Crime stories often invoke familiar themes. Fraternity and loyalty, duty vs. intimidation, the corruption of power, the decay of an institution. The Yakuza saga, now eight core games and numerous spinoffs and adaptations, begins with the story of Kiryu Kazuma, an up-and-coming enforcer for the broader Tojo Clan’s Dojima Family, surrendering ten years of his life to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. Yakuza Kiwami, released in 2017 alongside prequel Yakuza 0, commits to retelling the story of the original 2005 Yakuza as part of an effort to revitalize the franchise.
Yakuza’s story, that of Kiryu Kazuma breaking away from his foster brother Nishikiyama Akira, is the story of a man realizing he’s not young anymore. It’s the story of a man realizing that in order to protect the people he loves, including a young girl looking for the woman he left behind when he went to prison, he can’t protect everybody. It’s also the story of how getting something always comes with a cost, and Kiryu ends up spending a lot of time solving other people’s problems. Kiwami is a messy story, one full of tangents and setpieces before arriving at a more dramatic conclusion.
Where Kiwami succeeds is as an action game and an open world. The core brawling combat of Yakuza Kiwami, with four separate movesets divided into “stances,” is a delight to play and rewards thoughtful preparation and adaptation to different opponents. Every enemy you fight is named, helping to build the sense of place Kamurocho is building. And Kamurocho, the red-light district that is home to several Yakuza games, is bustling with life, sidequests, and teeming with fun minigames and details. Wandering around from the taller buildings in the Hotel District to the tight alleyways of the Champion District, you’ll find everything from slot car racing to batting cages. It’s a gorgeous rendition of city streets, and the loving attention to detail in each step of Yakuza’s world helps to ground its beloved characters.
Since the revival of the Yakuza franchise, I think most people are familiar with the games’ heightened sense of comic absurdism and representations of positive masculinity. It’s true – Kiryu is the definition of a criminal with a heart of gold, a man whose head isn’t always on straight but whose most powerful traits are his sense of empathy and his unbeatable fists. The Dragon of Dojima has helped more victims of abuse and exploitation, offered more empathy to queer people on the end of their ropes, and nonjudgmentally entertained strange hobbies or kinks more than any other character in gaming history. The colorful world of Yakuza leads you to many strange corners, but it generally comes away with a smile or accepting laugh rather than reflecting a close minded worldview.
Yakuza Kiwami…isn’t as kind as its sequels. While the new content in the remake reflects that generosity in spirit (and a couple dated sidequests have been rewritten to match the modern series’ tone and inclusivity,) the core story of Yakuza is being told as it was in 2005. A comparison of cutscenes between the 2005 and 2017 games reveal that most of the main storyline is in fact replicated shot-for-shot in the modern engine. That means that the story hasn’t improved on any weaknesses present in the story from the beginning, and that includes the absence and eventual violence against women throughout the story. The Yakuza franchise, in general, is a franchise where characters die dramatically, and characters you’d hoped to see for the next five games have their storylines ended in moments. But Kiwami occasionally fails to treat those deaths with the gravity of subsequent entries, and it can be jarring and off-putting compared to the reputation of this series.
The real question regarding the sudden popularity of the Yakuza franchise in the West is “why now?” After Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, the franchise has become one of Sega’s most beloved franchises outside Japan, leading to an effort to remake and remaster entries 2-5 before moving to an international release model going forward. The answer is, I think, quite simple – the games successfully iterated into their more modern incarnation with Yakuza 3, but the sprawling, epic story of the franchise was hard to enter for newcomers with the games’ latter entries. Rebooting the story with accessible entry points allowed people to get in on the ground floor, meeting the characters for the first time.
One other motivating factor – Kiryu’s counterpart, Majima Goro. Majima is the second protagonist of Yakuza 0, a game where Kiryu and Majima’s parallel stories only briefly intersect to tell the broader narrative of the prequel’s superior story. He was included in the original Yakuza, voiced in the English dub of the PS2 game by Mark Hamill, and was essentially a miniboss you fought a couple of times. Now, in 0 and Kiwami, he’s presented as Kiryu’s blood rival, the Mad Dog of Shimano, and much of the new content in Kiwami is centered around providing new opportunities to duke it out in increasingly absurd situations. Hiding underneath giant traffic cones, luring Kiryu into soaplands for private parties, and simply howling the word “Kiryu-chan,” the Majima Everywhere gameplay system adds a gameplay villain comparable to the Resident Evil remakes’ Mister X and Nemesis, always a threat wandering the open world and ready to shake you down. Majima’s zeal for life brings out the best in the Yakuza franchise, and this is the best possible introduction to the character.
Which brings out the question – okay, this isn’t the best representative of what’s great about Yakuza, so is it where I should start? I’d probably still argue yes – while its story is more simplistic, the strengths it has in introducing characters and thematic underlining is a pitch-perfect way to meet Kamurocho’s Tojo Clan. And the anchoring relationship between the found family of Kiryu and a little girl named Haruka-chan makes this must-play stuff for understanding where Kiryu will go forward. But if you start it and the story starts to lose you, go ahead and drift off to Yakuza 0 or Like a Dragon and see if those set off the fireworks before you come back. I say – if you’ve never tasted Yakuza’s particular blend of soap-opera melodrama, peak absurdist comedy, and genuinely badass action before, you probably won’t be able to get enough.
Yakuza Kiwami is available on PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series X consoles, and PC, for around $20. The game is also available on Xbox Game Pass, along with the other Yakuza games in the Kiryu Kazuma saga.
One of my group chat’s pastimes is sharing every time a listing for a “surprise house” is discovered on Twitter. Surprise houses are homes that look perfectly reasonable from the outside and host either some truly strange interior decoration choices or some poor architectural planning. In the case of 7355 River Trace Dr, our favorite room was described as “a court of hell and you’re on trial.” A great surprise house will have a moment like with 1204 S 18th Street, where all you can say is, “Glad the roof is normal at least.”
Last year, the world discovered 8800 Blue Lick Rd and its virtual tour – and the game command, “find the bathtub.” If you haven’t toured 8800 Blue Lick Rd, please pause reading this and try to find the bathtub – it will likely not take you more than a half hour to experience, and I’m going to reference specific details of the space in the blog. I’m hardly the first person to write about 8800 Blue Lick Rd as a game – I like this summary of its history best. I started writing this piece as I was writing my Games of 2020 posts, and my friend Steve said “Alex, you left off 8800 Blue Lick Road.” I am still cursing myself for leaving it off the list.
The tour, of course, is what escalates 8800 Blue Lick Rd beyond its humble place as a listing – the mechanical process of figuring out where you can walk to next, and the maze of figuring out which rooms lead toward something new, is more mechanically involved than your average “walking simulator.” People have created their own scavenger hunts, meaning this is the first home tour I’m aware of that offers 100% completion.
As with all surprise houses, 8800 Blue Lick Rd tells its own story. The infamous bathtub belies the story of its history as a Christian school and church – the endless amount of refuse intimate the status as an independent reseller operation. The more personal details are told by the scarecrow display and the Hillside Swim Team towel. People lived here – a family lived here. They lived here recently enough that there’s laundry left undone, even setting aside the cat. Even looking at the living spaces, they are overstuffed to the point of disbelief. The trash clearly never goes out.
This house tells a story of collection. It tells a story of the excuse that “we can always sell it if we don’t want to keep it” leading to a hoarding breakdown. It tells a story of the excess of this reselling business crowding into the living spaces otherwise preserved – the “Star Wars fans” room that has old clothes and half-spent bottles of cologne is becoming an receptacle for inventory. The “living room” is also home to hundreds (if not thousands) of discs in binders and on spindles. The kitchen is a landing for the same sort of cardboard receptacle storage as the DVD rooms downstairs.
That personal story is a ghost story, and it is fiction. Nothing I suppose about the homeowner is necessarily backed up by Baio’s history and interview – when interviewed, he seems like a well-adjusted guy with a great seller score. It is not a story told by the living. It is a story told by their absence.
When video games attempt to tell the sort of story a surprise house tells, they tend to force the fiction out from ambiguity. In Gone Home, you will not just find a few of your grandfather’s possessions, you’ll find clues to open a safe and read his will, along with letters confessing his misdeeds. In a game like BioShock or The Last of Us, if those histories tie into a central character, they will be externally manifested as a direct confrontation or even boss fight. In a game like L.A. Noire or Skyrim, that investigation will become a weapon in your rhetorical arsenal to confront or manipulate the keeper of a secret. The joke of the “skeleton on the toilet” is really the home of most environmental storytelling – because games require the creation of unique assets, it’s very difficult to justify telling stories and then not drawing attention to them.
Action games employ this sort of explicit purpose for each object in order to fulfill their objectives as power fantasies, which makes sense. Even disempowerment fantasies like The Last of Us are about being able to fight back as things are taken from you, and the process of poring over homes and “taking what’s useful” is itself part of that fantasy. But I don’t think this is the only reward of power you can achieve with this sort of design. Fascination with the minutiae of life curated rewards an inherent voyeuristic fantasy – being able to wander through a dead home and touch what you want is still a power fantasy in Whatever Happened to Edith Finch, and that would be true even if you didn’t progress into fantasy sequences representing the untimely deaths of the unlucky Finch family.
