Penned by the great James Graham, acclaimed for his work in theatre and TV, which includes the productions This House, Ink, Quiz, and Best of Enemies. Dear England portraits Southgate as a reformer, a man who took the youthful trauma of his own playing career and used it as the basis for a new school of sports management, one that concerns itself as much with psychological conditioning as physical, and respects its athletes, not just as physical tools, but as flawed humans. In doing so, he comes up against the established order of old boys and the traditional image of stoic manliness.

But in classic Graham fashion, Dear England casts its gaze wider than just telling a dramatic sports story and looks at football's role as the national pastime. This madness and obsession that sweeps the nation every four years, that inspires such intense jubilation, as well as the deepest bile that society can muster.

The greatest compliment that I can pay Dear England is that if you don't "get" football, or why it inspires such passion, you will by the end of this play. I know this because I went to see the play with my wife, who cares not one whit about football, and is not even from this country. But by the end, she was so caught up in the drama and excitement that she wanted to cheer as its sporting events unfolded. While Dear England has a lot of worthwhile things to say, it is perhaps this that is the most impressive, that it does such a superlative job of capturing what makes this game into such an obsession, and inspires the emotions that so deeply weigh on both fan and player.

We've already discussed the writing, which ranks amongst James Graham's best work. It's clever and deeply funny stuff that does an impressive job of capturing all the dynamics around English football and coming up with a sort of "unifying theory" to explain England's fortunes on the pitch, and the change of mindset that has come in with Southgate. This is, of course, a heavily dramatised interpretation of events that streamlines and bends fact in order to make for a more satisfying narrative, and it is undeniably weird to portray this story as a beginning, middle and end to a career that is still ongoing. But it is undeniably effective, so long as you don't try to view this as a literal, factual telling of events.

Much of Dear England's success can also be attributed to the direction. Rupert Goold is, of course, one of England's great theatre directors. Current artistic director of the Almeida and former head of the Headlong company, whose credits are numerous and brilliant. There's a flamboyance and boldness to the production, which incorporates music, singalongs, and big spectacle to drive home the scale of its themes, but Goold also knows when to go intimate. Those moments of vulnerability with the cast are some of the highlights of the show.

Massive credit needs to go to the cast. The lead, Joseph Fiennes, is brilliant. His transformation into Southgate borders on uncanny, right down to the mannerisms, the twitchiness, his manner of speaking. The likeness is really quite astonishing. Yet it never feels like imitation or parody. Fiennes captures the man's awkwardness, his insecurities, but also his sincerity and almost accidental charm. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Will Close as Harry Kane, Gunnar Cauthery as Gary Lineker, Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford. They all do a truly remarkable job of capturing the likeness of their subject in a way that always feels sincere, with performances that blend comedy with drama effectively.

There are pacing issues here. The second act is noticeably less actionpacked than the first, not helped by the fact that real life simply hasn't lent itself to a particularly satisfying ending. It's clear that the focus has been on the early days of Southgate's tenure, with most of the supporting cast built around that first core of players, and fewer of the newer squad included. This does have the effect of limiting the scope for character drama in these later tournaments.

Dear England is a wonderful play. If you love football and theatre, then this is a dream combination of the two. But even if you don't care about the sport, this is superlative work that will keep you hooked. I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Developed by Bethesda
Published by Bethesda
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC, Xbox

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In a year that is already historically stacked with notable videogame releases, the release of a new Bethesda RPG still stands out as an event of particular significance. Over the past three decades, Bethesda have developed some of the most celebrated games in the industry, including the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, the most recent release of which, Skyrim, is commonly viewed as a landmark title in the open world RPG genre. Bethesda have drawn their fair share of flak over the years for controversial DLC policies and notoriously buggy releases, but there are few things in gaming that can match the experience of diving into one of their immersive worlds for the first time.

Their latest title, Starfield, marks a significant moment in the studio's history. This is the first game developed since the studio's buyout by Microsoft. It's the first completely original IP developed by the studio in twenty five years. It might also be their most ambitious title yet. The idea behind Starfield has apparently been percolating in the mind of director Todd Howard for decades, but until now the technology hasn't existed to make it reality. Having spent some time playing with the game now, I would argue that it still doesn't, but we will come back to that later.

