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2022 GotY, Reflection, and Sign-off

In internally debating whether I should bother to write a GotY this year, I realized it would be my fifth consecutive year writing these blogs, both on this site and as a whole. Im pretty sure I erased my 2018 one at some point? (And really, if I were to revisit 2018 now I would have much more to say...) But still, this is technically the fifth!

Thats about five whole years.

It feels so weird to think about that amount of time. Even just pre-pandemic feels like another life.

Its even weirder looking back at my old blog posts. My writing style is familiar, but it feels like reading something written by an entire different person. Which... I guess is what I always wanted?

In the grander scope of life, these five years have seen me go from depressed and deeply closeted to... the opposite of both of those things. Theyve seen me grow my friend group far beyond what it was. They at least feel like theyve seen me slowly develop some sense of the eloquence and awareness about games I coveted when I was younger.

Theyve also seen me go from spending a lot of time wiki editing, to slowly losing interest in this site.

These things happen! Five years is a good run. Besides, Ive always been a fairly quiet person, minus the stray blogs. It can just be what it is, no reason needed. In fact, I had expected I would drift elsewhere in the internet and that would be that.

But, in browsing this and other sites Ive always felt a bit of melancholy when I saw someone's profile and they had just... vanished. I cant help but wonder what circumstances led them to seemingly disappear, whether theyre out there somewhere, when they disappeared, etc. As such, it'd kinda feel hypocritical not to leave some kinda clue, right?

As for the games, I think I played over ten unique ones this year, but if Im being honest, most of those were just barely. As such, I'll be splitting this up a bit. One half for old games I just now got to, one half for new games, and a brief intermission to tie it all together.

- Old Games of This Year -

#5 - Deathloop

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First things first: I have few opinions about the story in Deathloop. I also dont care much about the characters, beyond finding the dynamic between the main two characters fun and goofy. And on that same note, Arkane's famed environmental design doesnt really shine as much here as in their other titles.

So why is Deathloop here?

Easy. Its just a plain old good time.

There's not a huge amount of gamification to it other than story/side quest achievements, or even some grand amount of content outside of said story and side quests. As a result, once youve done all that youre left with a sandbox to run around in, sneaking, not-sneaking, shooting, and messing around with totally-not-Dishonored powers.

It fills a very important niche of "games that are easy to mindlessly play through the whole night while blasting music", and thats exactly what it was for a few weeks of my summer.

#4 - ESC

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For the past couple of years in these, Ive tended to include at least one virtual world game Ive been playing this year. This year I would have included Tower Unite, but... I have mixed feelings on it.

But what about a game about virtual worlds?

ESC ruminates on a lot of the things I love about how the internet - and every little "world" within it. The openness for self-expression and discovery, the care of creating things for friends, the tragedy of it all fading away, etc. etc. It expresses these ideas and the "old web" in a way that feels understanding of how silly and serious it could be, while at the same time never making fun of it or getting too grim.

Theres not much more I can say about it... other than its even PWYW on itch! Nothing to lose!

#3 - Guilty Gear -Strive-

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brisket <3

...okay, Im sure some people are long-tired of Guilty Gear getting a popularity surge because of Bridget. But also I dont care because holy shit!

So many developers still fumble trans representation (if they even care to be decent in the first place), but ArcSys really managed to realize Bridget of all characters as a decently respectfully-written trans girl with about five minutes of dialogue. Something of an anime-loving dork back in the day, I remember how most people (Guilty Gear included) were about her and what she represented. So its genuinely shocking — but also great — how shes become something pretty positive!

Bridget's Strive story convinced me to check Guilty Gear out, and I have to say: its cool as hell! The character writing manages a great blend of pathos and absurdity and the soundtrack is great, enough so that it actually made me main Ramlethal instead of the obvious.

But above all, its actually pretty accessible. I had long considered myself "not a fighting game person", but getting interested in Strive has actually managed to break me out of that mindset. Its loaded with enough tutorials that I can generally understand what I need to do, and approachably designed enough that Im not immediately turned away from trying to learn combos.

It feels nice to be able to genuinely say Im semi-competent at a fighting game!

And also to see trans girls online with the icon of Bridget making a "X3" face.

#2 - Final Fantasy VII Remake

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When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with the idea that I should play all the "classic" games. I wasnt getting much out of them other than idle entertainment, but some part of me figured it would give me some level of understanding on things people always called "classics" or "their childhood".

During this time, I went the extra mile to get a used PSX copy of the original FF7.

Even when I realized my PS2 memory card wouldnt work with a PSX game, I hunkered down and tried to push my way through the game without saving. I tried this at least three or four times while waiting for a proper memory card to ship, but could only get to about Barrett's backstory before dying, resetting everything. It was kind of a ridiculous way to play the game!

And yet, that same part of me was deeply concerned about getting "the authentic experience." Its kind of hilarious to think back on, given the experience I just described. But I was deathly certain that video games (at least, some) commanded a certain level of respect, some directed form of interaction to preserve an idealized sense of a tailored experience. Its an idea Im still torn on, and one that, frankly, has no answer.

But whatever the "true intended experience" for FF7 was, I know for a fact my play-through of FF7 Remake was not.

A couple hours into streaming the game for some friends, I realized that I just... didnt care to play as Cloud. So I installed some mods! From that point on, my playthrough was not about Cloud Strife, amnesiac soldier, but instead about Claudia Strife, combat-dress-wearing amnesiac soldier. And it kicked ass!

(Side note: more games could be improved by replacing the protagonists with girls.)

I suppose its fitting, then, that I was most interested by the parts of Remake that were a response to the original, rather than a recreation thereof. I really appreciate how the game plays perfectly into fan expectations one moment, before introducing something new and ridiculous next. That, and how a decent portion of the game is dedicated to effectively whole new characters. I wont claim this all cohesed into something amazing by itself, but I did have a lot of fun with it, and I am curious to see where they think theyre going with it all.

#1 - Sayonara Wild Hearts

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Theres nothing bolder than definitively declaring something perfect.

So instead I will say that I can not complain about a single aspect of Sayonara Wild Hearts, and absolutely love just about every choice that it makes.

Its stylish as hell, the entire soundtrack is great, and its just as engaging as it needs to be to get across. It also has some of the finest pacing of any game Ive ever played, with exactly enough downtime to make the energetic moments pop, and the right overall runtime to where it never feels like an undertaking to consider replaying it start to finish.

But above all else, Sayonara Wild Hearts' best foot is in how shamelessly, enthusiastically invested in its own emotions it is. Every game has emotions (duh), but few are willing to wear them so blatantly. It wraps the entire thing together, and turns a somewhat simple experience into something really special.

- Intermission -

Last year, saw slowly start rediscovering the likes and feelings I had left at the wayside for much of my later teen years. I talked in my blog last year about how I had started feeling a particular sense of happiness and optimism (in no small part due to a My Little Pony fan album (no really, go listen to it!) and how I wanted to always carry that emotion with me.

To say that this entire year carried that much zest would sadly be... less than accurate. It was sort of inevitable that there would be moments where I felt sad or uncertain or just tired. The issue was, at times those feelings stuck around a bit too long, and left me to wonder if I had somehow lost sight of something.

But the approach of the now-current-year has gotten me looking back on the start of 2022. I knew that my memories of how I was at the start of the year would be very different from where I am now, but I completely underestimated just how much! Far too many minor issues to cover, some I didnt even realize were there, just disappeared over the year.

On top of that, looking back made me realize that - while there might not have been one huge positive moment to point to - my year has been a lot better than it seemed during some of the lower moments.

I dont have nearly as much to say about my favorite albums of this year, other than that there was a tie. The follow-up to my favorite album of last year was also quite good, as was Utada Hikaru's new album - which might just be the best album they've ever put out, even as someone with a soft spot for their whole discography.

Now, where was I...

- Games of Actually This Year -

#5 - Squishcraft

Squishcraft is a hard game to sell someone on.

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In fact, after I heard about Squishcraft for the first time, I went to wishlist it on Steam and realized I had already seen it, taken one look, and promptly ignored it.

But, despite appearances, Squishcraft has some genuinely high-quality puzzle design. The core mechanic of squishing blocks together is really hard for me to think through logically, but if anything that makes me a bit more impressed by the developer making a whole game layering mechanics on top of that?

I doubt I will ever be good at Squishcraft, but its an experience I look on at in awe.

#4 - Lunacid

This game's still in early access.

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I'm not about to wade into the topic of when an early access game should be GotY-eligible, I'm just going to put this game here and ignore the larger topic.

Lunacid scratches a similar itch to more pacifistic "exploration sim"-style games, of constant branching paths and weird, pretty new places to look through, and music to listen to.

In fact, few games so immediately evoke as effective a style as Lunacid does. The harshly-colored lighting everywhere, the PSX-inspired visuals, the blending of classic gothic fantasy, anime emo-gothic fantasy, and modern horror sensibilities, it all combines to make something thats just so cool!

Being able to add custom character icons is also a very fun bonus.

#3 - Hatsune Miku Project Diva Mega Mix+

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MIKU ON PC BABY, WOOO- okay its out of my system.

I remember wanting a PSP (or, god forbid, a Vita) back in the day, just because I knew there was zero chance in hell Project Diva would ever be anywhere else I could play it. Its a series with a long history of PS-exclusivity, and often Japanese-exclusivity on top of that, so to have — for all intents and purposes — a definitive version on PC is a bit of a miracle.

Im not nearly as obsessed with vocaloid as I was back in those days, but Mega Mix+ is still a great time. It doesnt do much more than any other game in the series, but it has 95% of the songs you could want it to, semi-support for modding, and its actually available. Good enough for me.

#2 - Splatoon 3

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Like many people, I've loved Splatoon pretty much since it came out.

But until Octo Expansion, the series' singleplayer offerings were mostly just... there. Octo Expansion, on the other hand, is one of the sharpest singleplayer campaigns Nintendo's put out in the past decade. So my hope going into 3 was that the singleplayer campaign would learn from Octo Expansion's formula.

And luckily, it did! Its not quite as mold-breaking, but Splatoon 3's singleplayer campaign absolutely holds up. The story is more present, the mission structure is more interesting, even the overworld is genuinely interesting to explore and just look at.

I have less room to comment on the multiplayer changes, since I was never the most diehard pro and I dont really keep a consistent online subscription. That said, more profile stuff to customize is easily one of the best new additions, a little bit of freedom of customization goes a long way. That, and making Salmon Run open 24/7 was a no-brainer.

#1 - Potato Flowers in Full Bloom

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Dungeon crawlers have long had a soft-spot in my heart, especially these "blobber" style ones. I blame it on a complex nostalgia-for-someone-else's-second-hand-nostalgia situation, from playing modern games inspired by the real classic titles out there.

It's a weirdly cozy genre, and Potato Flowers is one of the coziest Ive played, from its cute art style to its laid-back gameplay loop. I especially liked some of the little details in the game, like the pause menu having different animations depending on the layout of a room, or party members going about their daily lives at the base camp. I also really like the encounter design, where enemy placement descending through the dungeon becomes a fun puzzle of-itself.

...much like the games I played years ago which made me enjoy the genre, I feel like my reasons for liking Potato Flowers - and really, most of this half of the list - sound a bit insignificant.

