Colin Spacetwinks works for nobody, but posts a lot online, which has inevitably lead to knowing and talking to a lot of other people who post online, some of whom work at respectable outlets or in the games industry itself. Occasionally, when not bogged down too much with depression and ADHD, they make things in the twine engine, ranging from analytical essays about the comics industry, to interactive fiction about a horse robbing a bank, mildly interactive fiction about depression and anime, and not at all interactive fiction about using comedy to hide from the world.
Okay, few things. First off, being honest, most of these games aren’t from 2017. In fact, off the top of my head, I think only one of them is. Limitations of money, or just not having the right console or equipment (also a limitation of money), means I’ve been playing a hell of a lot of games that were in my backlog, or just old stuff I’ve already liked for a long time instead. If I had a PS4, you can be almost certain a Yakuza game would be on here. But, nothing doing. So it goes.
Secondly, I’m a sucker for context, and thoroughly explaining myself. Anyone who’s read my other stuff can attest to this--I can’t shut up, because I want it to be clearly understood what I’m saying and that I’ve considered as much as I can while saying it. Which means that this list, despite only featuring 10 games, is going to be a hell of a lot longer than most people’s lists. So, take breaks reading this where you need to. If you’re gonna say “too long, didn’t read”, I’ll tell you right now: I agree.
So let’s get to it, then!
10. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (with content restored mod)
I jumped into KotoR2 almost totally blind. So blind, I even had to restart the game about 10 hours in because I decided to get the content restored mod installed just to make sure I didn't miss any good stuff. I've come extremely late to the whole series--I didn't play it when it originally came out, I've put all of 5-8 hours into KotoR1 and never beat it, making my decision to jump mostly into the sequel even more suspect. I knew the game was held pretty fondly by people nowadays, and I remembered old game magazines talking a lot about HK-47 back in the day, but beyond knowing that it followed up from the first game and used more or less the same engine, I didn't really know what I was jumping into.
And it ended up, in the last month alone, one of my favorite video games I've played in 2017. This doesn't just blow me away because it's a game from 2004 that in 2017 I'm having a ball with, but because, when you come right down to it, I don't actually think KotoR2 is that good a game.
Let's be clear: I love KotoR2. I have had fantastic fun playing it, talking about it, and tweeting endlessly about it. But simultaneously, I feel the game is extremely uneven, top to bottom. The combat isn't balanced at all, and you more or less become a Jedi god by the time you hit the crystal cave in Dantooine, having very limited reason to bother using energy shields or stimulants or grenades so long as you're not stuck having to play without The Exile in your party. The pacing, much like the original KotoR, is extremely off-kilter. The story itself is a mess that's duct taped together in the official release, and there's only so much the content restored mod does to fix those problems. The character writing is incredibly uneven, particularly with Kreia, who spends about 75 percent of the game having all the subtlety of Natasha Fatale from Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Knights Of The Old Republic: The Sith Lords is a mess. I would absolutely rank it as a 7/10 game. But it being a 7/10 doesn't keep it from being one of my favorites of the year, or perhaps even all time; like Aevee Bee has talked about in a piece at ZEAL, 7/10 games are often some of the most important, beloved games to us, far more than the 10/10s.
My enjoyment of KotoR2 is less in looking for what it intentionally does right, and more what it is as a flawed whole, the enjoyment I take out of it that's even in clearly unintentional parts of the game. In this, the game reminds me of two other pieces of media I love: Black Dynamite, and Star Trek: Voyager.
Stick with me here.
Black Dynamite is an incredibly funny movie that rolls true to low budget blaxploitation roots by having all sorts of gags in the movie focused around slip-ups in movie making itself. In a fight scene, a character named Bullhorn actually makes physical contact with the goon he's beating, causing the actor to break character and go "Motherfucker-" before the screen suddenly breaks for a moment, and then we come back to the exact same scene, but the goon has now been replaced with a clearly different actor. Black Dynamite stands up too fast in one scene and we can see the boom mic in the shot as he accidentally brushes up against it. A character keeps reading off all their lines with the stage directions included, spouting off things like "Sarcastically, I'm in charge." It's all the accidental goofs in movies that we laugh about. Though they're done on purpose in Black Dynamite, they're all about recalling things in movies that were never meant to end up in the final cut.
