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Samantha Kalman's Top 10 Games of 2018

Um Jammer Sammy makes her triumphant return to tell us about her favorite gaming experiences of the year.

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Samantha Kalman is a Seattle-based game developer currently working at System Era Softworks on their Early Access title Astroneer. You can find her on Twitter @SamanthaZero.

Hey Bombadillos! Winter is upon us once more, signifying the coming of so many special events. The pagan ritual of the winter solstice, the futility of cupping season, and the time honored traditional violent fervor of rampant consumerism. Isn’t it great? I can’t think of a better way to sacrifice a tree than laying shrink-wrapped video games at its mutilated stump. Except all my games are digital now so maybe the metaphor doesn’t hold up.

I was thrilled when Alex asked me to contribute another top ten list this year! I’ve missed out on playing a lot of the big releases this year. Because of that my list might defy your expectations. All part of my master plan, I assure you.

10. Astroneer

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I’m biased; I’ve been working on Astroneer for a year and a half. It’s almost done, and the version that’s live today is very good. The team and I have been working really hard to finish it up. If you like survival-crafting or space games, I hope you love what we’ve made.

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9. Home Improvisation

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Have you ever ordered a box of furniture from Ikea? You know those terrible, overly complicated pictographic “directions” in the box? Yeah, fuck that shit. This sofa construction doesn’t make any sense! Just let me do it myself. Hand me my drill.

This tiny game is effectively a safe space to do whatever the hell you want with a box of furniture pieces. I don’t care if you think my lamp is ugly. It’s my lamp, I built it myself, and it’s gonna live in the corner of the room propped up against the wall so it won’t fall over. If you don’t like it, get the hell out of my house. I’ll be here sitting on the sturdy half of my favorite sofa.

8. Nintendo Labo

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Yo, I got to fold up a tiny cardboard piano and put my Switch in it! Yeah, I guess I can use it to make music too, and even output that music to a mixing board. It’s a nice excuse to dust off some of my old FX pedals and jam out some fuzzy musical nonsense. The playing music part is cool and all, but TINY CARDBOARD PIANO!

I just love how Nintendo basically re-invented the peripheral with Labo. It’s a rad introduction to engineering and a really clever way of integrating game consoles into a learning process. And it’s simple enough to be approachable by younger kids! Labo is one of the best examples of a product that uses technology to bridge the physical-digital gap we are all subjected to. It’s fun to do alone, it’s fun to do with other people, and the applications are highly expandable! I just wish I had more shelf space so I could store more of these damn things around my apartment.

7. Marvel’s Spider-Man

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Spider-Man was my favorite comic book character growing up. This new game really excels at making me feel cool the way I imagine Spider-Man feels cool while he’s swinging around New York. Even though the swinging is built on a simple foundation, there’s a very smart “opt-in” progression of mechanics if you want to get around faster or more stylishly. The team made some really smart choices to lower the barrier to entry of the swinging. Prioritizing accessibility in the feel of the core swinging mechanic was a brilliant strategy. I fully support any game that makes an effort to be playable by a broader set of people with different skill levels.

I mostly played this game for the feel. The story was fine, but didn’t particularly speak to me. I know I’m picky in a few ways. Given the trends of the Spider-verse in comics and films right now, I wish we’d had more breaks from Peter Parker. I would have loved to play as Spider-Miles, Spider-Gwen, even Silk or Spider-Woman. Spider-Ham in this game would have blown my frickin’ mind.

Personally, I was also disappointed at the lack of Venom in the game. I know it was telling a different story, but honestly, go Venom or go home. And do it right, please? I’m tired of everybody fucking up Venom in some way. If it’s not twiggy, mis-cast Topher Grace, it’s Tom Hardy, the perfect actor for the role, but without the black suit Spider-Man origin story. Yeah, I have opinions on Venom, but now at least Insomniac knows how to make me happy.

6. Burnout Paradise Remastered

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Yeah, so I missed playing Burnout Paradise when it first came out. It’s not my fault, I swear! I was living in Denmark where games cost $120 and I bought Dead Space instead. When the remaster dropped it was a day one purchase. I was not disappointed.

This game captures an unmatched feeling of going really fucking fast. It masterfully gives the sensation of barely retaining control of the car and sweating to avoid obstacles with millimeter precision. At least it feels that way, and that’s what counts. I also loved the opt-in nature of challenges from a free roaming foundation. And yeah, when cars get all smashed up it still looks cool as hell.

5. Dragon Ball FighterZ

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If you know me from the site you probably know I love fighting games. One of my lifelong best friends and competitors loves DBZ played all the Budokai games. He made me play them and I never liked them. I always called Dragon Ball Z the Budweiser of anime. Yeah, I’m actually an asshole. However, I stand by my claim that those games were bad, so the bar for a good DBZ fighter was pretty low. Arc System Works not only met that bar with this game, they set a new bar for playability, quality, and presentation for all fighting games to match now. This game is really good, and really impressive.