Maybe they are?

It resides in a weird space that always happens at least once when I make these lists, where I only have so much to latch onto. A space where my usual approach of conveying why a game mattered to me in the context of grander moments has to shift to just... explaining why I found something fun or engaging. Ive never considered myself too good at that.

Which makes it feel kinda silly that one of my only truly consistent writings is a ranked GotY blog, I guess?

I know why its that way. Some part of me back in 2018 wanted to practice writing and find a place on the internet to chill, possibly even make a small name for myself. For whatever reason, GotY formats are what I jumped into and here was one of the better places I could find to put public writing. Pretty vapid, sure, but its how it happened.

While thats where it started, most of why I kept it up was because its fun to reflect and talk about stuff I like. Once again, not a very significant reason, but I kind of like it that way now that I think about it. I think its a good takeaway.

Do things because you want to do them, and because you know you'll look back on them fondly. No telling what things will mean the most to you. No better excuse for playing some games, no better excuse for doing things on the internet.

Its been fun.

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2021 Reflection and Games of the Year

Estrogen is a hell of a drug folks. I'm not about to credit it entirely for my improved mood throughout most of this year compared to last - it obviously isn't the only reason. But for a year in which I went through several kinda major life changes, started to really feel The Effects ™ of a worsening pandemic, and burned myself out on things time and time again (I have complicated feelings about both Unexplored and being in the top 50 GB wiki editors), I'm surprised — and glad — that I can look back and mostly see positives throughout this year, because it was pretty positive! I had a lot of fun this year writing, baking, getting into art and 3D modelling, reconnecting with some great friends — even making a small Yume Nikki fangame with them, and — oh right, video games.

For a while throughout this year, I really barely played anything. I got tired of games for a little while there, as fueled by few games catching my attention, a completely middling showing of Geoff Keighley's E4, and general fatigue. But, somehow that's turned around in the past few months, and a good chunk of the year's later releases really grabbed me. There's still some I would like to get around to, - Chicory and Hitman 3 to name a couple - but for a year people seem convinced was entirely forgettable for media across the board, there were still some real high notes to be had.

Disqualified #1 / Honorable Mention - VRChat

Or The "I Can't Make my 2021 GotY a game from 2017" Award

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As someone who has long loved virtual worlds, this year has been an... interesting time, what with people clinging to the term "metaverse" as if they've invented something actually novel, and y'know what? Fuck every single one of those people. Facebook integrated-anything, NFT-whateverthefuck, it's all the most soulless shit imaginable. I can not for the life of me comprehend looking upon the potential for expression and interaction that virtual worlds present, seeing the slowly increasing quality and accessibility of the technology, and having my first thought be to make people do their regular-ass office jobs but in VR now, or own dumb commodified, mass-production facsimiles of actual self-expression, but in VR.

Which both gives me mixed feelings about loving a game like VRChat so much, and reinforces why I love it. VRChat is what virtual worlds can be — what they should be, and it's an absolutely amazing thing to see. It's by far the cleanest virtual world package out there, beating Second Life by a long mile, and also one of the most readily accessible, effectively just being a Unity front-end with some rails. Far from the "ghost town" effect most parts of Second Life have these days, VRChat's clear efforts to promote community content go a long way in helping surface the expressive, VR-powered worlds and avatars that bring it to life in a way that can't be overlooked. If VRC carries Second Life's legacy into the future, I think virtual worlds will still be in good hands, at least for a little while.

But beyond even that, it's amazing with friends. Genuinely, some of my favorite memories of this year revolve around this game and the experiences in it that I've shared with friends. It's easy to stream anime for a friend group over Discord, but all piling onto the couch of a dingy apartment world designed specifically for illicitly streaming anime has such a strong feeling to it. As does finding some absolutely ridiculous map laden with shitty JPGs, loud noises, and moving parts, and reveling in the collective nightmare, or staying up until 4am hopping from world to world, having your increasingly sleep-deprived minds blown by demoscene-esque shader showcases and other amazing things VRC's userbase has made. It's a type of interaction that simply can't be had with text or voice chat alone, and the thing that virtual worlds have known is the appeal for decades, and that corporations want to ignore.

Two of my friends have already gotten headsets just for VRChat, and I honestly understand it. I'd be lying if I said VRC wasn't possibly the best argument in favor of it.

#9 - Halo Infinite

Or The "I've Got to at Least Try it, Right?" Award

I have to be honest, I haven't played a single Halo game up to this point. As someone who has never owned an Xbox, it's just something I never did. When Master Chief Collection came to PC I figured I should probably pick it up, and then I never did that either.

But a brand new, hyped-up video game releasing part of itself for free is something I will always find myself compelled to at least give a shot — and I'm glad I did in this case. Halo Infinite's multiplayer is a totally solid shooter, if a bit mindless and super shittily monetized. Those issues aside, it's no small feat to keep things flowing as smoothly as Halo Infinite's MP constantly manages to, and no smaller a feat to make simple rifles and melee feel as satisfying as they do to combo. Maybe eventually people will get skilled enough to where I stop managing to fend for myself, and I'll change my mind and decide the game isn't fun anymore, but for now? Absolutely a good bit of fun!

The campaign, on the other hand... is entirely forgettable. The grappling hook is the star of the show, turning a world that would otherwise be a slog to navigate into one of the more enjoyable parts of the campaign. But almost every other part is just grating. The cast is almost entirely unlikable, and face enemies that are either rattling corny-dumb dialogue or being the most generically vicious enemy force imaginable, both of which contrast the serious sci-fi war power fantasy setting it feels like Halo wants to have. On top of that, combat encounters just aren't especially interesting, in part because the game seems inherently opposed to letting you use most weapons for longer than a minute, and the open-world seems to exist mostly for its own sake.

I don't regret my time playing Halo Infinite's campaign. But... whether it's an indicator of the rest of the series or not, I think it's shown me enough that I don't need to try the MCC like I used to think I should.

#8 - Quake: Dimension of the Machine

Or The "God Damn, Look At This Good-Looking Shit" Award

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Outside of its aesthetic, representing one of the cornerstones of the early-3D era of video games and doing so better than most of its peers, I never saw the appeal of Quake. The level design, the flow of combat, the eldri-goth sensibility of it all, none of it was for me.

Dimension of the Machine, a new campaign made by MachineGames for the Quake re-release earlier this year, is the closest I've gotten to changing my mind about that. The level design puts in some real work, each level flowing smoothly, with clear thought to how weapons were given out. It quietly manages to address my biggest issue with Quake, forcing the player have to stop and think about what weapons they use where, rather than just using the explosive weapons 90% of the time.

But to top it all off, the levels all look absolutely gorgeous, achieving visuals that feel like they shouldn't be possible in a game like Quake, and which would even be impressive out of something made in GoldSRC, while maintaining a clear design sense and that perfect early-3D cruft. It almost makes me wish Quake had a photo mode, and even without it, the campaign warrants a play-through just to see some of the environmental design.

#7 - Dorfromantik

Or The "Could Have Been a Contender" Award

Dorfromantik is the only game on this list that I knew was coming out in 2021 and that I was looking forward to playing in 2021. The demo offered last year under Steam's semi-annual demos event remains the fastest one such demo has ever caught my attention, and I immediately kept an eye on Dorfromantik. Ultimately, the final version doesn't quite have the attraction of the demo, with more direct achievement surfacing leading to a less-relaxed, more directed feel compared to the laid-back tone of the demo. But, Dorfromantik still manages to deliver a chill-ass game while having just enough clever strategy twists to make it worth more than just a pre-sleep wind-down.

#6 - Unpacking

Or The "Coziest Vibes" Award

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I've never been a particularly "detail-oriented" person, which perhaps makes Unpacking a bit of a strange choice. If nothing else, the aesthetic design of the game is absolutely amazing, with some amazing pixel art work which specifically hit me with a bit of nostalgia for the type of non-retro pixel art illustrations that were somewhat common in the early-10s, paired with some amazing sound design. I won't claim I caught every detail of the story conveyed through home items, but I definitely got a lot of it, and what I did get absolutely landed better for the game having such a carefully crafted aesthetic.

Bonus points for conveying my real life experience cleaning, wherein I take care to sort everything neatly right up until I start getting desperate for places to put stuff. And besides, what other game this year has a reference to Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, of all games?

- Intermission -

At the beginning of this year, I finally got fed the fuck up of dealing with Spotify, both for their aggressive marketing campaigns and swift degradation of the music industry, and swapped it out for a classic, reliable desktop player: WinAmp. I made this choice partially because it's a name I knew, but... mostly for the skins. After years of programs increasingly removing any options for user customization, it's genuinely nice to have a program that is almost entirely customizable in the way WinAmp is. I have tried other players since, and genuinely found myself unable to connect with any of them, mostly because of their oft-larger UIs and far more lacking customization options leading to that off-putting impersonal feeling.

But on a larger scale, what followed my uninstallation of Spotify was a slow realization that I had gotten so used to putting on my mess of a "favorite songs" playlist - complete with random things I had been throwing in there since 2013, - that I had a bit of reevaluating and branching out to do with my music taste, since complacency was no longer the easiest option. So, a lot of this year was spent listening to albums I had meant to listen to before, but never got around to, as well as finding some new things from Bandcamp and other sources.

In particular, some of my new favorites include KLF - Chill Out, SOPHIE - OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, and G&tH - Come, Now. But, for the first time in a while, I have a specific favorite album for this year, and it's not one I would have expected.

Album of the Year: Vylet Pony - CUTIEMARKS (And the Things that Bind Us)

Or The Inaugural "Sing a Song About Life" Award for Long-lasting Emotional Impact

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The My Little Pony fanbase has generally gone down as "a weird, bad time on the internet", and I'm not about to say it was all perfect, but as someone who was a kid back in the days where ponies were around every corner, there was genuinely something really cool about it, beyond the awful parts that usually constitute most discussions of that time.

MLP fans were always fairly creative, churning out music, animation, a ridiculous amount of fangames, etc., a lot of which played fast and loose with the setting in a way that was also a prototype of what Blaseball more intentionally cultivated last year. With the relationship to the show that existed among fans, it's almost like Lauren Faust's take on horses became its own species of fursona, in a weird way. Top it off with the fact that a notable part of the community would go on to realize they were trans directly or indirectly because of their time with MLP — there's some interesting discussion to be had about the whole thing, is all I'm saying.

CUTIEMARKS is an album which manages to beautifully combine all of these ideas with the long-lasting relationship caused by a decade of distance from something like this. It hit me unexpectedly hard even as someone who hasn't paid attention to that corner of the internet in a good long while. The album is an examination of cutie marks — markings somepony receives when they discover their calling — but it's also an examination of what they represent: the idea that everyone, at some point in their youth, discovers their "one thing". It's all extremely well-executed, matching catchy, memorable tracks with a somewhat complex message and plenty of emotion, while also being clearly personal yet fully relatable. CUTIEMARKS will certainly never be the most famous thing to come out of the MLP fanbase, but the level of detail and tact with which it manages certainly put it in the running as one of the best works to come out of the whole thing, alongside being a phenomenal album in it's own right.

