Nina Freeman is a level designer at Fullbright in Portland, Oregon. They recently released their latest narrative exploration game, Tacoma. Previous games that Nina worked on include Independent Games Festival (IGF) nominee how do you Do It? and IGF Nuovo winner Cibele. You can find her work at ninasays.so, and you can follow her on Twitter at @hentaiphd.
Writing this list was really fun and easy, because the amount of amazing games that came out over the last year is unfathomable. There are so many well-deserving games that didn’t make it onto this list. To be honest, this was the first year in a long time where I played games often to help myself feel happier about life in general. I played and streamed an absurd amount of Overwatch (s/o to all of my Overwatch buddies <3--meeting you all was the highlight of my year), I fell in love with Danganronpa, I stayed up way too late playing Divinity: Original Sin II, I swooned over some cute boys in Norn9… I played more games this year than I have in ages. The world has been a very dark place, and it can be very challenging to cope with the anxieties of daily life in such a harsh atmosphere, but the joy that so many games brought me helped me move forward. I know it sounds dramatic… but I’m serious. I’m so thankful for these games, and all the other games I played this year. I feel honored to work in an industry beside such talented creators.
My list isn’t in any particular order. These games are all amazing.
Detention is a game that everyone needs to play. It’s a horror game set in a Taiwanese high school during the '60s era of martial law, using adventure game style mechanics to tell a story that reaches into emotional and political depths that I was honestly unprepared for… but needed. Detention does a lot of things right in order to have this impact.
Mechanically, it’s solid and never overextends. The levels flow smoothly and lend themselves completely to the narrative. In fact, the levels and puzzles are often drawing directly on Taiwanese folklore, creating a specificity to the story’s setting that I think a lot of narrative games could learn from. I really adore the fact that these developers fully embraced their culture, drawing on it to create a uniquely Taiwanese (and spooky) game.
Detention is tragic, beautiful and deliberately thoughtful towards its characters. This is a game that knows its telling a difficult story, and does it with grace. I think the narrative design is what really did it for me. The game is designed around intimate character driven levels and moments that are tied together elegantly to communicate the broader story. One level I keep thinking back to is one where you end up in the family home of one of the main characters--Ray. In this level, you’re learning about her family life, and are able to shift the house between a few time periods, giving you an idea of how things have changed for her over the years. You’re aware she has some troubles at home, and I think many games would leave it at that--simply describing her family issues through dialogue. However, Detention is character focused, and brings you through a whole level that paints an intimate picture of her family life. The level ties together some of the main plot beats while also taking care to go beyond the plot, carefully depicting the human side of Ray and her family. I think this kind of human approach to storytelling drew me in, and made me care that much more about the world that Detention builds, and the people in it. Which is something that I think is important when you’re telling a tragic story like the one Detention holds.
PREY PREY PREY PREEEEEY!!! I’ve been screaming about this game all year, because I loved it both as a player and a level designer. I think that it’s a 100% must-play for anyone who cares about first-person narrative games. The impact of their world-building, specifically through level design, is really amazing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the lobby or in the bunks--the spaces in Prey are dense, and feel lived in. Prey wants to show you the crew playing D&D, it wants to show you the silly gloo snowman backstory--it gives you an ensemble of crew members that you actually come to care about almost entirely through what they left behind. I know this kind of thing has been done before, but Prey does it exceptionally well.
I’m the type of player that likes to scrub spaces for every last detail… and it feels so good when I’m rewarded for that with coherent world building and character detail like this. Also… it’s kinda rare for me to actually want to read every email and text in a games of this scale… but Prey’s ambient texts are all so well done that I went through the game and tracked down every single one. It was totally worth it.
However, it’s not just the characters that made me love this game… I had so much fun exploring the station and finding unique ways to navigate through the space (especially by building GLOO gun bridges, haha). Their levels manage to be both mechanical playgrounds and character driven, narratively coherent spaces. Even a significant portion of combat is environment oriented, as some of the critters can take on the appearance of ordinary objects (e.g. a coffee cup), in the station. Everything about this game embraces the space that you’re exploring. Talos I is a place that I can actually still imagine in my mind, months after playing, and see it like it’s clear as day. It’s one of the few games I want to go back to right away so I can explore those spaces again.
