Cara Ellison is video game journalism's favorite vagabond. You should absolutely check out her ongoing Embed With Games series, and her semi-regular S.EXE column for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. You should also follow her continuing adventures in international couch-hopping via her Twitter account.
Dearest Giant Bomb, this year I had a lot of trouble staying near a console because one would just not fit in a backpack on my travels around the world writing about game developers. Lucky for me I dual boot a Macbook and sneak conjugal visits with game developers’ consoles on the regular. So you’ll forgive me if my list is a little esoteric this year: I managed to play even fewer games outside my regular Rock Paper Shotgun remit than usual. I have this column called S.EXE over at RPS you see--it’s about sex and relationship themes in games--and the deadline for it limits my scope in what I get to play. But there was plenty interesting stuff in my year. In no particular order, for your delectation:
I guess this one snuck out of nowhere and kicked me in the shins because, I confess (and so many people I love will not speak to me for weeks about this) I just don’t really get on with Tolkien or his worlds. It all started when I realised lore was making my life miserable. Blah blah blah deposing the Inquisitor this and blah blah blah vestigial brides of the Eye of Sauron that and ooh an essay on blades of grass on hills and Tom Bombadil has a flower I COULD GO ON BUT I WON’T ELVEN POETRY ELVEN POETRY.
But god, the glory of Shadow of Mordor. The thick hot mess as orc heads slice off, the feeling of bodies, the fast gleam and frictive HNGH into flesh and the black night and hours and hours of standing in dirt strafing the enemy, finding weaknesses, looking at parts and fielding seductive taunts from testosteroney baritones… It’s the first game to really explore male intimacy, male bodies next to other bodies and how to negotiate them. It’s earthy. It’s the Top Gun locker room. It’s aggression as romance, an orc dating sim. To wait as the nemesis systems reshuffles itself to decide who will come to top and tail you and grab you by the scruff of the neck and--
Someone walks in on you and you’re sitting in someone’s living room homeless with sweat running down your back and you look at yourself and you think, "Fuck. What am I doing? Is life hollow? Oh god I need a shower. Did they see my orc face?" And you run out of the room.
9. Kanye Zone
Every year I want video games to fully embrace the power of pop music and incorporate it into game mechanics with the purity and vision of something like Guitar Hero but with a regular controller and a Godhand brawling sensibility. Until we get my Samurai Champloo-inspired linear narrative brawler to an expansive classic hip hop soundtrack type game, let us make do with Kanye Zone, an ingenious game made by a mysterious duo at Otter Spice, which is a company that sounds like a piss take and probably is.
Kanye Zone is a simple browser game made from the Kanye track "N***** in Paris", one of the gutsiest, most experimental tracks Kanye’s done, and samples from it to formulate its game mechanics. The famous refrain is Kanye’s "don’t let me get in my zone, don’t let me get in my zone" with Jay-Z finally joining in to say triumphantly, "I’M DEFINITELY IN MY ZONE".
Well, this game is about preventing Kanye from getting in his zone. If you fail to prevent him from getting in his zone, that annoying bastard that takes up all Beyonce’s recording time pops up and tells you that he is in the zone.
I can play this game for hours because the refrain is one of our culture’s absolute finest, and once you train yourself to prevent Kanye from getting in the zone it’s almost a disappointment to hear the actual song fail so miserably at preventing him from rezoning.
When you restart the game, it yells “SHUBOI” at you and my god that is game design at its finest. More game mechanics straight from pop, please.
Coming Out On Top is a gay dude dating sim. But even if you are not into looking at naked dudes, there is no denying that this game is one of the best written games I have ever played. It’s almost Joss Whedonesque in its glib, sharp humour, it’s got a crackle of tension, and the characters are so human and interesting in a way that video games find hard to bestow. This game gave me the full emotional workout, stretching emotional muscles in me that games never ever do. I felt awkward in many situations, I felt shy, sometimes I felt longing or even… turned on.
This game is the Citizen Kane of ripped, naked big-dicked dudes in love. It’s the fucking Citizen Kane of fucking.
7. A Dark Room
You should all take the time to play through A Dark Room once. It’s free on browsers but it’s much much better played on mobile.
A Dark Room has a minimal interface, just little black and white buttons with some status bars and numbers. It’s essentially a little RTS but done with zero graphics. You build a community and mine and gather resources and all that, and it takes a long time to complete and fight to get enough resources--but that’s not why you’d play it.