But my love for CUTIEMARKS doesn't begin and end with clever execution, obviously. If there's one thing I've been returning to this year, this blog post, this intermission, it's the idea of life and experiences, of the greatest things coming from personal connection. For the past several years, I was... complacent? Resting on my laurels? I had found something that was acceptable and eventually forgot to give much though to my surroundings, even as they began to change. Even a year or two ago, I had started to recognize the issues in that, started to reassess where I was and fret over what direction the future held. However, situations early into this year forced me to take a much more direct stock of my life than I had before ... and for a few months after, I wound up kicking that can down the road even still. At the time I was still clinging to the idea that things could be the way they were. Parts of me were missing, but I didn't even realize it.

This was bound not to stay forever, of course. Starting HRT set me down a path to remembering what it was like to feel much of anything, and pure necessity meant I would start to right course a little bit... but CUTIEMARKS was the moment where it all came rushing back. Not only did it remind me about the time in my life where I was very into MLP, it's also the first album I can remember actually making me cry, and not a sad cry but full-on "overwhelmed by emotion" crying. At it's core, CUTIEMARKS is an album about coming to terms with past sorrow, embracing change, and remembering what it's like to be enthusiastically in love with the world and the things in it. It's exactly what I needed to hear, and it's a sentiment I want to live by.

- End Intermission -

#5 - Babble Royale

Or The "Words With Enemies and Born to Spell are the Taglines of the Year" Award

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Everybody loves a good bit, at least for a little while, but most entire games designed as a goof tend to last for a week before being completely forgotten about. If nothing else, that probably makes it a good thing that Babble Royale came out as late in the year as it did.

However, I genuinely think it will be worth coming back to, at least for a while to come, because underneath the joke Babble Royale has a ridiculous amount of genuine strategy to consider. This past couple of weeks its been a more-or-less daily play, getting my fix of absurd, high-adrenaline scrabble PvP, netting me more clutch plays than even more-traditional PvP games like Halo.

But on top of that, the jokes in Babble Royale are funnier and last longer than any other "goofy" game to recent memory too. The death phrase incorporating the word that killed you, resulting in sentences like "You Got NUKE'd" and "You Got ANIME'd" will never not be funny. Add to it the bit where you can pay them 60$ up-front and get every cosmetic, maybe the funniest thing I've seen in a video game all year, as well as a genuinely neat idea. If that doesn't sum up Babble Royale I don't know what does.

#4 - Psychonauts 2

Or The "Archetype Raz for Character of the Year" Award

It's... kinda ridiculous that Psychonauts 2 exists. The original Psychonauts was an undeniable classic, but it always felt like a "cult classic", even sixteen years ago, and time has not been especially kind to much of what the original game did. While the sequel has been in development for a while, it was always one of those things that felt like it would never really come out. Add onto that a protracted development cycle and some of the less-than-amazing releases Double Fine has had in the past decade, and I wouldn't have been surprised if this sequel had quietly vanished.

But it did come out, and it might just be the best "modernization" of a classic game ever made. It feels so perfectly like the original, with all of its improvements being things that were sorely needed presented just right to feel like they were always there. From the improved controls to more narrative trappings like cleaning up the setting's previously-a-tad-questionable treatment of mental health, it's all warmly welcomed and yet the sort of thing that could easily be missed and the whole game would feel none-the-lesser for not realizing it. It's really interesting, in a way, even if I didn't absolutely love it as much as some people did.

#3 - Cruelty Squad

Or The "Oh Jesus, Look At This Fucking Thing. Fuck yeah." Award

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There's something real beautiful in all the ways Cruelty Squad goes all in on its disgusting aesthetic. It could have just been abrasive-as-hell visuals, and that'd be something, but they really go the extra mile to mess things up in just the right way. They thread a very fine needle of making the deeper mechanics of the game obscure and difficult to understand without making them too frustrating, instead enhancing the game's aesthetic and giving it an air of mystique that a lot of games don't get these days as they're quickly picked apart top to bottom. Add onto that the tiny visual flairs, like the sickly unnatural way the LIFE indicator moves, or the way that talking to NPCs only shows a closeup of their gross mouths flapping, there's very clearly an entirely uncompromised vision here.

I halfway expected Cruelty Squad to make the top of my list, although I prefer to think that speaks to the quality of the next to more than anything else. I could still see it climbing a theoretical retrospective list, if I ever get around to replaying it and really diving into all of the weird secrets, but even still Cruelty Squad is a bold, commendable commitment to an idea, and it's just really fucking cool to see it in motion.

#2 - Minecraft: Caves and Cliffs/1.18 Update

Or The "This Might Be The Best Single Update This Game Has Ever Gotten" Award

Minecraft is quite possibly the game that made me truly "get into" video games, right alongside Portal. It's the first game I was obsessed with, and an undeniable, all time classic!

But... for the past few years I've sort of drifted apart from it for a number of reasons. A lot changed about world generation after 1.0, most of which made exploring less fun, and I started spending my time on a server where a lot of the players were only interested in the more technical side of the game, an attitude which, while totally fair, changes up a lot of how the game goes for everyone involved. I still found things to enjoy, namely building and mining out increasingly ridiculous tunnels ad nauseum (enjoy is maybe a strong word there), but increasingly I found myself disinterested in the game.

However, I was excited for the Caves and Cliffs update, and started a new world in singleplayer when it came out, wondering if the sweeping changes to the game's world generation system would finally bring it back around to where aimlessly running around could be exciting again. Sure enough, it did! Not only is the overworld a bit more cohesive, but caves went from being a somewhat drab and repetitive part of the game to having some of the most ridiculous (and ridiculously cool) variety in the game, with far more open cave systems revealing caverns that are beautiful and daunting in equal measure. I still don't know if I can go back to playing it from dawn to dusk like I did as a kid, but it's nice to have Minecraft "back".

Game of the Year - Deltarune Chapter 2

Or The "The Main Thing My Friends Talked About For a Solid Month" Award

No Caption Provided

I'm pretty much guaranteed to be willing to check out something Toby Fox has made. Even since his days writing music for a webcomic better left unnamed, everything he's put out has been worth it. But, of course I'm going to pay extra attention to a new chapter of Deltarune, the first chapter of which was one of the greatest stealth-drops in video games.

While it's been a long time since the first chapter, the extra time is evident in every single part of Chapter 2. Even compared to the initial chapter, Chapter 2 is gorgeous, both in added touches and in the love with which the Cyber world is crafted. Add to it the amazing soundtrack, and more instant-classic characters, it's another individual part of a someday-larger game that fully stands as an amazing contained experience.

It's genuinely amazing how Toby Fox (this time joined by quite a few more notable friends than just Temmie, mind) can so consistently put out amazing content, and I can't wait to see what the full version has in store. I can't help but wonder if the bar of quality is so high now that it will cause issues down the road, and I hope that's not the case, but... I guess that's a good problem to have?

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You Can Never Go Happy Home in Robloxia Again, or, Revisiting Roblox After a Decade

An Unexpected Trip Down Memory Lane

When I was a child, I had the tendency to see every browser-based game as the most exciting thing in the world. I did so partially just because I was an excitable child who hadn't grown particularly picky about games yet, and in part because browser games tended to promise tons of playtime for free, an enticing proposition for a child who had already exhausted the rest of her limited game library. So when I heard about Roblox in 2008, with its promise of infinite possibility and unlimited games to play, any room for doubt left my developing brain and I became convinced it must be the most amazing game ever.

Despite its simplicity, I definitely spent an unreasonable amount of time in the default Happy Home in Robloxia map
Despite its simplicity, I definitely spent an unreasonable amount of time in the default Happy Home in Robloxia map

While nowadays I view that excitement as having been hasty, I don't think that it was misplaced. Considering I was a sandbox-fond, attention-deficit-addled child with nothing but time, Roblox was a perfect fit in hindsight. It's probably that reason why I stuck with it for quite a while, a lot longer than any game I had ever played before it even, quickly becoming my most-played game at the time (even if it's strange to call Roblox a single game, rather than an engine for game creation, but I digress.) It wasn't just that Roblox was another sandbox game, it was that there was always something new just around the corner, all in a readily approachable format. I spent countless evenings of my youth, gleefully playing any and every game that caught my eye, slowly getting more and more familiar with the internet as a whole, from the small glimpses of it that made their way into the game.

Eventually, as with all things, I began to drift away from Roblox. After I discovered Minecraft and Steam, it didn't take long for the familiar world of Roblox to lose its luster. I don't remember exactly when the last time I played Roblox was, but I know they had begun introducing the first less-blocky player models, which means my time with the game lasted from mid-2008 to somewhere around late-2011. After that, Roblox exited my mind almost entirely. Not in the sense that I intentionally pushed it out of mind or in some way began to dislike it, it just got so thoroughly pushed out of frame by other things that I never stopped to think about it again. On the rare occasion I did remember Roblox in the years following my gradual departure, it was always confined to mild surprise it was still around. The Xbox One port it got a few years ago was conceptually amusing, and I sometimes saw ads for it (on fairly sketchy sites, mind), but I was never remotely enticed to give it another try. That was, until the other day when I saw a Twitter thread by Terry Cavanagh, a developer known for games like VVVVVV and Dicey Dungeons.

The thread itself is a pleasant trip down memory lane, from the all-too-familiar process of making custom shirts to talk of obby games (short for obstacle course, 3D platformers essentially), one of the most common types of game back in the day. However, at one point in the thread, Cavanagh mentions that many community-made items are packed with malicious LUA scripts. Malicious scripts are nothing new to Roblox, but the kinds discussed in the thread and its comments seemed way beyond anything I ever encountered years ago, going beyond lagging a player's world or spamming them with messages to subtler, more advanced attacks like teleporting players to competing games, or even trying to spend a player's Robux (in-game currency) without them knowing. While the thread as a whole is a showcase to all the ways Roblox has advanced over the years, seeing how much LUA scripting had advanced was what made those changes truly sink in. After reading the thread, I found myself thinking back on that part of it the most, and I started to get curious about revisiting Roblox, if only to get a firsthand look at what it's like nowadays.

Back on the Block

Eventually, in a fit of boredom, I decided to proceed with my plan. As it turned out, my old account was hacked a few years ago and I can't recover it, so I guess I get to see how the registration process has changed too. It's surprisingly painless, in fact it might be the least demanding registration page I've seen in a long time, lacking standard conventions like e-mail requirements, complex password requirements, or any sort of account verification system. If I weren't making a simple throwaway account, it would honestly raise a few security concerns, but I am making a simple throwaway account, so I'll count it as a blessing.

Uncanny Valley aside...
Uncanny Valley aside...

Right away, I notice two things: avatars look extremely different, and the website itself isn't much different at all. The website has been tweaked a bit in the interim, nowadays it has a more modern minimalist look, but navigating the site is still mostly the same. Adjusting to the new avatar system, however, takes a bit more time. Nowadays, they've leaned into the less-blocky avatar designs they had been experimenting with in the early 2010s, with modern models featuring roughly human anatomy (a design they call "Rthro".) They look much better than the old avatars, but there's still something uncanny about them that I'll never get used to.

