Adam Conover is a comedian and the host of truTV's Adam Ruins Everything. In 2019 he launched a new podcast, Factually!, in which he interviews experts on a wide array of topics.
He's @adamconover on Twitter.
"Come on," I thought, "yet another simulation of a retro computer desktop? How interesting could this be?" When I finally played this in late December, I realized how stupid I was.
Every single pixel in Hypnospace is a pitch-perfect psychedelic parody of an internet culture that's now long dead. It identifies and riffs on characters that are instantly recognizable, but which I hadn't thought about in years, much less identified as tropes: The web developer who recently found out that he's Celtic, and so has covered his website with Celtic iconography; the bubbly pastel clip-art straight out of Apple's failed mid-90s online service eWorld; the grieving mother who has made a memorial site to "angels" who have passed on. It's hyper-specific and deeply, deeply funny.
This is on everyone else's list, so I'll just say that what makes a game great isn't the game itself but the experience you have playing it, and the experience I had playing UGG was Lisa and I making each other laugh uproriously playing it together on stream. If you played it alone, you missed out. Grab your partner or favorite friend, trade the controller back and forth, and honk at the screen goddamnit.
No, it's not as fresh as Dark Souls. No, it's not as impeccable an experience as Bloodborne. But Sekiro does something very special. See, in earlier From games, you could fight almost any way you wanted: you could hide behind a shield, or dodge, or kite, or attack from range. Sekiro robs you of that ability; instead, it forces you to fight on its terms. If you don't learn the parry pattern, you're getting gutted. And it's that uncompromising nature that caused the most transcendent gaming moment I've experienced in years.
At the end of a long stream, I was banging my head against the brick wall that is Spear Guy over and over again, making little to no progress. My parries were mistimed, my attacks were sloppy, and they were only becoming moreso the later it got. Frustrated and angry, I finally declared, "Okay, this is my last run and then I'm going to bed."
And on that last run, I defeated him flawlessly. Somehow, all the muscle memory I had built from bad run after bad run gathered itself and found expression in my fingers. Every thrust, I parried. Every sweep, I jumped over. Every strike found its mark. It didn't seem possible; yet I had done it. Simply put: I transcended myself. And what better moment can a game lead you to than that?
Sorry Bandersnatch; Sam Barlow's Telling Lies and Her Story are the only FMV experiences I've ever enjoyed, not because they allow you to "choose your own" narrative--a mechanic which hasn't been entertaining since I was eight--but because they gamify the experience of exploring an expertly-woven narrative. The random-access nature of searching for clips means that every player is able to follow their own curiosity to discover an experience that is completely customized to them, even though the story stays the same. It's a brilliant technique.
Death Stranding is a game about a guy who, when told the President of the country where he lives wants to see him, replies "There's a President?", and then is told that yes not only is there a President but also that the President is his own mother. How is it possible to not know that the country you live in has a leader when that leader is the person whose birth canal you fell out of? No matter: This is only the 583rd most nonsensical thing in Death Stranding's script. Lines and entire scenes often seem out of order. People, places, and events are discussed before they're introduced, or sometimes before they even occur. At one point, Sam Porter Bridges is shocked to learn that package he's been carrying around labelled "Small Thermonuclear Device" contains a bomb. Every character's name is a florid metaphor of connection like "Bridget McUmbilical Rope-ington the Third", yet all the cities are called "Warehouse Facility to the Northwest of Southeastern Knot Lake City." Every five seconds you receive an email from an NPC telling you how much they like pizza.
But none of this matters, because the gameplay loop is just That. Fucking. Good. Every time I carried a giant load of shit from Distribution Center South of North Knot all the way to Knot Lake Knot Port North of North Port Knot Lake, I immediately saddled up and did it again, because doing it felt great and because I loved watching the Mission Completed screen take five minutes to fill up with Likes (the purpose of which I never divined.)
Kojima's not a genius. He's a very good game designer who knows how to make fascinating, sticky mechanics that I want to keep playing with; and he's a weirdo whose eccentricities we've all grown fond of. As Zach Gage pointed out to me on a soon-to-be-released episode of my podcast, Humans Who Make Games, the only shame is that the public doesn't know the names of hundreds of other talented game designers just as well.
I spent more time playing this game than any other this year. Hell, even the handcrafted indie gems in the Apple Arcade couldn't pull me away from it. The crossword puzzle might be the one "forever game" that I will never, ever tire of; every new puzzle constructor brings a new twist to the format that keeps me coming back.
But here's the flaw: There are so many terrific crosswords being published every day at places *other* than the New York Times! The New Yorker, The American Values Club, The Inkubator, and others churn out excellent puzzles regularly, many of which equal or surpass the Times in quality, and which can feel like a breath of fresh air after a decade of mainlining Shortz-edited puzzles.
The only problem: None of these contenders have apps! It is my conviction that the Grey Lady's hegemony only persists because of their advantage in mobile user interface design. Puzzledom is just waiting for an enterprising developer to code up a slick and functional competitor, aggregate the indie puzzles (there's even a standard format, the .puz file!) and become the new ruler of crossworld. Do it!
This is a wonderful remake; the art is beautiful, the music is lovely, and it makes me feel like I'm 10 again. But remarkably, every bit of gameplay that comes on this 5.8 GB download--this incredibly dense map, stuffed with challenges, jokes, and secrets--was originally delivered on a 4 megabyte Game Boy cart. After finishing it, I plugged my original Link's Awakening cartridge into a Game Boy Advance, and found that the game hadn't aged a day. Why remake it, when the original was this good? For that matter, why did we move on from the Game Boy in the first place? My favorite part of Link's Awakening was the reminder that technology doesn't define the limits of our gameplay experience; human creativity does.
If you haven't had the experience of going to your local retro game shop, buying a Super NES cartridge that you'd only ever seen in the pages of Nintendo Power Magazine, taking it home, popping it in to your Analogue Super NT, and playing it on your very own couch, let me tell you: I recommend it. I'm halfway through Final Fantasy II--yeah yeah, I know you call it “IV” to prove you’re a real fan, but I’m talking about the weirdly translated, simplified-for-the-US, totally revolutionary game that was released stateside as Final Fantasy II, and since that’s the name that’s printed on the plastic cartridge I’m holding in my very own hands, that’s what I’m going to call it--and I'm about to start in on Buster Busts Loose. It's 1993 in my living room and life is good.
BABA IS GOTY. This game shocked me; not only is it the cleverest, yet simplest concept for a puzzle game I've ever seen, it iterates on that concept over and over again, until the point of absurdity has been reached and well exceeded. I was simply gobsmacked by how many levels of meta-self-referentiality the game climbed to using the simplest of tools. Is it a game, or is it a revolutionary new sheep-based programming language? Hard to tell; all I know is that Baba Is You caused my brain to do things it's never done before.
Okay, this is the GOTY. An outer-space adventure with a fully functional gravity model, set within a miniature solar system so lifelike that the first time I was separated from my ship I gasped at how alone and helpless I felt. It's an exploration game where every passageway, every building, and every tunnel is carved into a 3D model of a spherical planet, like an ant's nest burrowed into a ball of dirt. It's a puzzle game where locked doors and shortcuts are opened only by your understanding of how they work and where they are; knowledge is, quite literally, the key. It's a game in which you can't stop the destruction of the universe, but instead learn to be at peace with it. It's incredible enough for one game to contain all of these ideas; that they all work together harmoniously is astonishing. I haven't been able to stop talking and thinking about The Outer Wilds all year.
(I was incredibly fortunate to interview Alex Beachum, the director, on an upcoming episode of Humans Who Make Games--look for it in 2020.)