Things Games Of This Year Did That I Have Liked

Rather than a list of games in which I arbitrarily rank ten games in order of preference (why ten anyway? because we evolved ten fingers and thumbs?), here instead is a list of games in no particular order that came out this year and the things I liked about them. Be warned, spoilers ahead.

If you want my actual game of the year, it's Warframe, which I literally started in the first week of January and have put in about 650 hours, but it's less a game and more Space Ninja Farmville.

Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes sowing discord among my coworkers

The amazingly-produced quicklook thanks in large part to Drew and Jason setting up the cameras and capturing both ends of the gameplay completely sold this game on me (also, for the third time I want to applaud @drewbert and @unastrike for the work they did for it, it's almost certainly QL of the year). If you haven't watched the QL in question, go and watch it right now.

Good? Now go and give the folks over at Steel Crate Games 15 dollars for making a game that I regularly annoy my coworkers with. I look forward to playing this at home and irritating my family with it.

Life Is Strange giving my friend and I something interesting to talk about

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A large part of my year was spent debating the plot of Life Is Strange with a friend via email. We played the episodes as they came out, and exchanged predictions and posited quasi-philosophical theories about the direction of the plot. While LiS toys with metaphysics and time travel, I don't think it completely drowned itself or the player in it. Instead the game focuses on telling a story, and those with a sharp enough eye and ear probably have the antagonist figured out within the first ten minutes of the first episode.

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Seriously, the cues are all there in the dialog and character design, and while that's nothing special compared to other media, it's a something of an admirable leap forward for a video game to have a plot that doesn't do some variant of "a wizard did it" or rely on some magical macguffin or deus ex machina to close things out. Pretty much everything you see in episode 1 is with you until episode 5. I didn't see the twist coming, and by the end of episode 4 it came as a genuine shock who the primary antagonist turned out to be. The finale went just the right amount of weird and made enough callbacks to earlier episodes to not be nauseating or cheap either. Yes my plant died.

Bloodborne for realizing Lovecraft's nightmares

Ia! Ia! Chtulhu fhtagn! Except without all the uncomfortable racism and anti-Semitism of H.P. Lovecraft! I didn't play this game as I don't have a PS4, but the Souls community delivered in spades, with EpicNameBro providing a fairly solid playthrough:

…And the other Twitch and YouTube regulars showing off the joy of stupid invasions and frantic duels:

I'm a fan of the Cthulhu mythos, and I think you should absolutely go and read The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which Bloodborne is something of a huge nod to. However, Lovecraft's mythos has rarely gotten a fair shake in the video game world. Yes there have been nods in many other games like Half Life and Quake, but BB seems to be one of the rare few to give Lovecraft's work the due it deserves on all fronts, and holy shit those monster designs are gnarly. I'm genuinely curious – what monster designs this year have you seen that even come close to the messed up shit in Bloodborne?

WHAT ARE YOU
WHAT ARE YOU

Cities: Skylines' fake Twitter and creeper cam

#SHUTUP @TONY I KNOW YOU HAVE DEAD BODIES PILING UP NEXT DOOR MAYBE TRY PAYING TAXES FOR ALL THOSE PARKS

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It might not be obvious from the outset, but the fake twitter feed in Cities: Skylines lets you zoom straight to the person that tweeted out. More than once I'd catch myself locking on to a citizen who just tweeted out, just to see how they were getting about the cityscape I’d made. There was some sort of glee watching an old man strut across the numerous pedestrian sky bridges I'd created, or following a donut truck leave city limits after struggling to get through whatever nightmare gridlock I'd inadvertently created. Also, the After Dark expansion provided the best Neuromancer reference I’ve seen all year.

WHEN CAN I PUNCH DECK
WHEN CAN I PUNCH DECK

Downwell's ridiculously cute ending

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I played enough of this game (basically getting to the limbo section) before cheat engine-ing my way to, err… victory. At the very bottom of the well, after going through a ghost section, a water section, some weird limbo hell, and then fighting off a giant saarlac beast, you finally touch the bottom. Turns out the reason why your little jumpy person looks so mournful every time you start the game is because your kitten got stuck at the bottom and good grief the reunion is adorable. Video games’ll be alright, folks.

Galak-Z's moment-to-moment gameplay

I cannot fathom how people play this game on hard. Too many times I’ve been having a good run, only for things to go utterly sour in the space of about 15 seconds. There I am, shooting bouncy fire lasers around a corner like a cretin, only for a nearby floating zapper thing to suck away all my shields and the opposing faction to follow through and horribly murder me. Or I’m inside an asteroid and a stray shot accidentally sets off a chain reaction of all the space plant pod things exploding, and I die miserably.

But then there are the times when you manage to get the better of both your environment and the enemies, and the next thing you know you are dashing around the environment grabbing chunks of it to throw at people.

It's probably dead
It's probably dead

Witcher 3’s camera shots

Last year, Wolfenstein: The New Order was an unexpected gem not just in terms of being fun, but of having cutscenes and scripted sequences that made decent use of what cinema can do. Presumably you all remember the scene on the train?

It was utterly unexpected to see a game not only use basic tricks like matching scene transitions, but also use music and dialog well to effectively build tension.

This year, The Witcher 3 kinda blew me away to a similar degree, albeit for a slightly different reason. The game’s world is – putting it mildly – kinda dense, but its plot delivery was improved immensely in how dialog between characters was “shot”. NPC positions were done in such a way to, of all things, tell a story visually and not just beat you over the head with plot. It’s immensely clear that someone over at CDPR has an appreciation for film technique (or maybe has been watching Tony Zhou’s “Every Frame a Picture” YouTube channel a whole bunch) and the game is all the better for it.