With Star Trek: Voyager, for me at least, there's that same idea of loving something in media that was totally unintentional. Voyager gets beat up a lot for being one of the worst Treks, and if taken solely from the angle of what the writers and showrunners meant to do, I might agree. However, a lot of what I love in Voyager are the things it does on accident, stumbling ass-backwards into meaning or tension. Where others watch Voyager and see a mess of contradictory character decisions, plotlines with poor introductions and poor--or non-existent--resolutions, and all sorts of other messes, I take away a totally different view of Voyager, one I know that was never intended.
I see it as this fantastic contrast to the bold idealism of the original series or The Next Generation, as well as a contrast against the hard moral compromises and nuance of Deep Space 9. Voyager I see as a show that's about the fact that life is not like a story, and the universe is not a backdrop for your personal journey. So much of what happens in Voyager is out of the character's control, right up to the very premise of the show itself. Whether things go right or wrong is often less up to skill and philosophy and more just if the universe decides to bless them or fuck them this week, often doing both in the same episode. Where TNG and DS9 might ask and wrangle with moral and philosophical questions, Voyager to me ends up much more "The only control you have over the universe is yourself". Sometimes aliens show up, blow up a civilization, and leave, with no rhyme or reason and you never get to really find out why. That's life! Sometimes shit goes wrong and you get stuck in an alternate universe and you don't really learn any moral lesson because your primary concern is just trying to keep everyone alive, which you pull off with just as much luck as you do skill. That's life!
The same goes with Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords. A lot of the stuff I laughed at the hardest in the game aren't the jokes they wrote on purpose. HK-47's "meatbags" stuff never got a laugh out of me, but every instance of Kreia being hilariously bad at trying to be subtle had me rolling. Bao-Dur's restrained vocal performance turned a lot of people off, but I found in it an unintentional greatness that made me see his character as more developed, more in tune with his own problems, at a more stable place than others in the Ebon Hawk, even if he hadn't quite solved his problems yet. In terms of themes, so much of the game resonates with me not with what the plot and characters did on purpose, but things that came into be because the game was as hastily patched together as it was. The way everyone and everything, even your own character's in-game history, feels like an arm's length away in terms of emotional closeness probably isn't intentional, but what's on purpose and what isn't isn't as important to me here as to what it makes me feel and think anyway. Just as media can be unintentionally shitty, I find games can also be unintentionally incredibly good.
That's how The Sith Lords became one of my favorite games this year in such a short time. Not because it was so well made, but because of everything I loved about it because it's a mess. If it was more polished, I wonder, would I have liked it as much as I did?
Hard to say. All I know is, as a 7/10 game, I love it a lot more than many 10/10 games I've played.
Diaries was one of my favorite games of 2016, and so it remains one of my favorite games of 2017. It's not a particularly complex title. It falls into something of the "job simulator adventure" genre, alongside Cart Life and Shenmue's segments where you have to drive around a forklift to pay the bills. What you can do in Diaries isn't glamorous, and intentionally so. While everyone else is off having adventures and flying around the galaxy and diving into dungeons to find treasure, you're stuck literally picking up and burning the trash of all these people having much more exciting lives. Worse, when you do decide to jump into the dungeons and try some adventuring for yourself... you get hit with a curse, and are stuck with a skull following you around everywhere that won't stop screaming at you roughly once every 10-20 seconds.
But Diaries resonated with me far more than the intentional and overwhelming bleakness of Cart Life, and still resonated more with me despite being set in a made-up spaceport instead of in an all too real American city setting. Diaries nails the shitty parts of life--having to work a crappy job and living paycheck to paycheck, never having enough time to socialize, seemingly everyone else leading more exciting and fulfilling lives than you, living with things out of your control (in my case, depression; in the janitor's case, having a screaming skull follow her around, which I feel, personally, is something of an apt metaphor for depression)--but it also pulls in something that Cart Life seems to intentionally keep out:
Feeling good and having fun anyway.
I've worked a lot of crappy jobs. All but one of the regular jobs in my life has sucked, whether due to the work itself, or due to management, or most often, both. And I worked those jobs while also living with depression, anxiety, and other struggles going on in my life. But these miserable things were not the whole of my existence, they were just part of it. Even while working at a crappy gas station, I'd have regular customers I'd see who'd brighten my day, or sometimes total strangers who'd just leave a positive impression on me here and there. It's the same in Diaries, where the people around you might insult you or harass you, but this doesn't preclude finding strangers who brighten up your day. Giving you a compliment, telling you to keep on trucking, or even just helping you out with your problems. Nowhere better is this exemplified than the festivals in Diaries, where for the whole day, there's nothing but bustling traffic and wonderful music and people just having a fantastic time. And even as you go around burning up the trash to make money, you can take time to drink in the good moments. Sitting around and watching and listening to the musicians in various parks, getting to stay out late and just drink in the beauty of the space port at night, and without being hassled by the cops in the area.
