Friday, December 01, 2017

Top 10 Video Games of 2017

Well, it's that time of year again. Time for me to look back at the games I played over the last year and try to whittle them down to the 10 that stood out to me the most. As is my usual MO, I'll begin by stressing that these are my personal favorites of the year. I'm not saying I'm right. I'm not saying you're wrong. You may agree. You may disagree. I'm just here to give props to the people who put in some incredible work to entertain my dorky self. 

This year was a little tougher for me when it came to choosing 10 because a lot of my gaming time was spent on games that didn't come out in 2017 (and, according to the rules I have set for myself, disqualifies them from appearing on the final list). Not only did I spend time re-visiting some of my favorites from years past (The Wolf Among Us), I also invested a large number of hours in games I haven't been able to put down since first picking them up (Overwatch, LEGO Dimensions).

Before I begin the list, I'd like to give props to the games that almost made it into the Top 10. Sniper Elite 4 was just as much head-asplodin' fun as I hoped it would be, Persona 5 probably would have made it if I'd been able to finish it (I forgot to mention that even though I love video games, I'm not very good at them), LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2 is the massive sandbox I'd heard it was going to be (in a good way), and even though I didn't play the first one The Evil Within 2 still drew me in and kept me on the edge of my seat.

NOTE: Although my list is numbered, it's not in a specific order, but is instead an attempt to keep my jumbled thoughts organized. If it's on the list, it's a favorite, and #10 comes just as highly recommended as #1. So yeah. Just get 'em all and you'll be good.

OK, here we go...


10. WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH

If you know me, you know how important storytelling is, and if you played What Remains of Edith Finch, then you know why it's on the list. More than just the heart-breaking analysis of the Finch family tree, this game stands out for how the story unfolds.

Told in a non-linear style that makes the player fill in the gaps and put the pieces together on their own, it's a smart game that refuses to spoon feed. The writers are particularly skilled at creating suspense by allowing the story to unfold exactly how you expect one moment (that moment on the swing!), how you least expect the next, and then letting you think you know how it's going to unfold (I was convinced I was going to slice off my hand in the fish cannery) and letting you dangle in excruciating anticipation.

Special kudos goes out to the talented Valerie Rose Lohman who voices the main character in a wonderful performance that very easily could have veered into the melodramatic but instead balances out the fantastic with realism, grounding it all and adding a sorrowful truthfulness to the proceedings.

9. THE WALKING DEAD: A NEW FRONTIER

Considering how long Telltale Games has been cranking out titles in The Walking Dead franchise, there's really no excuse for the stories to have remained as good as they are. The series doesn't seem to be getting the buzz it once did, but that's through no fault of the storytellers. The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is another stellar addition to the collection and the writers continue to hammer out compelling stories that do exactly what the cliffhanger ending of each episode is supposed to do: Leave your palms sweating at what just transpired and eager to get to the next chapter.

In A New Frontier we're introduced to Javier and his family, a new set of characters that struggles with the line between right and wrong and explores what happens when loved ones end up on opposite sides.  

I was especially impressed with the writing staff in this go-around because nothing is sacred. The heroine Clementine, whom we've grown to know and love throughout each iteration, is growing up and her choices aren't always the most heroic. I love that she does things I don't agree with and there's something oddly commendable about her good guy white hat gradually becoming grayer and grayer.

8. SOUTH PARK: PHONE DESTROYER

I've tried Gwent. I've tried Hearthstone. I've never been able to connect to a card playing, PVP game much to the chagrin of my card-playing, PVP game-loving friends.

I thought nothing could distract me from my other mobile game staples like Ballz, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff, and The Simpsons: Tapped Out...but then along came ManBearPig and company and I. Am. Hooked. 

South Park: Phone Destroyer, to me at least, doesn't seem incredibly different from its competitors on paper, but once you add these so-wrong-they're-hilarious Coloradans into the equation, you have my attention.

Yes, there was a bit of a learning curve, mostly because this isn't the genre of game I excel at, but my enjoyment helped me stick with it, despite one four-hour stretch early on where I didn't win a single PVP match. Normally I would declare enough is enough and set the game aside but this time around was different. I finally figured out what I needed to be doing, regrouped, and came back a bit stronger and wiser. I still lose a good percentage of the time, but I'm having way too much fun while I'm losing to care.

