Casey Malone is a professional comedian and game designer. You can follow him on Twitter.
Good riddance! Right? I don’t have anything profound or inspiring to say about 2020 here, but that seems ok. We’re all sick of talking about it. I consider myself exceptionally lucky, in that I’m safe and stable during an age of pure catastrophe, and even I’m drained thinking about the past 12 months. I mean, remember when Josh Gad became completely inescapable as soon as we went into lockdown? God knows that’s been taxing for us all.
But let’s focus on the good stuff. Did the chance of a hot person seeing the inside of my apartment this year drop to 0%? Sure, I could dwell on that. But did that free me up to finally get a gamer chair? You bet my sweet ass it did. So, for a few hundred words, here’s a list of things that brought me joy last year. Who knows, you might even be on it.
Activision finally let Vicarious Visions loose and they gave everyone exactly the Tony Hawk game we’ve been demanding. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is the platonic ideal of a remaster, where every addition--new progression systems, tweaks in art direction, new skaters--channels and amplifies the spirit of the original. I mean, thank god they got the soundtrack right. This game rules, and if I was 17 again, it would be much higher on my list. But that’s not Vicarious Visions’ fault. Unless… they can’t remaster me can they? I need to make some calls.
So long, Hearts! Take a hike, Bridge! Eat shit, Canasta! Cribbage is the king of casual classic card games, and it’s back, baby.
Cribbage is a favorite card game of mine, ideally played in the summertime, on a porch, with someone who’s temporarily out of things to talk about. Cribbage with Grandpas captures that spirit--instead of playing against a faceless AI, you build your grandpa with their own skills and personality, and just have a nice afternoon with him.
Maybe he’s crabby. Maybe he’s encouraging. Maybe he tries to convince you to let him cheat. But no one’s having any heavy conversations, and there’s just enough chatter to make you feel connected to the man across the table from you for a relaxing few rounds before Grandpa needs his nap.
God, I love playing board games. Setting up all those little bits and bobs and doing a quick rules refresher before spending three hours hunting down Dracula with friends, or just pulling out a hidden role game and watching friends break into a cold sweat while we figure out who was lying (or how to lie to each other). It’s not the thing I miss most about pre-pandemic life--leaving my apartment literally at all currently tops that list--but it’s up there, and until I can gather with friends again, Tabletop Simulator is putting in work.
Tabletop Simulator is mostly just a robust physics simulator--i’s users create the (dubiously legal) adaptations of existing board games for people to download. And while it’s a bit of a jalopy--it’s clunky, finicky, and occasionally unstable--I’ve logged over 80 hours playing it since May, and any recap of my 2020 in gaming wouldn’t be complete without it.
Let’s talk about Toads. There are 135 hidden Toads in Paper Mario: The Origami King, and when you find every one of them, you’re met with an absolutely perfect one-liner. Each one spits out a quick joke that’s so funny it would often make me mad! Most modern games that want to be funny do so by giving the player space to find and make something funny happen--games like Quiplash, or even Gang Beasts. Paper Mario: Origami King scraps that and goes back to an old-school joke parade, where every new environment and NPC is an attempt to get a laugh out of you. And it does, a lot! Which is really hard! I mean, look at this paragraph you’re reading right now. I tried to find a way to work a joke into it and failed. Which, I think we can all agree, proves how hard comedy is and not that I should have worked harder while writing this.
We were trying to guess which word my friend Kevin was drawing.
The word was ‘Homer Simpson’.
I fully admit that I’m biased when it comes to Marvel games. Working on a Marvel game keeps the lights on around here, and what’s more, almost everyone in the Marvel Universe has been my close personal friend for many years. Yes, even . Regardless of that bias, I feel confident when I say that Spider-Man: Miles Morales is an improvement on is predecessor in almost every way.
Focusing on Miles lets Insomniac jettison decades of Peter Parker’s baggage and supporting characters to tell a story that feels brand new, rather than just a new version of one we’ve heard before. And the story they tell is personal, heart-wrenching, funny, and surprising. Little moments like picking which of your late father’s records to listen to at Christmas dinner were touching, on par with the larger more directly emotional moments of the game’s climax.
It’s not just the story that gets updated, though. Miles’ venom blasts are a whole new power set that Insomniac uses to add depth and dazzling visual punch to the combat. We’ve played games with this Arkham Asylum style combat dozens of times at this point, and the venom blasts truly made it feel fresh. I do wish the game were longer, but I suspect it’s the exact right length for most people. I only find myself wanting more because what’s there is so, so good.
Anyone forced to speak to me (through either social or legal contract) has probably heard me talk about how Magic: The Gathering is my favorite game. And, most years, a digital version of Magic would make it onto this list. But a big part of what I love about playing Magic isn’t just the gameplay, it’s the social element. With the pandemic, that was gone, and I found playing Magic: The Gathering Arena exclusively against faceless, wordless opponents to be profoundly depressing*. Luckily, someone invented SpellTable.
SpellTable is a Magic: The Gathering browser app that lets you play with your physical cards against other people via webcam. It tracks your life total, whose turn it is, granular detail like poison counters and Commander damage, and, most importantly, uses image recognition software to let you to click on blurry webcam footage of your friends’ cards to tell you in plain text what the hell they do.