The next thing I notice is that they've done away with Tix (a free currency), apparently having removed them some time in 2016. It isn't too much of a shock, ever since I played there had been two currencies, and the market now operates solely on the premium one, Robux ($1 USD = ~90 Robux.) However, they've clearly leaned harder into monetizing Robux since my time with the game, as not only are Tix gone, the majority of items require Robux, some even costing the equivalent of hundreds in real-world cash. It's... a more than concerning first impression, certainly, especially with how monetized some games are nowadays, but ultimately it doesn't affect me too much, since I knew going in I wasn't about to spend any money on this. So, I grab some free cosmetics from the market and try my best to make an avatar with what I have available to me.

So far, at least, this experience has been mostly painless, but I haven't even gotten into a game yet. I thought about it for a second, and decided that the first game I play during this return trip should be an obby, since it would be a good opportunity to re-familiarize with the controls of the game, as well as familiar territory to compare to. Conveniently, there's one already waiting among the trending games list, which I figure is as good a starting place as any. To my moderate surprise, the game still requires a separate client to be installed. That's how its always been, but part of me had just assumed that browsers were capable enough nowadays that they could move the game in-browser. Maybe they simply choose not to. Either way, I install the client, load into the game... and am almost immediately overwhelmed by the UI alone.

I've played a few games with some pretty overburdened UIs, in fact I play nearly daily rounds of Space Station 13, a game with one of the least user-friendly interfaces I've seen. However, familiarity with one bloated UI does not make encounters with other bloated UIs any easier. It especially doesn't make it any easier when 75% of the UI was added on top of a preexisting UI to sell you things. From the outset, this simple obstacle course game is already trying to get me to spend Robux on gems that only work in their game, so I can then buy pets, level skips, an "easy mode" which makes obstacles not actually kill you, additional stages, cosmetic effects, and as many other trinkets they could think to fit in there. As well, there's a box at the bottom of the UI that just reads "Trial ends in 20 Stages." with no further explanation, which I would only later find out referred to the game's easy mode, and (luckily) not the game as a whole.

How many shop buttons can a UI hold?
How many shop buttons can a UI hold?

In the interest of fairness, I should clarify a bit. Monetization in Roblox has existed for a long time. Even as far back as I can recall, there were games which featured monetization. However, the monetization schemes of old tended to be a lot more simplistic. Back in the day, games which wanted to monetize would have "VIP doors", doors players could only walk through if they were "VIPs", behind which would be random gear to play with and/or boosts which gave VIPs a head start over normal players. Usually, becoming a VIP meant spending about two dollars in Robux for a shirt made by the game's creator (assuming the shirt wasn't also being sold for Tix.) VIP rooms were still typically put front and center in a game's map, but certainly never as a whole UI element. Comparatively, this game offers jetpacks (presumably allowing the player to bypass certain stages, I don't know since I didn't buy one and nobody I saw online had one either) for just above five dollars' worth of Robux, before accounting for pets, cosmetic effects, and any other items the game advertises every fifth stage or so. It's fully possible this game is simply an outlier and my first choice of game was a poor one, but I can't help but get the suspicion that I should have seen this coming, given my interest was peaked by Robux-stealing LUA viruses in the first place, not to mention the official store's increased monetization.

Regardless, I searched for more obby games and picked a few that caught my eye, wanting to give this an honest chance. The three additional obby games I checked out were better about monetization, absolutely, but the bar had already been set incredibly low. At the very least, none of them tried to monetize every possible aspect of their own games, however two of the three still had UI buttons which take the player directly to an in-game Robux shop, as well as displays every few stages for gear the player could buy. In fact, one of them (which I actually liked at first, due to its haunted house theming) would pop up a notification every time the player died, asking them if they would like to buy some random something-or-other from the shop. At this point I felt like I had done my due diligence in making sure the first game wasn't simply a fluke, and was also losing my already thin patience for such simple games desperately trying to get me to spend money, and decided I should probably move on to the other type of game I played too much of as a kid: tycoon games.

Hitting the Brick Wall

Tycoon games are pretty hard to mess up, considering they're almost identical to modern day idle games. You get something that gives you a steady flow of cash with which to buy more upgrades to make more cash, eventually amassing a giant fortune to gloat about. Not the world's most exciting or unique formula, but there are worse ways to spend an evening, and most of them (at least from what I remember), tend to pay decent attention to visuals and coding, so surely, I thought, a tycoon game would be a good showcase of how Roblox has grown over the years.

Gimme a fucking break.
Gimme a fucking break.

The first thing I see upon launching a tycoon game is a daily log-in rewards screen. Oh boy. Okay, I'll admit, it could be a lot worse... such as when I turn to my right and immediately step onto an "Infinite Cash" button, essentially offering to bypass the idle game aspect of this idle game in exchange for about twelve dollars in Robux first. I'll admit, picking "Among Us Tycoon" as my first look at modern Roblox tycoons may have been a mistake, but in my defense I wanted to see how the dumb trend-riding games of modern Roblox stacked up to those of yore, and I guess now I know. Shockingly, the second tycoon I try offers the same "Buy Unlimited Cash" button, but this time they're willing to give it away for as little as two dollars. I had to stop and wonder what the value of an idle game was if one were willing to bypass idling as a whole. Is it a bragging rights thing? Is it to turn these games into glorified chat rooms? I don't know, but I'm really not about to spend the money to find out. And so, I left the second tycoon game of the evening, feeling increasingly sullen about my prospects for the third one, and about Roblox itself.

Tentatively, I went into the third tycoon I had picked from the bunch, "Tropical Resort Tycoon". To my surprise, there weren't any daily log-in rewards, nor was there a big button offering infinite cash. There was a shop button, but all it had were small quality-of-life/gag items, like a slightly faster walk speed and a low gravity mode. Expecting the floor to give way any second and reveal a monetization nightmare, I hesitantly began the game's progression of buying a few income sources and decorations to dress the place up. After I had bought a few income generators, a golden button popped up... offering an extra one for about 80 cents. A bit disappointing, but not nearly as bad as I was expecting. After that minor bump in the road, I found myself absentmindedly playing Tropical Resort Tycoon for quite a while. Every so often a premium-only item would show up, but it was always minor increases to production rather than completely game-breaking bonuses, which I was willing to overlook at this point. For a little while, it honestly felt like I was back playing regular old Roblox again, sitting around half-playing an obby, half-listening to music... it wasn't particularly exciting, but there was a pleasantness to it that I could appreciate.

At some point while playing this third tycoon, I looked down and realized that nearly four hours had passed since I had begun playing, and most of it had been spent in this one tycoon game. In that moment, I realized the other reason I quit playing Roblox all those years ago: I just can't feel content spending an entire evening doing almost nothing. Sure, I had been having an alright time up until that point, but once I realized I had sunk three hours into waiting around, the time spent began to overshadow the moderate enjoyment on offer.

It's Not You... It's Both of Us

I genuinely expected this experiment to be a lesson in how sometimes, the past isn't as precious as you remember it and sometimes you can go home again, if not to home then to a place better than you remember home being. I was so certain of it that I was convinced this blog was going to be about that, before I began writing it. Deep down, I think there's still some part of that sentiment that rings true.

Reminiscing about my time with Roblox as a child, none of the games I played were actually all that special. A lot of the time, they were the same or comparable concepts to what's on offer now, albeit with less complex scripting and a less advanced engine powering it all. What really made that time special wasn't the games themselves so much as the excitement I felt for them as a kid, the excitement I felt for... well, everything, as a kid. Those childhood hours gleefully washed away playing games on Roblox were worth it, simply because I was young, excitable, and more than fine with spending all of my free time playing ultimately mindless games. In a way, the fact that I no longer feel right spending my free time in such a way makes those childhood evenings more special, and those childhood evenings help me appreciate the core that Roblox still has deep down, even if I can no longer connect with it.

No Caption Provided

But at the same time, part of me feels so thoroughly disgusted by how heavy the monetization running through Roblox is nowadays. Certainly, these games take lots of time and effort to create (some of them, at least), and that is effort that should be allowed to recoup some cost. But at the same time, if all of this had been there when I was a child, I don't know how I would've reacted. Would I have felt the same disgust towards it all that I feel nowadays? I would like to say maybe, but at the same time I bought my fair share of VIP shirts, and I actively subscribed to Builder's Club (Roblox's premium subscription at the time), so... I don't think I would have, and that concerns me. I think a younger, more impressionable version of myself would have fallen for these tactics without fail, and would have ended up wasting far too much money on ultimately worthless trinkets, simply because they were inescapable.

That said, I feel like I understand just a little bit more about why these types of monetization work, after having only encountered them from a distance in mobile games and custom Minecraft servers. It's easy to deride cheap monetization schemes when you're new to an environment, or not even a part of that environment at all, but when it's an environment you spend all day immersed in, that draw is invariably going to be a lot more enticing, and when it's an environment you spent your childhood in, do you try and cling to that memory? Or do you allow those memories to be retroactively cheapened by knowledge of what it would become?

I will say, there were two games I wanted to try that I couldn't manage to play: "Dust: Wasteland Survival" and "Rogue Lineage." I say I "couldn't manage to play" those two because as it turns out, you had to pay Robux upfront to get into either one.

If this is the cost of not having monetization in-game, then so be it.
If this is the cost of not having monetization in-game, then so be it.

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How much of the complete Rock Band tracklist has been drummed on We Be Drummin'?, An Investigation

We Be Drummin' has been going for just about a year now, reaching 41 weeks (accounting for breaks) of intense drum action last Thursday. As the drumming has gone on, I've seen a few people wondering: "Alex has to have played most of the songs in Rock Band by now, right? Surely he's getting close.", a question which led me to wonder: "Alex has to have played most of the songs in Rock Band by now, right? Surely he's getting close."

I found the question interesting, but it wasn't until I tried setting up Rock Band 3 on an emulator earlier this week that I remembered just how many DLC tracks that series had back in the day, and processed just how many it's added since. The emulator eventually refused to cooperate, and I remembered I don't exactly have any of the (currently highly expensive) plastic accessories to pair with it, so I gave up on that plan (playing drums on a computer keyboard seemed like it would be terrible for my wrist.) However, it made me revisit the question of just how much progress through the Rock Band tracklist has been made throughout these streams, and I started thinking through how to find an answer.

The Process

In case there was ever any doubt, there's been a mind-boggling amount of Rock Band DLC
In case there was ever any doubt, there's been a mind-boggling amount of Rock Band DLC

The first step in this inquiry was to get a complete list of every song that has ever been available for Rock Band. Turns out, no such thing really exists, at least not as a single list. Harmonix used to have a complete list but they removed it some time in 2015, replacing it with a fan-made list from rdbd.online. This is a pretty large list, but it hasn't been updated since some time last September, and seems to be missing some things here and there as well.

