Facing Destiny: On Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Ending

SPOILER WARNING: This blog assumes you are familiar with everything that happens in both Final Fantasy VII Remake as well as the original Final Fantasy VII. As such, there are massive spoilers below for both games (and this blog may not even make sense if you are not familiar with their plots anyway). Additionally, I give brief spoilers for the endings of the first Mass Effect, Star Wars: A New Hope, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Enter at your own risk :)

Final Fantasy VII Remake contains all of the hallmark moments of the opening hours of Final Fantasy VII. You go on the famous bombing mission to blow up Mako Reactor 1. You fall through the roof of the church and into Aerith’s flower bed in the sector 5 slums. You cross-dress to infiltrate Don Corneo’s hideout and interrogate him. You witness in horror as Shinra drops the sector 7 plate, mercilessly claiming countless innocent lives. You infiltrate the Shinra headquarters, save the girl, and make a daring escape from Midgar.

Yet as the credits roll, none of that seems to matter.

It was great to see more of characters and places that were only hinted at in the original.
It was great to see more of characters and places that were only hinted at in the original.

But let’s back up for a moment. When it was revealed that Final Fantasy VII Remake would only cover the Midgar portion of Final Fantasy VII, I was both skeptical and hopeful. On the one hand, it felt like a cheap ploy to needlessly extend a beloved classic into multiple, full priced parts, almost certainly by way of a lot of filler. On the other hand, if done well, it was a chance to flesh out the complicated world, characters, and story of Final Fantasy VII in fascinating ways; there was potential here to craft one of gaming’s grandest opuses. For most of Remake, we see both the bad and the good of this approach. There is indeed substantially more filler than I would like: Remake stretches a 5 hour portion of Final Fantasy VII across 40+ hours, thanks in large part to excessively lengthy and grindy dungeons, and rote side quests that have you perform the most banal of RPG jobs. But Remake also adds in welcome depth to the Final Fantasy VII lore in effective ways. I loved getting to know characters like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie better, who were minor side characters in the original but get a lot of spotlight here. I loved the additional exploration of the way Shinra uses propaganda to influence its citizens, especially as it expands upon the war with Wutai that took place before the game. I loved getting to spend extra time with Aerith, and getting a much better study of her character; not to mention her new buddy routine with Tifa. I loved most of the new characters as well, and how much more we get to see what life in Midgar is like for the average person living there. It’s one of gaming’s most iconic cities, and that we get to see this city in ways that were only hinted at in the original is wonderful.

Most of all, I loved the way Remake positions the fight between AVALANCHE and Shinra as its core throughline plot. It not only makes sense as a plot with an extremely well-defined arc: you start out making inroads blowing up reactors, hit a strong moment of crisis when the plate is dropped, climax with the infiltration of the Shinra tower, and set up the next game with the dramatic revelations you have there. But it also serves as a great way to give the spotlight to one of Final Fantasy VII’s core themes that, in the original game, quickly becomes overshadowed by other concerns (read: Sephiroth). Final Fantasy VII is, at its core, a game about saving the planet. For the first 5 hours of the original, you attempt to save the planet from an evil megacorporation that is literally bleeding the planet dry so that it can profit off of cheap energy, and you take the fight to them in their home base of Midgar. But once Sephiroth is introduced at the end of those 5 hours, Shinra takes a back seat while the main characters chase Sephiroth around the world. Remake, however, had the chance to dig deeper into Shinra and their evil ways. They are a huge threat to the planet -- certainly a big enough threat to pose as Remake’s primary antagonist -- and Barret and his team of AVALANCHE members serve as clear protagonists to root for in that fight, as they directly oppose everything Shinra stands for.

Some of my favorite moments in Remake were between Barret and Tifa.
Some of my favorite moments in Remake were between Barret and Tifa.

My favorite moments of Remake are the ones that dig deeper into that fight. We get more insight into Barret’s dedication to the cause, and just how extreme he is willing to be. We get more insight into Tifa’s concerns, and how she acts as a more moderate balance to Barret’s radical nature. I especially appreciate the dialogue between the two, as they both clearly share the same end goal (to stop Shinra), but differ on the best way to get there. Barret, the radical, wants to blow up Shinra at all costs, even if it means innocents die in the process. Tifa, the moderate, doubts if it’s worth sacrificing lives for change, and questions if there is a better way more than once. When those lives are inevitably lost, you can see their different philosophies come out in who they blame: Barret blames Shinra, Tifa blames herself and AVALANCHE. It’s a poignant and relevant moral dilemma worth discussing, and I’m happy to see Remake explore it further. Even past those two leads, we also get to see more about why their supporting characters are in this fight. In one of Remake’s best new chapters, we get Jessie’s backstory and learn why she fights. It turns out it’s not just the poor people of the slums that Shinra exploits, but also their own workers up top. These added stories and details are my favorite additions to Remake, and go a long way to flesh out the primary conflict of the Midgar portion of Final Fantasy VII, a portion that serves as the entirety of Remake's narrative arc.

