Games of 2020 – What’s New is New Again

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.

Hades

Hades. Zagreus looks down on the lava of Asphodel, stating, "I won't back down. Not now or ever."

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Hades. An unknown chaotic god, adorned with batwings, a halo, and a coat decorated with faces says, "...The Olympians have all grown soft... would you not agree?"

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.

Hades. Zagreus battles Theseus and The Minotaur.

Signs of the Sojourner

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Signs of the Sojourner. The game introduces XN-220, citizen of Rimina, who speaks in circle and diamond shapes. It states XN-220 is "An older model of android, rarely seen." About the city of Rimina, it states, "Rimina lies among the hills, overlooking terraced vineyards and the coast far below. Packs of children run across the crumbling limestone walls around the outer limits, pretending their sticks are ancient swords." The game offers the player the ability to move on without meeting XN-220. It is day 22, and day 26 is the day the player is due back home.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer. Stella sits aboard her ship, fishing at sunset.

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Spiritfarer. Stella has assembled Uncle Atul and three more guests for a feast at a lamplit patio. Atul says, excitedly, "I knew you would pull through."

Blaseball

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Blaseball fan art of a blaseball card for Seattle Garages athlete Allison Abbott, who is chewing gum and carries a nailed bat.
Art by M. Lee Lunsford

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.

Blaseball fan comic. Wyatt Quitter explains the history of the last season to a fellow player on the Tokyo Lift, stating, "So then The Garages were all like, 'What if we exploited a loophole in this popularity contest to resurrect the dead.'" The new player responds, "That sounds like it was a bad idea." Wyatt responds "Look pal, I haven't even gotten to The Snackrifice."
Art by Jonathan Ying.

If Found…

If Found. An eraser on screen peels away sunset into nightfall on an old, decrepit house covered in vines and moss.

A Sampler Playlist

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.

If Found. A journal page, with significant sections scratched out or marked over. You can clearly read the dates Sunday 12th, Dec 13th, and 14th, the name Colum O'Malley, and the word Sorry.

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.

If Found. An eraser on screen transitions between the fields of Ireland at night and Kasio walking with Shans.

Paradise Killer

Paradise Killer. An interview between Lady Love Dies and Crimson Acid at Crimson Acid's apartment. The transcript reads:
LADY LOVE DIES: |Get on with it."
CRIMSON ACID: "The Holy Seals are the holy grails of secret hunters. They're so locked down and under wraps. I was losing sleep each night thinking abou tthem. I knew K. HX designed the second Seal so I started talking to him. I also knew he was obsessed with me."
LADY LOVE DIES: "Obsessed?"
CRIMSON ACID: "More than I expected. I thought he was just horny for me."

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Paradise Killer. A beach coastline with apartment complexes and a tall spire in the background. Statues of purple marble depict goat heads and other pagan iconography.

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.

Paradise Killer. The game offers the A button to talk to Henry Division, a man possessed by a caged demon, bound in the Desolation Cell.

Games of 2020 – What’s Old Is New Again

Animal Crossing New Horizons: Marshal and Lily sit on a bench, drinking juice.

I got spoiled in sequels this year.

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 New Horizons

Animal Crossing New Horizons: three friends meet at the front entrance to my island, a rainbow garden.

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Animal Crossing New Horizons. Two villagers sit at the beach between tiki torches, listening to a boombox and smiling.

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 2

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

Golf on Mars. The ball sits at the tee, waiting to strike.

Hello, my old friend. How have you been? I like that new curl.

In my own opinion, my best writing is that which I’ve penned about Desert Golfing. Over the six years since the game released, it only changed the once – instead, I changed and it remained my constant. A sequel was something I never remotely considered could exist – it arrived one day unannounced, as the original did, and the collective of desert golfers began to Golf on Mars.

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.

Deadly Premonition 2. Agent Francis York Morgan is seated to breakfast on the patio as he says to the chef David Jawara, "Only an amateur would call 'A Clockwork Orange' his best movie."

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Ichiban Kasuga is lifted and tossed into the air in celebration of passing a college exam.

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Ichiban Kasuga sits at a movie theater, trying to stay awake watching RoboCook, as the sheep-headed agents of sleep work their magic on him, hoping to make him catch some Z's.

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.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Bleach Japan marches with conservative signs, mostly in Japanese - the words "NO!," "GET OUT!," AND "STOP!" are written in English.