Why it’s so high on my list, though, is that SpellTable allowed me to regularly play Commander--a wildly popular 4-player variant of Magic--with people from the Discord community for , an extremely funny podcast hosted by comedians and . Part of playing Magic at a local game store is getting to know a group of regulars, developing a little bit of a rapport and eventual friendship or rivalries over a shared passion. SpellTable helped turn The Commander Sphere Discord from just a cool chatroom into a replacement for something that otherwise would have just been lost to me in the last year.
* Note to self, game idea: “Magic with Grandpas” ™™™
Around mid April, I had the thought: “Wow, it seems like this pandemic might stretch through to my birthday at the end of May,” which seems impossibly quaint now. Of course, it stretched to May and well beyond, and as I’m sure you can attest from likely having your own quarantine birthday, it felt leaden and dour. And while it’s been a struggle to mark any occasion this year, birthdays feel different. We were all miserable together on major holidays this year, but on your birthday, it’s just you feeling it. That added layer of loneliness turned out to be surprisingly hard to shake. Then I opened up Animal Crossing.
There’s no way Nintendo could have possibly known how badly I needed Animal Crossing to provide a pick-me-up when they poured all that care and detail into the game’s birthday celebration. But I opened my gates, my friends Abby, Debbey and Kevin came over, and we spent hours doing the birthday specific activities, talking to every animal on my island, and listening to K.K. Slider’s Casey-specific song. And I felt that weight start to lift, far higher than I expected it to.
Written out like that, it feels profoundly silly to get so emotional about this experience, but I’m beyond grateful that Nintendo made sure it wasn’t just another random day on my island, and that Animal Crossing provided a lovely memory and a way for me to spend time with people I badly wanted to be with.
And for every day that it wasn’t my birthday… there was Fortnite. Actually, wait… after we left my Animal Crossing Island we played Fortnite that day, too. Fortnite has been the cornerstone of my social life for 2020, and I don’t know what I would have done without it. I’ve spent almost every night wandering around the game’s island with my old friends, opening up about feelings, our fears, big life changes or just creating irritating running gags and inside jokes. Beyond those old friends, though, I’ve developed new, real friendships with people I didn’t know well--or even at all!--before playing Fortnite together.
That’s a lot of words about my friends and not Fortnite, but I truly think that we’d stop playing if there weren’t a staggering, constantly changing amount of things to do in the game. And we did it ALL. We infiltrated spy strongholds, murdered Tonus Stark (I told you the inside jokes were irritating) dozens of times, caught every fish, watched a mind-blowing interactive Travis Scott concert at a time when I thought I’d never see live music ever again, cursed the names of players who could build defensively, and spend an embarrassing amount of VBucks on skins of genderless blobs and Food Based Freaks. Looking back over the seasons, I think the only thing we DIDN’T do in Fortnite was watch Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but it’s absolutely bonkers that was even an option. Fortnite continues to defy reason, and I’m thrilled to have a social space that can still surprise me going into the new year.
But nothing brought me as much joy this year as the British game show Taskmaster. This might shock the people I mentioned above--the ones I cherished connecting with this via games this year--but they suffered through months of me telling them about it non-stop, so probably not. And you might say, “Casey, that’s not a game. You’re just watching people play a game.” to which I ask... how many Twitch channels are you subbed to right now? If Twitch is gaming, so is Taskmaster. Not just because it’s people playing games, but also because creator and “Taskmaster’s Assistant” Alex Horne is doing some of the best game design I’ve ever seen.
If you haven’t seen the show, five comedians get an envelope with simple instructions on it. The instructions are sometimes highly specific, like “Get this potato into the golf hole. You may not touch the red green.” Sometimes they’re wildly open ended, as in the case of “Make the best thing to engage a toddler. Most engaged Toddler wins.” There’s a time limit, and after they’re done, the players are evaluated (and roasted) by the Taskmaster, Greg Davies, and points are awarded.
But the beauty of the game is in the open endedness either in or around the design of the tasks themselves. You can’t touch the red green, but does that mean other things can touch it? Does that mean you can ask someone else to touch it for you? Can you roll the potato into the golf hole? What happens if you just throw it? Horne leaves so much room for the players to express themselves, to panic and let their id take over, to make big, bold choices when the most obvious path to the goal is even slightly altered. And that’s a key lesson for great game design - you can create the space for players to do what you hope, but you can never tell what they’re going to do. Except sometimes... once in a while… if you’re very, very clever… you can.
My very favorite Taskmaster task is called “Make an Exotic Sandwich”. Horne gives his players a ludicrous yet simple task, they behave exactly as rowdy as he’s expecting and then… he changes the rules midway. He does this brilliantly throughout the show--just enough that players don’t expect it for every task, often in ways that players would be able to use to their advantage if they just paid a little more attention. It only occasionally feels unfair, but it always makes for an amazing game. But! Even in the case of “Make an Exotic Sandwich”, where Horne’s stroke of genius design messed with four of his players perfectly, one of them still managed to do something completely unpredictable. And it only made the game better.