7. DISHONORED: DEATH OF THE OUTSIDER


Speaking of not being very good at games, I'm horrible at stealth games. Like really, really bad. I can sneak up on a guy and choke him out and feel all successful and ninja-y for a few seconds, but eventually it's all going to go horribly wrong, usually sooner rather than later. I push a wrong button, I get spotted and panic, and before you know it, it's a free-for-all. Swords are swinging, guns are firing at nothing, and I'm sprinting headfirst into walls.

Because of that reason, I really shouldn't have enjoyed Dishonored: Death of the Outsider as much as I did. Sure, you can go in guns blazing if you'd like, but as bad as I am at stealth, I'm even worse at handling blazing guns. This game is so much fun, though, even trying to be stealthy is a heck of a good time. No matter how slowly I crept, how much time I spent planning an exit strategy, I knew it would go sour and I also knew I'd be failing with a big stupid grin on my face.

I've enjoyed each installment in the Dishonored series and once again Bethesda managed to one-up themselves. Introducing some clever and fun mechanics into the gameplay I was already familiar with injected the entire experience with a shot of adrenaline and kept me on my toes. With a huge variety of secrets and challenges to find and play through on each level, there's plenty of replay value to be had. And trust me, it will be had.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Top 10 Video Games of 2016

Looking over my list of my favorite video games of 2016, one thing is clear: It's been a great year for storytelling.

I'm so glad voice actors garnered some long-overdue time in the spotlight and kudos to those supporting them by using #PerformanceMatters in their social media posts. Because I'm drawn more to story-driven material, it goes without saying that my list would be very different without the talents of some incredible actors behind the mic (except for a couple, but we'll get to that later)

As important as I believe it is to continue to shine a light on the #PerformanceMatters movement, I definitely don't want to take away from the rest of the team who toiled hard behind the scenes to bring us a lot of really incredible moments in gaming: Directors, artists, writers, developers...everyone whose name is included in the final scroll of the end credits. 

Choosing my ten favorite games of the year was actually a fairly easy task. The ones that stood out to me really stood out (apologies to Far Cry Primal, an amazing game that just narrowly got edged out), but as far as ranking them from best to worst...I don't wanna do that. They're all incredible works and all of them deserve a place on your shelf/hard drive. That being said, I'll be listing them not in order of least-favorite to favorite but instead very simply the order in which I played them. Also note I'll only be including games that were released in 2016 (you know...since it's the Top 10 of 2016).

I went into Oxenfree not really knowing what to expect, and I believe that's the absolute best way to go into it. If Telltale gave birth to the Duffer Brothers, they may have made a game like this (Yes, I'm aware a video game company can't give birth to humans. Work with me).

A well-written script is brought to life by an outstanding cast of voice actors (prepare to hear that phrase a lot as you read through this list) and you can't help be drawn in as you join the motley crew of explorers as they try to figure out just what in the world is happening.

A mysterious island. Secret experiments. LOST-like hints that take their wonderful time revealing to what it is they're pointing. What are we dealing with here? Aliens? Ghosts? Science gone wrong? Never have I enjoyed being so confused so much.


UNRAVEL

The first of two games I alluded to in my intro that managed to move me without a single word being spoken aloud, I'm not ashamed to admit Unravel gave me more warm fuzzies than a bucket of cute kittens watching YouTube videos of even cuter kittens. You wouldn't know it from my super-tough exterior (I'm writing this smack in the middle of No-Shave November, and my beard has given me an overblown dose of machismo), but I can be a pretty sentimental guy and this one got me right in the gut.

Beautifully animated, the adventures of Yarny are a gorgeous metaphor for the memories we hold dear and how easily they can, well... unravel with age. Each level is a quest for a memento that triggers thoughts of an earlier, simpler time, slowly filling the empty pages of a photo album as we go. The visuals of the game are presented in a filter that encapsulates nostalgia in a way that would make Instagram jealous.

Simply put, it's wonderful. Prepare to say "Awwww." A lot.

THE WALKNG DEAD: MICHONNE

There's a reason TellTale games keep popping up on my end-of-year lists: Plain and simple, they make really good games. 