That same mentality extends to the design of escape rooms, shows like Sleep No More, and their descendants. The true fusion seems to be beginning with the Las Vegas attraction Omega Mart, which escalates that live investigation through objects into a fully emergent narrative, with rebelling sisters and books of accounting to pore over. There is an anthropological code to crack, and a designed “story” to be learned. When I first heard about Omega Mart, I heard there were people with notebooks taking down every detail they could from record books in the shop’s manager’s office. It’s like if you combined Disneyland and Myst, and I wonder how many times you can charge someone admission before they’ve “solved it” to satisfaction.
Last year, an online haunted house game went into early access named Phasmophobia. Its predatory ghosts are procedurally generated in a way that does not necessarily connect to the property you explore. Playing as a paranormal investigation team (your Ghost Hunters vibes) you’re tasked with uncovering in what form the ghost has manifested and collecting documentation of paranormal activity before it strikes down your team with the efficiency of a slasher movie villain. The houses are very plain, largely owing to the game being developed by a single programmer. He’s hoping to have the game ready for a full release in 2021.
What’s wonderful about Phasmophobia is how little it takes to start getting the players psyched out. If lights go out, or water starts running, people immediately gravitate toward the assumption that the ghost objected to their actions. The game allows the player to use their mic to speak directly to the apparitions, meaning they might actually “not have liked something you said.” The different types of ghosts owe to different kinds of deaths, but at no point is the solution to an investigation “uncover who killed the ghost and how.” Obviously, there are programmers or hackers digging into the game’s code able to tell exactly how responsive the ghosts are to player action – but, so long as you keep that mystery for yourself, the game tells its own story.
I would like to see some handshaking between the ambiguity of Phasmophobia’s design and the haunted house exploration of a game like Gone Home, or Tacoma, or What Happened to Edith Finch. I’d like the feeling of a “surprise house” in a game, one that doesn’t feel the need to include a drama waiting to be discovered with the tone of a Hallmark drama or Netflix original miniseries. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which does show its spirits incredibly directly, is a lot scarier before the final two episodes make thunderingly obvious every fright’s emotional and logistic purpose.
Aside from a brief property overview on a home like 203 E Morrison St, which can explain the architectural story at hand, there is no living record of the tenants. I think I appreciate that these homes are so mysterious – where Gone Home does offer the joys of a VHS collection to tell a story, 8800 Blue Lick Rd. offers no diary entries to explain why the owner has so many copies of The Devil’s Rejects. Anything we can guess about the personalities of the owners of 228 Townsend Ave is based in the obvious division in interests shown by the decor, though…they presumably have to have some overlap, right? I’d like more instances where I cannot have the full answer – I’d like more games that replicate the feeling of being somewhere you shouldn’t and being alone with your own projections onto the environment.
These haunted houses have no ghosts except the ones you bring in with you, and they need no more narrative than the excess which shaped them.
Fashion is rarely the subject of a game. Now, fashion, wardrobe choices, character editors, those are a massive part of many RPGs, sims, and minigames within larger genre titles, but fashion itself is rarely the focus a game drives itself on. Style Savvy Trendsetters, the second in the Style Savvy series, keeps that focus centered – the next entry, Style Savvy Styling Star, branches out into the pop idol industry in an attempt to give the game a clearer sense of direction. Trendsetters instead uses this more freeform milieu to create a setting for the game’s real focus – spiritual fulfillment and relationship building. When I look at people comparing the franchise’s entries, there’s a strong contingent who never were satisfied with the next two titles. Unfortunately, I never played them myself, probably for the same reasons this game was ignored by so many in the first place.
The core gameplay of Style Savvy: Trendsetters, the outfit designer, is fairly simple. You collect clothing for your shop, and then work with customers to find outfits that work with their needs in terms of budget and style. Each clothing item or accessory is separated by where on the body it is worn (there are three layers for shirts, for example, separated into whether they function as a base layer or as outerwear.) As you select items on the touch screen, they populate onto a mannequin on the top, building the outfit as it tallies the sale total against the customer’s budget. When you’ve assembled your suggestion, the customer will decide whether or not to make the purchase. Rinse, repeat, make cute outfits, meet new people.
Your stylist, a self-created avatar, is hired on as the assistant at a local women’s clothing boutique. A few days into your job, the shop’s owner decides to pass control of the store to you – having gone through the tutorial of assembling outfits, you’ll now be responsible for selecting the store’s stock and style, keeping up with current fashion trends, hiring new assistants, and directly assisting customers with selecting new clothes that meet their needs. The day-to-day operation ends up serving as a fairly satisfying shop management simulation, where sales feel personalized and more detailed than just setting a price on an item and letting the day pass. Clothing recommendations require keeping in mind elements of style and seasonal weather, which give you reasons to sell more than “the most profitable” items in your shop – and every customer will keep what you sell them, so you want to try your best to only sell things you actually think look good!
This structure ends up providing a drip feed for new story content, most of it focused on your relationships with your customers or fellow workers throughout the city at local cafes, makeup shops, and so on. But inklings drip in about your shop’s former owner trying to become a superstar fashion Some number of weeks into building relationships, creating aesthetics, and exploring the city for social opportunities, you’ll gain the ability to select and outfit men’s clothing at your boutique as well, and eventually enter your boutique into fashion competitions in an effort to expand your store’s brand.
How many weeks? Well, I honestly don’t remember. There…isn’t a lot of writing about Style Savvy Trendsetters on the internet. A handful of reviews exist from the time of release – one of the five on MetaCritic is print only, and another links out to a site that no longer has reviews whatsoever. There’s only one in-depth customer list on GameFAQS – and zero walkthroughs, clothing lists, or competition guides. I remembered that Leigh Alexander used to tweet about the game – I’m fairly confident that’s how I originally found out about it! – but I can’t find anything in my searches now. This lack of guidance ends up leaving the discoveries of the game feeling even more special, more intimate. Style Savvy: Trendsetters might be one of gaming’s best kept secrets. If so, I’m glad I get the chance to share it with you.
Let’s walk through a short play session, maybe twenty minutes or so. I’ll boot up my file on the third copy of this game I’ve bought over the years, which I’m probably about three hours into playing.
In my shop right now, I have Shea, my assistant. Per the game’s tooltip, “She’s a bit of a scatterbrain but works hard to make up for it.” I like her updo and denim vest, but the black-and-creme striped top she wears under it doesn’t quite line with the buttons – I have an option to change her outfit, so I suggest a different striped top, this one pale cyan and white, with a small blue bow at the collar. She thanks me for the suggestion, and I move back on to my customers.
First, there’s Guinevere, a serious-looking woman in a black blazer and knee-length straight skirt. Checking the tooltip, “she has asthma but is training every day for a half marathon.” This isn’t her first visit – she has a budget today of $300. Checking in on my other customers, I have a first timer in a cute soft outfit and glasses (“She slathers on the sunblock because her skin is so sensitive”) and India (“She’s a waitress at the cafe and has a serious thing for dinosaurs.”) I take too long deciding and find out for the first time that each game day is processing on a timer – it’s not about how many customers you choose to help, but how long you take. Now the pressure is on. It’s now nighttime, and my customers have changed over!I’ll help this next first-timer. There’s now a customer with long dark blue hair and blue polka-dot dress. She has a budget of $800, so we’re picking her quickly. Her name is Wren: “Listen up! I have some great news for this city! There’s going to be a new makeup studio opening near here! Everyone around here is going to be so gorgeous! Once it’s open, you’ll be able to buy makeup there!” Makeup is highlighted in yellow – a new feature is being added to the game. Wren asks me for a feminine skirt as her first purchase – let’s help her out.
The game opens directly to the skirts menu – it doesn’t highlight which skirts are “feminine,” though. To discover that, you either need to know your wholesaler and styles, or you can use the menu to highlight all the feminine items in stock at your store. Feminine in this game means “adult, but not formal.” It’s a style I’d affiliate with business casual. Noticing her leather brown vest, I pick out a brown fluted-hem skirt from Marzipan Sky. It’s well within her budget, so I’ll ask her to try it on rather than take a look first – it’s a double-down mechanic, going all in rather than offering choices.
That feeling of putting on a new piece of clothing you love – you see it in your customers every time. They receive these suggestions as an opportunity for a Sailor Moon style transformation sequence – they are empowered to be their best selves in the clothing you’ve selected. “I decided on a whim to try it on, and I was blown away! It’s perfect for me! This look is just what I was going for! So sophisticated!” She isn’t buying anything else today, but sometimes these sales will lead to customers asking for an entire new outfit. You’ll see them in clothes they’ve bought from you going forward, mixed and matched with what they already own.
Eventually, as a player, you come to know these keywords, these wholesalers, and, yes, these customers. They’ve written hundreds of customers, and compared with Animal Crossing, there’s a lot less shared dialogue between them than you might expect. Combine that with the number of events available in the game at an ever-expanding list of locales, and you end up with hundreds of hours you can spend long after your shop is 100% solvent.