Everything is going to be ok!
This game is special to me for a lot of reasons. When I played it, I felt like I found one of the few games this year that really captured a lot of experiences and feelings I’ve had personally throughout my adult life. Situations that cause social anxiety, the constant struggle of seeking friendship, the feeling of not being able to express an important feeling to someone… Everything is going to be ok! touches on these topics, and a lot of other very personal experiences that I’m sure many people can relate to. However, the game isn’t strictly about the player--it very much feels like it came directly from the designer's soul. This is another creator whose signature is strong in their work--Nathalie’s presence is in the game. In fact, she bundled in an artistic statement that is a must-read, and really shows just how personal the work is to her. Her abstraction of these moments and feelings, and the mechanics unique to each vignette, create a mosaic of the life experiences of a person. A person who I know I can relate to… I actually think this game made me feel less alone, in a way. It’s pretty amazing how games like this can lead you deftly into examining your own life, even sometimes helping you understand yourself better. I hope you’ll play this game, because it might actually shed some unexpected light on things that can be emotionally challenging to sort through on your own.
NieR:Automata is the kind of game that people are going to be talking about for years. Generally speaking, I think a major contributor to this is that there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to NieR’s themes and its unique narrative approach to artificial intelligence and technology. However, what I want to highlight is its experimental game design.
You don’t find many games gutsy enough to ask the player to play a shmup one second, then a third person action sequence then next… oh and wait! Now we’re in a purely text driven interface. There are obviously games that employ multiple systems throughout the course of a story, but NieR’s are special because they’re so intimately tied to the narrative. You are brought to that text interface not to spice things up or provide some kind of side-story minigame… it’s because the game wants you to embody these characters as they hack into computers, as they share data, as they step into their mechsuits. In NieR, no matter who you’re playing as, you’re truly embodying them and experiencing their unique point of view. This is how NieR tells a story that cannot be told in any medium other than video games. It goes well beyond dialogue and visual storytelling, and creates layers of systems that are necessary to conveying their story. NieR’s story-oriented game design, and their openness to integrating different mechanics that support embodiment, is something that I think a lot of designers can learn from.
Resident Evil 7
When I put Resident Evil 7 on my game of the year list… I should really title it “The mansion in Resident Evil 7” or maybe even more specifically “The escape room in Resident Evil 7”. Actually I guess there are multiple escape rooms if you include the DLC, and both are great. However, the party room level in RE7 really blew me away. Honestly, I think the party room was so strong that it could be its own game. I love how it makes use of super ordinary things, like a birthday cake or a stove, as the core elements in the puzzle. I know that this is a common kind of approach to puzzles in survival-horror games, but often those puzzles feel so obscure (as we know is Resident Evil tradition). In this escape room, it doesn’t try to be obscure or do anything fancy. Instead, it relies on the moment to moment impact of discovery that escape rooms do so well. I actually had fun solving a puzzle in a survival-horror game, which is honestly impressive.
Two side notes: the tattoo code being carved into your arm during the escape room though… wow. It’s a little heavy handed, but I think it’s a super effective moment and one that I’ll remember for a long time. Also, the mansion in general is amazing from a level design perspective. It feels concise and lived-in throughout, and I would definitely play the game again just to wander through the house to take all those details in.
afterHours is a game about a young woman and her innermost thoughts. It’s an intensely thoughtful and intimate game, specifically diving into experiences with molestation and borderline personality disorder. You are brought into a close look at a young woman's diary, her facebook, her poetry, her bed. You see her room, moving through some of her most personal moments. The game resonates with me on a lot of levels (obviously, I explore personal themes through similar ephemera in my own work, and love what’s she’s doing with that), but I think the game does something special with voice. The main voice actress, Bahiyya, is narrating the game to you. Her acting feels utterly honest and blunt, and even the sound quality of her voice is clear, as if you’re with her. But she’s not here to spell anything out for you--she’s here to express the feelings of the story… it’s almost like she’s sharing an internal monologue as she reacts to texts and her face in the mirror. The mix of her narration and the texts throughout the game paint a deep, emotionally real portrait as she copes with her past and present. I want to thank this team of game developers for making this game, because it is truly something special.