There's a ziggurat you can walk on top of in Diaries, and it's one of the few places in the game where the screaming skull won't follow you. When you get up there, the game pops up a note that says "You feel a little better." This has no material impact on the game, no impact on your stats or your item drops, what you'll find when you come back down. It's just a statement of fact for the character you're playing as. That this place in the spaceport, this moment of isolation from the hustle and bustle, this height that lets you look over all the rest of the spaceport, tower over it, makes you feel a little better.
I found myself feeling better whenever I went there, and I ended up going there a lot. It didn't hurt that the sight in the game from that spot was pretty consistently gorgeous.
And you don't have to burn everything you find. You can trade items to merchants to make money, but far more important and more personal is the fact that you can take any of the items you find home, to store, or to have decorated in your house. Very few of these actually affect the game. It's entirely about finding what items you feel are important, what you consider a personal treasure, a sentimental thing you love to keep around that makes the hard days a little easier.
Which is to say nothing of the way gender is handled in the game, treating it both as something very important and incredibly casual, something very personal and also something you might joke about to yourself, getting at the reality of the experience for a lot of people who find themselves questioning and experimenting with their gender than so many melodramatic takes on the subject. I loved it, just as I loved the rest of Diaries Of A Spaceport Janitor.
Playing the game reminded me of the shitty jobs I worked, but more than that, it reminded me of my favorite happy memories tucked within those shitty jobs.
Misery, even misery exacerbated by depression, isn't a 24/7 thing, and Diaries gets that.
Alright, this is a big swerve from a lot of the usual games I grow fond of, but fuck it, Ganbare Dunk Heroes remains an all time classic and a pinnacle of arcade style sports games 24 years after its release.
Ganbare Dunk Heroes is part of the Kunio-Kun/River City Ransom franchise--over in the USA, we'd likely remember Super Dodgeball and Nintendo World Cup for the NES, or hell, even Crash 'N The Boys: Street Challenge, all of which recycled graphics and templates from River City Ransom/Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari for the purpose of sports games. And they're still deeply loved for the most part. I still love the original Super Dodgeball and Nintendo World Cup to this day; they're incredibly fun games.
But Ganbare Dunk Heroes, which never got released stateside, just dunks all over them, creating an incredibly hectic and wildly fun 2 on 2 arcade basketball experience that even puts the original NBA Jam and NBA Jam Tournament Edition to shame, if you ask me.
Dunk Heroes follows the same basic Technos twist on sports games that you get with Nintendo World Cup (and other never-released-stateside titles, like Ike Ike! Hockey Bu); take the sport, add violence, add power shots, done. So it follows with Dunk Heroes. Two on two basketball where you can freely beat the crap out of each other, plus powershots. There's also some background items you can pick up to commit more violence or do things like run into an alleyway as a shortcut to get to the other side of the screen, or even use things like a ladder to do more dunks.
Technos twists the formula a couple steps farther for Dunk Heroes, though, firmly in the direction of "equally stupid and fun as hell". First up: there's more than two hoops. As a matter of fact, each side has three hoops stacked on top of each other vertically, creating a skyscraper of hoops that not only makes for an incredible visual effect during gameplay, but also makes it so both you and your opponent can rack up ridiculously high scores if you successfully shoot for the top hoop and has it fall through the two below. That's not the end of it, either. The hoops on either side can actually be knocked off, and then attached to the other side by throwing them up there, making it so now you can score through four hoops in one go. Since matches are played in halves instead of quarters, and halves are only 3 minutes long, this makes it possible to make the incredible high scores of some real NBA games, and far beyond it, using those multiple hoops.
It's taking basketball, and making it as fast paced and as ridiculous as possible, far beyond the straightforward "He's on fire!" of NBA Jam, and it's still fun to this day because of it. Playing against a computer is still fun, even. And of course, playing with a friend, especially on the couch, is an erratic blast of joy. Playing the team that can teleport and slam dunking at the very top hoop, or using a teleport defense to stop a shot has a sick glee to it, and so does every other power shot or trick that can be done in the game, especially since the game stops for absolutely nothing. You double jump to get onto a house's roof, and then double jump from there to slam dunk into the second hoop, while your partner below kicks the crap out of your opponents so they can get the ball immediately to shoot a homing missile ball for the third hoop? Well, hey, all's fair in basketball and war. Why slow down the fun by stopping to do things 'properly'? No other basketball game matches Dunk Heroes for pure, in and out fun, even over two decades later.