The most comprehensive list I could find turned out to be Wikipedia, which has pages listing the songs present in each game, as well as lists for Rock Band Network and the almost 2,000 DLC tracks that have released over the years. An evening's worth later of copying and pasting data into a google sheet, followed by trimming and formatting, and I had a seemingly cohesive list, at around 5,300 tracks. Only issue was, this included every release of every song, meaning songs that released as downloadable tracks as well as on-disc (such as Paramore's crushcrushcrush) showed up on the list twice, as well as songs which released on Rock Band Network and later received official releases (a somewhat common practice among the more recent DLC tracks for Rock Band 4.) There's no sense in having the same track count twice, whether for or against the total, so I culled any duplicate entries, but kept alternate versions (such as live tracks), bringing the list down to around 4,800. I kept only the most relevant categories that I could pick out, those being Song Name and Artist Name (of course), as well as Rock Band's genre definition (for Beatles and Green Day, no genre definition is given, so I went with the Rock Band descriptor that seemed most apt, Pop/Rock and Punk respectively, for every track from each game), which game the song originates from (disc releases were favored, in chronological order, followed by downloadable releases), and which pack (if any) a song originates from (not at all relevant for the main games, but worth noting for DLC tracks, as well as the track packs.) The sheet was later reconfigured to prioritize DLC tracks, due to RBN tracks being theoretically inaccessible.

Then came the task of actually running statistic analysis on 4,700 songs, something which is both impractical and realistically impossible to do by hand. Even if it were reasonable to do by hand, part of why Excel and Sheets are worth a damn is their ability to do all the heavy lifting, so I began thinking through how to write a formula to check which songs on the complete list had already appeared on WBD. Luckily for me, that list already exists thanks to the hard work of @marino, via the spreadsheet they've kept since week one. Without this, I would've had absolutely no hope of making it work, short of going back through all of the video archives and creating my own list. Follow that up with a lot of tinkering with custom formulae, looking stuff up, and consulting with a friend who's way smarter with this sort of stuff than I am, I eventually managed to hook the two lists up and cross-reference them, adding a check next to a song on the complete list if it's been played already, and a cross if they haven't been played already. It's a pretty small portion of the sheet, but that one formula may as well be the crux of this entire project. From there, all I had to do was hook up some simpler formulae to run various statistics, and I was off to the races.

Creating all the formulae was a bit of work, but with the way I've set them up it should mean future revisions to the sheet are incredibly easy, as newly added tracks are automatically included in each formula, and the checklist should automatically update off of Marino's main spreadsheet every week (without which, again, none of this would be possible.)

The Results

The spreadsheet, alongside a live progress tracker, can be viewed here.

No Caption Provided

Theoretically, it would be pretty easy to create any number of formulae off of this list to see the completion statistics for any field tracked, whether it's what percent of the Country Packs have been completed, or what percent of Classic Rock songs have been completed. That said, in the interest of simplicity I went with fourteen fields, one for each major release (mainline games, spin-offs, track packs), as well as Rock Band Network 1.0 as a whole, 2.0 as a whole, and all of the downloadable tracks outside of Network. As well, the final three classifications (and arguably the most important), I created a running total of how many unique songs existed compared to what's been played on stream, how many songs outside of RB Network have been played vs. what's accessible, as well as how many of the songs played on stream are considered "Reggae/Ska" by RB standards.

Currently, 24.43% of the entire Rock Band discography has been played on stream, but not including inaccessible tracks from RB Network, that percent gets bumped up to 38.83%. That percentage is impressive by itself, but even moreso when considering there's 2,969 to 4,737 unique tracks in Rock Band, it's downright impressive. Maybe not the highest percentage of the Rock Band discography anyone has ever played, but a downright feat by any measure, certainly. It's also worth noting that this is by no means a comprehensive list, as not only do some songs have no drum parts, but quite a few are entirely impossible to transfer into modern-day Rock Band, or even outside of their original games, and haven't seen downloadable rereleases. As well, discrepancies between spelling and formatting between the two lists means some songs which have been played may get passed over.

No game's tracklist has yet been drummed in full, although the closest is Rock Band 2 at 63.1%, while the furthest is Beatles Rock Band at 0% (no Beatles songs have been played at all on stream, since the only Beatles songs in the franchise are accessible in Beatles: Rock Band and nowhere else.)

While compiling the list, I found a few other interesting details, moreso related to the songs themselves than We Be Drummin'. For example, apparently a Giant Bomb fansong was once available as part of Rock Band Network 2.0. A number of "internet songs" appeared on RBN, including Lemon Demon's Brodyquest, Parry Gripp's Spaghetti Cat, and two different versions of that My Little Pony fansong made by an actual professional Eurobeat musician.

There were also some ridiculously long song and artist names, mostly from Rock Band Network. Even longer-titled mainline tracks like "Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows" (a mashup of two different Beatles songs) can't compete against titles like Giraffes? Giraffes! "I am S/H(im)e as You am S/H(im)e as You are Me and We am I and I are All Our Together", or Mega64's "My Name's Horatio, You Got Me, You Ain't Got Nobody Else, So Deal With It, And Love It", practically full sentences in their own right. While long track names and long artist names tended not to go hand-in-hand, the longest artist credit I could find was "MC Lars feat. MC Bat Commander and Suburban Legends", which, while long, accomplishes its length through combining three different names, unlike "Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives", the longest single artist name of the list.

Also, predictably, The Beatles (74) and Green Day (56) have had the most songs, given they got their own dedicated games. Following them is of course Queen (36), and then Amberian Dawn (34), a band which only ever released tracks through RB Network, and has not seen release anywhere else. Bringing up fifth is Foo Fighters, at 33. Most common song name is "Burn", at six entries, followed by "California", "Ride", and "Closer" all at four, and "Dreams" at three.

Over the past year, Alex has averaged roughly 26.75 songs a week, a pace which, if kept up, should see the Rock Band track list completed in 67.89 weeks, or approximately Fall 2022, assuming Harmonix continues a steady pace of 2 DLC tracks a week and doesn't release any new DLC packs. I'm going to take a brief moment of optimism to hope that maybe this whole Coronavirus thing is over by then. Hopefully.

EDIT: Originally, this blog used statistics which incorporated RB Network tracks as standard tracks, and prioritized them over DLC releases. This has been slightly reconfigured, since those tracks aren't easily accessible, and have been outright excluded by the rules of the stream except where they have been rereleased as DLC. Also, I originally failed to notice the DLC tracks for Beatles: RB, which were added in as well.

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A Realization I've Been Having About My Play Patterns

I adored Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale when I played it earlier this year, but upon reaching credits I wound up never going back to see any of the extra content on offer
I adored Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale when I played it earlier this year, but upon reaching credits I wound up never going back to see any of the extra content on offer

I don’t replay games fairly often. That's not by choice, there are more than a few games I would love to revisit, whether they’re ones I beat fairly recently or ones I loved when I was younger, but I never really get around to replaying... just about any of the games I want to replay. Instead I wind up feeling like I don't have the time, or that my time would be better suited playing something new that I've been meaning to play, only to fail to get around to those, either.

It's not for lack of time, - especially with how this past year has been - but for some reason, I frequently have moments where I will put dozens of hours into a single game in the course of a week, ignoring games I should rather or sometimes would rather play. I've had moments like this with a number of games, at this point I basically do it once a year with Terraria, but lately I've been noticing it happening with two categories of game in specific. Well, perhaps "lately" is a bit of a misrepresentation, both are by no means new categories, nor am I new to spending this sort of time with them, but my more recent waves of playtime certainly count as "lately". Specifically, this past year I've found myself putting increasing time into roguelikes and free-to-play games, even after I've stopped necessarily having fun with the time I've put into them.

The Berlin Conundrum

Roguelikes have always been an especially sore point for me, in some ways. I suppose it's sort of endemic to the design of the genre, but with almost every roguelike I try, I find I either try again and again to get into a roguelike, only to put two-to-five hours into it before putting it down, or I wind up fifty, sixty, one hundred hours into it before being torn away by another game, or forcibly tearing myself away by uninstalling it. Hell, the fact that I reached the credits of Hades in around 35 hours felt brisk to me, and that Hades is built in such a way that I could put in that 35 hours and feel content in putting it down after was part of why it was one of my favorite games of last year, certainly one of my favorite roguelikes of all time. But simply "concluding" in a semi-reasonable time-frame isn't the only reason I felt content after that time with Hades; a large part of it was because when Hades reaches credits, it feels like something has been accomplished, a feeling that's all too vacant from the majority of roguelikes.

It's a genre that prides itself on that sort of idea, "winning is only the beginning", which is part of why I took to roguelikes in the first place. The prospect of lightweight games with "infinite replayability" appealed to the weak PC and limited budget I used to have, especially when paired with the tight gameplay mechanics these sorts of games tend to have. Yet thinking back, I struggle to remember a roguelike where beating a run truly felt like a satisfying conclusion (Rogue Legacy, maybe, due to how it builds upon previous runs, FTL simply for what a nightmare that final boss is). At the time, this was barely an issue in my mind, after all "winning is only the beginning", and I was less precious about how and why my time got spent. This also coincided with a time in my life when I was diehard about the idea of "100%ing" games (although I suppose that's a topic for another time), so I was completely fine with playing a game until I either found something else or had every achievement.

I had no clue what I was in for when I began Unexplored, even if I really should have seen it coming
I had no clue what I was in for when I began Unexplored, even if I really should have seen it coming

But nowadays, I find myself in a weird position when a roguelike ends unceremoniously with a pat on the back and a "now do it again". The options are fairly simple, call that the end and move onto another game, or keep playing until I reach some other stopping point. A ridiculously simple choice, or so I thought, until the option presented itself recently with Unexplored, a game rooted firmly in mechanics from the original Rogue, albeit with achievement-tied progression mechanics, and one which I really enjoyed for most of my time with it, at least until I found myself spending entire days grinding out achievements to get the last ~20 or so still to go. Maybe it's temporary burnout, but now, on the other side of the ordeal, I find myself completely turned off from the idea of playing any more Unexplored, or any roguelike in general really, at least for the time being. That isn't to single that game out as the only case of this, however. I went through the same motions with both Binding of Isaacs, Spelunky, Enter the Gungeon (although I didn't get as far as to get all achievements in EtG), the list goes on. For some reason, for lack of a more conclusive ending, I wind up struggling to put most roguelikes down until I've either "done it all", or I've burned out on them, assuming the two don't go hand-in-hand.

Cutting Off My Time to Spite My Monetization

The other side of this equation is free-to-play games - or rather, I suppose, f2p games with heavy monetization schemes, the kind of which is becoming all too common these days. I haven't been playing these types of games quite as long, or at least I haven't been engaging with them quite in the same way as I find myself doing nowadays. I frequently perused the free and demo sections of Steam when I first made my account back in 2010, playing a number of games that probably didn't deserve the time I gave them (MicroVolts, anyone?), although I usually ignored these game's monetization schemes, or at most I used a bit of leftover Steam wallet cash to buy an item or two. But the way I thought about these games, and my desire to play them, would always revolve around whether I was continuing to enjoy the game or not, more than anything else.

That approach isn't so simple these days. It probably never was, and I was just too young and naive to pay microtransactions much mind, but now amid an increasingly inescapable landscape of skins, cosmetics, voice lines, and any other aspect of a game that can be profited from, I've come to view them from a perspective of... spite, I suppose. It all began with Pokémon Picross, a game which released right around the time I first got obsessed with picross puzzles. I excitedly downloaded it soon after it came out, only to find that it was monetized to hell and back, with even filling individual tiles being tied to a monetized stamina system. I could, and probably should, have uninstalled it and written it off as a disappointing loss, but instead I got it in my head that I was going to plow through and "beat the system", by finishing the game without paying a cent. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as I succeeded after nearly a year's worth of daily challenge puzzles, but I stubbornly kept going even as I began to realize how little fun I was having when picross was combined with Pokémon abilities that nullify the puzzle aspect and a monetization scheme that actively impedes the puzzle aspect.