Although I've been quite vocal about finally giving up on the TV show that's certainly not the case when it comes to The Walking Dead series put out by what I consider to be the Pixar of video game studios and The Walking Dead: Michonne did not disappoint.

TellTale has an amazing group of voice actors they - for good reason - continue to invite back to the party and this time around is no different. Director Kent Mudle perfectly blends the talents made available to his hands and he manipulates them with impressive dexterity, much like a puppeteer making an impossibly-complicated marionette spring to live with a natural ease.

As in the source material, what poses the highest threat of danger isn't the legions of undead lumbering through the landscape, but those still alive trying their darndest to stay that way. Cissy Jones steps behind the mic to breathe life into Norma, one of the baddest baddies you'll love to hate, and she seems more than eager to dole out the consequences coming your way based on choices you make.

If you only know Michonne from the television show, you'll be pleased to witness how the writers have chosen to present her backstory. We're jarringly thrust into flashbacks when we least see them coming; painful, heart-wrenching glimpses into what haunts her waking hours that make the walking dead seem like a walk in the park.


If you're a story junkie like myself, Quantum Break is your Disneyland and I had a blast running through the park. A game experience like none I've ever witnessed, the game makers have pacing down to an art form. It's like they understand how, after a particularly stressful boss battle, I need a bit of downtime to get my heart rate back down to normal, and I'm rewarded after each chapter with a live action mini-movie (each episode has a running time of about 25 minutes).

I was genuinely surprised by the number of people who complained about this alternate approach to cut scenes and I sincerely appreciated how Remedy Entertainment broke out of the box to give me a unique adventure. Even more impressive was the replayability of the game and watching how the live action sequences changed slightly depending on different choices I made during my gameplay. I appreciated the hard work and multiple storylines the writers had to balance while at the same time moving things along in an exciting way.

The production value is quite impressive and never did I feel like I was watching a video game but instead this was a full-blown big-budget Hollywood production. Special kudos to the stellar cast, highlighted by the likes of Shawn Ashmore, Lance Hendrick, Aidan Gillen, Patrick Heusinger, and Courtney Hope just to name a few.

For as long as I can remember I've wondered what it would be like to find myself as the hero in my own action/adventure. Quantum Break made it happen.

UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF'S END

This is the game that will no doubt be at the top of most Best of the Year lists, and for very good reason. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End blew me away at every turn with its stunning visuals, clever writing, and thrilling gameplay. Nathan Drake, one of my favorite protagonists since Han Solo smirked his way onto the screen, once again finds himself in over his head and soon danger lurks at every turn.

Unlike our favorite Star Wars scoundrel, though, the writers do an incredible job of adding weight to the proceedings. Each of the relationships Nathan holds closest to his heart are jeopardized in one way or another and some of my favorite moments in the game didn't come during a thrilling mountainside jeep chase scene, a stunningly beautiful puzzle inside the workings of an old clock tower, or during a nail-biting final flame-surrounded pirate-y duel. Instead, it was the quieter moments that stuck with me. An awkward conversation on a couch. A heartbreaking revelation in the jungle. A phone call with a loved one that's more lie than truth.

Naughty Dog marvelously weaves all of this together into one seamless adventure that consistently caught me by surprise time and time again. When it comes to this game, my only regret is that I'll never be able to experience it for the first time again.

BATMAN: A TELLTALE SERIES


I realize I'm jumping the gun on this one, but I've learned to have faith in the Telltale team. The game isn't actually completely released yet (they just released episode 4 of 5 but since it's halfway over I've decided to put this one on 2016's list instead of saving it for next year) but so far the journey has been incredible.

When I first heard that Batman: A Telltale Series was going to focus more on Bruce Wayne as opposed to his Dark Knight alter ego, I admit to being slightly non-plussed. "Oh cool, what am I gonna do, sit in my manor by the fireplace taking inventory of my priceless Japanese sculptures and Mayan artifacts?"

But as Roland the gunslinger might say, I'd forgotten the face of my father. This is Telltale we're talking about and they've brought me some of my favorite games of all time (Have I mentioned Tales from the Borderlands lately?).

