Dia Lacina is an indigenous trans woman writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com. Her work is most frequently featured on Waypoint and dialacina.com. She tweets entirely too much at @dialacina.
I keep forgetting that God of War came out this year. You think I'd remember the first massively hyped AAA title that I spent over 40 hours on and wrote two essays about, but here we are. It’s eight months later, and all I can tell you is I keep thinking it was a 2017 release.
Last year felt like games, the big ones, varied their tempo. The frenetic bursts of Platinum combat that slowly faded into the background of NieR:Automata's tragic Android melodrama. Or taking time out from traversing Sotenbori in Yakuza 0 to throw back a glass of Suntory before clubbing a man (not to death) with a motorcycle while on a leisurely stroll to the next bowl of pork ramen.
Every big game this year felt like a constant march, trudging from set piece to set piece. Kratos moved like he's been lifting without ever stretching, Lara Croft like all those times she's been impaled on rebar finally caught up, and most recently, Arthur “It’s Intentional” Morgan moves like he's ready for the glue factory. Even my lithe foxy Monster Hunter moved with such a steady pulsing grimness.
It’s also been a year of an almost unrestrained release of half-baked, undeveloped, or outright not-giving-a-shit-yeehaw-colonialism in games. And to be honest, after slaying foreign gods, raiding tombs, fighting an insurrection in a Montana that apparently has *maybe* one Native, hearing Arthur Morgan tell Graham Fucking Greene that he knows a thing or two about being marginalized by the encroachment of “civil-i-zation”, and No Man’s Sky dropping another Diet Colonialism expansion the day after Thanksgiving--I just couldn’t, y’all.
So, I didn’t.
Sure I played all the way through the hallucinatory, non-specific white male anxiety nightmare that was Far Cry 5, I got to the ultimate of white savior moments in Red Dead and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but for the most part, this was a year where I bounced out of half-completed games never to return.
It was also a year where several of my friends made some incredible contributions to the gaming landscape. A year where a game I’d only heard vague whispers of good things about surprised the hell out of me, and I discovered an unapologetic love for something decades after everyone else.
Now, let’s get to the good shit.
I love taking my friends exploring with me. And, if I’m honest, all the fun to be had in Wizardry is getting to create characters for your friends, and drag them through trap-laden dungeons for loot and monster hunting. Made by Acquire (yes, of Tenchu fame) for the PS3, this game looks and feels like it would be more at home on the PS1. It’s a classic dungeon crawler, but with gritty anime sprites, hideous textures, and a clunky UI. I love it. I love watching Austin get frustrated trying to appraise an unidentified object repeatedly, only for it to turn out to be a basic dagger.
Or that time Todd decimated an entire row of Vampires, saving everyone, only for most of us to die unceremoniously minutes later because I let levitate wear off and we walked over a trapped floor tile.
This is a game filled with casualties and disappointments, but also the triumph of seeing your friends grow from fragile neophyte dungeon explorers to rampaging monster slayers, their pockets bursting with ancient loot. Also, there’s a Dungeon Dandy, who somehow manages to be an even more foppish and fabulous Char Aznable. And if you can look past the dated (even by 2011 standards) graphics and interface, there’s quite a lot to love.
Dragon Quest XI isn’t a complex game. You know its story beat-for-beat if you’ve ever even glanced at a JRPG. The combat can be put on auto without fear of basically ever dying. There’s gathering and crafting, but it’s one of the gentlest implementations I’ve encountered. It’s a simple affair. It might even be dull at times.
But this year, it’s exactly what I needed.
This was actually my first Dragon Quest game ever, but my love and enthusiasm extends all the way back to my childhood with Dragon Warrior (DQ1 for the uninitiated) on the NES. DQXI is a comfortable armchair. A place to remember cherished stories, and delightful archetypal characters. It’s rewatching Dragon Ball years later. And honestly, that’s how I played it. Chipping away at the story in episodic little bites, knowing fully where the journey would lead, but loving it all the same. Dragon Quest XI may be simple, predictable, and a mechanical bore where you can literally let the game fight itself without an ounce of fear or need to intervene--but it’s also a gorgeous, cheery, and even hopeful love letter to a genre that informed so much of my life. Also, it’s like…super, super gay. No, I don’t mean Sylvando.