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.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The party rests between missions at the Survive bar.

Games of 2020 – Death and Robots at the End of the World

Poster for The End of Evangelion (1997.) Main characters Shinji and Asuka look at an apocalypse dominated by Rei's face.

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.

Promo art of Evangelion Units 00, 01, and 02.

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.

Screencap from Evangelion. Shinji Ikari curled nearly into a fetal position in bed, not using his pillow or his headphones.

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.)

Umurangi Generation

Screenshot from the first level of Umurangi Generation (2020.) Two of your friends standing in front of walls with graffiti and stencil art.

A Sampler Playlist

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.)

Umurangi is the Te Reo word for Red Sky. In the center of a statewide crisis, you play as a photographer sent to capture photography that documents the U.N.’s response, how citizens are holding up, and the still life of a city in the shitty future. It is the Waypoint Dot Zone Game of 2020 – 2 Mello, Cado Contreras, and Austin Walker have screamed about it all year, and Colin Spacetwinks called it “he best environmental storytelling i’ve ever seen in a game.” 

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.

Footage from Umurangi Generation’s third level.

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.

Graffiti text from Umurangi Generation Macro's final level. The text reads:

"We Aren't The Smoke
We Aren't The Fire
We Are The Ashes."

"KOLUZUN IS NO ILLUZUN."

"have been topside. #stopcollateral)"

"I DON'T NEED PERMISSION TO NOT DIE."

"MOST COPS WERE 1ST WAVE VETS AND HAVE SEEN SOME SHIT THEY HAVE NEVER CLEARED."

"ALL PROTESTORS ARE CRIMINALS" = CHECKMARK. "ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS" = POLITICS.

"HIDE YOUR FACE."

"PICK A SIDE OR DIE."

"SORRY FOR NOT WANTING TO DIE."

"OBVIOUSLY ALL LIVES DON'T MATTER WHEN YOU KEEP KILLING US."

"IF WE ARE THE REAL BADGUYS THEN WHO ARE YOUR HEROES?"

"MY LIFE HAS VALUE."

"MONEY IS POWER
DRAIN THE MONEY
DRAIN THE [blank.]"

Describing the themes of the game, director Veselekov said these in linked interviews:

Vista Magazine:

I chose Umurangi Generation, you know, Red Sky Generation, because the idea was to talk about how our generation is coming of age at the moment having to deal with older generations destroying the earth in-front of us. And we can’t really do anything about it. We can go and protest, sure, but in terms of being the people who actually push the buttons, we’re limited in that space. The idea in choosing that title was that someday there is going to be a last generation. A generation who is in the position we’re in at the moment. They’re going to have to just sit by and watch. There’s going to be a point where we can’t fix it. A generation that won’t have that same hope that I have at the moment.

US Gamer:

“The concept of the game’s story and themes came from my experience with the bush fires that happened in Australia and the government’s shit house job at not only reacting to them but ignoring the issue of climate change for years. The government in Australia has been ignoring the impacts of climate change for decades at this point. It is one of the things where they were warned for years in advanced about the bush fire seasons in Australia getting worse every year.

This stuff that happened in Oz [Australia] was simply the point where the bowl overflowed.”

Waypoint, after Macro:

“I don’t want to sugarcoat the reality that we’re all going through,” said Faulkner. “I don’t want to dumb down the severity of the problem. But if there are people activated from [playing Umurangi Generation] who think about this stuff a little bit more, or think about the stuff a little bit more when they’re playing games even, I think that’s a good thing.”

Screenshot from late in Umurangi Generation. Graffiti in a public mall, with a recruitment poster in the background.

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.

Screenshot from The Strand in Umurangi Generation. A fisheye lens party with significant light bloom, surrounded by neon signs. An ominous wall in the back with the UN logo blocks the city street and skyline.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Remake. Cloud overlooks the Sector 7 slums, seeing the "great pizza" that is the upper city plates.

A Sampler Playlist

It should never have worked.

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. 

Screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Remake. Tifa grips Aerith's hands in the Sector 7 slums. Tifa looks concerned - Aerith looks encouraging.

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.

Screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Remake. A motorcycle battle during the Jessie Rasberry mission in a security tunnel.

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.

Screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Remake. Cloud stands in the garden outside Aerith's house.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Screenshot from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Megumi looks at a sentinel robot on the horizon from the school roof.

A Sampler Playlist

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.