What makes that gameplay so appealing is how much of the writing is geared toward people who actually behave, well, like people. Some of them have mundane problems, like a lack of self confidence, or job dissatisfaction, or a history of dismissing their ex-girlfriends’ love for dressing well. Those relationships reflect something very real, which is the way putting effort into your own appearance can make you realize your own self-worth, or how valuable putting effort into something you care about might be. Other characters are bubbly and fun from the jump, and their conversations tend toward being like easier, occasionally more superficial friendships.
In addition, I have to say, it’s a blast to play a game where the clothes actually look good. I always love to notice details like the button-work on a cardigan, the stitching on a pair of pants, the little accent stripes on a scarf. All of it suits the game’s character models well, who look very much like classical fashion school hand-drawn models, the sort you might see in traditional design drawing. I like the music too – catchy, easy-going music, mostly jazzy, a little bit elevator-y at times. But I spend a lot of time with the game with the music off, mostly because it is such an easy pick-up-and-play title.
There are obvious limitations to this game’s appeal. While I think the game does a decent job presenting racially diverse customers to the player, there is absolutely no body diversity – everyone is shaped like Taylor Swift or Andrew Garfield, reinforcing a monopoly of the thin and slender in fashion that many of its players won’t see themselves in. For a game with a fairly thoughtful approach to how strange and wonderful people can be in the city, there’s also not any explicit queer representation within the game, which is something I’d like to see them approach in a sequel. And, for all that great clothing can do for a person, the game frames that clothing in a sort of utopian capitalism, with no real concern given to where clothing comes from beyond “a warehouse wholesaler” and “a smartly selected boutique”, leaving it fairly unconcerned with any serious consumerist critique.
Still, I love this fantasy. I love living in a world where I think about expression. I love playing in a world where problems are easily solved. I love looking at clothes, and looking at those clothes on people who are nice and who I want to dress. Maybe someday there will be the Style Savvy clone that Stardew Valleys the original and builds even more into a queer utopia. When it does, I will remember this game.
You can expect me to write about this one again someday, now that you’ve been introduced.
Style Savvy Trendsetters is only available on the Nintendo 3DS, and currently sells at $39.99 digitally in the US. You can also find the game for significantly cheaper as a physical copy on online storefronts. The game is localized as New Style Boutique in the PAL region, and Wagamama Fashion: Girls Mode Yokubari Sengen! in Japan.
It is hard for me not to fight hardest for the new. Especially here, in games, the new expands the vocabulary of what we can do so greatly that it changes what we even dream can exist. This year’s entry might be “the best Assassin’s Creed so far,” but there’s a strong chance it won’t be anymore five years from now. Games like Outer Wilds, Baba Is You, Into The Breach, Death Stranding, and Return of the Obra Dinn – these games change what I think about when I think about games entirely. They form incredible emotional connections to me, even the ones that have no narrative whatsoever, because they are such special visions of what we should strive to make.
This year, these six games felt the freshest of everything I played. None are flawless. All are deeply special. And, yeah, shout out to Umurangi Generation and 13 Sentinels, which would go here if I’d only written two blogs and not separated three games I can’t shut up about into their own article. And, well, when they’re no longer works in progress, I’ll be writing about World of Horror and Phasmophobia in a similar blog, too.
Zagreus, son of Hades, Underworld princeling, uncovers the scandal of the underworld. Unfortunately, that scandal is the identity of his mother – so he’s going to do his damnedest to escape the underworld, sword or spear or railgun in hand to thwart his father’s “security.” No matter how thrilling the escape attempt, if he can’t best his father and all his minions, he’s going to wind up face down in the bath of blood that ends the hall leading up to dad’s desk. But every attempt, the player gets a little smarter, and the other denizens of the underworld might have just a little more to say.
Hades is, mechanically, the least “new” of the games presented here. Its combat mechanics are similar to those in Supergiant’s first game, Bastion – the whole team has come along, building on their style, making better and better games with each at-bat, with more focused art, more variety in the music, more thoughtful storytelling. It is an action game and a rogue-lite with the sort of “base-building” mechanics at the heart of Rogue Legacy. That base building mostly happens either by trading collected resources for upgrades or by giving gifts to your fellow lost souls.
But what makes it fresh is the incredible synthesis between all the game’s best elements. Traveling from Tartarus up to Elysium, you receive boons from the Olympic gods you know best, all of whom have signature gameplay benefits that match their personality. Aphrodite’s boons have the ability to charm your foes and make them fight on your behalf for a brief time – Poseidon sends waves crashing against them to push them away from you, giving you the space to choose your prey without suffering under their claws and staves. All these gods are funny, well characterized, petty but friendly, and most of them are very attractive. Everyone’s attractiveness in this game, thankfully, feeds into the gift-giving – there’s a lot of flirtation, and, yes, a few characters you can actually date, but that gift giving also reveals new dialogue, new storylines, and new jokes. And the only way to see those scenes is to keep fighting your way out.
Synced up with all of that is the wonderful music of Darren Korb, further expanding on the folk vibes of Pyre and adding some really fantastic metal to the mix. Those who’ve spent time with Korb’s work know he’s consistently able to capture character themes and help define the setting of his games through that music. That’s true of the game’s lyrical folksongs, sung by Orpheus and Eurydice, long lost lovers who you’ll have the opportunity to meet. But it’s the choice to build out epic instrumentals, most of which extend to be eight or nine full minutes before looping, that makes for such a clean experience while playing – most playthroughs will be interrupted long before you hit the end of a music track, either by reaching a new area and theme or by meeting your demise in the trials of combat.
Fighting as Zagreus feels so good. Zagreus is fast, responsive, and he’s just as fun to control as you deliberately watch your opponents and wait for clean openings as he is to mash out as much damage as you can, as fast as you can. All six weapons, and all their customizations, and all the boons and talismans you can use to build your run, feel great to use (if not to you, to another player – I’ve heard every one of them defended by now.) I’ve now gotten good enough at the game that I can think to myself “oh, no, this run is doomed” and can figure out the kind of boons I need to fix what’s wrong and get a surprise win.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. Hades is the game of the year because its complete package design, aesthetic, and writing make a game that feels beautifully fresh, all while reimagining how strong writing and story can fit into a game you have to start over every half hour. Truthfully, Hades feels like such a consensus masterpiece that detailed reasons for it to not be the Game of the Year would require their own article – I don’t feel like doing that here. Hades central thesis may best be summarized by my favorite line from Chaplin’s City Lights – “Be brave! Face life!” I think the game’s angry carpe diem ethos felt great to sit in through 2020.
Echodog’s Signs of the Sojourner places you as the inheritor of a small-town shop in a loosely fantastical world, setting off to the nearby townships to find valuables to keep your home afloat. The gameplay of Signs of the Sojourner is simple – you and an NPC you’re talking with take turns playing cards, trying to match symbols from card to card in order to communicate with one another. Each “round” is cooperative, where you and the NPC are trying to meet common ground. If you complete a conversation successfully, you may make a trade for something new to sell back home, keeping your town thriving one day longer. You may also make a friend who will take your story in new directions.
What makes the mechanic so smart is that each town you visit has its own culture, and each card symbol has its own cultural meaning. Triangles represent factual logic, squares forceful directness, circles emotional reasoning. Due to your limited deck size, you’re quickly going to find that you can’t get along with everybody. So you end up finding your own cultural niche and either sticking to where you grew up or venturing out into the world past home.
The game ends up using this mechanic really effectively to communicate something about cultural difference and assimilation without ever being too direct about this fact, and it uses this smart, small mechanic to reinforce something that writing traditionally can only do through outsized stereotype. As a result, the characters tend to be much subtler and have more variety than the usual concept of “towns with culture” can offer. A place where people are creative thinkers ends up not having to mean everybody is an artist – sometimes, it’s an old crank who’s constantly coming up with conspiracy theories.
Farming simulator meets action platformer, Spiritfarer’s Stella has taken up the oar from a retiring Charon, dedicating her afterlife to sending troubled souls into the grasp of Hades. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the first souls Stella will ferry through the Everdoor will be those closest to her – Uncle Atul and childhood friend Gwen are the first aboard her vessel, which could use some work. Building a home on the titular Spiritfarer is the perfect opportunity to go on one last adventure with the loved ones and friends you’ll be sending on their way.
For most players, I suspect the characters, the story, and the artistry are what will be the main draw of Spiritfarer. The hand-drawn characters are rendered with bold colors and designs that stick in the brain, and their animation is expressive far beyond the borderline animatronics of most games. Their personalities are bold, and while I didn’t enjoy spending time with every one of them, I did want them to find their peace. The game trades in a deep sincerity that at times put me on edge. But I felt those moments of secondhand embarrassment and I found myself questioning whether that was a fault in the game’s tone or my own comfort with such child-friendly bluntness.
That isn’t to say the game is humorless – the game is as equally interested in making light of the petty flaws that drive wedges between us. Your best fence to sell your goods to is a rancid hoarder who has become an onion man. Guests on your boat include an obnoxious scold, an insufferable live-action roleplayer, and a serial philanderer. Traveling to cities and work sites, you’ll meet with smugglers, a rap group called the Dice Boys, a film director who barely has the time of day for you, and a labor riot, all of which are written with a modern sense of humor that works far more often than not. The game’s ability to handle these moments of comedy and urbanity make the moments of sincere grief feel their gravity.
