It’s the end of 2018 and me and you and everyone else reading this are all alive. So that’s good.
Last year we released a game called Night In The Woods. And then I was basically unconscious for many months. Sleepwalking around. Alex asked me to do a top 10 list last December and I just couldn’t finish it. I was just too tired, my mind still totally blown from releasing NITW and doing other stuff and I like couldn’t retain any knowledge of games that year. Except that Tacoma was really great. Go play Tacoma. I also played Bubsy somewhere in there for some reason. But this year I am feeling much better, I’ve slept, I’ve adjusted medication, I’ve hiked and biked a bunch of miles, I’m much healthier, and I’ve gotten involved in some good organizations. And dare I say as extremely bad as things are, as much as the world is especially horrible right now, I’ve seen some things that give me hope. So here I am, talking about video games and putting them in a list and stuff.
My shame this year is I haven’t gotten to check out Wandersong yet. It looks charming and fun, and it’s made by people who each had a hand in our game Night In The Woods. Em and Gord worked on sound for the game, and Greg voiced Sharkle. If you’ve played our game you know who Sharkle is.
Also go play Everything Is Going To Be OK by Nathalie Lawhead.
Alright, on to the big list:
I’m cramming these into one since I played them back to back. I only sort of like actually playing the Tomb Raider games, but I love Lara Croft as a character. She is absolutely out of her mind. Give her any task and she will pledge her life and the lives of basically anyone she encounters to it. She will murder 1,000 men, you just say the word. She will snap necks from Siberia to Peru in pursuit of whatever task she has for some reason undertaken. She’s a wealthy British aristocrat with an inherited mansion full of treasures that should probably be shipped back to whatever country her father stole them from. I bet she grew up hearing constant laments about the decline of the empire and pining for the days when a rich white British bloke could just waltz into a tomb somewhere in the colonies, steal whatever he came across, display it on a wall in his estate back in Cheshington on Trout, and be treated as a hero by the Royal Society of Whatever.
The writers make a valiant attempt to point out some of this in Shadow, but it doesn’t much matter. The premise is the premise. And Lara, as a protagonist, is simply nuts. She isn’t Nathan Drake. Nathan makes jokes. He’s all “uh oh here we go again lol” as he massacres mercenaries. Nathan is a goofier Indiana Jones with a stable home life. Lara, on the other hand, is working through her traumatic past and aristocratic derangement in a deadly serious manner. Lara will drag you underwater and hold you until you stop moving. Lara will take your neck out with a climbing axe and then go on her merry way. Lara is 100% GONE. Lara is NOT AT HOME. Never change, Lara.
Before I fell through the side door into doing video games, I was an indie animator. It’s a great space where the best animation in the world lives, well outside of the commercial ecosystem. Maggie’s Apartment reminds me of a lot of the fantastic work I loved in that scene, and very little of what I now encounter in games. It’s in some ways a very straightforward bite-sized adventure game, but it looks and feels and moves like nothing I've seen in a long time. I very highly prize work that looks like it could have only come from the person it came from. That’s actually difficult to find very often in video games, where there are a handful of approved styles and reference points that inform a huge chunk of what you most commonly encounter in the medium. Maggie’s Apartment gives me life. It’s weird and goofy as hell and it is confident in that. It’s also pretty short, so you can polish it off in an afternoon. Go check it out.
Best Game To Not Play As You Play It: Fortnite
OK so let’s get this out of the way: I don’t actually like Fortnite all that much. As a game, it’s not really my thing. As a chatroom, however, it’s fantastic. This year I semi-regularly got together with good friends on Google Hangout and we’d play Fortnite as a fun thing to do as we chatted about other things. We didn’t try very hard, we’re still not great at it, but as a space to hang out with friends you don’t get to see in person very often, it’s pretty great.
I recommend Fortnite to any adult who needs someplace to meet up with friends and talk about your adult-ass lives as muted 11-year-olds blast you to death. Sometimes you’ll take a few down. Mostly you won’t. And you’ll never buy anything. And that’s fine. Just dance. You don’t know what the dances are called. You read somewhere that they stole the dances from the individual people who invented them. There’s a lawsuit. You’re talking with your other adult friends about ownership of things like dances, how so many things that emerge naturally from brilliant minds get grabbed by someone else, have a market value assigned to them, and are put into use making outrageous sums money for an increasingly small set of people, and how this is the story of capitalism and so much culture, and then while you’re just standing there like an idiot thinking about all of this another muted 11-year-old snipes you in the head, runs over to where you were, and does one of the dances. Before bed, later, you try to do one of the dances for a few seconds. You can’t get it right. You chuckle, give up, and go to sleep. In the time you were trying to do the dance, Epic made enough money to buy whatever building you are now fast asleep in. And while you are sleeping, the 11-year-olds are still out there, forever diving out of school buses, sniping heads, and dancing stolen dances.