Here we're shown that being Bruce Wayne can sometimes be just as perilous as donning the cowl, and as you navigate the interpersonal relationships between thugs, goons, deviants, liars, thieves, killers, and politicians - characters often landing in more than one of these categories - the fact that you know your decisions will affect how the story unfolds makes it nearly impossible to tread lightly.

With the characters brought to life by a stellar acting cast (#PerformanceMatters), it's possible the bat signal has never burned so brightly.

MR. ROBOT


Hey, remember that time I mentioned there were two games on this list that managed to tell amazing stories without the use of voice actors? Well, Mr. Robot is the second one and Telltale (again!) has managed to spin an intriguing web using only a handful of JPEGs and some well-timed texts.

The premise is simple: You've come across a phone (played in this game by your actual phone) and soon you're pulled in by a hacker group (fsociety, the same group from the Mr. Robot TV show you don't need to be familiar with to enjoy the game (but you should be)) who've decided to recruit you for a job or two and they're not taking no for an answer.

You begin exchanging messages with a mysterious contact and soon you find yourself pulling off cyber hacks you never thought were possible from your phone. One of the reasons the game works so well is how it unfolds in real time. If the person you're texting says, "I'll be in touch later" they mean it. It could be hours, sometimes a day or two before hearing back, and that's how they hook you. I genuinely found myself wondering about the game throughout the day, why I hadn't heard from anyone, and what would unfold next.

And then...then you hear back.

And it's not just a text saying hello, it's URGENT. They need you to jump on this RIGHT NOW and then you'll get a text from someone else and you're suddenly juggling three conversations at once and wait, did I get a clue about how to do this or am I just supposed to wing it and oh man I'm doing it, I'm doing it, I'm doing it and....

Breathe.

The texts stop.

Radio silence.

And you realize that without any voices, animation, or musical score this game really sucked you in and got your heart pumping.

And then your phone buzzes again. Here we go!

MAFIA III


For years my pal Gabe would talk about going into stores and feeling like he was being watched. I always thought he was just being paranoid.

"What do you mean 'they're watching you?'"
"Because they think I'm gonna steal something."
"What? Why? You're crazy. I've never felt like that."
"Of course not. You're not black."
"Dude, they're not watching you just because you're black."

And then Gabe would just stare at me and raise one eyebrow as if to say, "Please." I realize now I was being quite naive. I just couldn't grasp why. Mafia III helped me understand what he was talking about, if only just a bit. It may seem like an exageration to proclaim a video game helped me look at racism from an angle I hadn't seen before, but it's true.

This isn't the first game to include a black protagonist but it is the first one to remind me of my skin color (or my avatar's skin color) on such a regular - and realistic - basis. The game is set in the South in the 1960s, and it doesn't take long for you to pick up on the NPC citizens of the city and their conversations and what they're muttering about you.

You can only hear so many "We don't want your kind around here"-type phrases (most of them actually much much worse than that) before you just want to scream, "But I'm not doing anything! I'm just walking by!!"

And God forbid you stumble into a store or shop whose employees and patrons are standing firm in their bigotry. Again, I'm not saying I experienced anything in a video game that even begins to compare with what people experience in real life...but I got a glimpse. And it sucks. And because I felt how much it sucked, it's a testament to how well the developers succeeded.

I would be remiss not to mention the other aspects of the game. Each mission was thoroughly enjoyable and the writing really kept me guessing (Be sure to watch through the end credits!). All of that, as excellent as it was, was made even better by a stellar voice cast.

Finally....that soundtrack. Oh, MAN that soundtrack. I could happily drive horribly (I am NOT a good driver, Rain Man) through the streets of New Bordeaux blaring Sam Cooke for hours on end. Especially if I knew I was on the way to shoot some racist hillbillies.

DISHONORED 2


I really enjoyed the original Dishonored. But I reeeeeeeeally enjoyed Dishonored 2. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that as soon as I finished I opened up a new game save and started all over again.

This time around you can choose from two different characters to play: Corvo, the lead character from the original, or his daughter Emily who is now grown up and has developed some impressive powers that put her dad's to shame. I played as Emily the first time around and the new skills play like driving a finely-tuned sports car (and yes, making the switch back to Corvo felt like getting behind the wheel of a classic. It's not as slick or flashy and may not have the same get-up-and-go but it sure feels good while you're behind the wheel).