Starfield is set in our world, a few hundred years in the future when mankind has developed the technology to travel the stars. A catastrophic event has rendered the Earth uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity are spread over a sector of space comprising of some 100 stars, collectively known as the Settled Systems. The balance of power is split between three primary nations. There's the United Colonies, essentially your classic vision of utopian future Humans, heavily influenced in aesthetics by the real life United Nations and the Federation from Star Trek. There's the Freestar Collective, a rival confederation of libertarian-minded systems that runs the gamut from neo-noir cyberpunk corpo cities to wild west frontier towns. Finally there's the mysterious House Va'ruun, a reclusive faction of religious fanatics that has ceased contact with the other two factions (think of them as space-Slytherin). Then we have a variety of secondary factions, including corporations, mercenary groups and pirates, all vying for influence and power.

As always, players create their own character. This system has seen some significant improvement from previous Bethesda games. The physical sliders are more detailed and allow for some very impressive fine tuning of appearance. In all my years of playing these games, I think Starfield was the first time I felt I ended up with a character that actually looks something like me. 

Once designed, players choose a backstory and "traits". The backstory allows for some fairly interesting character design, as disparate as industrialist, chef, club bouncer, etc, and each come with their own skill perks. The traits allow for some pretty cool gameplay modifiers. These might include affiliation with a particular faction or religion. The more interesting ones include a trait to add your parents to the game, who will provide you with gifts and flavour in exchange for sending some of your credits to them each month. Another adds a "dream home" on a peaceful planet, in exchange for a steep mortgage you need to pay off. These are pretty neat and have had a surprising amount of thought put into their implementation. For example, I was surprised at just how frequently my parents popped up during the story in various places, and that was quite humorous and enjoyable. 

I am pleased to see that Starfield makes greater use of your character background and perks in gameplay, unlocking additional dialogue options in quests. This was a major complaint against Fallout 4 compared to Skyrim and New Vegas, and it's great to see them making better use of these RPG mechanics once again.

At the same time, there were moments where some fairly obvious implementation has not been done. For example, you can get married in this game, yet your parents don't show up to that. The game bizarrely also starts with your character working as a miner, a decision which seems oddly incongruent with the ability to choose a different character background. Why is my famous chef/diplomat/cyberneticist working as a miner? Skyrim and Fallout cleverly avoid this issue by leaving your character's starting background ambiguous, it is strange that they did not do the same here.

The general gameplay loop of Starfield will be very familiar to those who have played any of Bethesda's previous titles. Players design their character, assign a few starting skills and traits. You explore the Settled Systems, taking on a series of quests that vary in scope from substantial ongoing questlines, to one-off side quests and random tasks. Along the way, you encounter various populated "hub" cities, colourful characters some of whom can be recruited, and plenty of out-of-the-way locations that may not relate directly to a quest,  but provide the immersive environmental storytelling for which Bethesda is known. Players will acquire and upgrade their gear and weaponry, rank up their skills and perks, and craft all manner of items. The settlement mechanic has been brought over from Fallout 4, and now players can also design their own spaceships using a similar system.

The general gameplay mechanics work well enough. The running and shooting all feels nice and crisp, probably the best it has done in a Bethesda game to date. The addition of jump-packs to blast around in the middle of a combat situation is also a lot of fun. 

So far, it all sounds like a standard evolution of the tried and tested Bethesda formula. But as we will see, it differs in some pretty significant ways. The core evolution in the Bethesda formula this time is that rather than one big open game world, you have an entire sector of space to explore. 120 systems, 1000 planets, all fully explorable. This is achieved through a combination of hand-crafted locations and procedural generation. 

Space itself is not explorable as an open world, so practically what this means is players fast travel from planet to planet, exploring a narrow slither of space around the planet, and then landing on the surface. Players can land anywhere on the surface. Technically the entire planet is explorable, but not as a single contiguous space. Rather the game divides each planet into a grid of "instances". When you land on the surface you enter one such instance. That instance is populated with procedurally generated geometry, resources, biomes, flora and fauna and other points of interest. But you can't walk from one instance into the next, you need to go back to your ship and land in a different spot. 

Ostensibly, this breaks the illusion of a galaxy of fully explorable planets, but in truth the instances are each so big that you will never notice the limitation unless you go deliberately looking for it. In my entire playtime, I never had a situation where I reached the explorable boundary of an instance. 

