Dia Lacina is an indigenous trans woman writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit, a quarterly journal of micro-genre writing about video games. Her work is most frequently featured on Waypoint, Paste, and her website. She tweets entirely too much at @dialacina.
Making a list is always stressful. What do you pick, and why? What's etched itself in your heart? What's just there because it's more recent? It's tough. Especially when there's so much, and still so much left unplayed.
I don't like ordinal numbers. I'm not wild about lists. But it's a gentle way to push my comfort zone. A way for me to add to a conversation meaningfully without committing to a full-on essay. Last year, my list drew predominantly older games I'd just arrived at or returned to. I hadn't played that much from 2018 to be honest, and a lot left me uninspired.
I was fortunate this year to play a lot of games I loved. I reviewed a lot. Wrote features on more, with more still to come. Which also made this much harder. Even once I settled on my ten, I found myself repeating a lot of what I'd already said elsewhere in slightly different wording.
So, I scrapped it. Nearly 3,000 words, gone in an instant. And committed myself to a new challenge. Something different, something that provided me with a different way of performing criticism, a writerly (and editorial) game. An inspirational challenge for myself.
10 Drabbles about 10 games.
100-word short fanfiction pieces.
1,000 tightly (well, mostly) culled words.
You might wonder how the hell this is even criticism. And in a stricter, more prescriptivist understanding, it's probably not. But, I believe that criticism takes many forms, that it's good and healthy for it to do so. That the meta tapestry we weave across media creates a stronger, more indelible critical field.
Criticism can take many forms, it can be severe and weighty, full of theoretical framework and rhetorical maneuvering, or dredged up from deeply personal insights, but it can also be playful. A game.
This year, I chose to play.
Presented here is a list of ten games that I loved utterly enough to write tiny bits of fiction about in the hours that stretched out beyond my generous deadline.
I hope you enjoy them.
10. Control - "Emily”
Hey, when we get out of here, would you like to raise beagles together? Get real. You can't just say that. Phew. Definitely take a shower first, Jesse. Is Emily a Virgo? Bet she's a Virgo. Always so eager! Mental note: check file for her birthday. Raising beagles would be nice. God, her mouth! Have to tell whatever HR department remains. Whatever. We'll cross that bridge. Bet she's a bottom. So, beagles… little farmhouse… lots of sex, you in? Please say yes, please say yes. Please! Christ, wish I could get one of those cigarette vending machines to open up.
9. White Day: A Labyrinth Named School - "BLANKFACE"
It was three years ago. Michael from America died. Quiet, read books, wrote stories. That's what they say. He died in the school darkroom. Hit his head, drowned in a fix bath.
After that students' photos came out weird. They changed everything, but the photos were still wrong. Everyone knew it was haunted. Even teachers.
One girl developed photos of her friend and her face was just gone. A teacher tried, too. Every time--no face.
She was holding one when the car hit her. Paramedics said her face was on it--screaming.
That's why we're switching to digital cameras.
Read my feature on White Day and closing doors behind me.
8. Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate - "Larry, Mitch, & The Invader"
"LARRY! You slacking?"
The creature chewed a blade of grass, watched the body drag.
"Mitch. Let's just kill him?"
"We're monsters, not killers. We don't kill. Come on. We're here."
Larry picked up the stranger's feet. "We don't monst much, neither."
They dropped the body at the edge of town.
"Mitch? Where's that rat?
"You mean the ermine?"
"Nah. Maybe a dog."
"Larry, I told you ninety times, it's an ermine. People use 'em for muffs. OK, we're done."
They turned towards home.
"Think he'll be back, Mitch?"
"It's what he does."
Larry grew silent.
"What's a muff?"
7. Fire Emblem: Three Houses - "World Enough and Time"
Claude, stiff-limbed, collapses into his armchair. Fishes out remnants of last night's joint. Eyes close.
On dewy grass, a dog licks his fingers.
"Love you too, E." Smiles. Gives a thumbs up as Dimitri tries to calm the fuming royal.
Claude wonders what Petra's doing. Eating Raphael under the table? Macking on Bernie? He likes them together. Good match.
Twin tintinnabulation of laughter. Manuela rests her head on Dorothea. Good match.