The storyline this time features the appearance of a heretofore unknown family member looking to cash in on the family's claim to the throne (not unlike "those" family members who pop out of the woodwork as soon as they hear of your lottery windfall). Depending on which character you choose to play, the other finds themselves in a position of needing rescue and thus the chase is on.

One of the beautiful things about this game is it lets you choose what kind of experience you'd like. Are you, like me and my MTTG co-host Tim, trying to sneak through as stealthily as possible? And, on top of that, make it with as few casualties as you can? Then go for it.

Or are you looking to mete out your own brand of justice, slaughtering anyone and everything in your path? The go for that.

Either way you're awarded with  an ending appropriate to your gaming style. More importantly you're rewarded with some fantastic gameplay. Each level is massive in size and those who like to take their time and snoop through others' bathroom cabinets will be paid handsomely. As of this writing I am halfway through my second go-around.

And yes. There will be a third.

WATCH_DOGS 2


2016 was definitely the year of highly-anticipated sequels. And not just that, but highly anticipated sequels that really paid off. Watch_Dogs 2 fits perfectly into that classification. Don't get me wrong. I loved the original and was happy to don the conductor's hat on the hype train. But this time around... (Picture me pinching my thumb and index finger together, kissing them, and making a "MUAH" sound). That's a spicy meat-a-ball.

This time Ubisoft took what really worked (the clever hacking puzzles) and amped them nicely (now 3D geographical puzzlers) and introduced a couple of new mechanics I quickly fell in love with (I couldn't get enough of the new drone and hi-tech RC car). What didn't really click with fans last time (Digital trip, anyone?) seems to have been left behind in Chicago.

What really sets this one apart is the incredible DeadSec team voiced by some actors who are really throwing down some impressive work. I laughed out loud. I empathized with them. I yelled "No!" at a completely unexpected turn. And I called the villain with a man-bun a douche. A lot.

Ubisoft really excels at presenting you with a massive map to explore and they did not disappoint this time around (Although I admit I was waiting for the moment the map would open and expand even wider than you originally expected. And yeah, I miss the "Free the outpost/Unlock the map" missions that were in the first one as well as the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series).

I'm looking forward to playing this one again and since I'm not a Final Fantasy-er, I'll have a few hundred hours to spare.

***

And there you go. My choices for The Best Video Games of 2016 According to Ed. Visiting them again for this write-up has only solidified my choices. It was a great year for games. It was a great year for great writing. It was a great year for incredible performances.

2017, you have your work cut out for you.


Ed is a co-host on the Married to the Games podcast and a regular contributor to the MTTG YouTube channel.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Mug Shots - Last Call

Well, there you have it. The end (for now, at least) of my Mug Shots series. If you missed it, here's what happened: I went through our cupboards and wrote about some of our coffee mugs. 

Trust me, it was more exciting than it sounds. Or maybe it wasn't. 

Joking aside, it really was fun to go share some of the stories that zip around my head each time I brew myself a cup of coffee. It was great to sit down and simmer with memories of those close to me and flashpoint moments in my life. 

I'd like to encourage you to do the same. I'm not saying you have to sit down and write about everything in your kitchen, but take the time to notice the items around you that usually go unnoticed. What do you have in your house that was a gift or meant something to you at the time you picked it up? Is there something on your desk at work you placed there to remind you of a person or experience and the significance has slowly faded away? You might be surprised at the happy moments that come flooding back to you. Once those good memories are fresh in your mind, make it a point to not forget them. 

Chances are you're surrounded by more mementos of love and support than you realize. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Mug Shots - Among the Thirsty

I love this mug for so many reasons. 

First, let's just talk about its aesthetic design. This has fast become a favorite in our house just because of how it's made. It's large enough to hold a 12-oz homemade pourover, which in itself is a plus. But it's also much skinnier than most mugs, which means there's less surface area at the top and your coffee doesn't cool off as quickly. 