Weird thing about getting older: it’s really hard to stay good at fighting games unless you play them all the time. In my mid-30s now, my reflexes are strictly non-competitive tier. This is to say I’m not very good at DB FighterZ. But! I really love playing it. I think it’s the most fun I’ve had learning and internalizing a fighting game since 3rd Strike, which is saying a lot. And I know it well enough now to have a good-ass time watching competitions online. I see the dynamics and the high level play, enjoying the awe of the matches.

It’s also made me kind of interested in the show? Not that I want to watch it or anything, I’m just more curious about what-all is going on. Can someone make a 60 minute cut of the entire series for me? I would also accept a series of short clips of best moments. I’m just too lazy to look for such a thing myself.

4. Fortnite Battle Royale

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This game is silly bullshit and I love it. It embodies a lighthearted absurdity while also retaining the great feeling of tension and competition. Yes, I bought a couple seasons of Battle Passes. Yes, I spent a few weekend days doing nothing but playing this game. Yes, I learned how to do the Floss. I also managed to snag my first and only Victory Royale (fuck yeah)! I never did manage to get myself a chicken dinner, so Fortnite is obviously better.

3. Vampyr

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This game speaks to my inner goth in a hardcore way. How do I unpack this game…? It’s morbid in the most interesting ways. It’s boldly morally ambiguous. The story is so interesting (if a little drawn-out). And the dynamics of helping NPCs to set yourself up to benefit more when you drink them dry is just really cool! I don’t think I’ve seen such a fascinating possibility space for meaningful player choices in a story-driven game. Those systems are executed in a really nifty way that I found totally engrossing.

The combat has qualities that are harder to convey. Surface-level, the feel is very stiff. Some would even call it clunky. But the more time I spent with it, the more I found the rhythms of fighting to be really satisfying. It started feeling good when I stopped watching the animations so carefully and started anticipating more. It’s really learnable and satisfying. And yeah, the powers are super gothpunk. Also, blood.

2. Tetris Effect

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Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who is the producer for this cover of Tetris, is one of my heroes. He made Rez, which literally changed the course of my life. This game is a beautiful, harmonious hybrid of Tetris and Rez. It’s the best version of Tetris I’ve ever played. And the most beautiful. And the most… emotional.

My circles of game design partners and mentors and I talk about the unseen aspects of design. The invisible connections that are hard to describe, but add up to a feeling of the experience. It’s something that’s not purely aesthetic or mechanical. It’s an emotional imprint that is more than the sum of its parts. This magic that games can provide is extremely difficult to capture. Tetris Effect captures it masterfully.

In this game, the musical foundations combined with the musically responsive aspects of play combined with the visual mood and progression of the settings/environment all work together. The result is a feeling grounded in human cultures and achievement and ambition that feels something like falling in love. I don’t know how else to describe it other than “please play this game”. It’s as close to a work of art as we’ll ever get in this commercial industry of video games. And hey, we all deserve to have experiences that make us feel good without some form of power fantasy.

1. Bloodborne

Surprise! I know this game came out in 2015, which in video game terms is like two million years ago. I don’t care. Bloodborne is my game of the year and I’ll tell you why: It’s fucking awesome. Hard as hell and rewarding as fuck. Terrifying and gratifying. Shallow on the surface but bursting with rich narrative depth. I’m not finished with it yet, and I’m savoring it now.

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Bloodborne is my first souls game. I played it on launch day, and had no idea what I was getting into. I spent the entire day playing the opening area and made literally zero progress. See, I wasn’t familiar with the feel of the combat or the amount of patience I would need to bring to the table. And the pre-requisite to enabling character progression was so esoteric that I managed to accidentally bypass it. So without the ability to level, and losing all my blood echoes, I put it down in frustration. I didn’t pick it up again for three years. This year.

A little bit of prodding from one of my co-workers who loves the game convinced me to give it another try. We talked a lot about the opening tutorial, why it’s so hard, and the implications of that decision. I’m really glad I tried again knowing I would need a deep well of patience to get over that first (perhaps unfairly difficult) hump in the progression. Once I managed to find my competency in the rhythms of the combat I started having a really good time. I managed to avoid major spoilers and still have a lot to see in the game. I’m loving the specific vagueness of the story and the technique of storytelling. I’m getting into the really weird shit of the game now, and can’t wait to see how it all unfolds. How many more big boys do I get to murder this season? The correct answer is: all of them. I just have to finish it up before Sekiro drops so I can solve that game in real-time with the rest of the community. I’m gonna stop writing this now so I can get back to finishing off the dude on the roof of Cainhurst Castle.

0. In Conclusion

Yeah, it’s been a good year for games. I hope you’re all happy and healthy and enjoying whatever you’re playing! Here’s to 2019 being even better, when every game has a Battle Royale mode. I still want to make my “a hundred drag queens parachute onto a catwalk” game if anyone wants to write me a check.

<3 -s