Partly, this is because there just isn't much reason to explore so much of any specific instance. Starfield adds an exploration system, which allows players to scan minerals, flora/fauna, and other points of interest in order to survey a planet. You get experience points for this, and you can build outposts to harvest the resources (more on that later). You can scan everything in a particular biome without having to explore too much in any single instance, after which there just isn't really any reason to explore further, other than for the view. 

Fortunately, the view is often worth the trip. Starfield is generally quite a pretty game, and the world engine does a good job of creating memorable locations, from hazy jungles, to ragged mountain ranges and windswept beaches. Standing on an alien coastline on some moon, looking up a gas giant setting over the horizon... it's quite a sight, and it's impressive how often I felt the need to just stop and take in my surroundings. 

The procedural generation system also puts down various points of interest in these instances: factories, outposts and the like. It does a serviceable enough job of creating these, but since they are procedural they rarely have much that is worth going out of your way to explore. Some of these generated points of interest contain some quite nice environmental storytelling (in classic Bethesda fashion), or a few generic interactive NPCs with generic, procedurally generated quests, but you'll find they quickly repeat themselves and after the first few you'll probably just start ignoring them. It adds nice flavour and spices up the exploration gameplay, but it's not hugely substantive on its own.

Of course, there are also hand-crafted random encounters that are not procedurally generated, and some of these can be pretty fantastic. Memorable encounters I've had include running into a ship captain singing delightful sea-shanties, another included a colorful lady calling herself "grandma" who invited me aboard for a meal. Stuff like this makes the universe feel alive, but there could be more of it.

So while, yes, technically you can explore an entire planet, there is rarely any practical reason to explore more than the small area around your landing site. This has the benefit that the technical limitations of the game engine don't really end up mattering much, but at the same time it does make the selling point of all that exploration seem a little superfluous. More a tagline than something substantial.

Ultimately, most players are probably just going to be going from one of the hand-crafted quest locations to the next. Which is fine, but it takes much of the openness out of the game and arguably turns Starfield's biggest selling point into a weakness. In Skyrim or Fallout 4, by contrast, a player could simply pick a direction, explore, and know that they'll find something interesting, hand-crafted, and usually with some substantial story, character or quest attached to it. In Starfield, that isn't the case. You can aimlessly explore on a planet's surface, but you won't find much there aside from nature to scan, and the occasional point of interest. Most substantial content is essentially reached by fast travel. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it's just a departure from other Bethesda titles. Personally, as a fan of sci-fi and space exploration, I did enjoy this system and exploring just for the sake of exploring, but I can understand some longtime fans feeling that Starfield exploration lacks a bit of something as a result.

With respect to the more story-focused, hand-crafted content, this is generally quite good. Aesthetically, the world of Starfield is rendered in a delightfully fresh "NASA-punk" style. It's futuristic enough to look convincing, but still grounded in the chunky, functional realworld tech that we use to get into space today. This helps the world feel real and like a genuine continuation of our world. It also just looks really cool.

But the aesthetic is weirdly inconsistent and incongruent within itself. There's no real explanation for why humanity would build some cities with a ultra-shiny Star Trek aesthetic, others like a wild-west cowboy town, and others still as a super gritty cyberpunk city. In the real world, different locations have wildly different aesthetics due to disparate cultures developing separately over thousands of years. There's no real reason why this would have happened in the world of Starfield. It provides nice variety to the game world, but doesn't really make much sense.

It's a small gripe, but I also feel the "destroyed Earth" trope is a bit tired. It's usually implemented in games for the wrong reasons, rather than because it actually makes sense or adds anything to the story. In this case, the reasons behind it are limitations in technology and imagination. It's pretty apparent that the only reason they contrived the destruction of Earth was so that they didn't have to choose between a fully explorable, populated Earth, and having to compromise on that "fully explorable" tagline. In this case it was probably the wrong choice. A barren, sand-covered Earth doesn't really make much sense. Even if the planet was destroyed, the ruins of those cities would still be there after just a few hundred years, and the story-reasons behind the destruction also come off as somewhat lazy and contrived. It would have been trivially easy to simply make Earth one planet that either couldn't be landed on, or with only certain specific locations to visit, and players would have understood the reasons for it.