Secondly, let's talk about how I got this mug. I was working as the contest coordinator at a radio station and one of the record labels I got to work with was Tooth and Nail/BEC Recordings. Tess, my contact there, is one of the coolest people you could ask to work with and one of the on-air giveaways they sent to us was a package promoting the new project from the band, Among the Thirsty. It included a signed copy of their CD, a bag of coffee from Land of A Thousand Hills, and one of these super-cool mugs. 

I joked with Tess about taking the mug home for myself instead of giving it away...but didn't. I promise. A short time later, I got a package in the mail from Tess and - you guessed it - it was a mug of my very own all for me! See what I said about how cool they were to work with? 

Thirdly, let's talk about Among the Thirsty, more specifically front man Ryan Daniel. He's the kind of guy working in the Christian music industry that you're glad is working in the Christian music industry, mostly because he isn't "industry" at all. Follow him on social media and you'll soon see what I'm talking about. 

I believe that for a long time Christian music fans have castrated anyone and everyone in the CCM public eye, especially those in the music business. Say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, be human, and we're coming after you. Boycotts. Outrage. Protests. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

That tide is turning, and I like what I'm seeing. I like that artists and musicians have started to be less concerned with offending the easily-offended and more concerned with speaking the truth. You know...like that one guy in the Bible. 

I really admire that about Ryan (you can listen to my conversation with him here). We need people who will speak out and take a stance when others don't have the guts (or permission from their publicity department). Life is hard. Wear a helmet.

And that's why I love this mug. Yes, it's conducive to a great cup of coffee but it also reminds me of Tess, whose unexpected expression of kindness made my day, and Ryan, who reminds me to never back down from the Truth just because looking it in the eye might make me a bit uncomfortable.


Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Mug Shots - Star of David

Once upon a time I did a show at a theater that was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. To say the working conditions were less-than-ideal would be a bit of an understatement. Up until this point, everyone I'd worked with in the past had been incredible and only encouraged my love for this creative field. I suppose that if you work long enough in the acting world, eventually you'll end up working for one of those directors you always hear horror stories about. This show was my time.

Fortunately, my number came up at a time in my life when someone screaming and swearing at me didn't bother me the way it would have if it happened to me in my 20s. It's much easier to keep a professional attitude when you have a loving wife to go home to and the insight that the more someone rants and raves and belittles others, that's more than likely a reflection of their own insecurities.

The girl playing my wife in the show was young and enthusiastic, this being her first professional job out of college. For both of us this was our first time involved with the company. The other cast members warned us about what the director could/would be like, but neither of us could have expected things to turn as sour as they did. 

Rehearsals were a test of everyone's mettle. When things didn't go according to the director's exact vision or if there was a line flub, she would let loose with a vulgar tirade that brought everything to a halt. To this day I'm still not sure how belittling and embarrassing someone in front of others is supposed to encourage improvement, but maybe that's just me.

After the show was up and running, things didn't get better. On more than one occasion, she would come swooping backstage during intermission like a foul-mouthed Cruella DeVille to berate actors, swearing TO GOD they were horrible, should never have been hired, and are. Not. Funny (Have I mentioned this was a theater that only does comedies? Yep. Perfect environment to encourage humor, huh?).

One positive product of such a situation is how it fosters camaraderie among the cast and crew. At the time I likened it to the children of an abusive, alcoholic father, huddling together at night, whispering words of encouragement to each other after the tornado swept through. We encouraged each other to stay strong, let those words - all untrue - roll off your back, and not to give in. I assured my co-star that the situation we were in was not reflective of how most people work and at least she was getting her terrible experience out of the way early in her career. 

More than once we wanted to walk off, letting the director/theater owner dangle in the wind as the two leading actors just...didn't show up one day. War is hell, though, and you can't leave your fellow soldiers behind. So we stuck it out, did our best, had some great shows, and swore we would never work for them again. It almost because a game, as we threw down some incredible performances and then laughed as the director struggled to find something to get worked up about. Soon the rantings and ravings became just what they were: Hilarious. And fodder for stories such as this one. 

In the show, the character I played was Jewish and as a Christmas gift (the production was their holiday show), my co-star got me this mug. After the show's run was over, she went on to work with a different theater troupe, is still working with them to this day (she even met her husband-to-be there!), and it makes me happy to see her working in an environment where she - and her talents - are appreciated.