Screenshot from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Hijiyama mourns the yakisoba pan sandwich now lying on the ground after a hit from a local gang leader.

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.

Screenshot from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Ogata stands on the train after it has left the station.

Holding Infinity In The Pocket of Your Shorts

Well, here we are again.

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.

And then I wrote this.

Desert Golfing And The Rejection of Endings

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I’ve written previously in brief about Desert Golfing, a recent intriguing mobile game. It’s a simple game where the player swings a ball across a desert into holes, a ticker keeping score all the while. The game’s escalating difficulty is accompanied by surprises in the desert and the player’s continuing mastery of the physics and control of the ball. It’s by no means the “best iPhone game of 2014” (it’s likely that’s Threes!, which spawned a legion of imitators) but a recent patch solidified its place as one of the most interesting, given credit by its inclusion as a Nuovo Award finalist for the annual 2015 Independent Games Festival.

Desert Golfing now has two canonical “endings,” each a variation on the same. Notably, it’s not likely the creator, Justin Smith, would reach either. He considered a hole roughly 500 before the first ending to be “impossible,” meaning he was nowhere near encountering the first when it was uncovered, and the second only requires more skill. Albeit both the game’s endings specifically place emphasis on that which came before the ending, I will fulfill the cyclical problem Desert Golfing addresses by reading its endings and the implications they raise. This piece, for what it’s worth, will presume some familiarity with Desert Golfing, meaning those who haven’t played the game should read my previous piece.


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Alex Recommends: Fantasy Zone (1986)

Fantasy Zone Flyer

“How on earth did we manage to play those games with the annoying beep-boop music on repeat?” That’s the question I was met with while discussing NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) games with a classmate of mine. It’s true classic games like “Bubble Bobble” and “Space Harrier” had tracks that looped for far too long; even games with multiple memorable themes, like “Metroid” or “The Legend of Zelda,” have 60-second loops that might extend upwards of 20 minutes, depending on your skill.

If these games had music as buoyant as Sega’s 1986 arcade classic “Fantasy Zone,” we might never complain. Though “Fantasy Zone” offers multiple versions of its core music (later offering a few less-memorable melodies) it scarcely requires the variation. Absurdly upbeat, “Fantasy Zone” offers a light, childlike experience, widely different from other games in its genre.

Read more at The Daily Cardinal.

Depth and Premonition: Reflection on Character in Swery65’s Magnum Opus

WELCOME TO GREENVALE sign.

After the rain.

Deadly Premonition,” a game inspired by “Twin Peaks,” remains one of the gaming world’s most underplayed entries. Released in the U.S. in 2010 as a budget title with mediocre box art, its often hideous graphics, and its mixed reviews running the gamut from “pretty close to perfect” to “awful in nearly every way,” the mystery-as-life-sim title has almost been washed from gaming’s history.

I, however, happen to know several of its most adamant fans—and not because I’ve searched for them. A strong undercurrent of devotion surrounds “Deadly Premonition” and an appreciation stands for its surreal, socially awkward, tragic protagonist FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan. None of these traits are liable to be called his “primary state” at the start of the game. These are visions of the York we will come to know, a foreshadowing of his arc. Rather, York at the start of the game is idiosyncratic, confident and probably too smart for his own good.

In the first scene, York loses his cell phone and laptop. His repeated jabs at Greenvale, the game’s setting, as being set back in the “Middle Ages” wash over the player, distancing York from someone who can turn off their console and begin text messaging friends right away. But York is cut off from the outside world in Greenvale. These links to the outside world are lost for good after their inclusion at the beginning of the game—when York reports to the FBI, he must do so by landline, and when he writes summaries of the case thus far, he must write them on a typewriter.

Read more on The Daily Cardinal’s website.

I’m Flushing My Animal Crossing Town.

I walk through my little fruit groves, perfect oranges and succulent peaches hanging from beautiful green trees. My town’s fountain is surrounded by flowers, and a bridge has nearly finished reconstruction just nearby. Before I cross the river, I stop in at Brewster’s Cafe. He mutters, “Coo to see you.” I sit across from my old friend, knowing that Mayor Alex isn’t going to see Brewster again.

I offer to work part-time for him one last time, and I question whether or not I should close my town. And as I work the counter, my favorite resident, Freya, asks for her mocha. I question my move again. And then, of course, my next customer is Samson.