200 hours for skins in a game I hate
200 hours for skins in a game I hate

At the time, Pokémon Picross was a one-off case, it wouldn't be until the past few years that I really started to fall into this mindset of trying to "get one over" on heavily monetized games, starting with everyone's favorite, Fortnite Battle Royale. It's a game I don't even particularly like, with shooting that is less excitement and more a split-second roll of the dice, and matchmaking which takes no steps to mitigate the ridiculous skill gap between a seasoned player and one who just installed the game, but it's also a game I felt compelled to understand, and one which some part of me felt I could enjoy, if only I got a bit better at it. A long and circuitous path led me to play nearly 200 hours of the game, through a mix of desire for at least a consistent skin, sunk cost fallacy from buying underwhelming battle passes with hard-earned free v-bucks, and some of the longest Summer days of my life. I eventually wised up due to a particularly bad battle pass, and wound up uninstalling the game, but found myself nearly falling into the exact same pitfall with Mahjong Soul just this past Winter. It wasn't until I realized just how much time I was spending "gaming the system" and just how little I cared for the rewards that I truly realized what a tiny part of me always knew, that this was the intended effect for these games to have, whether a player is willing to spend money or not.

So What's It All For?

Addiction is a strong word. Like, a very, very strong word. When I was younger, I always found the idea of "video game addiction" ridiculous, even if it did always strike me as a little weird when games were praised for their "addictive gameplay" and people would casually talk about spending fourteen hours playing a single game without getting up from their seat. ADHD does lend itself to addictive personalities, which I suppose could explain the mass amounts of time I've put into some of these games, or maybe it's just the age-old case of it being easier to play something familiar and casual than playing something exciting and unknown. Do I think it's reasonable to call these week-long bursts of video game binges an addiction? I... don't know, like I said, it's a very strong word. But it's one that my mind keeps coming back to the more I think about all this. It's undeniably a word central to the design of some of these games, whether they would admit it or not, and as much as I would like to think I'm above falling for cheap manipulation tactics in games, my time with Fortnite served primarily as a lesson that I'm absolutely not.

As it currently stands, I've uninstalled a lot of the games I've mentioned here, and I don't plan on reinstalling them, at least not soon. Will I fall into this pattern some time again in the future? I don't know. Hopefully not, but you never can know. For now at least, I'm looking forward to having a free moment to play something new.

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What would it take to marry someone in every video game?

Popping the Question

The image that started it all.
The image that started it all.

As far as questions go, this one is sort of impossible to definitively answer, I know. But it's one that came to me about a month ago, when I was reminded of Team Fortress 2's "Something Special for Someone Special." Added nine years ago to the day, the Something Special is a 100$ engagement ring which the user sends to whomever they wish to have it. If the recipient accepts, a short message is broadcast to every player currently in-game, announcing the happy couple. It mostly gets used as a platform for people who have jokes to tell and too much money to do it with, but it has definitely seen some amount of use by people seeking to declare their joint love. Online games are no stranger to marriages, even ignoring the infamously... love-fond communities, such as Second Life. In fact, for a while now it's been fairly common for players to get married in MMOs, from major guild events to small ceremonies for EXP bonuses. But... the Something Special, at its unthinkable triple-digit price-tag, seemed to be the most expensive marriage mechanic any video game had ever implemented. It had to be, right?

In search of a more expensive virtual wedding ring, I tried to think of all the games I knew of that had official marriage mechanics. Maplestory and Final Fantasy XIV both came to mind, given my time with them in the past, but for both games marriage only costs about 30$ at most, less than a third of TF2's asking price. I racked my brain for other MMOs I had played even a bit over the years: Mabinogi, Guild Wars, Dofus, etc. The list kept growing, but of the games that came to mind, marriage kept getting less and less expensive, if it was even present in the games at all. As my investigation continued and I started to realize the Something Special might truly be the most expensive, my question started to shift from "What is the most expensive marriage item in any video game?" to "How much would it cost to marry someone in every video game possible?".

A Labor of Love

This may come as a surprise, but there aren't many write-ups, lists, or videos detailing every game that will let you marry another player. Instead, I was going to have to find this information the hard way, by forming a list of games and then looking up, per-game, whether or not they fit the bill. My list began a collection of games which I either knew to have, or felt were likely to have marriage mechanics, whether it was games I had already played, or games that were simply too big not to know of. However, this alone was never going to approach a complete overview of every game which allowed for marriage. If I wanted to even approach an answer, I was going to have to expand my investigation. First, I skimmed Steam's "Online" and "MMO" tags for ten pages each, alongside Giant Bomb's own "Online" concept page, adding to the list anything which seemed even remotely possible to get married in. Second, I found as many MMO-dedicated news sites as I could, and searched each one for any keyword related to marriage, including but not limited to: "marriage", "bond", "wedding", "engagement".

As great as this wedding was, role-play engines like Space Station 13 do not count.
As great as this wedding was, role-play engines like Space Station 13 do not count.

As I was assembling my list, I knew that I was going to have to set some guidelines on what I was and was not counting as a "marriage mechanic". As I've already stated, I only counted games in which the player could marry another player-controlled character. Not only would including games in which the player can marry NPCs - but not other players - drastically increase the number of games being looked at, the effort to chronicle that already exists. Also, in the case that a game was online, the servers had to still be online and accessible. After all, if the player can't login, they can't get married, now can they? Finally, whether it's as big as FF14's Eternal Bond ceremonies, or as small as an in-game box declaring the two players wed, the marriage has to be officially recognized by the game. I've seen some amazing (and amazingly ridiculous) marriages in role-playing engines like Space Station 13, but they were all achieved through player organization, rather than systems created by the developers. If I had included games where role-playing a marriage was possible, the list would include practically any game with text or voice chat. Coincidentally, this rule also removes AlphaWorld, although I'd like to take a minute to acknowledge the game as, from what I've seen, it seems to have played host in 1996 to the first wedding ceremony in a virtual world, between Janka and Tomas, two regulars of the game at the time.

With these preliminary rules set in place, I began organizing a spreadsheet to track which games I had checked already, as well as a number of details I deemed relevant information:

  • Do the item(s)/ceremony required for in-game marriage cost real money?
  • How much (if anything) does it cost?
  • Are there any prerequisites before players can get married?
  • How much (if anything) do the prerequisites cost?
  • Does the game allow players of the same gender to get married?
  • Does the game offer a public public ceremony?
  • Can players get divorced after marriage?

Finding this information was by no means an easy task. It was typically easy enough, if a bit tedious, to find if a game had marriage mechanics or not, but it proved far harder finding details of how it was done, what was required for it, and what it did and did not allow for. Ultimately, that information was gathered through a mix of searching, looking through a variety of guides, and looking through videos of the games in question. In one specific case, Dream of Mirror Online, specifics on the cost of in-game wedding rings seemed completely impossible to find, leading me to install the game to open the game's item mall myself, only for it to turn out that players have to play for at least 12 hours before the game will allow them to access the mall.

The Marriage-thon

Ultimately, I found twenty-three games which met the requirements outlined above. I hadn't honestly expected to find that many, although I did expect there to be more out there. As I said at the beginning of this blog, there's realistically no way to get a definitive answer to this question, because it essentially becomes "what is a complete list of video games", something which can never truly be answered. Regardless, the raw data I compiled can be found here, although overviews and explanations of each column will be provided below, along with any noteworthy or interesting examples I found along the way.

Real Money & Item Cost

The question that started it all: does it cost real world money to get married in this game, and if so, how much does it cost?

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The results of this field were fairly surprising to me. In all honesty I went in assuming the majority of them would cost money, figuring marriage paraphernalia would be an easy way to make some money from microtransactions and the like. However, the end results were closer to 50/50, which only split further when I accounted for an extra option: "kinda". Games that "kinda" cost real money are any game where the items required to get married cost real money, but can be obtained for free either through earning premium currency for free or by trading for the items, or where the items required to get married have both free and paid tiers, a fairly common practice wherein higher tiers typically come with more customization or more extravagant items.

While entirely free marriage is the most common method, even games requiring payment for marriage tended to stick within the 10-20$ price-range. The closest any game got to TF2's Something Special was Perfect World International's 60$ wedding price-tag, just over half of TF2's asking price.

Prerequisites & Cost

Another important consideration when calculating the cost of all of the marriages: are there any requirements standing between two lovebirds and eternity?

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This was, predictably, the most varied field of all. The most obvious one (aside from those which had no restrictions) was Level, which just requires both players to have reached a certain level before they can hook up. Some games (like DOMO from earlier), have bespoke relationship levels which a couple typically improves by playing together, or for a certain amount of time. One requirement stands out from the crowd, however, with Grand Fantasia eschewing level or bond requirements, instead requiring two players be an in-game piece for 100 real-life days before allowing them to get married, making it by far the longest barrier to entry, even if it's not the most demanding.

Only two types of prerequisite require monetary input, being the game and subscription requirements. Of the games on this list, the only two that don't have free-to-play trials are The Elder Scrolls Online and Stardew Valley. As such, the price of both games counts towards the total price of getting married in them, with low and high estimates on the spreadsheet determined by average sale price and MSRP respectively. There are also two games, Age of Wushu and Dofus, which require one or both involved players to be actively subscribed before they can get married.

Same Gender Marriage

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What good is love for one if there's not love for all?

This category was also fairly evenly split, much like Real Money, however games allowing two players of the same gender to get hitched are in a comfortable lead, with three entries over games that don't allow same gender marriage. Also of note is the "N/A" category, which I implemented for cases where it is allowed, but moreso due to the game having no reason to account for it (such as the player having no gender tied to their account), rather than actively allowing it. Games in which it is not officially allowed, but possible to perform by using gender change items during or after the wedding proceedings were not counted, however it was surprisingly common.

Who needs a stuffy old king officiating their wedding anyways?
Who needs a stuffy old king officiating their wedding anyways?

In games which do allow for gay marriage, the systems and proceedings are almost always the same, never costing more or having reduced features. The only exception to this is Ragnarok Online, which allows for gay marriage, but the NPC who officiates them is in a different town entirely from the standard marriage NPC. This would strike me as a bit odd, if not kind of annoying, if not for the fact that it turned out the NPC who officiates gay marriages in the game is a cat in a tuxedo, and the weddings are held in the town of Lasagna.

Public Ceremonies

Sure it may be the greatest moment of your (digital) life, but wouldn't it be all the sweeter with friends by your side?

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This field covers games in which the wedding process involves (or can involve) a proper wedding ceremony of some sort, wherein players not involved can be invited to attend the proceedings. When games do charge for part of the process, it tends to be this one, in part because it typically involves a unique server instance for the to-be-weds and their plus-ones' plus-ones, and also because many games offer different tiers of wedding with fancier, more permanent cosmetic items and consumables for everyone to take home, as well as more customization in the wedding hall. The "kinda" designation returns for this field for cases like TF2, wherein getting wed displays a message to the server but does not involve a ceremony.

Of note in this field is RIFT which, alongside having multiple different themed ceremonies, also held an event in 2012 encouraging players to get married on Valentine's Day, setting the Guinness World Record for the most wedding ceremonies in a single day, at just under 22,000 couples tying the knot.