Dunk Heroes is a big reason I'm hoping the Kunio-Kun collection comes stateside, along with other never-released-stateside titles like the 2 on 2 NES arena fighting tournament game, Nekketsu Kakutou Densetsu.
Technos was doing the most, man.
7. Phantom Dust
Like the other fifty-seven or so people who played it when it came out on the original Xbox in 2004, when a Phantom Dust sequel was announced, I lost my goddamn mind. And when it was cancelled, I was actually frustrated about video games in a way I don’t think I had been in a very long time--like, it reminded me of like getting angry on message boards back in the ‘00s. I wanted more Phantom Dust the way people a little older than me want a new Wing Commander, or Ultima. Phantom Dust is that game for me.
And though I didn’t get a Phantom Dust 2, I still got the original Phantom Dust, now to play on Xbone and PC, and I still love it as much as I did then. Getting to see it again and without the haze of nostalgia to fog the experience, I still deeply love Phantom Dust; perhaps my only real frustration is that I can’t quickly go through dialog whenever I check in with people after a mission.
But the game itself, which I can only really describe as a unique real time arena card battle action game, is still fantastic. The different ways I can spec out my deck, the unique ways I can combine abilities ranging from up-close hyperspeed punches to long-range quad lasers to bring in damage, or even focusing primarily defensively so I can erase my enemy’s attacks or throw them right back at them, all heightened by everyone having their "turn", so to speak, permanently on. And the destructible environments just add on top of it. I still get the same thrill of summoning an entire goddamn meteor to the playing field, and the thrill of using that meteor to destroy a whole bridge to drop the rubble on my opponent.
And the story? I still like it--a lot. I don’t want to spoil it, but much like Austin Walker, it has one of my favorite twists ever. The ramp-up to the endgame, and the endgame itself, just all comes together so perfectly, and the way you explore everyone else’s past, underground and above it, makes it all connect. The hype is real, the game is free now, and if you haven’t gotten in on it after everyone lost their minds about it coming back, you really should. It scratches an itch like no other game for me, because no other game is like it.
My love of Pinball Arcade is long-ongoing now, and I have a particular love for it because without it, I wouldn't be able to experience pinball as a hobby at all. Or at least, not often enough to matter.
Pinball used to be one of the most popular activities in America, popular enough to have deep anti-gambling regulation for awhile, but fell off 'roundabouts the '90s, along with arcades, as more and more games were now playable at home. I didn't get interested in pinball until it was too late, basically. The years of being able to find a pinball table most anywhere you go were long behind me. To get to play pinball with any sort of regularity requires you to live somewhere where there's already a large pinball community around you, or to have the kind of money to blow on buying your own pinball table. One of my personal favorite tables, The Getaway: High Speed II, would cost a little under 5,000 dollars to snap up on ebay right now. Even lesser known tables, like Johnny Mnemonic, cost several thousand dollars. It's the kind of hobby that only people with a rather large amount of disposable income can bother to think about. Pinball as a hobby, then, generally becomes composed of a lot of higher-middle class dads who've been playing the game forever. There's not exactly a lot of younger weirdo queers like me in the scene hanging out and talking about how fucking hard it is to sink the phone shot on WHO DUNNIT?. Lack of funds or just lack of access makes the games and hobby as a whole very closed off.
Not so with Pinball Arcade, though. Where Pinball FX makes their own tables, Pinball Arcade is all about adapting real live existing tables--the kind you could find at bars, at arcades, at movie theaters or, of course, at pinball museums. Suddenly, pinball finally opened itself up to me, and hundreds more people, getting to see what's so special about all these games without having to drive across multiple states or tuck away cash for god knows how long to buy a table oneself. I get to dig into the classic Black Knight 2000, into White Water, into Big Shot, F-14 Tomcat, Twilight Zone, and Black Hole and find out what made these tables so special, what makes pinball itself so special. And since I'm paying an upfront, one time only cost for each table, I can really sink into them, spend time with them, not worrying about how many quarters I have left in my pocket or how long I have to hang around before a movie starts to really get to know each table. I can come back to it as I please, and spend as much or as little time as I want with each table. And I can always get a satisfying game in 10 minutes or less. It's perfect for when I just want to kill a little time.