This mug reminds me that even though circumstances may be crappy, a lot of good can come out of it. And, if you stay professional and do your best, one day that crappy situation may come back to you, asking you to return to work for them and you'll have the pleasure of telling them no.

And, if you're especially fortunate, they'll ask you more than once and you'll have the pleasure of telling them no more than once. I'll raise my Jewish mug to that.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Mug Shots - Square One

Everyone thinks their local coffee shop is the best and I can't fault them for it. We're all a little biased toward our local businesses and I don't have a problem with that at all. Except... when I say Square One Coffee in PA is one of the best (if not the best), I can sort of back that up.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in getting my regular (a 16-oz latte) and when the barista Sarah was about complete, she dumped my drink out and began again. She apologized and told me she wanted to start over. When I asked what happened, she explained that the shot was pulling too slow - ten seconds too slow - and she wanted to make sure it was right. That attention to detail is just one of the reasons why I love the baristas over at Square One. Tell me you're going to get that kind of attention to detail at (insert name of a popular chain coffee shop with a drive-thru here)

Square One has gradually turned me into a coffee snob. Not a coffee snob in the fact that I look down on you for drinking whatever it is you're drinking that you picked up at the gas station, but in that I've come to appreciate the tastes and flavors that can come out in a perfectly made cup. A lot of that has to do with the bean. Square One roasts their own beans, and I admire them for so closely working with the farmers who grew them. Just like pouring the perfect latte design is an art, so is the process of roasting and I don't think most people know just what goes into it (or should go into it)

Coffee cupping (the process of tasting various brews and rating them for flavor and roast) isn't unlike wine tasting, and I don't mind bragging that I can now identify a coffee's origin by taste alone. Until Square One, I didn't even know there was a difference. Probably because most of the coffee I'd had until then was burnt to a crisp or pre-ground Folgers crystals that tasted more like something that should be used to fill a litter box.

Just a few more reasons to support my Square One fanboydom: They've won multiple awards for their coffee, co-owner Jess Steffy is a judge at the regional, national, and international coffee championships, and they have people like Hadassah training their new baristas. They have Joel, Sarah, Rachel, Trevor, Justine, and Taylor working the bar (not only is it a place where everybody knows your name, but you know everyone else's name, too) who always serve me a cup that makes me pause and say, "Man, that's good."

What really stands out, though, is how they've educated me about the coffee community - and it really is a community. The next time you visit your local coffee shop, ask questions. There's a lot to learn about the beans, the farmer that grew those beans, the process, the way weather affects how a shot is pulled...it's fascinating. 

So yeah. I like this mug. Not only does it represent one of my favorite coffee places or let you know what brand of coffee is currently in said mug (as is usually the case in the Placencia casa), it's also a symbol of just how good you can be when you do what you love to do and take the time to do it right. 

#alwaysbecupping

Monday, February 29, 2016

Mug Shots - Life is Good

Life is good. 

Yes, it is. 

This mug was indirectly given to us by our dear friends John and Lisa Blowers. They brought this gift to a WJTL Staff Christmas party a few years ago for the White Elephant gift exchange and through some fancy footwork, Sarah and I managed to wrangle this for ourselves. 

I can't think of a mug that better encapsulates our feelings about John and Lisa. They've been dear friends of ours for quite a while now, and when you're with them you just...feel really good. Warm, generous, and sincere, they're probably one of the coolest couples you could ever have the good fortune of being around. 

When you're with John and Lisa, time really does fly. The common phrase that seems to be said when we're together is "Oh man, is it that late already?" because conversation with them always comes easy. On more than one occasion we've been hanging out, just talking about life and all of its simple pleasures, and seen day turn into night turn into early morning turn into what-are-we-still-doing-up. 

Like everyone else, John and Lisa have seen their fair share of struggle (to hear more about that, check out my interview with Lisa on the Foot in the Door podcast) yet they always persevere. It isn't easy to stay strong when things look grim, but John and Lisa share a faith that would make Job take notice.

At the end of the day, despite what that day may entail, John and Lisa always get back up on their feet and carry on. Seriously, if you want to be an upstanding citizen in a crazy world, then I highly recommend studying these two. Plain and simple they - just like life - are good.