Divorce

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Of course, even death do us part is not forever, especially when it comes to fairly low-stakes environments like online video games.

This final category is plain and simple, do games allow players to break apart after they marry? Maybe not surprisingly, the answer is an overwhelming "yes". I could only find two examples of games that without question do not allow for players to split up, although another two were scarce enough on information that I couldn't tell for certain one way or the other. Although of special note is Dofus, which requires one player to be subscribed in order to get a divorce, similarly to the game's marriage process.

Even the two games which don't allow for it have ways to work around it. The Elder Scrolls Online allowing the player to marry other players to their heart's content, meaning Daedra won't stand a chance against the largest polygamous marriage in all of Tamriel. The other case is Team Fortress 2, in which the Something Special can not be readily deleted from a player's inventory but has, at times, been unintentionally usable with transmutation items during Halloween, allowing it to be turned into something else.

If you love something, set it free

With all the data compiled, I can feel confident that I've answered both of my original questions. Totaling up the item costs, simply getting married to another player in every game possible would cost a minimum of around 247$, with a maximum-flair marriage-thon costing around 364$. Adding the prerequisite costs adds anywhere from 60$ to 145$, depending, for a combined total minimum of 307$ and a combined total maximum of up to 510$. An outstanding price-tag in the realm of video games, but certainly much cheaper than a real wedding would run.

Even with this sizeable sum, no game manages to come close to Team Fortress 2's Something Special, with only two games getting within even half of it's cost. With an investment like that behind it, maybe it's for the best the ring can't be deleted.

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Game of the Year 2020

I opened my game of the year post last year with a rambling preamble about how the year went, and looking back it's kind of nice to have an idea of how I felt about that 2019 from when it was still fresh in my mind, so I guess I should keep with the format and do another one. It probably shouldn't be surprising that I spent most of 2020 inside, semi-mindlessly playing video games and trying not to focus too hard on the daily news. Aside from the obvious, usually bleak, events that colored 2020's news, it felt like a year-long summer vacation; not in the sense that it was relaxing and fun, but in the sense that the days largely blurred together at a certain point, and I don't have a whole lot to show for it. This sensation was only made stronger by the fact that the yearly events of the video game world completely did little to catch my eye, with the industry's E3 "replacement" falling completely flat, coming across to me as a shining example why publishers need an event like E3 more than they think, and few of the major releases of the year interesting me to begin with. Honestly, if someone were to tell me next-gen console hadn't actually come out this year, I might almost believe them. That said, I also felt the same way after last year's E3, so I can't honestly say whether its recency, a trend, or just a coincidence.

Amidst all the goings-on the year, I honestly didn't get around to playing ten whole games that came out in 2020. So, while I do still have some games I'd like to get around to as well as some I don't even have yet, I decided that instead of rushing through those games just to put them on the list it, would be more worthwhile to acknowledge the games of 2020 that I did play, as well as those that aren't necessarily video games, didn't come out in 2020, or that I didn't get a chance to play myself.

Honorable Mentions

Best Concept: Blaseball

The community surrounding Blaseball was not one I actively engaged with too much, in part because I didn't have much to contribute when it was super active and in part because I got enough out of seeing what was already there and what was being added to it. From the game itself, with a greatly sped-up and absurd twist on baseball to the community surrounding it, which routinely produced great character designs and narratives based on little more than a few names and basic mechanics. At times I wish I had been a bit more involved, but the weeks where Blaseball was at its peak were a blast regardless, just to have a kind of cool fan community surrounding something for a little while. And hey, I even learned a thing or two about baseball along the way.

Best Introduction to a Centuries-old Game: MahjongSoul

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I had always written mahjong off as a game I would never understand. It would show up occasionally as a side activity in various games, and sometimes I would entertain a match, only to realize within minutes that I had no clue what I was doing. Then one day in August a friend introduced me to MajSoul, and guided me through a couple of games. Since then, I've wound up playing a match at least every other day because, as it turns out, mahjong is fucking great, being less luck-based and requiring more thought than something like poker, while still having plenty of room for big risks and unexpected victories. MahjongSoul as a client... is more of a mixed bag, coming saddled with some (arguably optional but undeniably absurdly overpriced) gacha mechanics, which weigh down what's otherwise one of the most engaging and newbie-friendly mahjong interfaces I've seen.

Best Game I Couldn't Play: Half-Life: Alyx

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I feel like this would have been a definite contender for my top 5 games of the year, had I actually played it. However, I don't have a VR headset and, even if I could have gotten one, I wasn't about to spend that money on a headset for one game. Yet still, I had to know how Valve could possibly tackle the monstrous and seemingly-impenetrable legacy that the Half-Life name has clung to in their years of absence. So, instead, I watched a bunch of different playthroughs of it on Twitch and Youtube throughout the course of the year. Whether or not it feels as good to play as it looks, or whether Valve can make good on the promise of this game and tackle a Half-Life 3, I can't say. However, Half-Life: Alyx makes the strongest case I've seen in years in support of the notion that Valve can still put out games with the same level of quality that they did back in 2010. I came to PC gaming a few years after Episode Two came out, and only got around to playing through the series in 2015, but in the bold narrative decisions, creative new enemy designs, and even just the way environments and characters look and move, I feel that sense of excitement and amazement that had always permeated discussions of the series, but that I had never quite had.

Best Old-Internet Content Rabbit Hole: Worlds Chat

There's something really fascinating to me about old MMOs, especially the chatroom focused ones like Worlds. I think it's because they usually had a pretty strong focus on user creation and customization, but did so before there were really standards around how environments should be built or how avatars should look. Enter Worlds Chat, a game released in 1995 that is somehow still up to this day (these days the parent company mostly just sues any game that infringes on their super basic patents, but that's a story for another time), which I started looking into some time in September. The official "worlds" present in Worlds are already a relic in-and-of themselves, from "Blair Witch World" to "WWF New York" and "Hanson World", but the different user-made worlds that are still accessible are fascinating, and may as well be the main attraction. I easily spent hours throughout Autumn rummaging through whatever worlds I could find, seeing everything from monochromatic art pieces and jumbles of polygons arranged erratically and set to equally haphazard music, to quiet early-polygonal countryside homes, and recreations of famous video game levels. As far as being a social space, Worlds is fairly quiet these days, but as an exploration game Worlds is an experience that deserves to be seen firsthand.

Most Wasted Potential: Trackmania (2020)

I've never been terribly fond of racing sims, but after hearing a bit of chatter about this year's new Trackmania (and after seeing StarWarsMetallica, if the above entry didn't make it clear enough that I have a soft spot for goofy internet bullshit), I decided to give it a shot. Surprisingly, I really took to it as I tried out some of the courses on offer in the free version. So, once I felt I knew enough to at least play the game, I went to hop into a community server and... nothing. After looking around, turns out a subscription is needed to play on unofficial servers, and access to everything the game has to offer will run a player at least a $25/year subscription. What I saw of the game seems like it could be really cool, but I'm not about to pay $25 yearly just to see if I would really stick with it.

Games of the Year

Genshin Impact

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I played a lot of dubious f2p anime-style games as a young teen. Mabinogi, Fiesta Online, Microvolts, Rusty Hearts, the list goes on. None of them were particularly good, mind, even the best ones tended to fairly grind-heavy and laden with microtransactions, but that didn't stop a younger, more anime-loving Fran from giving them a fair shake. It's been a long time since I had the energy or the interest to try out every random anime game that passed my screen, but Genshin Impact reminds me just a little bit of why I used to do that. It's definitely got its fair share of issues with grind and monetization, but there's an incredibly charming core beyond that. The world is vibrant and blends a serious plot with a light-hearted sensibility in a way you don't see too often. Will I keep up with all of the updates and follow along the main quest as it releases? Probably not. But it's still a pretty solid way to kill a few hours.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!

To say every CSD plays roughly the same would be an understandable statement. However, with CSD3, it really clicked for me the ways in which each game plays around with its setting and supporting mechanics to highlight different aspects of the core game. Whereas CSD1 was a mix of management sim and typing game, encouraging the player to push themselves to adapt to the best available menu, and CSD2 removed the management aspect in favor of requiring the player to be ready for any dish, CSD3 presents a halfway point between them, focusing almost solely on the cook-typing and letting the player pick what they want each day's menu to be. This doesn't always work in its favor (I'm still not fond of the medal system, and the ease of cooking the same dishes ad nauseum can make some of the more difficult ones intimidating at first), but it's different enough to easily stand on its own aside the previous two, and just as much a blast as either one. (Plus, Whisk and Cleaver are simple, but effective and incredibly endearing companions that really carry the apocalyptic food truck journey of the story mode.)

Hylics 2

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No other game I've seen has dared approach Hylics' sense of style, and that's both for the best and an absolute tragedy. The sun-melted, hazy soundtrack, blown-out-dot-matrix claymation visuals, and offbeat enemy designs turn what would be a somewhat standard RPG into an unmissable, unforgettable experience, one which Hylics 2 takes to another level. Hylics 2's main evolution over its predecessor (besides an increased length) lies in the switch from 2D to 3D environments. While the change is at times barely noticeable, the moments when it did become apparent only made me appreciate more the accuracy with which the style of the original has been recreated. Also, having an actual plot to follow this time around helps just a bit, as much as I appreciated the first one's intentional lack thereof.

Hades

Honestly, for a while there I had given up on rogue-likes. There were still a couple that I played from time to time, but I found myself increasingly frustrated by how easy it is to simply lose a run's worth of progress in games like Spelunky and Binding of Isaac, as well as just how much time and effort it takes to get into most rogue-likes. It's partially for this reason that Hades sat in my library from a good few months after early access release, untouched until it finally hit 1.0. Yet once I finally did play it, I immediately fell in love. Completely missing are the reliance on RNG, overwhelming amount of information, and frustrating lack of progress that drag down so many rogue-likes. Instead, the core of Hades is incredibly simple and easy to understand, the upgrades almost all feel viable in their own way, and even a run that ends in Asphodel still makes progress towards upgrades and abilities for future runs. Add on top of that the usual SuperGiant level of polish, and Hades was immediately Game of the Year material, and was definitely a competitor for the #1 spot on my list, even if it didn't quite make it.

Game of the Year: Umurangi Generation

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I'm a sucker for photo modes in games, hell, a large chunk of my playtime in Dishonored 2 and Hitman 2 is due to Nvidia Ansel. With this in mind, I sort of knew going in that I would at least enjoy Umurangi Generation, but everything about it landed perfectly for me. The great soundtrack and environmental design, the ample selection of interesting things to photograph, the melancholy of the world contrasting the laid-back nature of simply being unable to do anything about it, it all fits together so perfectly. From start to end, Umurangi Generation hit me in a way that no other game did.

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My GOTY 2019

2019 has been an odd year. It's somehow felt like nothing happened and absolutely everything happened, both at the same time. In my personal life, I've met some great people this year, and I've also started thinking more seriously about what type of career I want to pursue, but if someone had asked me casually about what I've done this year, I don't know that I would've been able to point to anything outside of carrying on my daily life. In the realm of games, there was still a constant flow of rumors and news, and there's been some absolutely amazing releases this year, as tends to be the case every year, but so many of the tent-pole annual happenings that usually populate the year ended up falling short. E3 was in a weird, uneventful place this year, and I'm honestly not sure if that reflects more on the year or on E3. On top of it, a lot of the major annual franchises from publishers like Ubisoft and 2K were either absent, or just not very interesting.