The quests are pretty fun and contain a nice amount of variety, from more combat focused military ventures to corporate espionage and diplomatic missions. There's a pretty decent quantity of quests as well. One of my main complaints with Fallout 4 was how few quests there were in the game compared to Skyrim. While Starfield certainly doesn't match the volume of quest that there were in Skyrim, there is still more here than in Fallout 4. Particularly in the early stages of the game, it sometimes feels overwhelming, like you can't go for a walk without stumbling onto some new quest.

If there is one major problem with the various quest lines it's that they never seem to have any consequences. One of the hallmarks of Bethesda games is that players make decisions in resolving quests, and those decisions have long-lasting effects on the game world. In Fallout 3, your choices could result in entire cities being destroyed. In New Vegas your choices would turn certain factions against you and shut off their questlines. In Starfield this is often glaringly absent. You can complete the pirate questline, and in doing so stage a massive attack against the United Colonies, and then straight afterwards you can play the entire UC questline with ostensibly no blow-back from your earlier actions. It's quite disappointing. To be clear, this is not always the case. There are some quests where your choices manifest themselves quite nicely in the wider world, but far too often there's just nothing acknowledging or referencing what should be fairly major developments.

At this point it's worth also mentioning the modding community. One of the main attractions of a Bethesda game is how moddable it is, and how the fanmade modding community is so active. Fifteen years later, and Skyrim is still receiving worthwhile new content from fans. New characters, quests, worlds and adventures. Starfield, more than any other game to date, feels like a game that was designed with modding in mind, with its extraordinary amount of empty space just begging to be filled with content. I can't wait to see what fans will come up with in the years to come.

One thing that is still affected by your decisions is your relationship with the game's various characters and companions. This "affinity" system is something carried over from Fallout 4 and was quite a big advancement at the time for Bethesda. In older games (including the widely praised Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas) companions really didn't have much depth to them. Sometimes they came with a quest, or a particular perk, but that was it. Fallout 4 changed that, by introducing a system whereby your relationship would progress over time depending on your actions, dialogue, and the amount of time spent with the character. This affinity system is implemented again in Starfield. Unfortunately, the companion system as a whole is one area which seems to have inexplicably taken a big step back. 

Fallout 4 had some fourteen interactive companions with a fully implemented affinity system. They would react to your actions, provide new dialogue and story as time went on, as well as new quests and companion perks. Starfield, incredibly, only has four. To be clear there are some twenty companions in Starfield in total, but for whatever reason, only four of them have affinity systems implemented. The other sixteen are a throwback to the bad old days of older Bethesda titles, with little progression, no quests or perks, and only minimal story content. Companions, in general, are also just much less interactive than they were in Fallout 4. In that title, you could speak to them, give them commands or instructions, ask for feedback. There's much less of that in Starfield. You can trade with them, or discuss the same handful of conversation topics, but that's it. This is a huge disappointment, and it's hard to understand why they did it this way.

It's also worth mentioning the writing. The writing in Bethesda games is generally decent... no Bioware, but better than most. The storylines are mostly pretty good and the dialogue ranges from serviceable to quite excellent. One area they have always been pretty weak on is in writing romance dialogue, and that is especially the case here. It's awful, it's cringy, and often out of character for the person involved. 

The world of Starfield, in general, strikes a bit of an odd balance of whether it wants to take itself seriously or not. This isn't Fallout, and yet the writers often inject satire and comic book levels of exaggeration as if it were, while other times keeping things pretty straight. You can tell these writers had previously worked on that series, and it often feels like they aren't quite sure what identity they want to create for this new franchise. In my view, Starfield's writing is at its best when it leans more heavily into high-concept sci-fi setting, with quests featuring things like alternate universes, quantum physics and genetic engineering. This is where the game truly finds its own voice and stands out from Bethesda's other work.

Without spoiling too much, it's also worth mentioning the new game plus. New game plus is a common mechanic in videogames which allows you to start a new game, while carrying forward certain benefits from your first playthrough, such as XP/levels. Starfield does something very clever that I've not seen before in a game, and makes new game plus an actual continuation of the story. Without spoiling the story specifics, this takes the narrative into some remarkably effective metafictional directions about player choice and the morality of the game's central characters. They've even taken it a step further by including various narrative and quest variations in new game plus that allows you to use your knowledge from the first playthrough to achieve different outcomes. Some rare new game plus variants also result in some drastically different (and often hilarious) shake ups of the setting and characters. It's all very clever, the problem is that not everyone likes the idea of a new game plus, or replaying games more than once. By hiding ostensibly "new" content behind this mode, it almost makes it a necessary expansion of the experience rather than an optional choice for players who are so inclined. I can see this annoying some players.