And the act of pinball itself features a rare moment where I've wanted to get better at a video game. Not better to beat it, but to just be better at it. Going from losing balls all the time to straight-down-the-middle ricochets on Bram Stoker's Dracula to figuring out all the little tricks I need to know in order to complete Vacation Planner on my very first ball on White Water is just incredibly satisfying. I'm not getting anything out of it, I'm not doing it to compete against anybody else or even just earn bragging rights with my friends, I'm getting better at it just because I like getting better at it, and I like playing it. It clicks in me, I think, the way fighting games click for so many people, just that want to get better and connecting with a game that makes you feel good when you can see you're getting better.
I've sunk hundreds of hours into Pinball Arcade, just playing 10-20 minutes at a time, sometimes rarely 30. I always like it, I always have fun, I always feel satisfied, and I, and so many of my other friends that have gotten into pinball because of it, get to really enjoy this hobby, these games, in our own way, after being cut off from it due to just living in the wrong places or whatnot.
Now if they'd just add Johnny Mnemonic and the Jurassic Park table, I'd be set.
Another never-came-stateside game, and the sequel to an all-time favorite title of mine, Survival Kids 2 makes me love a genre I generally can't stand: survival crafting. My issue with these kinds of games is always a lack of direction, with it being typical of the genre that there's no real goal other than to keep crafting and surviving. Stories are minimal, often non-existent. Which is fine! It's just not for me. I like having a narrative, or rather, a goal, and limits attached on top of my smashing rocks together to make a different kind of rock gaming. I want there to be an end in mind, and both Survival Kids 1 and 2 deliver exactly what I need on this front.
Survival Kids 2 takes everything I loved about the original Survival Kids 2 and makes it bigger, better. Where Survival Kids gave you one island, Survival Kids gives you two. It also gives you an enormous rusted out boat, a giant prison you have to escape from, an abandoned lighthouse, caves (underground and otherwise), a parrot who can give you hints and reminders on what the hell you're supposed to be doing--it's just so perfectly structured, and that's part of what I always want from these kinds of games: Structure. I love having a world someone else made, and for me to explore it, figure it out, how to survive it... and then be done with it. Admittedly what I want from my Survival Games is a very specific niche, a constant longing for my own shipwreck or Treasure Island story or what have you, but Survival Kids 2 feeds it perfectly. I can beat it, set it down, and come back a month or two later, think about trying a different way to get off the island.
Short, perfectly satisfying gaming.
I have an incredibly strange fascination with fishing. I'm fascinated with fishing in stories from all sorts of places. In comics, in books, in anime--I finally watched all of Tsuritama this year, for example, which is an anime about 3 guys, one of them who admits to being a space alien out of the gate, must come together to master fishing in order to save the world, and its been one of my very favorite things in a long time. I love fishing video games, and fishing minigames in other video games. Sega Bass Fishing, the arcade style fishing in Breath Of Fire III, and even the incredibly limited fishing in Deadly Premonition all conjure up fond memories in me.
This fascination and enjoyment with fishing is truly strange for me personally, because I hate actually fishing. I don't like almost any seafood aside from shrimp. The smell of raw fish makes me immediately wince, and so does so much of the sea in general. I've spent time as a child and as an adult sitting on a boat with a fishing rod, and I could not stand it one bit. I didn't have the patience for it. I don't think I ever will.
And yet, I love, love, love stories about fishing, and games about fishing. And so it goes with Legend Of The River King 2, one of the best in the surprisingly large genre of fishing RPGs.
Legend of the River King 2, and the LotRK series in general, serves as a destress game for me, an anxiety handler. The plot is nothing to write home about, though it's absolutely neat to go from modern village fishing to meeting folk fantasy talking animals without the slightest change in tone. It's in the simple doing of tasks that the game relaxes me, be it in catching bugs, collecting flowers, or, of course, fishing. There's something so soothing about casting a line out and just waiting for your lure to drift off close enough to one of the fish, and see if they take the bait. And it even matches the breaking of that relaxation with the sudden shift in music and action when you have to actually reel it in. Even without rumble feedback, the game does an incredible job of feeling like you're getting the proper resistance as you reel in, having to know when to let go and when to pull back to get that bass to pull out of the water. I remember that tension, that sudden change in mood when I actually did fish and catch something, and LotRK2 manages to capture it in an old GBC cart.