I wanted to like Monster Hunter: World, I really did. But between the murky, confused approach to colonialist themes, the absolutely unnecessary tragedy of the nerd bird murder mission, and the necessary but absolutely byzantine multiplayer, I couldn't. I hated it. Dragon's Dogma came out last year on the PS4 in a remastered form. I didn't even come to it this year, but all my time spent in MoHoWo, made me realize I could just be playing Dark Arisen. So while all my friends were carving up “The New World,” I buried myself in raising my warrior children.
Multiplayer games like Monster Hunter task us with thinking about how we want to act in society, charting our way to being the most effective member of a community through our direct participation. Where Dragon's Dogma differs is it asks us, “What are you putting out into the world?”
Pawns, player-created NPC companions, learn from players' actions. Their personality can also be altered through one-on-one dialogues. They’ll mimic the player, sometimes in ways that seem truly bizarre--until you realize that’s exactly what you were doing. You taught them. And maybe they picked up some weird or unhelpful habits from you. In a sense, you’re their parent. What makes this far more interesting though is that when you’re not around, other players can hire your pawn to aid them (you can also hire other players' pawns). It’s sending your child off into the world to participate in society. And how you raised them will have a direct impact on how successful, helpful, and popular they are. It’s absolutely fascinating and something I hope more games entertain playing with.
I’ve never played more than 15 minutes of Pokémon Red. While I admit there was a charm, I absolutely never wanted to hold a Game Boy for the length of time I knew that game would demand of me. I never went back to the franchise. I watched friends collect them all. I skipped out on the TV shows and movies. I absorbed little bits of Poké-lore from the internet. But with the announcement of a new, modern Pokémon game and a partner who had a fondness for the franchise--I had to get it at least for them.
Turns out, I might actually really enjoy Pokémon. I joined them in co-op on the couch, timing our Joy-Con flicks for maximum synchronization, watched them curl up on the couch with the Switch shouting obscenities when a rare Pokémon ran away, or a triumphant “Yes!” when one is caught on the first try.
So, late one night, I thought I’d give it a spin myself. I finally crawled into bed sometime around 4 AM, rousing my partner and excitedly listing off the incredibly basic ass Pokémon I’d captured. And, I got it.
I got it so hard that I ended up watching Pokémon: The First Movie (which was a lot).
This could have been my hands down Game of the Year. I love catching Pokémon. I love talking to my Psyduck, I love his irrepressible exuberance for every little thing in the world.
But, what I don’t love is Nintendo’s continued failure to commit to even the most basic of accessibility, and Pokémon is an absolute mess in this regard. It sucks, because there’s no need for motion controls, or unmappable buttons, and this foolish adherence to these practices means there are people who absolutely can’t experience the charm of this little world.
If there’s one thing I love in a game, it’s walking up to an object, pressing a button, and having it spit back a short bit of weird cryptic text at me. It’s why I love the Souls games. And it’s part of the reason why I love Kitty Horrorshow’s virtual worlds, but especially Castle Wormclot (released as part of her collection Haunted Cities Vol. 3).
As a child, I looked in every tree knothole I could find and reach, and Castle Wormclot (which might be just the game our political climate needs) gives me groves of trees, each with a knothole, and each a wondrous treasure (in the form of a text pop-up). It’s one of the purest expressions of discovery in games, and Kitty Horrorshow makes such phenomenal use of it within her abstracted world of high narrow walkways and platforms suspended above the abyss around the titular castle.
You can find it on itch.io.
Hello, Dark Souls, my old friend. Despite the needless length of games I had to play to write about this year, I probably still clocked more time in Lordran than anything else. I’ve always wanted to do a proper photo series on the Souls franchise, and finally with the remaster on the PS4, I was able to carve out the time to do it.
A consistent 60 FPS doesn’t feel like “Dark Souls” to me, but all the charm remained intact. This was the perfect way to say goodbye to an old, constant friend for a long while. And with the ease of the share button, I was able to document this one last trek through this bleak interconnected world and discover it with new eyes. Did you know there’s wainscoting in Anor Londo? How about the subtle halo effect around the giant crow perched high up in Firelink? I never noticed it until I begin photographing the game, using just the share button and binoculars. And maybe it’s just me but the ghosts of New Londo look like they’ve crossed over from Adventure Time (seriously, take a look at their faces sometime).
With the servers for Demon’s Souls going dark, and all those messages and shadows disappearing, being able to throw down my sign for “jolly co-operation” and make connection with other players in this unforgiving place felt meaningful again.