Obra Dinn is only so far down this list because I had to go out of town for a week a few days after I’d started chipping away at it and then I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I was doing and who half of these poor dead dudes were and then I got sidetracked and I promise I’ll get back into it over the holidays.
That aside, this is a truly engrossing game, the kind I rarely encounter these days. I can’t remember the last time I played a game that had this same kind of mental grip on me while I was playing it. There’s no real urgency in the game for you to figure it all out, but I definitely played like there was. There’s this strong “THE GAME IS AFOOT” feeling, despite the events of the game constituting just another work day for the protagonist. In that way, the urgency without anxiety puzzle vibe, it reminded me of Her Story. Both are about labeling and ordering small vignettes, figuring out what happened long before you encountered this space. And also, like last year’s truly excellent Tacoma, Obra Dinn represents an evolution of the classic audio log archeology thing, where the story is told by what is left behind in the environment by people who have long gone. In your standard application, it’s tapes or notes strewn around a level. In Tacoma, it’s ghostly holographic recordings enacting their lives around you as you weave in and out of the moment. In Obra Dinn it’s a bunch of twisted corpses and the fleeting snapshots of their final living moments before they became part of someone else’s day job.
Tetris Effect is a period piece about the year 1999. It’s all millennium optimism and uplifting dance jams. Tetris Effect wants you to feel alive. Tetris Effect wants you to connect to a universal consciousness. Tetris Effect wants to show you these sweet Winamp skins and visualizations. I hadn’t played Tetris in awhile and thus my skills are quite rusty. The final level of the very good Journey mode was, for me, quite difficult. I beat my head against it over and over. But the music in that stage isn’t what you’d expect. There’s no dramatic fight theme. No THIS IS THE FINAL CHALLENGE banger. No tense violins or big orchestra hits. Instead there’s this pleasant little jam with lyrics about how you’re not alone, that nothing it too difficult for you, that you can find something in yourself to propel you forward.
And fuck, in late 2018 I’ll take it. It’s cheesy as hell. It’s about as deep as a phone commercial, but I don’t care. There are fascists in the streets. ICE rips families apart. California is on fire. Healthcare is expensive and designed for profit. Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. After a very long day of all of that, I could very much use Tetris on some PLUR shit. Come join me and listen to the space whale sing you a song about how the future is something to look forward to, piece by piece, line by line.
Best Turkeys: Far Cry 5
I didn’t much like Far Cry 5, but the wildlife just does not give a fuck, and at the top of that power ranking is the turkey. I swear to god those things would not quit. One would accidentally get set on fire and would still rush me, filling my screen with flaming turkey face. I respect that. Best Turkeys 2018, no question.
I have dreams regularly where in-dream I’m trying to complete some task, usually getting from point A to B, but I keep passing out every few minutes, and I can never seem to get to where I need to go. I’m sure this Means Things, but mostly I bring it up because I fucking love Minit. The premise, in case you’re unaware, is that your little dude only lives for 60 seconds and must lift some sort of curse. Objects found and various actions persist across lives. At first it all seems impossible, but after a while you start making slow progress further out in the world. You’ll open up new starting points, unlock new areas, and bump into an extremely charming cast. There are a whole lot of ways to play the game and I probably only scratched the surface, and I need to head back for that second quest action.
To reiterate my initial point, I fucking love Minit. We need games like this--short, strong, confident, full of their own unique personality and quirks. I’m in my mid-30s and to be honest, innovative and charming games that only take a few dense hours to play are a godsend. I wish we could trade a few giant world-crushing games for a few dozen experiences like this.
I suck at this game!!!! But I love it!!!! I was a mega-fan of the developer’s previous game FTL, so I was excited about their take on the strategy genre. And more than any other game of this sort I’ve played, Into The Breach really comes across as a puzzle board game. It’s the small grid, the tiles, the turns, the rules. It feels like a game that could easily have been much larger and more fluid and complex but it’s just… not. It’s boiled down to the core bits--the bugs, the mechs, the squares, and the people screaming at me that I’m not saving them from the monsters with sufficient skill. Sorry, folks. My bad. I’m just gonna rewind time and maybe in this other reality you won’t get smashed by a giant beetle. I’m not even going to tell you how many alternate timeline yous have died this exact way. This would just make you sad. But on the bright side, I am slowly upgrading my murderbots! So here’s hoping that some future alter-you makes it home for dinner, commuting home from the power plant through the scattered innards of city-block-sized insects as my team of giant robots moves on to another mission to accomplish, poorly.