Pointy boot jabs him. "Joining us for class, Claude?" Another smile.
"Right behind you, Professor." Another thumbs up.
He ruffles the dog's ears. Five minutes won't hurt.
Read my article about shipping from a professorial position in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
6. Luigi's Mansion 3 - "We Must Imagine Googi Happy"
He knows this word. Doesn't know why he says it. Dissociated comfort. But why? He looks at the mustachioed man across from him. Hates the cylinder strapped to his lanky back.
"Gooigi..." The pink twin taps his foot.
Turn the knob. Water runs.
I'll never know rain or a bath. When they go to Isle Delfino, would they even invite me? I cannot swim. Not even dangle a foot in the pool. I know these words.
Gooigi stares into the drain, the liquid coursing to freedom.
Finger snaps. Click of a button.
Gooigi watches water fill the sink from his prison. He waits.
Read my review of Luigi’s Mansion 3 for Paste.
5. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - "Sumi-e"
Wolf thinks of another life. He could paint this. Alpine peaks. Shimmering maple. When corpse becomes grass, plague turns pollen. He coughs. A tile slips. Not his. Air molecules burst as steel claws ends of brittle ashen hair.
Pivot. More tile slips. Collide. Clanging. Hot breath billows. Screeching. The wind explodes, embers surround them. Precious second. Their blades scrape, part, and more clanging. Wolf leaps, and a borrowed arm whirs. Bone, rope, and metal tug. Whoever heard of a flying wolf? Alive wolf, dead wolf, revenant wolf. Wolf sinks fang into soft pursuing flesh. Not his screaming.
Wolf cannot paint.
Read my piece about Hanbei, the helpful and tragic samurai at the emotional core of Sekiro.
4. Don't Wake The Night - "Decisions"
"Humans. They think we know everything!" Spirit tosses their hat on the table.
"It's fine. They never just talk to each... Dinner smells phenomenal!"
"Your favorite!" Their partner places the clay pot between them, gathers place settings.
"I could just retire."
"Imagine how bored you'd be." Spirit is embraced from behind, napkin draped across their lap, a kiss on the neck. "Humans are complex, you're not a god."
"Can you imagine? So much more workplace pettiness!"
They eat their meal, wash their faces, and spoon in bed.
"You think I made the right call?"
"Honey. Cut your toenails."
3. Judgment - "Earth Angel"
Mama-san is already tired when the boy enters. He knows her, everyone does. But the glance is a second too long. She notices. He notices. Darts his eyes sideways. Smiles.
"Suntory?" She offers a round iceberg in an amber, glass-bound sea.
She knows his story. Poor boy, she thinks. Watches the whisky dampen his lips, shoulders slackening under tight leather.
He'll figure it out.
He orders another, taps hurriedly into his phone, then slams it back. Turns a grimace into a smile at Mama-san. She hears his hurried footfalls running down the alley. She mops some moisture off the counter.
Read my review of Judgment for Paste.
2. Pathologic 2 - "Ruminant"
The surgeon probes my flat peg teeth with city fingers. Stares into my black eyes. Haruspex. A fly skirts the waterline. He judges me for my offal.
You will die here. You and this terrible woman.
They haggle. He tears off a hunk of bread. Swallows it with vodka.
A white mask gestures on the corner, his face blank and stupid. They're everywhere.
I'll die too.
The fly considers laying its eggs. Tiny legs on wet cornea, twice its size.
But I'll belch my cud while this town burns.
Not yet. Too warm. Too alive. But so much meat. Soon.
Read my review of Pathologic 2 for Paste, and check out my discussion of Difficulty and Accessibility here.
1. Shenmue III - "Gacha"
Ryo deposits a coin, turns the child-sized crank. Jostle, plunk, little plastic bubbles sending one of their own down the chute below, into the hands of this grown boy. He pops the lid, taps the toy into his hands.
"What's this?" He stares at the diminutive figure, turns it over. "Huh?" Cold sweat trickles down his neck.
Another coin, another turn, more sweat.
Coin. Twist. Killer.
Coin. Twist. Friend.
"Oh." A forklift. Ryo knows forklifts. He looks closer. Sees the young driver. Heart pounds. Shirt dampens. A life in plastic tumbles.
"I need to go."