Coupled with just some basic animations (they’re kinda canned and once you see them it’s difficult to unsee them the next time they appear), such as Geralt slumped in a seat

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Or crouching down to meet a troll eye-to-eye

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The game got a sense of life to proceedings that I just wasn’t expecting. If the Bloody Baron just stared at me dead in the eye like an unblinking Skyrim NPC, there’s no way I’d have played this game for over 100 hours.

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The Soundtracks for Hotline Miami 2 and Rocket League

I barely played Hotline Miami 2, but I spent way too much listening to its soundtrack:

Even though I didn’t get past the first couple of levels (it kinda starts off harder than the bonus missions of the first game), when Carpenter Brut’s stuff comes on, or Dust by MOON, or Remorse by Scattle, or Run by iamthekidyouknowwhatimean… it’s hard to not feel the old familiar urge to go and start killing things.

As for Rocket League, I didn’t play it at all. I only listened to the OST for the menu:

And watched some high level play:

I couldn’t help but feel the whole time that it was some sort of spiritual successor to Wipeout with the aesthetic and the sounds. Composer Mike Ault bills himself as an EDM music producer and seems to have a thing for female vocals, electronic pianos, house chord progression, and a solid beat throughout – and it works. If I ever get to drive a flying neon rocket car, I would probably put this on.

Fallout Shelter's utilitarianism for beginners

During E3 of this year I was in Nashville, TN. Why I was there had next to nothing to do with games, but Fallout Shelter had dropped at the time. In the downtime of what I was doing, and not really wanting to enjoy the muggy heat or the country music of America's south, I played Fallout Shelter almost constantly for about a week and discovered a slightly worrying thing about it: the game’s progression was tied to population count and – although it didn’t directly gate things – the dwellers’ happiness level determined how much resources you produced. Recalling my first year politics classes, I shuddered at the déjà vu – I realized what this system was, though I’m not entirely sure many other people did.

Utilitarianism at a very base level is that the “best” action one should take is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is whatever the thing is that gives the majority of the population the most "happiness" or pleasure (in the game’s case, it’s through the triumvirate of food, water, and power). Utilitarianism of this sort doesn’t work in the real world, because people are all different and have different desires – but in a video game world where the only desire is to procreate and gain more resources? It’s perfect. You don’t need to take into account alternate desires, because every NPC shares the same desire.

You can't actually have incest in the vault, don't worry
You can't actually have incest in the vault, don't worry

The realization that this was a somewhat morally-grotesque experiment in maximizing utility only came to me when the game’s daily challenge system turned out to be geared towards making me stretch my vault’s limits – specifically through forcibly breeding the most charismatic dwellers which led to a population explosion which the vault couldn’t sustain. I managed to cope with the first population boom, but the second population boom ended up being unsustainable, so to, ahem, maximize utility I ended up sending the most useless dwellers out to die in the wasteland where they couldn’t drain my resources. I’d revive them and bring them back if they managed to pick up something useful, but I littered the wasteland with a couple of dozen corpses.

Accurate
Accurate

I stopped playing the game after three weeks or so, around about the time Deathclaws got introduced, as it introduced a random and somewhat uncontrollable Fuck You element that I got fed up of dealing with. And it turns out that I was right in my prediction about Shelter – it was basically foreshadowing a bunch FO4’s stuff

MGSV’s Russian

So this is a rather personal one. Half my life has been spent occupied with the Russian language, and I’ve spent the past several years living and working in Russia. Almost all this time, the treatment of Russian in Anglo-American media has… let’s say, varied. There’s more than one blog post on this matter, but Jason Bourne’s passport in The Bourne Identity is certainly a prime example of how bad this can be…

Hello, my name is Ashchf lshtshfum
Hello, my name is Ashchf lshtshfum

…While the Russian heard in Avengers via Scarlett Johansson’s pronunciation is less than stellar:

There are myriad others to whine about – such as the infamous cocainum scene from Red Heat:

…But then out of completely unexpected quarters comes Metal Gear Solid V. This video isn’t mine, but here’s one of the “overhearing the conversation” things from an early mission in MGSV:

What’s particularly special about this (and many other moments in MGSV) is that the Russian delivery here is good. So good that I had to speak with some Russian friends who’d also played it. Turns out that the Russian is mostly on point, and the accent is only slightly off, which might have something to do with the fact that said Russian speakers in the game (Kostantin Lavysh, Adam Tsekhman, and Zack Sayenko to name a few) all seem to be folk who emigrated to the US from the former Soviet Union, and I’m pretty sure the VO work was principally done in California too.

The other major sticking point is that Russian/Soviet soldiers are nowhere near that polite or formal. I’ve met one or two folk from the Russian army, and at least one of them was extremely colorful in his use of language. The worst I heard in MGSV was maybe one or two euphemisms, as opposed to an entire stream of expletives.

That said, the MGS level of detail was still there, even in the Russian language. The Soviet radio chatter you’d hear after setting off an alarm was on point, in that the acronyms/abbreviations were correct, as well as most of the signage in Afghanistan, while the seemingly simple use of the Russian phonetic alphabet left me stunned. After nearly twenty years of seeing this language maligned by almost all other forms of media, either through ignorance or bad delivery (deliberate or otherwise), I found myself enchanted by an extremely solid performance – and it came from a Japanese video game company, which is almost nuts on a socio-political level, because Japanese and Russians are not exactly cool in their international relations (look up “Kuril Islands dispute” as an example).

I sincerely hope the other languages used in the game got treated just as well as the Russian. Quite a lot of this game was enormously disappointing, but given that the plot (if that’s what you could call it) revolves around language, I am delighted that the voice work had so much work put into it.

So there you have it. I’d have struggled to write a list like this about whatever happened in 2014. Happy holidays...

...and feel free to share what things games of this year did that you liked.

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