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Samson. I’m so sick of Samson. I’ve had Samson in three separate villages throughout my Animal Crossing career over the last ten years, and he’s always been one of my least favorite villagers. I’ve done everything in my power to get him to leave. And then I remember that I’ve been trying to get Camofrog to leave too, and then I remember that I’ve had two villagers in the last six months that I’ve wanted to keep, and they remain two of four villagers I want to keep at all.

I love the layout of my town. It’s very convenient, and leaves plenty of room for an orchard. But my two favorite villagers, Twiggy and Papi, both left without warning during my absences. I’ve had a string of bad luck. So I could either wait eight months for these villagers I dislike to move out (of course, if another Gwen, or Broffina, or Limberg, or Hans were to move in, that would be worse still!) or I can restart and hope for the best.

My girlfriend is storing my stuff. It’s nice that Animal Crossing New Leaf makes it so easy to store things. And I’ll miss the progress I’ve made. It’s modest, to be sure, but I can pretty much do what I like. I just need new neighbors. Some people might point this out as a flaw with the game; MOST of the villagers are “not awesome,” so why do I praise the relationships in the game?

Well, I think most of the villagers are pretty rad, but even aside from that, even many of the most reviled villagers have their fans. The Tumblr community assured me that people do in fact like Hans and many of my least favorite villagers. I just can’t get past them.

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Like everything in life, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. Goodbye, Grænvale. I’ll miss your tall fruit trees and your beautiful rivers. But, well, I certainly won’t miss Samson.

Why We’re Recording a “Game of the Year” Podcast

I sit down to write this listening to the soundtrack of my podcast’s past Game of the Year, Fez. Disasterpeace’s work on the game is as stunning as I remember; melodies are accented and transition in register and dynamic range with expertise. Fez was a game primarily about learning, but also about nature, science fiction, the life cycle, space, God, loneliness, community, the Internet, childhood, accidents, and its designer, Phil Fish.

I regret how little time we spent discussing Fez on last year’s Game of the Year podcast. Most of the panel had spent less time with it than myself and were complacent to crown it, preferring to debate the runner-up spot between Mass Effect 3 and Journey. An hour of impassioned anecdotes, defenses, analyses, and even attacks defined Journey’s #2 placement. The same was true of 2011’s Game of the Year Deliberations, consisting of a battle between The Witcher 2 and Bastion before crowning Saints Row: The Third.

It’s not that I dispute these choices; Saints and Fez were “my” games. But the process of discussing Game of the Year is focused upon relating to people’s experiences. That’s why we put out a podcast rather than writing a lengthy feature; essays about these games can be written outside of this context, but assessing individual experiences and relating to each other as a collaborative group can only be accomplished through conversation. We failed to engage upon our most beloved titles, and I resolve to correct that issue this year.

What we’ve come up with is a verifiable fleet of lovable games to represent the best of 2013. They represent a diverse spread of experiences possible with the medium; from minimal, humanist storytelling, to innovation in both storytelling and gameplay, to pure excellence in a known format, the games selected struck out to our panel as especially vibrant and viable. With the possible exception of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to the incredible Wings of Liberty, each could stand as an effective introduction to games.

Perhaps most meaningfully, I look at this list and have no idea which title will stand apart as our Game of the Year, inspiring me to believe we’ll have some amazing conversation.

And there’s still so many great games we’re not talking about, simply because they didn’t jump out at us quite as much as these 25 (not that there was a hard limit.) We’re not talking about Gunpoint, despite the fact that it reevaluates stealth design and excels in creating combat mechanics with personal weight that reflect their main character. We’re not talking about Guacamelee, even though it’s a very well-designed game that reflects gamer culture the way Borderlands 2 strove to achieve. We’re not talking about Studio Ghibli’s entry point into video games, Ni No Kuni, just because none of us had time to play it this year.

So, when our Game of the Year Deliberations come out, and we’ve reached our final top ten list, take it all with a grain of salt. The ultimate list part of this process is relatively arbitrary; it’s really about engaging with why we’ve chosen these games.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2014 NOMINEES

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Antichamber

Bioshock Infinite

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Depression Quest

Divekick

DmC: Devil may Cry

Dota 2

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Gone Home

Grand Theft Auto V

Metro: Last Light

Nintendoland

Papers, Please

Pikmin 3

Pokémon X/Y

Rogue Legacy

Saints Row IV

StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Super Mario 3D World

The Last of Us

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Stanley Parable

Tomb Raider