Whether or not both of these are simply because of the upcoming console generation remains to be seen, I suppose. But in a year where some of the most prominent publishers felt like they were laying low, some of the biggest surprises came from new IPs, or from entirely new teams. Below I've written some thoughts on some such surprises (and some not quite surprises) among the games that I played this year. Despite this list being titled "GOTY 2019", there's not necessarily an order to most of this list, in part because I just couldn't decide where some of these games should place.

Crossniq+

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Crossniq+ is a puzzle game about sliding pieces around on a board to create a cross/+. Crossniq+ is also an homage to the “Y2K” aesthetic, with plenty of chrome, rounded edges, and bright primary colors. I don't really have much to say about this game, because it's a fairly simple game from concept to execution, and I think that simplicity is part of why it's so appealing to me. The puzzle mechanics are interesting, throwing just enough curve balls to keep the player on their toes and break up the repetition, without ever getting terribly overwhelming, and the visual design is brimming with charm, with menus that feel straight out of the dreamcast era, and a cute cast of characters to choose from in the Versus mode. For as simple as Crossniq+ is, it does what it sets out to do, and the end result is a great time-killer.

Baba is You

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Baba is You is a game that I have a lot of respect for. It presents a complex system of rules, allows the player to modify almost all of them, and handles the resulting situations in a consistent manner. Each level gives just enough clues to help the player figure out what it wants them to know about the main ruleset without directly telling them how anything works. While this approach is undoubtedly clever, and can make finally solving a puzzle feel great, I think it starts to mire the game a bit, as it goes on. It works really well in the beginning of the game, encouraging the player to experiment, and allowing them to figure things out on their own. However, as I neared the end of the game, this vagueness would sometimes feel more cryptic than it did clever, and some levels left me feeling directionless, unsure of where to even begin. Whether that reflects more on the game or on me, who’s to say, but Baba is You’s determination to having the player solve things on their own is as commendable to me as it is kinda frustrating.

Kingdom Hearts III

Kingdom Hearts III is complicated. When a game tries to be a definitive ending to a story that’s been building for at least 10 games now, how can it not be? I didn’t expect to walk away amazed, feeling as though every piece of Kingdom Hearts had finally fallen into place, but even while tempering my expectations, I walked away feeling conflicted. This game is the culmination of every experiment, idea, and minor tweak that Square Enix has tried out on this series since KH2, and there's definitely a lot of improvement present. Combat, while still pretty simple, has a variety of inherited features such as shotlocks and situation commands, which do help to add some variety. As well, the mini-plots of the Disney-themed worlds actually felt like they played some role in the grander non-Disney narrative, unlike the previous games, which always felt to me like a whole lot of Kingdom Hearts on either end, with a five-hour Disney intermission in-between. While these improvements don't form some grand revelation, they should easily put KH3 among the best games in the series, right?

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For a while, it honestly seemed to me like Kingdom Hearts III could find itself in such company, as long as it could do a decent job of sticking the landing. However, in the third act, when it's time to stick the landing, KH3 stumbles more than it soars. Almost everything that was being built up to, both in this game, and in the series at large, gets resolved within the span of one 3-4 hour segment. Some of the pay-offs to these narrative threads are genuinely great moments, but a majority of these resolutions feel like they could have been amazing pay-offs that instead fall short, and get lost among other moments that should have been fulfilling conclusions, but fell just shy. Does this hasty resolution detract from the rest of the game? Not necessarily, but it did leave me wishing Kingdom Hearts III was a bit better, even if I wouldn't call it a bad game.

The Outer Worlds

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From the initial trailers, I wasn’t quite sure about The Outer Worlds. Nothing about it necessarily looked bad, but the snippets that were shown felt a bit generic and directionless to me. At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to bother with it at all, but when it showed up on Game Pass, I eventually decided it was a good enough opportunity that I may as well give it a shot. I booted it up around noon on launch-day, expecting to play a couple of hours before moving on, which made it all the more strange when I looked up from the game and realized it was already dark outside. Somehow, I had sat down and made it all the way to the Groundbreaker without even noticing how much time had passed.

This pace slowed down a little as I got further into the game, when the frequency of combat encounters and a general lull in the plot started to gradually drain my enthusiasm. But even as the main plot got a bit long in the tooth, I still found myself drawn to the characters that comprised my crew, and the world the game took place in. The cast play excellently off of one another, as well as their environment, giving them a level of wisdom about their surroundings that made the world really come to life for me. I don’t know that I would call The Outer Worlds a substantial experience with plenty on its mind, but its willingness to make fun of capitalism, as well as its great cast of companions, were enough for me.

Noita

When done well, physics systems in games can be almost entrancing. Cascades of falling sand, the chaotic yet steady spread of fire, water rushing to meet an enclosure, when a game nails things like these, I’ve often found myself sitting back and just watching it all unfold. Noita caught my eye because it’s a game built around such moments. There’s a wide variety of materials in the game, some of which can be set on fire, some of which explode, some of which do any number of unpredictable things. As things burn, support beams will fall to the ground, enemies will get coated in oil and catch alight, and smoke will billow up to sky. The player, a wizard placed in front of a cave full of such materials, is set loose to venture, razing as much or as little as they see fit.

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As I started to assume that these physics interactions were the main thing Noita had going for it, I started ignoring the cave that I began in front of, instead seeing if there was anything beyond it, in the opposite direction from it, or in any other direction I could think to go. Each time I ventured out, I was greeted by something that I had never seen before, whether it was a vast desert landscape, a mysterious orb and a cryptic note, or any number of thing. This exploration also brought with it a sense of fear, since the only way to regain health is found in the cave, meaning that if I went too far out, I might not be able to make it back. While this could feel like a roadblock to the discovery process, it also made it way more intense, as every extra minute I spent testing the waters was another minute spent in dangerous territory, never quite sure what would come for me next. It's that ability to keep the tension up, even in moments of relative safety, that I think really sets Noita apart from other rogue-likes.

Apex Legends

I didn’t feel very confident going into Apex Legends. It seemed like every time I tried out a battle royale, it would follow the same pattern. The first 95% of every match would see me running around quietly collecting items, the last 5% would see me unceremoniously killed in a matter of seconds, and I would eventually give up and walk away, seeing the appeal but feeling severely outclassed and having little to show for my time. Which is why I was genuinely a little surprised when I found myself prepared for — and in the middle of — a firefight, roughly 4 minutes into my first match. That surprise grew when, not only did my squad survive said encounter, but we managed to finish the match in 5th place.

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Somehow, Apex fixes everything that hadn’t quite worked for me about other battle royales. Gearing up at the beginning of every round is quick and painless, and the map design forces players to converge at a rate that feels frequent, but not overwhelming. When encounters happen, they’re still fast-paced, but the abilities system, terrain, and overall weapon balance give most fights enough room to feel manageable. To top it all off, the ping-system, while a fairly simple concept, is the first time I’ve personally seen an effective replacement for voice chat in a competitive game. As someone who doesn’t cherish the thought of talking directly to random strangers, it’s a really nice feature to have. Does Apex Legends reinvent the genre? No, not necessarily, but the improvements it brings to the table definitely add up.

Control

I absolutely love the environmental design in Control. This is hardly a controversial take, I know, but something about the way it blends American corporate minimalism with jagged brutalism just instantly clicked with me. From a story perspective, the contrast between the two is fitting for “secret agency overrun by supernatural entities”, and the visuals created by the hiss zones’ vivid shades of red, contrasted with the marble and onyx tones of the Bureau, are striking every single time. Even when it comes to camera angles and shot design, Control feels like one of the biggest risk-takers of this year, with some shots that forego an environment entirely, putting the focus squarely upon a single figure, and semi-tutorials in the form of live-action videos reminiscent of old science edutainment vhs tapes. While the end result can be a little hard to follow at times, I adore the hell out of just about everything Control tries.

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Hypnospace Outlaw

Hypnospace Outlaw may seem like a bit of an odd inclusion on this list for someone such as myself, who never actually got involved in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s internet. Sure, I’ll admit, I don’t really have the same nostalgic draw for this game that others who played it might. Despite this, the faux-internet society of Hypnospace drew me in almost immediately. The writing in this game manages to be hilariously absurd one moment, and genuinely heartfelt the next, sometimes even on the same page. I would often find myself foregoing whatever quest was at hand, just to take some time and explore the pages that were available.

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The world feels like it was designed with its own existence in mind, and users feel like they actually influence one another, rather than just being individual plotlines that exist in the same space. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Hypnospace has some of the most compelling character arcs from this year, and even some characters who seemed like they were designed solely for a one-off joke get decent storylines, away from the spotlight. In it's final chapter, Hypnospace takes a turn which leaves the narrative honestly tragic, in a way I didn't see coming, and in a time when so much of the internet feels like it revolves around telling cheap, irony poisoned jokes, I think that's what really sets this game apart. Deep down, Hypnospace Outlaw has some honest heart to it, and it knows when to let that take over.

Outer Wilds

I’ve got a confession to make. I only actually started playing Outer Wilds a few days ago. However, it’s been at the back of my mind ever since. Even when I’m not playing it, I’ve found myself thinking about the things I’ve encountered so far, and where they could be leading. Whether it’s thinking about where I want to go next when I return, realizing something about a planet I’ve been to, or even just remembering how last night I managed to fall into the black hole a third time, this game left me with plenty of things to think about every time I picked it up.

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This is no doubt aided by the fact that there’s always something to work towards in this game. When the player discovers anything that suggests a mystery, it gets recorded into the ship’s log. This means that there’s always a thread to follow, and those threads unlock carry on while also unlocking other threads to follow. For me, it almost manages to bring the whole “one more turn” mentality of strategy games into an exploration game, leaving gives Outer Wilds with an enthralling quality well beyond any other game this year. I can’t wait to get back to it.

Game of the Year

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

It feels like every time a new Shovel Knight campaign comes out, it impresses me more than the last. King of Cards is no different. Everything about this campaign is ridiculously polished, from the pixel art, which has gotten more detailed and expressive without straying from the overall style, to the level design, which, while built in bite-size chunks this time around, is still as great as ever. King Knight’s moveset just works right off the bat, and the specific limitations of when King Knight can attack downwards are easy to grasp, while still allowing for some really clever puzzles.

On top of already being a phenomenal campaign of its own right, King of Cards introduces Joustus, a fully fledged card game, as a secondary gimmick. I was unsure how much I would care for Joustus, since side-games like this normally don’t do much for me, and at first it did seem like a fairly simple, uninvolved game. However, the different abilities it gives access to over time really puts Joustus over the edge, opening up a variety of strategies, and really making the game interesting. Combine this with a variety of opponents, each with their own deck themes and strategies, and Joustus is truly something special, to the point that I think I may have ended up playing just as much Joustus as I did the regular platforming levels.

King of Cards is one hell of a send-off to one hell of a series, and I can’t wait to see what Yacht Club Games makes next.

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