Holy geez when did mid-December 2018 become one of the most exciting release weeks of the year? I’ve been waiting for both of these games for a long time. Have you seen them? They’re beautiful. I’m hoping by the time you read this that I’ve gotten to play both.
4. Donut County
It’s kind of obvious that I’d love this game. It just oozes charm, it’s hilarious, the central mechanic is simple and fun, and my only complaint is I would like much more of it, now, please, thanks. Fun fact: it’s offline now, but there was a sort of prequel(?) twine game called Brooklyn Trash King and it was on my first GB top 10 list way back in 2014 when we were all much younger. Now you know why the primary trash mammal in Donut County is named BK. I think. That’s my theory, at least. But geez, go play Donut County. It’s a breath of wonderful air.
3. Hitman 2
This was somehow my first experience with a Hitman game. I think years ago I’d pegged it as this painfully too-cool super serious murder game. What I didn’t know is that, at least in the modern iteration, it is a slapstick adventure game and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever played. I’m Agent 47, apparently the greatest assassin in recorded history. I’m tall, bald, have impeccable facial structure, and a barcode tattoo on the back of my head. And yet I can easily blend in anywhere. In one of the tutorial missions I knocked out a chef and stole his outfit. My handler was simply amazed at my brilliant idea to WEAR A DISGUISE. I fulfill my mission with deadly grace and skill, which often devolves into me throwing things at waves of guards after I fucked up my plan and had to hurl a knife into the head of my target in the middle of a room full of horrified foreign dignitaries. It’s a blast. I love it.
I should also mention how impressive these scenarios are from a design perspective. Each stage is a giant piece of clockwork machinery with hundreds of moving parts. Characters have schedules. Events take place, time advances. It’s a big piece of theater happening all around as you creep through, zeroing in on your target, biding your time, ready to toss the exploding duck into the room, detonate it, and run like hell for the nearest exit.
Best Fledgling Militant Labor Organization In The Games Industry: Game Workers Unite
Game workers unite! Get into it! We’re less than a year old but already we’re on multiple continents, we’re growing, and we’re just getting started. Support workers, support unions, support the struggle. GWU: coming to a studio near you.
2. Dead Cells
Yo this game is a great roguelite and was made by a French anarcho-syndicalist worker cooperative and you can play it forever. This is all fantastic news!
Nearly 6 years in, Kentucky Route Zero continues to be one of the most exciting things happening in games. There’s one proper episode left and I’m beyond excited to play it next year. This year they released what I assume is their final supplemental game, Un Pueblo de Nada. Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t always get credit for how ambitious it is. Their smaller between-episode games have worked with telephones, theater, and, with this installment, video. Strange and wonderful video. Un Pueblo de Nada revisits and expands upon characters, places, and themes of the whole KRZ project. Here again we find people working with damaged or unworkable equipment to strange and surprising result. Here again we find people working with little to do a lot, together. Debt and death, lost people and found communities, broken bones and broken machines that all make beautiful noise together.
There’s a strong sense in Un Pueblo de Nada that everything is bound together with duct tape, spit, and hope, and that’s it’s all hanging by a thread. There’s an acceptance of, but not surrender to, the idea that at some point the power may go out and not come back on, the rain may destroy the roof, the creditors and banks and landlords may devour you, and all of these machines and places may go quiet forever. And geez, isn’t that just how it feels right now? Isn’t that how it’s felt for more years than you could count? KRZ has always celebrated outsiders and artists and how they flit through the multiplying cracks in the giant crumbling structure of capitalism. WEVP-TV feels like an outpost at the edge of the world. Here the weirdos and folks no one will listen to have the stage, and a frequency, and an antenna. It’s all going out into the air to anyone who will listen, until the world crashes down on us all.
If I’m back for a list next year I might have a more firm idea about this, at that point having seen the entire KRZ project as a whole, but I’m sitting here at 12:30am on a freezing mid-December night at the end of another hard year, full of horror out in the wider world and a few tragedies in my small chunk of it. I’m thinking about how these games give me such hope despite presenting very few illusions that good things last, that everyone makes it out alive, that the roof won’t cave in. But there’s this undeniable life and comfort to it. When things die, they leave ghosts. Abandoned places are repurposed. Broken machines sing. Lost people are found, forge new paths, build new things, and go on together. Right now I can see instances of that in my own life, and in the world around me. And it gives me hope and strength--to go on, to push back, to see a future through the hard times we’re in.
The rain comes down and the wind blows and the lights keep flickering but we are staying on the air. Congrats on surviving 2018. Here’s to a better 2019.