Wandering villages, catching and selling fish to upgrade equipment so you can catch more fish, or just letting the time whittle down while you try to complete your bug collection and a rain cloud passes over by... the River King games (as well as RPGmaker made scottish fishing RPG The Loch) are to me what Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley are to a lot of other people. I'm very much not a rural person, and I know for a fact my city boy ass couldn't handle living in the countryside, but being able to escape into River King when I want, to go fishing, and have this satisfying loop of seaside activity, all surrounded by other people in deep on fishing as well, has this lovely, comforting, calming effect for me. I come back to River King every year, and I'll come back to it in 2018 as well. I'll still be kicking my legs back and forth dreaming of translations for Umi No Nushi Tsuri and all the other never-stateside released River King games while I'm at it. To me, they are among some of the most perfect soothing games.
3. Mouth Sweet
I've never been a temp worker, but like I said with Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, I've worked a lot of crappy jobs. And while I went on and on about how even working crappy jobs and trying to pay bills, Mouth Sweet takes on the side of shitty work that has no pleasantness at all--diving into how a job can more than exhaust you, it can dehumanize you, strip out your identity and stamp on whichever one they like best, and on top of all that, they tell you they like you and consider you family the whole time.
It reminds me specifically at my time at Target. I'm sure plenty of people have similar experiences.
Mouth Sweet, by L.O.V.E Games is a short horror game made in RPGMaker 2003, which, along with other RPGMaker engines, has made quite a tradition for horror and otherwise surreal games--Ao Oni, Yume Nikki, Mad Father, and more. Mouth Sweet sets you at a giant corporation called Chaltham, Chaltham, and Chaltham Inc., or just C., C., and C. You play as a person forcibly named Haas, and I say "forcibly named" because it literally doesn't matter what you name yourself, the game, and the company, forces you to go by "Haas", as well as stripping away whichever customized look you pick for yourself to become a Gameboy screen green kind of monochrome template. At Chaltham, Chalthem, and Chaltham, you're tasked with running errands that range from "deliver some food" to "travel back in time to apply a sticker to a baby's ankle". This might sound ripe for comedy, and in a way it is--Mouth Sweet peppers in jokes, but it, very intentionally, never does anything to stop the game from feeling like an overwhelming, yet silent, suffocation of yourself. Making the tasks harder, and the temp work egregiously awful, is a game mechanic that you might've never expected in an RPGMaker game: first person shooting, however limited it is. The offices of C. C. and C. are littered with invisible monsters that you have to look for only by listening to their footsteps, before shooting them with a company provided revolver--somewhat similar to the Smiles in Killer7, but unlike in Killer7, there's no way to see the monsters at all, and on top of that, if a single one gets you? You're dead.
It's not the monsters that end up being the truly discomforting part of Mouth Sweet, though. They're just a contributor to it, really, as are the fantastic soundtrack and unnerving sound effects. It's less that "these monsters could kill me", and more "the company I'm working for literally doesn't care whether I live or die, I'm treated as disposable waste, and they talk to me like I'm their best friend while making my life horrible".
It would've been all too easy for Mouth Sweet to become yet another Banksy-ish, or Moby-ish "companies destroy our imagination, man" or the like, or about wanting to do something more "important" for a living, but Mouth Sweet digs further into what makes these environments miserable, inhospitable, and even actively dangerous. The slow destruction of one's mental health, the total inability to ever make enough money to comfortably get away from such an awful environment, the crushing of personal expression--particularly gender expression--giving so little of a shit about one's employees that any sort of safety issue is waved off because it might cost bosses a dime too much, tell you that no matter how much you're sacrificing and pushing yourself to make the company you're always "coming up short" or being "disappointing", forcing you to do work that goes far beyond monotonous and into the morally terrifying, and it's all wrapped up in a delivery pitch that treats you like a sibling instead of a worker being exploited, abused.
There's another bit in it too, that I don't want to spoil too much of--but it's very easy to "win" the game early on, and how you do so is exactly the same way you do if you play all the way to the "proper" end. But, just like in working a real shitty job in shitty circumstances, to leave it requires acknowledging you have no safety net and you don't know if what comes afterwards might be even worse.
But you can't stay at this kind of work forever.