As a farming game, Spiritfarer is solid! Every resource has its own minigame, whether it’s mining the ore rock itself, fishing from your boat, or working the sawmill, the loom, and the The time management involved in being productive is satisfying, though I ended the game with a lot of materials I had no outlet to sell or use. But that farming makes for a great excuse to enter a meditative state, one that is supported by the fact that Stella’s a fun platforming character to move through space – unlike some games, she feels complete before you get access to some later traversal abilities, and those just make you feel even more powerful.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – so far, I’ve played nine. Truthfully, Spiritfarer isn’t so much the tenth – it’s the eleventh. But Spiritfarer remains a game that challenged me to think about how full a game you can make without combat. Spiritfarer is a terrifically entertaining platformer without death – and a platformer constantly mired in it. Its earnest heart will make it a shining game to point toward when I am sick of playing action games dedicated to murder.
Fundamentally, Blaseball is a free browser game best described as baseball mixed with Dungeons & Dragons. The game takes place entirely in a small probability generator and a huge legion of fanart, fan fiction, fan twitters, fan bands, fan Discords and subreddits…you get the idea. It’s hard to write about because it’s the most absurd and dense game of 2020, and it’s such a freeform object that it’s hard to pin down. The game is returning from a four-month siesta on March 1st, following a major wave of new development, so a fair warning that when the game comes back it may be fairly different from what I describe. I think Quintin Smith’s video above does a great job explaining what Blaseball was in 2020, so if you want more details, I highly recommend it.
The core of Blaseball is the sport simulator, using athlete stats to determine nine-inning games every hour mostly recognizable as baseball. Each of these games is between a roster of twenty teams, and upon joining the game you’ll choose a favorite based on their name (I went with the Hades Tigers first, before finally settling in with the Seattle Garages) before being able to see their record or their players’ stats. Probability for each game is calculated before the game starts based on those stats, and the primary play mechanic is betting on these games to try to earn cash. Using that cash, you can cast raffle ticket votes into the election held at the end of each week, which will pass a new decree and grant several smaller boons to different teams in the league. This sort of betting mechanic is familiar to those who’ve spent time with the SaltyBet streaming game on Twitch, and the election mechanics work sort of similarly to TwitchPlaysPokemon.
And, like Twitch Plays Pokemon back in 2014, an idle fandom will create its own jokes, its own lore, and its own space to discuss strategies. If the Helix Fossil was enough for a twitch chat to start a meme cult dedicated to its praise, Blaseball has managed to take that and run with it for just about every player in the simulation. The Blaseball Discord is home to the chat where people watch games live, private discussion boards for each team to discuss strategy for the upcoming election, and dedicated channels to posting fanart, fan-wiki lore, and real nerdy statistical analysis. Unlike a lot of fandoms, it’s not just artists or meme creators, though there are plenty of those too. Blaseball fans organized a community driven nonforprofit named Blaseball Cares, dedicated to utilizing the fandom to donate to causes like the Milwaukee Freedom Fund and the California Community Foundation. An organization calling themselves the Society for Internet Blaseball Research publishes properly formatted research papers.
Then there’s The Garages and Fourth Strike Records, musicians who have banded together internationally to produce music reflecting the DIY sensibility of fandom, entirely with lyrics about a fictional sport and fictional athletes. All the songs in the sampler playlist were written by fans, on their own dime, and they’ve maintained a respectable following even while the game has been gone since November. Your mileage is going to vary on this one – if you take pleasure in bands like They Might Be Giants, The Mountain Goats, and The Decemberists writing lyrics that couldn’t possibly exist without being entirely predicated on some real specific nerdy shit, there are some well-written bangers in the…14 albums and musical that have already been written by now. I definitely haven’t listened to all of it, and I don’t think I could recommend doing so in earnest, but my favorite is the chorus of In the Feedback (in the sampler above.)
The Blaseball fandom rapidly ascended from niche community into cult object, and the experience of listening to a pretty catchy garage rock song about a really bad fictional pitcher probably calls to mind Homestuck and bronies. It’s a mixed bag! There are times where the fandom gets very possessive of the game and their favorite characters, and it creates an unwelcome tension. And the never-ending onslaught of games on the hour through the workweek, the rate at which the rules of the game can change within just two or three weeks, and the number of community events that can happen may leave it totally inaccessible to those who haven’t been invested since the beginning.
What’s kept me following the game week to week is really the work of Blaseball developer The Game Band, who have done an excellent job giving us new experiences each week. When the elections happen at the end of each week, it’s an opportunity for them to unveil some new eldritch god who plans to interfere with the experience or some absurdist new rule change that has a new way to threaten our players. The climax in those original twelve seasons was a war with The Shelled One, a literal peanut god that threatened fantastical violence against the players’ favorite athletes. It’s a wonderful vehicle for light fantasy storytelling – players are invested in the teams and athletes of Blaseball already, so the developers can very economically raise the stakes by trusting that just about any change they make will set off a new wave of theories, strategies, and fan works. It’s the dream of every MMO to have players scheming on how they can effect the game itself rather than just build their own character to maximum strength, and Blaseball manages to do that while the only real “direct” interaction players have with the game is gambling and raffles.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. The first run of Blaseball is the game of the year because games like Blaseball simply don’t happen any other way. The independent spirit of the game itself, its generosity to fandom work, and the freewheeling strangeness of Blaseball require incredible dedication and confidence the likes of which simply don’t tend to happen in the profit-driven mainstream games industry. I’m not sure Blaseball could have happened the way it did if COVID didn’t have us all cooped up in our homes. Hell, I’m not sure it could have happened the way it did if actual baseball had been able to finish its full season in 2020. I’m very curious to see how the game feels when it returns on March 1st, and I’m hoping they use it as an opportunity to welcome anyone new and curious and to invite those who fell off back into the fold.
When Paste Magazine posted its 40 Best Games of 2020 List and ranked If Found… as the second best game of the year, I knew I had two choices – to play it immediately after finding out it existed, or to allow it to fall to the background like We Know The Devil, Ladykiller In A Bind, Butterfly Soup, and Cibele. “Acclaimed visual novel about LGBTQ+ experience” is the new frontier of prestige games nobody talks about after year-end list season now that strategy games are becoming cool again.
This game, from Irish developer DREAMFEEL, is maybe two hours long. It also, according to my wife, may barely be a game.
Unlike the popular forms of visual novels in the west based on dating sims and choose-your-own-adventure novels, you do not make choices in the vast majority of If Found. Your primary mechanic is erasure. If Found… tells two running narratives, the primary narrative in the form of a diary. Your primary interaction is to read a section of the diary, erase any marks scratching things out, and then to erase the text and drawings in the diary themselves. The act feels violent. It feels intrusive. I love this mechanical choice. But, no, it’s not very gamelike.
The first narrative, a frame narrative, is that of the lone astronaut Doctor Cassiopeia, stranded in deep space, trying to find her way home. The second, the diary narrative, is that of 23 year old astronomy student Kasio, who can no longer live in the closet in 1993 Ireland and is now presenting as her gender. Kasio leaves her mother’s home to stay with her friends in a condemned old house, a rock band made up of a gay couple and their lead guitarist/vocalist Shans. She keeps a diary of her life at this time, full of fun asides, character sketches, and scratched out unwanted thoughts.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. If Found… is the game of the year because it best understands the monumental stakes of feeling. If Found… allows its characters to say hurtful things. The fact that you are not directly playing as Kasio, but as the eraser, allows you the distance to judge character moments for yourself. And it presents this story in a way that is familiar, but never unwelcome.
The moment I heard about the vaporwave murder mystery where you can initiate the final court case five minutes into the game, I knew it was a game I was going to *have* to play before I began considering Game of the Year. The expectations were high for the story of Lady Love Dies, the exiled Investigation Freak who is called back to Paradise Island when the entirety of The Council is murdered just before the Perfect 25th Sequence. Your old friends, the members of The Syndicate of immortals who are trying to resurrect old alien gods, seem eager to sweep things up before you do your job. Lot of secrets in the time you’ve been exiled. Lots of old friends to catch up with.
You’re probably thinking – Alex, that’s a lot of proper nouns.
And you’re right. One of the great joys of Paradise Killer is figuring out how all these proper nouns fit together in a story that ends up taking seriously the pain and exploitation built into a society structured to sacrifice everything for some old ideals of success.
Playing the game is, well, a classic first-person exploration game. As Lady Love Dies, you scour the environments of Paradise Island, through roman plinths and absurd statues and yachts, meeting your nasty demon friend Shinji along the way, finding evidence and interviewing your old friends in The Syndicate. All of them have secrets – you tend to find those out by finding something on the island that someone wanted to cover up or by talking to someone. Maybe the Grand Architect Carmelina Silence’s alibi contradicts something Doctor Doom Jazz told you about the autopsy. Maybe you found an extra knife somewhere hidden, one that surely had nothing to do with the murders, right?