This is another game that took me by surprise. Honestly, now that I think about it, horror games this year really nailed it. Observer is a first-person cyberpunk horror game where you play as an investigator exploring an apartment building, jacking into the brains of various corpses in order to relive their final moments. Reliving those moments also often intersects with various associated memories, and so you spend time getting to know these murdered victims both through the details in their apartment, and through their memories.
These memory sequences are super interesting--each one is sort of a small character driven vignette. The memory levels don’t overstay their welcome, and are enhanced by the apartment rooms which use environmental storytelling to help flesh out each character's narrative. Of course, you’re learning about murders and investigating because that’s your job… but this game really lets you spend the time you need to get to know each character. This is so important, because some of the difficulties these characters are facing in their lives demand nuanced time and care in the story. Whether you’re spending time in prison with Amir, or reliving his intense fights with Helena, Observer takes the time to recognize the reality of these often challenging moments. Sometimes it was a pretty hard game to play--it doesn’t shy away from a topics like abuse and trauma. If you play it, definitely play it with that in mind.
Danganronpa v3: Killing Harmony
I’m actually not even done playing this game but it’s definitely earned a spot on my list here. I’m a huge fan of the Danganronpa series in general, and if you haven’t played them… well, go do it! Now!
Danganronpa is a series of games about a high school full of geniuses who are forced into a murdering game, almost like a battle royale. However, your primary focus is on investigating each murder, and identifying the culprit. You explore the school and murder scenes, gathering evidence over the course of each level. You use this evidence to identify the murderer during a trial.
That’s the structure of the game, which is fun, but where Danganronpa really shines is in its sharp writing and story. It’s a game with an interesting balance of humor and tragedy, often balanced out by a heavy dose of satire. All of this is delivered by a cast of characters more vivid than any other game I’ve played this year. I can’t even tell you how much I adore these characters. I want to go catch ladybugs with Gonta. I want to dress up in cosplay with Tsumugi. I want to have fancy tea with Kirumi. I’m actually so attached to these characters that I was already crying like a baby at the end of the second trial… which is a record time to tears for me, across all the Danganronpa games. I’m not done with this anime emotional rollercoaster… but it’s definitely feeling like a game I’m not going to forget anytime soon.
Gigantic is an online strategic hero shooter game that came out last summer. I’m actually not normally the kind of person that gets into online shooter games (except Overwatch, which is my LIFE). So, when I first heard about Gigantic I wasn’t on the edge of my seat or anything. However, I gave it a chance, as I’m always looking for something to play with my friends over the internet. I was instantly taken aback by the joyful experience of playing a game of Gigantic.
I played a lot of Uncle Sven at first--he’s basically my alchemist grandfather. Running around as Uncle Sven, tossing my potion bottles everywhere and bouncing (literally) around each level was one of the most delightful and fun experiences I’ve had in a game in a while. I get super stressed out playing competitive games, so Gigantic was a refreshing experience. I could play a game, try my best, and feel satisfied regardless of the outcome. It’s a hero shooter that has a lot of strategic depth and moment to moment action, but it never feels stressful because of its atmosphere. I think the very fluid design of the levels, and the ease with which you navigate through them, also help make it feel welcoming. I think that their careful attention to this positive atmosphere really helps it stand out, especially during a time where these kinds of competitive games are more popular than ever.
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
I love game designers who truly leave their personal mark on a work. I think you know a Bennett Foddy game when you play it, and this game is no exception. The uncanny realism of the art, the awkward physics, the troll-y attitude… yeah, that’s a Bennett game. His personal voice as a designer rings clear and true in his work… and interestingly in this game, his personal voice as the designer is literally present. In Getting Over It, you get to hear him describe the inspiration for the game--Sexy Hiking. You hear him exclaim when you fall down. He’s actually talking to you in (what sounds like, at least) his normal, everyday voice, explaining things about the game and being present almost like a bystander while you play. I actually found it oddly comforting to think that Bennett was abstractly there, ready to make fun of me as I fell off the level in stupid ways over and over. I think creator narration in the style Bennett uses here is a largely untapped resource, and a lot of game designers should look at this (and what Bahiyya did in afterHours) as a potential source of inspiration. It can add a really interesting layer of narrative and a uniquely intimate atmosphere.