The game has a content warning at the start, telling you upfront what kind of upsetting material will be in it, and that includes "frank discussion of suicide", and it's not kidding around about that. As someone still living with depression, and as someone who used to have frequent suicidal ideation, Mouth Sweet engages far better with this kind of misery, in a material and in a surreal fashion, than so much media that uses these feelings for cheap sensationalized characterization or easy plot.
Mouth Sweet is a very vulnerable thing, and a deeply empathetic game in admitting its misery and fear to others. I'll be coming back to it for years.
No surprise I’d end up loving a video game world full of talking animal people with a Richard Scarry-esque visual inspiration but are far more involved with dealing with their mental illnesses, the emotional distance between themselves and their friends since they went off to college, the crushing hand of capitalism around a small town with little to do and even fewer available jobs, and also a supernatural mystery going back decades that feels like it’ll eat the whole town alive.
Night In The Woods is very tender, but it is also very honest. When I say that, what I mean is that it understands, and it cares, about misery and the way we find ourselves in it. It cares about the fact that we, and the ones we care about, feel like shit. It is emotionally vulnerable and giving in a way so many other games, so many other stories at all, aren’t. It does not beat down those feelings of misery and fear and even anger, it accepts and understands them.
And when I say that it is honest, I mean that it does not feed platitudes about that misery, either. It doesn’t guarantee that everything will be alright, don’t you worry your head about it. It doesn’t tell you to "look on the brightside", or tell you to "cheer up", or any other well meant message that ultimately just comes off as condescending. It doesn’t tell you that friendships can’t be damaged, or that they’ll be automatically repaired. It is honest about what is necessary in order to do things in life: it takes work, and also, it takes acknowledgment that “hard work” isn’t enough either. It has no belief in the lie of meritocracy, but it’s not interested in peddling you other lies about you can just relax and not worry about anything.
It shows that solidarity is necessary. That keeping up with even your most loved friends is not necessarily something that comes easy, or automatically. That building and holding and rebuilding friendships take work. That “doing everything yourself” is ridiculous--you need others, and they need you, to do things, to be there for each other, and more. Solidarity is necessary to fight against the seemingly unstoppable force of a company squeezing the life out of its workers without giving so much as a thin dime back, and it is necessary to deal with seemingly supernatural forces we can’t hope to understand. That being there for each other helps ourselves too.
As someone who has lived with pretty intense depression since I was 12 or so, I connect with a lot of Night In The Woods on a rather obvious level, with Mae having a lot of the same brain bugs I do. A lot of the same struggles with family and friends are very familiar too. But it’s that tendency balanced with that honesty that really makes it all come together for me. Spending so much of my life feeling miserable for no reason, I never appreciate it when someone tells me “It’s going to be alright” or “Cheer up”, even though I just know they mean well. What I appreciate is when I know people listen, and are there for me, and won’t tell me lies about how it’s not that bad or how I shouldn’t feel sad and fucked up.
Tender and honest. About people, about the world we face today, about so much. It’s hard to ask for more out of a story than what Night In The Woods gave me.
1. Caves Of Qud
Much like I’m not a fan of fishing, I’m also generally not a fan of roguelikes. I find them intimidating, overly complex, and worst of all, the communities around them often seem to relish in being jackasses. The ol’ “Git gud” and all that, fostering the worst attitudes out of a bizarre sense of elitism around a video game.
Caves Of Qud shreds through all of that for me. It’s the most welcoming roguelike I’ve ever played, and one of the most welcoming video games I’ve ever played period. It’s in every part of the game, and not just the game, but the community as well. The game creators, the people who talk about and write about the game, everything about Caves Of Qud has this atmosphere about it that isn’t interested in rejecting players or scolding or mocking them. And it does this without surrendering its difficulty, which is one of the biggest things roguelikes are known for. The way Caves Of Qud comes off to me is “You’re going to die, but that’s okay.”
It’s not just in that, yes, you can also turn off permadeath if you want, it’s in the way the game talks about itself to you. There’s a “help” option right at the very start of the game, and the very first page of “help” is “Ten things you should do when you start to play”, immediately working to give a concise, clear way to start to understand the game without giving away everything, deeply reducing the usual sheer learning curve to roguelikes. And from there, the game continues to be welcoming, just in the people you interact with, in the way the culture and world of Qud is. In this far out post-post-post-post-apocalypse, CoQ dispenses with the usual “only the strong survive” nonsense and focuses in on communities, history, so much of which is procedurally generated in ways that generate often amazing surprises. A common greeting and farewell in Qud is “Live and drink”, a friendly gesture, actively wishing well for others--even people you’ve barely known.