That process of combing through the island is deeply melancholy. For reasons you’ll discover later, everyone but the remaining suspects in The Syndicate have already left the island, one way or another. You find yourself exploring the remnants of an island that’s already dead. There are ghosts of citizens looking for one last peace before annihilation. Alongside evidence related to the case, you find pamphlets talking about worker conditions, squirrelled away contraband punk music and pornography, whiskey that’s been bottled from another island long ago. The game uses that vaporwave aesthetic to really highlight that sense of loneliness like all those great abandoned mall videos do.
There are solid facts that can be uncovered – with enough time spent on Paradise Island, listening to its city pop, buttering up the information broker/sex icon Crimson Acid or the religious fanatic Witness to the End, all players will reach the same conclusion as to *exactly* who killed the Council in that closed room and how they did it. As long as you play enough to see their bodies, you’ll probably get a good sense of the picture. But it’s the fact that you’re allowed to start the trial immediately that means you may never be 100% sure how much more game there is to play, how many more betrayals there are to uncover, how many more blood gems or collectible mementos there are to find. And, as Trevor Richardson wrote excellently in his piece about the game, you will always be asked to present “your truth” – justice and truth don’t share a name in Paradise.
At this time, that Paradise Killer is my game of the year. Paradise Killer is the game of the year because it is the bravest new vision executed with the most complete package. Its warm, funny characters, its vaporwave, Dreamcast-era aesthetic, its methodical and contemplative gameplay, its themes of economic exploitation, lust, accelerationism vs. privilege, and its twisty, page-turner plot make it the greatest revelation of any game I played this year. The applecart for Danganronpa and Zero Escape has officially been overturned. I want to play one of these every year until I die, even if I never play one this great again.
Seriously, I’ve been waiting most of a decade for a follow-up to Animal Crossing New Leaf alone. If it had just been that, I’d already have felt that warm homecoming feeling. Instead, we got a full-blown “make games for Alex” season. Half of these I figured might come someday – a couple, I never expected to see exist at all.
Honestly? For a little while, toward the middle of the year, it was kind of exhausting. There’s such a thing as not being challenged enough, and at some point I started feeling like “I’ve done this already.” But the sad truth is, on top of all that, most of these weren’t revelations. Thankfully, only one of these is, like, going to get a dressing down.
A special shout-out to Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I could have put here instead of my previous Evangelion trilogy – but if I did, this blog would be even longer. Most of these writeups will be shorter than those. Keep an eye out for one more blog Friday. I’ll be starting and ending with my two favorites for the sake of getting the more up-and-down stuff out of the way.
Animal Crossing likely deserves its own deep dive rather than a simple introduction here, but it also likely needs no introduction. Animal Crossing New Horizons is the shared experience I will never separate from 2020. So many of us burned through the game those first few months of quarantine – I know I’d assembled the village I planned to have years down the line by July, which led to me considerably slowing my time with the game. It is, as well established by now, the definitive COVID companion for those first few months for everyone who managed to get their hands on a Switch – for everyone else, there was Tiger King.
I played Animal Crossing New Leaf on and off after I flushed my original town – my next town, Guzzle, effectively closed down in 2015 when I graduated college, though I’ve occasionally checked in on my friends Stitches and Tia. New Horizons, due to the way I obsessively played during every free hour those first couple months, is already in that same holding pattern – I remember to check in every couple weeks for an hour or so, enjoying the organic groves and biomes I created, visiting with Marshal, Reneigh, and Tangy.
But Animal Crossing New Horizons is also a game that lives in me even when I’m not playing. When I remember the first time I walked through the museum’s fossil exhibit, which organically traces evolution in a way most real natural history museums should envy, I get very emotional. When I remember readying my outfits for my friend Ven’s fashion show, or watching my friend Gracie perform a seance (flickering the lights in her little Animal Crossing home for dramatic effect!) I think of some of the best, most earnest moments of play I had with a friend all year.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. New Horizons is possibly/probably the best version of Animal Crossing, and Animal Crossing as a whole is better than any other game I’ve played this year. It’s unquestionably the 2020 release I played most, and it’s full of incredibly emotional details. It looks gorgeous, the music is great, I love the writing and laugh with the jokes, and it gives full power over the game’s traditional zen garden approach. And if “game of the year” means the game that represents a given year, it’s hard to deny Animal Crossing: New Horizons as the game for all of us this year.
Crusader Kings III
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. Crusader Kings III is one of the best games of 2020. It’s a deeply considered simulation of Europe, Asia and North Africa, where the player takes on the incredibly specific personal life of anyone from a baron to an empress. They will set on their plans with the goal of either mastering their domain or improving their station in life, siring heirs, warring, spying, feasting, and taxing their way through a story that encompasses a dynasty. Crusader Kings III improves on its 2012 predecessor by giving each leader more personality, improving on the simulation, and making the tutorials more accessible than ever.
But, I admit, I’m genuinely not able to pay enough attention to follow what’s happening in my own playthroughs of Crusader Kings III right now. I can make the personal decisions about who to spy on or hire as my vassal, but tracking wars or tax plans is right out. That won’t always be true, but during this pandemic? Yeah, I’m fried. The joy I’ve gotten out of Crusader Kings III has been watching my friends and favorite streamers play the game and get into increasingly absurd situations as they create pagan nations to challenge the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe when COVID ends I’ll have more focus in my free time.
The Jackbox Party Pack 7
Obviously, COVID became a great time for the Jackbox games, playable remotely with just an iPhone and a laptop, a great chance to kick back and crack jokes with friends. Party Pack 7 is just the most fun we’ve had yet with a Jackbox game – it’s such a wonderful platform to crack jokes on and reconnect through. I sort of wasn’t expecting the world of Party Pack 7 when it came out, but boy did it come through for me. Let’s play Champ’d Up or Talking Points sometime.
Spelunky is a 2D platformer where the levels are different every time you play – procedural generation assembles these levels to allow for a new experience every time. And when you die, that’s it, game over, start a new game. Using limited tools (starting with a bomb, whip, and some climbing rope,) the player navigates the game’s treacherous levels to try to finish the gauntlet. It may be my favorite game, period.
Writing about the original game back in 2012, I wrote, “Spelunky is a rushing dance, rewarding players who move quickly through the level with exceptional gamefeel and in-game rewards…In Spelunky, any encounter can be overcome with tight enough control of your explorer.” Emphasizing that dance was pitch-perfect encounter design, nailing what I think is exactly the right amount of difficulty from level to level. Playing Spelunky, I genuinely know that every death was out of my own carelessness.
Spelunky 2 promised more Spelunky, new discoveries, new foes, a new game to learn. Instead, Spelunky 2 feels designed only for Spelunky professionals. It feels tuned to make the first levels as difficult as the finale of the first game – I still haven’t seen past the jungle boss. I totally get why people who truly mastered the original game are getting so much out of Spelunky 2 – I hardly consider myself a neophyte, but I just can’t get there. And, uh, hearing this one song for 12 of the 17 hours I’ve played of the game certainly didn’t help – the original game had at least five different songs per world, and instead this feels like a pretty unfortunate misstep.
Golf on Mars
Hello, my old friend. How have you been? I like that new curl.
Golf on Mars plays much as the original did – using the touchscreen, the player pulls backward from the direction they want to aim the ball, drawing it like a bow and arrow, and releasing to launch the ball across the 2D dunes of red dirt. The ball moves a little differently through the atmosphere on Mars, and the clay offers less catch and less slide than sand when it hits ground. This game also adds the ability to put topspin or backspin on the ball by rotating a dial while aiming, meaning clever shots that utilize harsh hills or dynamic acceleration are more feasible.
Unlike Desert Golfing, every level is now 100% procedurally generated and unique to each player, and the game extends, per the app store description, into plausible infinity. This new approach has also led to the appearance of holes that are impossible to complete, a known feature that allows for really interesting or devious (but at least technically possible to complete!) holes, which has led to the game adding a skip button and 25 point limit on strokes for each hole. I can no longer share a hole with my friends and commiserate about how it is a real rude experience – on the other hand, every hole is now my own.
Unlike the static screens of Desert Golfing, your view can now scroll, as well. Overshooting can now send you catapulting past the next two or three holes entirely on the wrong decline, and being too timid can send you falling back toward where you started the last hole. This was, in my opinion, a phenomenal change that immediately makes a bad shot a source of comedy. It adds another layer of accountability to the formula – it gives Golf on Mars the systemic anecdotes of a game like Far Cry 2, of a grenade rolling down a hill.
At present, I haven’t emotionally connected to Golf on Mars the way I did Desert Golfing. Partly, it is the impossible holes, which happen a little too frequently for my taste. Partly, it is that I’ve already known Desert Golfing for so many years. But, really, it may just be that I haven’t written about it yet. I am still playing Golf on Mars – I am on hole 7019. I am still playing Desert Golfing – I am on hole 6154. I will be playing both for quite a while longer yet.
Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
I was in genuine shock when a sequel to Deadly Premonition was announced, let alone announced to be releasing in six months. I’ve been the boatman for probably twenty souls in six separate playthroughs of the original game, a bastardized low-budget take on Twin Peaks that amps up the horror and the camp to sometimes unbearable degrees. Replaying the original once again in preparation for the new game, I was often struck by the game’s emotional vulnerability and sincerity – at least, its attempts at it, often marred by weak gender politics and a broad sensibility toward race and identity that lead to it falling into familiar storytelling traps.
Disappointing does not begin to address my response to Deadly Premonition 2’s Louisianan Le Carre, a town full of racist caricature, ableist depictions of dwarfism and developmental disability, and the worst treatment of a trans character I may have ever seen. It is a meanspirited and unlovable object by the time the game has unveiled its major twists. Upon receiving criticism for the game, the game’s director, SWERY, begged players to continue supporting the game and “hate him, not the characters,” a fundamentally embarrassing way to discuss the game’s loathsome content. There were many minute to minute charms that showed me I still love some of what Deadly Premonition has to offer, and yet I have not been this deeply repulsed by a game in years.
The Yakuza games have quickly escalated to become my very favorite kind of fictional world – one which is malleable and can flow wildly between high suspense, broad absurdist comedy, and soap opera melodrama. Playing a Yakuza game is equal parts exploring the strange and comedic world of its vision of Japan, exploring sociopolitical concerns by meeting citizens whose problems can only be solved by a combination of active listening and fantasy martial arts, and navigating a crime conspiracy of betrayal, petty greed, and collateral damage.
It’s sort of like if a Grand Theft Auto game had less emphasis on the darkness and depravity of the crime world and the inane superficiality of Americans and instead a focus on what support people need in order to overcome their sad lives. One sidequest involves buying time for an illegal immigrant to escape her loan sharks so she can finish applying for her work visa. In another, you teach a rock band that’s made up of posers how to really act tough before their first Tokyo concert. Hypothetically, you might help a burned dominatrix worried about paying the bills to keep her son in school get through to her exploitative boss, only to find out the boss is being blackmailed by yakuza and that’s the only reason he’s working her so hard.
The protagonists of these games do this by not judging people for their lifestyles, kinks, or past decisions – they adopt a progress-oriented stance asking, “what are you going to do about it now?” That same spirit applies to navigating different gangs in the main storyline, who make what they believe are impossible asks to assist you on your quest only for you to step up and do the damn thing. It can, however, get a little broad, with comedy occasionally overtaking the gravity of the story at hand – but that allows everything from the more serious sidequests at hand to a minigame where you desperately try to stay awake at a classic movie theater.
Previously, these games placed you in the shoes of “honorable yakuza” Kazuma Kiryu and his associates as an action beat-em-up – the original run of Yakuza 0 through Yakuza 6 covers roughly thirty years of his life, from the bubble economy of the 1980s to the ministry of Shinzo Abe. Kiryu, the “Dragon of Dojima,” is a bruiser with a heart of gold, and playing as him while he dropkicks some thug shaking down teenagers for money was a delightful experience – the action in these games is smooth and still deliberate, really rewarding the player for getting familiar with their abilities.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon begins a new storyline with a new protagonist, and introduces completely new gameplay alongside it. Ichiban Kasuga is probably twenty years younger than Kiryu and this game primarily takes place after Kiryu’s life of crime has ended – he’s a Dragon Quest junkie that agrees to serve a jail sentence for his father figure and yakuza patriarch, Masumi Arakawa, only to find the entire world has moved on while he was in prison. When he finally finds Arakawa again, Arakawa shoots him and his body is dumped in the red light district of Yokohama.
Unlike prior Yakuza games, the gameplay is now a turn-based RPG, complete with a job system and elemental attacks. They make light of this through Ichiban’s characterization – he lives his life the way a hero would in Dragon Quest, and therefore he sees every challenge that same way. The biggest change this makes to the story is that Ichiban can now have allies in his “party,” companions who can be present in every encounter and be just as involved in every step of Ichiban’s journey through Yokohama’s underworld. It’s both a great change for the story – which now can use the positivity of its protagonist to develop relationships over a much greater period of time as well as in sidequests – and for the gameplay.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a supremely fun RPG. Battles are fun whether they’re against street hooligans (complete with flavorful names like Pressured Cooker, Urban Ranger, and Officer of the Lawless) or the game’s rather challenging bosses. Choosing the right jobs for your party members (whether they’re going to serve as a construction worker, breakdancer, or pop idol) is just as important as choosing the right moves in every battle, considering spacing, your MP gauge, and which enemy you need to take out first to avoid everyone being wiped out at once.
All of that I expected before this game came out – the change to an RPG seemed well timed to accommodate this new start, and I trusted the designers to make the change for a reason. What I didn’t expect was for the story to feel so timely. Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s primary conflict is between three warring crime families as they try to resist external pressure. This primarily comes in the form of a dual-prong attack from the Omi Alliance (an oppositional yakuza conglomerate) and a populist conservative movement named Bleach Japan, with activists marching through slums to declare war on the “gray zones” where petty crimes like sex work or vagrancy are overlooked. That populist movement’s story feels informed and direct about the ways nationalist rhetoric and fascist minimization harm the marginalized – down to how cynically its leaders will use the rhetoric of being “hard on crime” to accumulate power. I won’t go into too many details of its twists and turns, but suffice it to say that Ichiban takes the side of the marginalized whenever he can, and it really is a heroic journey to watch play out.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. I’m only about halfway through Yakuza: Like a Dragon. It’s a long, long game. I haven’t nearly finished it yet, so I can’t 100% declare its status, but so far I think it’s a miracle. Yakuza: Like A Dragon is the game of the year because it combines the best of Dragon Quest with smart changes relevant to the Yakuza franchise, adds in some social stats and social links borrowed from Persona, and still manages to beautifully capture the warmth, humor, suspense, and emotional depth of Yakuza’s best moments. To do so in a story that addresses rising conservative populism and police corruption…well, that’s the part I have to see the end of before I can really make a final determination.
2020 in a lot of ways feels like the year of Evangelion.
The show’s been undergoing a cultural reevaluation since the 2019 Netflix rerelease, including the first time the film The End of Evangelion has been available in western wide distribution since 2002. I feel like I wind up seeing a friend wind up starting the show for the first time on a monthly basis now, and alongside that a conversation in some film space about the show’s more questionable story choices and aesthetic decisions (namely, the show is about young teens and doesn’t shy away from treating them as sexual beings, and also its ending is Quite Upsetting and abstract.)
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a show about three teens who fight giant monsters in mechanized suits called Evangelions. The show immediately wants to be clear that the fact that it’s teenagers fighting the war for the future is deeply traumatic to these children, that they’re far too immature to handle this war with responsibility, and that the adults exploiting them should be treated as predatory. In a year where people are constantly praising the teens for political activism while it feels like the world is ending while the gen-z mantra is “let me die,” it’s not surprising that it’s striking a chord right now.
But the fact that there’s a wave of new games that all feel of a piece with Evangelion has nothing to do with a rerelease a year prior. Games take a good while to develop – most games take two or three years, and at least one of the games I’m going to write about was first shown back in 2015. The truth is that these stories are probably always being told and being told with this degree of influence – but this year, they happened to rise to the cream of the crop more than once or twice.
My friend Stephen, the one I mentioned in my Rutger Hauer memoriam, wrote a comic in college about a young man’s first time watching Evangelion, trapped in a college apartment during a depressive spell. I’ve thought about that a lot as I’ve been trapped in my own apartments during this pandemic, watching us all go a little mad through the internet. Evangelion’s a story I hold dear to my heart, too, so I wanted to spend some time thinking about some games that felt like discovering that world anew.
Here’s to fucked up futures and arcane abstractions. This includes some general or minor spoilers, so, like, I highly recommend Umurangi Generation and 13 Sentinels to just about anyone, and Final Fantasy VII Remake to anyone who has played Final Fantasy VII. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy VII…well, yeah, I still recommend the old one first, and it’s cheaper and available on everything.
(And, no, I haven’t played Cyberpunk 2077, I don’t know that I’m ever going to do so, but it’d be silly not to acknowledge that particular fucked up future. Maybe one day.)
All the photos you see in this write-up were taken by me in the game Umurangi Generation. I’m an amateur photographer at best, and pretty unfamiliar with how to use exposure, bloom, focus, and saturation to communicate my feelings in still photography. My experience with a camera better than your average $150 Nikon is more in film production, which I’m at best a novice in, but I know how to figure out a camera (if not how to play with it and break the rules.)
So, let’s unpack. For one, the look is extremely Dreamcast, and the soundtrack has brief flares of Jet Set Radio to it (though not as much as some people have hyped – a lot of it is still very Dreamcast/PS2, but is more like aggressive techno than sample-based hip-hop.) That lends itself really well to taking photos that are extremely ~aesthetic.~ The photography simulation is pretty detailed, allowing you to change lenses, change your focus, set the exposure, and way more – and it scores you based on content, not on fundamentals, so you have a lot of freedom of expression. And then, also, the narrative you uncover is pretty fuckin’ rad.
