With 2022 around the corner, this seems like the time to reflect on the things that helped us or brought us joy in 2021. The following is a list of my favorite apps, books, music, podcasts, TV, and video games from the last year, including many that I would recommend to others. The categories for this list are taken from Jesse J. Anderson’s Extra Focus newsletter, but the selections are my own.
- FitOn. I’m a strong believer in the idea that staying physically healthy is important to nourishing creativity and focus. FitOn was my favorite app for working out at home throughout the pandemic. It’s got a pretty extensive collection of yoga, strength training, and cardio workouts, and it can build a “routine” for you based on your fitness goals. The paid version adds popular music to the background of the workouts, but you can’t control what tracks play so it’s more like a radio add-on.
- Insight Timer. I’ve tried several guided meditations apps, but often the features you want most are behind a paywall or embedded with ads (which makes sense—content and apps take time and money to create). Insight Timer works on a model similar to YouTube: the content is creator-uploaded and users can donate to creators. Whether you’re looking to relax or fall asleep or become more mindful and aware, chances are you’ll find it here.
- A World Undone by G.J. Meyer. I think this book would appeal to readers of military history as well as European history. The author did an amazing job of providing an overview and the context for the conflict while also entertaining. (The author didn’t quite reach Barbara Tuchman levels of snarky interjections, but there was plenty of dark humor.) I think this book would also be valuable to Call of Cthulhu Keepers and players of Arkham Horror games, as it gives a sense of what was lost and just how much changed in the decade preceding the 1920s.
- The Plantagenets by Dan Jones. The more that I read about medieval society and history, the more it strikes me just how fantastical most “Western medieval fantasy” settings are. Twenty-first-century readers take kingly authority and the rule of law for granted, but those things were still developing in England during the medieval period. If you want inspiration for your fantasy RPG campaigns, this book along with A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman will provide you with endless ideas.
- Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner. This book is an amazing resource for horror writers, but the lessons contained here would be useful for any game master running games with a horror element. Horror is more than just monsters and murderers and grungy locations, and Waggoner gives a lot of great advice on exploiting a reader’s/player’s fear of the unknown and loss of control.
- My 2021 Top Songs (Spotify). More or less, these songs comprised my writing and working playlist for the year. If you enjoy chill, ambient, and soundtrack genres, maybe you’ll discover some new gems.
- JVNA (Spotify). JVNA is an artist who’s been on my radar for a while thanks to my appreciation of EDM as well as cover songs of anime themes. Turns out she’s a DJ as well as a singer-songwriter (her debut album just dropped), so you owe it to yourself to check her out. Some of my favorite tracks of hers include Breakdown, Where You Are, Unravel Glassy Sky, and Dearly Beloved Sweater Weather. Also she’s going on tour in 2022, and I’m really excited to see her live.
- Tenet (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Spotify). This album deserves a special shout-out because of how many times I listened to it on repeat. I’m a big Hans Zimmer fan (Blade Runner 2049 is one of my favorite movie soundtracks), and Zimmer’s protégé Ludwig Göransson did a great job with this soundtrack while Zimmer was busy composing for Dune.
- Relax Rewind Release. Before I found Insight Timer, I’d been listening to Relax Rewind Release using my music app’s sleep timer. The podcast has a good variety of guided meditations and a high level of production quality for being free.
- Coffee Break French. My husband and I are looking forward to visiting Europe in 2022 (fingers crossed), so 2021 seemed like a good time to brush up on my French language studies, which I haven’t touched since high school. These free podcasts are structured around you hearing and repeating back the phrases to practice comprehension and pronunciation. The Coffee Break series also has Spanish, German, Chinese, and other language podcasts.
- Broadchurch S1. Apparently I’ve been sleeping on this gem of a show since it came out in 2013. It’s got David Tennant and Olivia Coleman as leads, and the mystery and acting are top-notch. I would recommend this show to basically anyone who enjoys long-form TV, but be warned that it does deal with difficult topics, including harm to children. It’s not on any streaming services that I had access to, but I was able to get the DVDs from my local library.
- The Witcher S2. (Netflix) This season was even better than the first in my opinion. The characterization is great, and I really liked seeing Ciri come into her own. You probably already know if you like The Witcher, and the latest episodes did not disappoint.
- North and South. The BBC 2004 mini-series is like Pride and Prejudice but with more class struggle and commentary on capitalism and labor, and it’s because of these additional dimensions that I think I like it more than any of the P&P adaptations. This is another one I had to borrow from my local library.
- Hearts of Iron IV. (PC) Count this one as a problematic fave. This is the WW2 entry of the grand strategy games by Paradox, which includes Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Victoria. I mainly enjoy these games for the alternative history component: what if Japan had gone Democratic in the late 1930s? What if Turkey went communist, or the Romanovs had returned to take back Russia from the Soviets? The game has served as a springboard for learning more about the period, but I don’t think it goes far enough to get players thinking critically about what the various playable states are doing from a human rights perspective.
- Trials of Mana. (PS4) This was a serious nostalgia bomb after having played Seiken Densetsu 3 as a teen. This did for JRPGs what Dragon Age: Origins did for CRPGs, in my opinion. You can play through six different characters’ origin stories, all of which feed into the overarching plot, but you can only select three to comprise your party and the game’s ending depends on which main character you chose. I thought the dev team did a great job updating the gameplay to evoke the SNES game’s action but with a level of complexity suitable for modern consoles. It’s a huge shame that this game didn’t ship with couch co-op, which could have made this classic a must-buy JRPG for this generation of consoles.
- World of Warcraft Classic. (PC) Another problematic fave. In the beginning months of 2021, before we had access to vaccines, MMOs were an appealing way of staying connected to friends virtually. It was fascinating to revisit the game after fifteen years, this time with a background in narrative and game design. I could finally appreciate the work put in by the quest designers, as well as the care taken by the writers to evolve the metaplot of the various zones and factions. After the state of California brought its lawsuit against Activision-Blizzard, however, I chose to cancel my subscription.