It’s in the fact that the world is incredibly weird, and weird is normal. This is in the fact that your character can have four arms, four legs, two heads and an enormous stinger, and nobody thinks twice about it. The world is weird, you can be the weird, you run into talking antelopes and camel-people and sentient potted plants who all have their own cultures and lives going on, and they too will tell you to live and drink. You can share your water with them as part of a ritual to form a bond and pass back and forth secrets about the world. There’s an entire group of talking bears who spend their time trying to gain a greater understanding of science. There’s a talking albino ape you can run into who is the mayor of a small village called Kyakuya, and if you point out, seemingly confused, that he’s an albino ape, he’ll just respond in the affirmative. Like, why would that be weird? What’s weird about a talking albino ape, man? The only real "weird" in the world of Qud is the Putus Templar, a group of "true kin" who have avoided the mutation of the world by living in sealed off arcologies, and when they go out in the world, want to rid it of anything that isn’t “pure”.
It is immensely satisfying to beat the shit out of those assholes.
And the gameplay that forms all of this world is fantastic too. There’s so many ways to build a character, so many different mutation powers or weapons or guns or grenades and different ways to kit yourself at that the things you can do in combat, or even just in explanation, are almost ceaselessly exciting. I can use a mutation to see into the future, allowing me to walk into a room, and if it’s loaded with turrets, safely jump back to the present when they all kill me. Then, I can use another mutation, or a tonic, to phase through the walls and have the bullets go right through me. Or I can turn on a force field before I walk in. Or I can open the door and hurl the biggest grenade I have to blow them all up. Or I can increase my adrenaline flow by a factor of five, use another mutation to slow down time for everyone else, and rush in all juiced up Crank style and destroy everything with my bare hands before they can even react. Or I can use a mutation that allows me to create a hole in space and time and just throw it into the room until it swallows them all up and spits them out god knows where else. It reminds me a lot of Morrowind, just the endless ways you can mess with the system before you to create unique, often bizarre, solutions to a problem. Figuring out how to combine mutations, skills, and the tools on you into a multi-layered approach to the world becomes endlessly fun. A favorite of mine is having Clairvoyance, Temporal Fugue, and Teleportation, so I can create a bunch of clones of myself, they can spot the rest of the room with mental powers, and then teleport themselves to anything I might have to fight and do the killing for me.
Which isn’t even getting into the negative mutations you can have that spice things up. You can have an evil twin from another dimension who every now and then tries to kill you. You can burst into flames randomly. The character you create can be this utterly unique, bizarre thing, and so can everyone and everything else you meet. You can give sentience to doors, or walls, or any sort of furniture, with an electronic piece of equipment or even an aerosol known as Spray-A-Brain. You can fall in love with signposts. You can forge alliances with worms. The things you can do, or can happen to you, are seemingly endless, and tell their own beautiful randomly generated stories. I once dug 76 floors into a cave and found a clone of myself in a cryogenic chamber, apropos of nothing, and all I could wonder was “Who put them there?” I’ve stepped into ruins only to be immediately annihilated by 56 cannibals pumped full of ancient tonics and armed with enormous rocket launchers.
I don’t like roguelikes, and yet, I’ve put over 400 hours into Caves Of Qud. I keep making new characters, because the game keeps adding more, too. More mechanics, more tools, more characters, more of itself. There’s a cooking update coming soon where you’ll be able to throw together ingredients that’ll generate random effects like “Being teleported everytime you’re lit on fire”. There’s cybernetic installments in the game too, which can do everything from give you gigantic hands to making it so you have tank treads for legs. It just gives and gives and gives, and lets you sort out how you like it.
I love Caves Of Qud. I can’t get enough of Caves Of Qud. I haven’t gotten tired yet of every new, weird thing I find in Caves Of Qud, and I’ve even thought about modding Caves Of Qud to add in my own ideas, and the community has had no shortage of great things there. More mutations, being able to play as enemies in the game, whole tilesets, or as little as changing the color of a cat in the starting village, Joppa.
It’s not just the game that’s won me over, it’s the community, and the people behind it. I don’t know if a game has ever made me feel as welcome as Qud does right now, and especially not doing that while also letting me hurl a cybernetic version of Xena’s chakram to attack about a dozen people at once. My game of 2017, in a walk.