The last significant gameplay mechanic to discuss is the crafting/building side of things. Weapon and spacesuit crafting is basically what you would expect from previous Bethesda titles, although many components are locked behind perks and research projects (unlockable at the new research station). 

The outpost building system is similar to Fallout 4's settlements. On the one hand, it's a less restrictive system in that outposts can be built anywhere, as compared to the preset settlement locations in Fallout 4. On the other hand, the outpost components themselves are much fewer and more restrictive than in Fallout. I suppose this has the benefit that outposts all fit within a consistent NASA-punk aesthetic, but it can be frustrating when things don't work as intended. Building on uneven terrain can be a pain, and sometimes habitats simply refuse to click together for no discernible reason. The furniture options are also something of a mixed bag. This is one of the areas that I look forward to seeing modders expand.

Where this system differs from Fallout 4's settlements is in its purpose. Fallout 4's post apocalyptic setting is one where survival is the main goal. Accordingly, the settlement system was built around providing access to food, clean water, and security. Random settlers from around the Commonwealth would seek safety in your settlements, and your goal would be to provide their needs and raise their happiness levels. Almost like a mini "Sims" style game. In Starfield, there are no randomly generated settlers. You can only assign your companions to outposts (and they will have skills that boost the output of the outpost). There is no happiness to raise, no resources to provide. Rather, the system's sole purpose (other than roleplaying and building something cool) appears to be for harvesting crafting materials. The problem is, there really is no need for this. Basically all crafting materials can be purchased easily and cheaply from the hub cities. It is pretty fun building up supply chains and linking outposts to build more advanced and complex materials, but there really is no purpose behind them. You can't make any real money selling the materials, and there's no need for high quantities of any single item. The outpost system sadly is a bit under-baked, a cool feature that hasn't figured out a reason to exist.

Then there are the spaceships, which can be built by sticking modules together similar to the outpost system. This is very cool, and allows players to build some very unique and creative looking ships. There is a very special pleasure enjoyed by walking around the inside of a spaceship you designed yourself, and it's a brilliant addition. As with the outpost system, this can be a bit janky and temperamental. Currently there is also no way to choose where to place connections between modules (hallways and ladders), which is quite an oversight and can result in some bizarre, labyrinthine spaceship layouts. 

Lastly, let's talk about the bugs. Bethesda games are known for being buggy, and Starfield is no exception. That said, Starfield is probably the most stable of the company's releases. I did encounter an occasional crash to desktop, but these were much rarer than in past titles. I also encountered far less stuttering, frame-rate issues and general lag compared to older Bethesda titles. The bugs that do exist in Starfield tend to be more annoying than game-breaking. Things like companions not properly equipping the items you give them, HUD bugs, the occasional quest logic error. I noted a number of bugs relating to the companions. Sometimes they would just vanish from the crew list, or become non-interactive. Most of the time, this was fixable, but in one case this seems to have affected one of my companions permanently, which still hasn't been patched. The worst bug I encountered takes place (with 100% frequency) after a certain story quest that takes place in a main hub city, and resets all of the player housing in that city - any furniture, items, etc you left in that place, just gone. Amazing that this still hasn't been patched.

So in the end Starfield is a bit of a flawed gem. Some design elements have seen considerable improvement from previous Bethesda titles, while others have inexplicably taken a step backwards. Some elements have clearly not been thought out and either serve little or no purpose. What's here is often excellent, but equally often superficial and lacking in depth.  For its flaws, Starfield does create an immersive and absorbing new universe, filled with interesting lore, characters and environments. It manages to deliver a grand adventure with a sufficient (if not consistent) sense of player agency. This is still an experience full of that classic Bethesda magic, just begging to be explored. 

I think, ultimately, how you feel about Starfield will depend on how much you connect with the core concept. If you have always wanted to design your own spaceship, blast off into the unknown and see what you find, you'll enjoy this. If you like a good, high concept space opera with cinematic storytelling and thought provoking ideas, you'll enjoy this. Starfield is a very good game that often buckles under the weight of its ambition, but lays the groundwork for something that, be it through DLC or mods, could yet be expanded into something truly great.

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