Horror doesn’t usually work on me. But when I first got my download code (disclosure: I’m friends with Kevin and Priscilla), I bundled myself in bed over the glow of my laptop and disappeared into the game for several hours until I’d played through every story.
Kevin Snow and Cassandra Khaw have written an anthology of spooky stories where not one of them manages to unbalance the whole work. This is a rare and difficult feat to achieve. The framing is of two teens telling each other stories while waiting for pizza. It’s classic, familiar, and perfect. Bolstering these tales (that range from creepy to comic to genuinely tense) are the haunting illustrations of Trevor Henderson, and Priscilla Snow’s terrifying use of sound effects (I’ll never recover from the neck cracking noises) and masterful scoring.
There’s also an unexpected murder ballad that’s nothing short of brilliant.
Anthologies tend to be lopsided or uneven. And while this anthology has its ostentatious blooms and quiet blossoms (which is the correct way to anthologize), this game is bound together so thoughtfully the experience is a cohesive, eerie journey.
You can find it on itch.io.
2018 is the year I finally got a Nintendo Switch, which means 2018 is the year I finally properly got my hands on Breath of the Wild. For me, this is the fulfillment on the promises made by the original Legend of Zelda’s manual. It’s the closest to a digital manifestation of childhood play mainstream video games have ever achieved. It reminds me of being seven and wearing a green makeshift tunic and swinging a balsa wood sword at monsters only I could see. It’s the rainstorm you get caught in, slipping off of a tree you’re attempting to climb and skinning your knees, the walk home, waterlogged, bleeding. The grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup that followed Bactine and a Band-Aid.
There’s so much wrapped up in how I feel about Breath of the Wild, it doesn’t just play on nostalgia, it evokes sense memory, pulls me in and invites me to relive those experiences in a world with lush forests and howling alpine landscapes, dungeons full of puzzles, and the ability to catapult a boulder miles away.
Gaby Aveiro is an indigenous game designer, illustrator, and a bad ass brujx (who happens to be my friend). They also happen to have made the only game that engages with colonialism this year that didn’t make me want to reach through the screen and grab a settler so I could scream into their throat.
1870 is a testament to what Cyberpunk could be, maybe should be, and it is such a desperately needed breath of fresh air in 2018 that I’m almost at a loss for how to describe it. It’s free, it’s a Twine game, there’s a desert, a neon, hyperconnected city, and you…an interloper, an outsider. This is a game that approaches technology from an indigenous perspective, it cares about language and culture, and people not being assholes. There are cyborgs, but they’re not the chrome razor girls and street samurai of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2077, and you sure as hell won’t find a generic Adam Jensen power fantasy here. 1870 is a Twine-powered wrecking ball in a landscape littered with bullshit colonialism simulators and Straight White Guy Cyberpunk Fantasy. But if you give yourself over to it and approach the game on its terms, you just might survive the apocalyptic wasteland.
You can find it on itch.io.
Look, this is the last month of my being Critical Distance’s Blogger of the Year and you are legally obligated to listen to me when I tell you The Order: 1886 is 2018’s Game of the Year.
The Order is a fucking amazing game and everyone who dismissed it when it first came out is wrong and should feel ashamed.
The Order lets you play as “Galahad” a grim-faced Steampunk Daddy Dom at the height of British Imperialism. He’s a member of the Fraternal Order of Arthurian Cosplayers, where everyone gets goofy codenames based off of Arthuriana (except for Lafayette who’s a horny Frenchman), and they hunt down “half-breeds” and other staples of gothic fiction. It’s a cover shooter, and I know everyone’s still sick of cover shooters, but it’s fast and exciting (and let’s be real--Red Dead Redemption 2 is a cover shooter too).
Nikola Tesla makes you ridiculous steampunk weapons (some of which are immensely fun). Nikola Tesla goes to titty bars. You can go to Nikola Tesla’s favorite titty bar. And when you’re there, you can use the photo mode (one of the best I’ve ever used) to watch as naked people vanish into thin air (it’s a truly hilarious expression of bowdlerism).
But strip away the (still) impressive graphics and quick time events, and you have at its core a surprising treatment of Imperialism, the Western identity, and the fragility of both. The Order: 1886 presents itself as an up-front steampunk shooter, but it’s much more interesting if you pay attention to all the ways it critiques and undermines the mechanics, tropes, and genre trappings it builds itself out of.
I also had the game glitch and had an NPC freeze in place in the middle of combat and bark “COR, BLIMEY!” repeatedly for five minutes before the game crashed--it was absolutely magical.