A Dark Room does with a few sentences of flavour text what whole art teams sometimes fail to do: they provide a deep and mysterious atmosphere of foreboding, a hint of hardship or secrecy, a feeling of intimacy with the silhouettes of figures that come in and out of your encampment. They lead to a bigger narrative, painfully, deftly. It begins with the wonderful "light fire" button, and everything folds out from there like origami. A Dark Room is a robust example of how to tell just enough story through concise and interesting text.
“It was somewhere around the time we were having a microtrip through technicolour tunnels that made us levitate that my friend said, "WE SHOULDN'T HAVE EATEN THAT PIG." My character bouncing around off fluorescent triangles, mangling my hand on WASD, I said "I'M GETTING NAUSEOUS," and she pointed to some microchips on a floor made of formulae and greek symbols and I put the chips in the computer's head. The next sick-making tunnel opened before me.
We were a long way from the twee game we thought we were playing. We'd scanned the barcode printed on the pig-on-wheels into her phone, her real-life phone, before our character ate it, and it gave us a message that suggested that Agent Polyblank shouldn't eat the electric pig. So, we made Polyblank eat the electric pig. A hole opened in the grass verge and we descended into the darkly comedic belly of Jazzpunk.”
Well I don’t remember reviewing Jazzpunk but that might be because it’s like a sort of weird trip.
Queers In Love At The End Of The World was a 2013 text game, but it got me through this year of travelling by articulating how short I know time to be now. I somehow found myself writing a damn poem about it. You don’t have to read it, but it would mean a lot to me if you did.
Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such As We came second in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, and is a choose your own adventure that is self-consciously many things. It’s an elegant metacommentary on player investment games, for one thing. The main character plays through a video game whilst having the option to romance the game developers who made the game they are playing. The player can choose to interrogate the developers on their choices, and you can rail at them for their decisions. Above all, it’s a nice interrogation into what we want from games and why. It asks, what do we think art is? And what do we want from it? It’s thoughtful, interesting, and well-written, with a good deal of replayability. Substantial stuff.
Every year I play an Increpare game and get upset about it. I don’t really know how he does it: Stephen just pumps out these free little vignette games that illustrate one small thing about life in some really… profound way.
I played the first person vignette Cooking For Lovers on a rainy afternoon in Tokyo, and it felt hard to be alone. I was living on my friend Jon’s couch, and at that moment he was out.
It’s just a little game about making a pot noodle. All you do is make a pot noodle. It takes maybe five minutes.
Perhaps it’s the gentle bland greyscale of the kitchen, or perhaps it’s the quiet, or perhaps it’s the dreamy slidiness of your weightless body on the kitchen floor. Perhaps it's that you can't see your own body, that you're invisible. But it made me very upset that I was alone, completing kitchen tasks. It is a game about loneliness. The title of the game, Cooking For Lovers, made me think that the game designer was upset to be alone too.
I don’t know if Increpare feels that way. I don’t know if he just wanted me to feel that way because he’s some sort of sadist (perhaps all game designers are in some way). I don’t know if I completely misinterpreted it. But I felt very close to him, right then. I feel like I know why he called it Cooking For Lovers.
And even if he didn’t mean for me to feel that way about his game, I did and I value it. And he made it and gave it to me for free.
2. Kentucky Route Zero (Act III)
Act III of Kentucky Route Zero came out this year. KRZ is so pregnant with meaning, so all-encompassingly beautiful, so much a space in which to exist and think, to explore and wander, to be and know, that it is difficult for me even now to write about it. It is like trying to tell someone how much you love them, talking about this game. It is like trying to reach a horizon. The third act of this game includes a part that can be spoiled, but I can tell you that it involves a piece of music, and it’s been the most heartstopping moment of the game so far. I can’t wait to see more of it.
Alien: Isolation is a grand, flawed and magnificent beauty of a precise and calculated kind. The stealth genre really needed this game, and although the environments almost oustrip the Alien, I loved the little ways in which you can feel the tension between you and your enemy. It’s terrifying in parts, and the set pieces really work your nerves out.
There’s also that it gives a new perspective on the film Alien: many critics speculated that the film was about the male fear of rape and pregnancy (see: chestburster scene). If that’s so, placing the player explicitly in a female body in this game threatens to displace this narrative in favour of stating that it is not a male fear but a female fear--Ripley’s, and any "penetration" or "violation" of her body is something the player is experiencing. The first person view can be very powerful for perspective, and I think it’s really interesting switch in horror perspectives. Games like Thief, for example, have been experimenting with vulnerability in games like this for a while, and A:I is a welcome addition to this tradition.
And god, that beautiful soundtrack.
Now, everyone be excellent to each other. And play Nidhogg, you jerks.