The narrative itself wouldn’t necessarily make it on its own, mostly because it repeatedly and overtly references, yes, Evangelion – rather, it’s about how you uncover it. As Spacetwinks said, it’s all environmental – there’s approximately three voice lines in the entire game, and they’re basically just part of the soundtrack of certain levels. So alllllll the storytelling is environmental, and none of it is audiologs or email archives. Instead, you’re given missions like “take a picture of 5 medical supply bags” or “take a picture of the word COPS.” And when you find where those are, it’s, well, more than the objective let on. The person paying you for taking the mission photo doesn’t care, though. Just make sure the word “COPS” is real big – I don’t really care what else it says. That indifference is core to what Umurangi Generation is all about.
The DLC expansion, Umurangi Generation Macro, is more direct. Macro tells the story of the days after the first disaster event, before the start of the game, in which there is still some degree of decadence in the privileged and direct action happening. Macro’s finale places you in the midst of a protest going wrong – the moment you arrive, no riot cops are present, but you can see the fizzled out cans of tear gas on the ground. Macro slaps and is the correct finale to the Umurangi Generation experience.
Describing the themes of the game, director Veselekov said these in linked interviews:
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. Umurangi Generation is the game of the year because it speaks to the worldwide strife of 2020 without being about COVID or Black Lives Matter. It imagines how people might rebuild the world in the face of overwhelming indifference – not by changing the fate of everyone, but by taking control of what they can do right now for their local community and their loved ones. And it expresses those themes, which feel so core to 2020, in a way that feels unique to video games and unique Within Video Games without sacrificing a moment of arcadey fun.
1997’s Final Fantasy VII, perhaps the most credible First Text of Video Games, has a legion of fans who love it and it’s characters wholeheartedly and very defensively. Its story of ragtag heroes battling tbe corporate police state Shinra’s ecological destruction, only to have to battle the maniacal eco-fascist Sephiroth at the same time, was one of the most complex stories told to date. Its characters had the trademark psychological depth (and emphasis on trauma) to match that of anime like Evangelion, too, beyond the appearance of mechs and ancient monsters. The plot twist closing the first disc is the Luke’s father or Rosebud of video games.
The original Final Fantasy VII is also an archaic and often frustrating game, from its retrograde gender politics to its lower-quality minigames and its, uh, extended playtime. The original release was also marred with an infamous messy translation, with each line transcribed out of order and without context, leading it to be very easy to interpret characterizations entirely differently from other fans – or other languages. It’s an incredibly personal game for those who love it, and often a game where players with faithfully adhere to aspects of its story or gameplay and then condemn aspects of the game to be suffered in silence.
This Remake manages an incredible feat, expanding the first ten hours of Final Fantasy VII into a full length RPG and improving on the minute-to-minute gameplay almost every step of the way. The combat is an action game that is smooth as any devil may croon, with every character’s moves filling out their own satisfying playstyle and matching their reimagined personalities. Expanded versions of fights against enemies like the Hell House are transformed into incredibly inventive battles I won’t forget soon.
The characters are more lovable than they even originally managed, with the extended runtime adding more genuinely fun and warm interactions. A new side mission for original supporting cast member Jessie becomes a great exploration into how middle management will live in dystopia – and a lovely interlude with the game’s warmest characters. The friendship between Aerith and Tifa is now one of the game’s greatest strengths. These new characterizations also come alongside the game openly acknowledging the cost of revolution – and then not blinking at its necessity. I’ll also say some of the characters are still baked in retrograde understanding of marginalized people, not something I ever expect a Tetsuya Nomura game will get right.
The game is an aesthetic feast – I cannot imagine when I will see a more beautiful game with more wonderfully rendered music. I love the look of the original game’s pre-rendered environments – this game’s mechanisms and Every step through the city-state of Midgar still feels like the home the game created in 1997, but rendered with impossible, incredible beauty – the sort which force you to wonder how the game’s messages about corporate exploitation can possibly come from a genuine heart.
Games of this scale, as opposed to the outsider art of a game like Umurangi Generation, are made on broken backs and broken promises. I won’t sugarcoat that. The urge to build more powerful game engines and technologies force games far beyond even the work behind ordinary labor issues. There are no stories about the labor behind Final Fantasy VII Remake yet beyond how long the game took to release – whether their stories are told or not, it will not be the first or last game worthy of love that also requires an awareness of the game’s very real human cost. I hope that translator of the original game, left with a spreadsheet of unsorted lines of dialogue and a threadbare budget, is healthy and happy in the quarantine.
What elevates Final Fantasy VII Remake above a retelling of a beloved story is the thing it takes most from Evangelion – that word Remake could easily be replaced with Rebuild. Over the course of Final Fantasy VII Remake, it becomes clear that some pivotal elements of the story are changing, and the game’s universe is becoming aware of these changes. Eventually, the nature of Remake becomes clear – this is, really, a sequel to Final Fantasy VII, set in another timeline. Sephiroth has survived the original game to try to change his fate – he challenges our heroes, not all of whom survive the original Final Fantasy VII, to change their own alongside him. The next game will chart unknown territory as the stockade of the story we know is unbound.
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – I’ve played at least nine. Final Fantasy VII Remake is the game of the year because it treats itself as an adaptation of a classic text, like Gerwig’s Little Women. I cannot imagine the next time a project will so thoroughly and excellently modernize the story it tells while also respecting how essential the original is as its own standalone work. And it does so while serving the sort of beauty and excitement that I cannot help but feel to be Ozymandian.
In Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, teenagers who experience a world-threatening event from kaiju pilot giant robots to defend the last bastions of humanity in the city they call home. It is, from the beginning, unsubtle about its relationship to Evangelion. However, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim offers the sort of convoluted layers of plotting to make a Metal Gear fan’s head spin. I cannot begin to explain what the final plot of this game would be in this blog – for starters, there’s time travel, androids, femme fatales, men in black, talking cats, amnesia, virtual reality, and a whole lot of mistaken identity.
This is a silly game, a puzzle box of love for genre tropes. Like Evangelion, a lot of what it offers has been done before – what matters is its presentation and its tone. The titular 13 Sentinels all have their own interweaving storylines, all accessed in their own stories. During the game’s narrative sequences, you play as one of the thirteen pilots, exploring the town they call home and uncovering one of the game’s many twists and turns. Most of these character’s storylines can be played in any order, meaning it’s entirely possible to focus on one character’s storyline before another’s and receive the twists in an entirely different order.
What’s so impressive about this game is almost everybody I’ve talked to who’s played this game seems to wind up following different characters first and still encountering all the game’s turns as compelling. Knowing information from Shu Amugichi’s story of friendly flirtation and restless nights of strange dreams heightens the suspense of Juro Kurabe’s story daily nightmares and his pushy best friend Kyuta – but, told the other way, the dreadful realization about Juro in Shu’s story would clear everything in a shocking twist. The game trusts the player to be able to connect information into compelling drama by freeing the flow of information in this way.
This sort of storytelling also only works if you like at least most of the characters, and I think they land that balance very nicely. There are a lot of great jokes that aren’t purely referential, and it makes for a pretty easygoing playthrough. One character was so prone to whip out her gun that my wife and I would make jokes about her doing so every time. If you have a tolerance for high school stories (and I get why anybody would not,) 13 Sentinels has a nice blend of characters trying to project an image of who they think they’re supposed to be, overly emotional kids getting themselves in too deep with dangerous situations because their emotions are running completely haywire, and emotionally vulnerable softies who just want to figure out why everything seems so hard. It generally avoids getting too saucy with the actual storylines, but some of the art (especially the school nurse!) definitely still leans into Vanillaware’s history of hypersexualized characters.
Less universally compelling is the game’s other major element – the mech battles. These play out as a strategy game not unlike tower defense, with limited graphics and level-by-level iterative stat gains. Each battle has you bringing six of the thirteen sentinels into the battlefield and controlling each’s giant robot with their own special abilities. I actually quite enjoyed the strategy layer of this game, finding it just challenging enough to force me to pay full attention to succeed despite never losing a battle. I am, uh, fairly alone in this opinion – most people encourage players to dial it down to the easiest setting. But, seriously, if you like strategy games where making advantageous moves is rewarded without much room for pushback, this makes for a satisfying game!
I don’t yet know how many games of the year there are – so far, I’ve played at least nine. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the game of the year because it tells a strong, engaging ensemble story while reenvisioning how to actually navigate the ensemble. This game invites a new form of hyperlink storytelling that utilizes the medium for a modern form of mystery. It’s hard to imagine going back to the old format of a mystery game like Danganronpa now, with the best moments happening offscreen because I’m stuck in the perspective of a milquetoast protagonist who cannot change or grow dramatically without endangering player agency. And though the last ten minutes or so of the story were maybe a little too optimistic for me, the ride to get there was an all-consuming ride I couldn’t put down once I started.
I’ve been working on cyberpunk fiction with my closest friends for the better part of three years. It started as one concept, borne out of the summer of 2016, in a conversation between my podcast cohost Stephen and I. We wanted to give the megacorporations “battle idols” that would sell the private military to the public – combine warfare and theater to make a war economy sexy. It started out directly political, likely out of our frustration with rising fascism and stodgy liberalism.
After bringing in a few more bodies, we’ve expanded the concept. It’s gotten more anime, more about experimental technology and what it means to have a weaponized body, less about how even warhawk Hillary was too docile to stop the Nazis. We’ve built a Soup Street that isn’t getting its food deliveries on time, arcologies of bioengineers (and their menial laborers,) and mecha that are too much responsibility for their pilots.
But center to the stories we’ve told is the human bodies under oppression and watching their psyches crack under pressure. In the world we made, things are bad. Some people are better at getting by than others. And some are better at getting by while still keeping some love in their hearts.
Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty is an icon of that love to me. Batty is a broken man in a world that did not deserve him, and so he lashes out against it – but he never stops asking why he is no longer allowed to share in its time. When I’ve thought of stories to tell in that setting, Batty has remained in my memory as the soul either devoured or shining. The resignation in his final ad-libbed monologue remains one of the most profound filmed moments in history.
Hauer shared excited two years ago about a script he had wanted to direct titled RAIN DOGS. He was shopping at that time for a producer. It is hard not to feel he was cut short too soon himself.
Hauer has given so many heroic performances – those more well versed in his career will honor those. All I can do is try to honor that Hauer defines the stories I’ve poured my soul into these past years, and to mark this date so that his memory is not lost or forgotten like tears in rain.
It has been three years, eleven months, and four days since my last confession. And again I confess – I’m playing Desert Golfing.
Do you know that people make lists on the internet? Sorry, I don’t mean to be pedantic. Of course you know there are lists on the internet.
You’ve seen them on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Pottermore, BusinessInsider, and Epicurious. If you play games, you see them on IGN, Polygon, and Kotaku Dot Com.
I don’t mean the kind of lists someone pays you to make or the kind of lists someone makes to “generate clicks,” though. I don’t even just mean that the internet is flooded with lists. Letterboxd is a website where the libertarian right and the queer left primarily engage in discourse in the comments section of lists of movies. I used to write for a website whose sole purpose was to help its user make a ranked list of favorite movies. BestEverAlbums is a site where almost the only interaction you can have is to contribute your own list. These lists reflect the phenomenon of the lists people make on the internet.
But no, not just those lists. Because then there are the lists that never necessarily are meant to be shared. Sometimes those lists are basically wishlists or to-do lists of movies to watch, recipes to try, etc.
But then there are the private lists that half of the supreme art dorks have of their top fives (and tens and twenties and hundreds) of…everything. Guitarists. Coffee brands. Studio Ghibli movies. Dog breeds. They’re kept in a google doc or a spreadsheet, updated constantly.
My mom used to keep her movie list in OneNote before I showed her Flickchart. Maybe she still does – some of the other Flickchart writers I knew kept their spreadsheets intact and updated.
And these lists never see the light of day except in conversation with other list keepers. Then they may battle their lists for list supremacy, a sort of Pokemon Battling over whether or not Life During Wartime is a top ten Talking Heads song, or they will add blindspots “to the list.”
It is a scrivening privacy, often the very definition of mental masturbation. It operates like an ethereal university of blind academics, wandering the halls and working on solipsism, until they collide into one another.
So, anyway, my friends and I are making a list, and Desert Golfing is on the list of things we’re eventually going to narrow down to make a shorter list.
My partner asked me for good iPhone games and with Desert Golfing back on my brain, I told her to download Desert Golfing. I watched her play the first hundred or so holes.
I booted up Desert Golfing, wondering if after transitioning my SIM card to a new phone and downloading the game again it would have my progress.
Happily, it did.
I can’t say what it would have felt like to play Desert Golfing again if I had been alone, in my own home, wondering if anyone would have been willing to talk about Desert Golfing with me.
Instead, I was playing next to my partner. At first, I didn’t want to spoil the scope of the game for her and tried to play furtively, my phone turned away from hers.
She started to get very frustrated on a hole; it took something like ten shots. I decided it would be funnier to show her the hole I was on, and that even having all but mastered the game, sometimes a hole takes forty five.
A minute or two later, my ball bounced on a wall in such a unique way that it lodged into it. The sand held it on a perfect vertical slope. I screenshotted it and sent it to my list-making friends. One of them laughed. The other was worried I’d actually gotten stuck – I hadn’t, this was an easy three-stroke hole.
The other then shared a screenshot from the beginning of Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy – he joked that someone should tell the developer that he should fix the controls. (five comedy points, steve.)
This was about a week and a half ago, and I’ve been booting in here and there, enjoying pulling back on the ball (“exactly the way you would pull a red bird to fire at a piggy,” i think i said in 2014.) I’ve loved relearning the way the sand catches the ball, how to climb a slope, how to use its dampening quality to deaden a bounce off a wall into a hole rather than over it.
It is lonelier without someone sitting next to me playing along. It feels a little like walking blind down the hallways of some ethereal university.
And then, this morning, before my coffee and after my medication, I found myself chatting online about a different game on a different list with a different friend. I remarked that I like big, beautiful messes. The clean elegance of an idea well expressed is wonderful, to be sure. But I love the sprawl of elaboration and tangent, too. Blame the academics and writers who taught me that the Whale Encyclopedia chapters of Moby-Dick were “totally the best ones.”
I joked that the only form of “containment” I liked was that of Mark Rothko. I love Rothko, he’s usually my go-to favorite artist. His color work is so soothing to me. The joke wasn’t about Rothko. I went to google a Rothko in case my friend didn’t have a 20th century art history education.
The game hangs in sounds easily remembered and in feelings of genuine shock. In piano tinkling out of a band practice room, in murmurings about what lives at the bottom of the well, in a tattoo of the golden Triforce. Other Zeldas can lay claim to some of this ferocious energy, but until Breath of the Wild stole Olympian fire, no other Zelda would ever conquer a Reader’s Poll but Ocarina of Time.
Today is its 20th anniversary. Two decades gone. We have come back full circle. The most beloved games of 2018 all openly wear its colors. God of War is now an environmental puzzler with lock-on behind the back combat. Red Dead Redemption 2 officially turns the series outward toward digging through cranny and nook as its most ardent fans drop off the main storyline one by one. All that keeps Monster Hunter World from carrying the Zelda costumes presented in Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate is its lack of a Switch release.
I have been grappling with Ocarina of Time since its release. I have experienced envy, fury, pride, dejection, frustration, abandonment, and, eventually, acceptance with Kokiri Forest and the Hyrule that it calls home. Once the height of imagination and grandiosity, it sits now like an empty dollhouse, the furniture gathering dust.
In the past, I’ve wantonly made public my apostate perspective of Ocarina as “the worst 3D one.” I cite the obtuse adventure-game logic of its occasional difficult puzzles (find the sword in a hole in the wall behind the sword training center, a place useful for non-sword owners; use gravity to fall on web one and only one time – an environmental object’s ability to bear your weight will not return as a mechanic,) the simplicity of the rest, the ugly emptiness of its dungeons, and the resistance of beautiful weirdness.
This was inspired by a friend I’d suggested play the game as her first Zelda. She loathed the experience. Another friend and I set out to replay the game and found ourselves powerfully critical. What wonder it once held to our child’s eyes was replaced with repulsion. “This” was the game being held above so many we loved, above even those we still loved from that dusty N64?
Yet this rejection too was that immaturity that stops the high school student from seeing the animated films they loved all their childhood. We refused to admit how much of the game was simply bound to our code at that time. We could not imagine fumbling with the controls any longer, now bred into full literacy. We could not feel that pride at mastery we once developed as kids. We could not hear the shop music as anything but a jingle used by YouTubers to entreat the likecommentsubscribebelow.
Twenty years. Two decades gone. Under a blanket, on my partner’s sister’s sofa, I meditate on the little Kokiri shopkeeper. He seems almost casually overfamiliar while also seeming uncaring. Maybe he’s distracted because he can’t stop bouncing to peek over the countertop at his customer. I love this lil’ guy.
Remember how messy the river to Zora’s Domain is? This cavalcade of horrible eel-like geometry that you have to traverse to reach Princess Ruto, the King, Jabu-Jabu? They would repeatedly veer back and forth on how much of a Mario game should be in a Zelda game since. Geographically, it creates this place where as Din molded the earth into stone, some part of the earth grasped out against her.
I suppose what makes Ocarina of Time so difficult to grapple with is that unlike prior Zelda games, it no longer seems like an abstraction but a world. But unlike later Zelda games, its characters only have the basest desires and no driving ethos. The dollhouse comparison seems apt; it is a populated field with no life. It is a house without a home.
And then there’s the Happy Mask Salesman. The jogging man who just wants a worthy race. King Darunia’s Epic Boogie to Saria’s Song. The yellow-greens of the Lost Woods. That Gerudo Valley flamenco, that race’s uncomfortable fusion of Romani and Arabian culture. Ingo, the Waluigi of Lon Lon Ranch, that insidious younger brother who throws in with King Ganon.
I have been grappling with Ocarina of Time for twenty years. Two decades gone. I do not expect to answer its questions today. But, well. I’ve put its name in my mouth a lot these last eight years. I can take a little more time to put respect on its name.