That brings us to Remake’s ending, which has nothing to do with Shinra, AVALANCHE, Midgar, or really anything else that Remake focused on for the vast majority of its runtime. For its last few hours, Remake shatters the proverbial fourth wall to become a story about, well, changing the story of Final Fantasy VII. You learn that the whispers that hounded you throughout the game exist solely to preserve the original Final Fantasy VII timeline, and Aerith opens a portal to another dimension where you fight the “boss” whisper, which Aerith more or less describes as Destiny itself. (Oh, and you fight Sephiroth there too, just ‘cause.) Now with this literal manifestation of destiny defeated, the characters of Final Fantasy VII are not bound to what happened in the original. We see that Biggs and Wedge survived the collapse of the sector 7 pillar after all, and we see that Zack also lives, a character who originally died even before the start of Final Fantasy VII. This is a clear statement of intent from the developers of Remake: they can and will change things about Final Fantasy VII’s story going forward (not to mention that there’s a good chance multiple timelines are in play, and some characters like Aerith and Sephiroth clearly know more than they are letting on). Hell, even as you defeat the whispers, you see “flash forwards” of important events such as Aerith’s iconic death, and Red XIII running through the fields years after Meteor destroyed Midgar (the ending scene of the original game). The implication is that these events are no longer set in stone. The future is now open to any number of possibilities, and the game closes with that as a tease for ensuing installments of the Final Fantasy VII remake project.

You literally fight
You literally fight "Destiny" at the end of this game.

Yet that tease for the future left me wanting for the present. Remake spent most of its time focused on the conflict between Shinra and AVALANCHE, and portrayed that conflict so well, and had me so invested, that its abrupt change in focus was disheartening; when it never went back to give the Shinra-AVALANCHE story arc any kind of closure, I wondered what it was all for in the first place. It all felt meaningless. When I think about my favorite first installments of larger franchises, I think of things like the original Mass Effect, Star Wars: A New Hope, or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In each of those cases, they were part of a larger work that did not wrap up everything in a tidy bow; there was clearly more to do in their respective fights after their first parts. But they did provide excellent closure for the smaller arcs contained within those first parts that stood well on their own: Saren was defeated, the Death Star was destroyed, and the fellowship was dissolved in favor of Frodo travelling to Mordor with only Sam. Remake, however, does not. Instead, it breaks the fourth wall right at the end, which completely disrupts the story arc it had been expertly telling for dozens of hours. It’s a whiplash inducing shift, and I think this first part of the story suffers without some sense of closure to (or at least a smoother transition from) the Shinra-AVALANCHE arc that dominated so much of its runtime. The most frustrating part is that I think Remake could have had it both ways. I think it could have both provided a meaningful closure to the Shinra-AVALANCHE arc as the series transitions to Sephiroth, while also indicating that future parts will break further from the original Final Fantasy VII canon. Those are not mutually exclusive goals, and the fact that future parts will change aspects of the original is, to me, a very exciting idea. Teasing that is a great way to keep people like myself hooked for the future. But in its execution, I think Remake dropped the ball for the present. And that’s a real bummer.

Back in the Xbox 360 days (and probably still today, but I’m no longer in the Xbox ecosystem), you could look at your friends list and not only see what game they were playing, but also a short status message about what they were actively doing in their game. Usually it was something generic like “Mission 2” or “Going on a raid” or “Team deathmatch on Strike.” But there was one game whose status message always made me chuckle: Final Fantasy XIII simply stated, at all times no matter where you were in the game, “Facing destiny.” My friends and I poked fun at how overly dramatic and silly it was, but Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the idea of facing destiny to another level. By making Destiny itself the final boss, Remake confronts and defeats its own 23 year old legacy, which sets up tantalizing possibilities for the future. I’m as excited as anyone to see where this journey goes, and when all is said and done this remake project could still be something special. But I can’t help but feel that in its execution, it came at the expense of telling a complete and satisfying story arc for this first installment. That it got so close, and told such a good story for so long, only makes that lack of closure even more disappointing. Final Fantasy VII Remake has prioritized confronting its own legacy over telling a complete story today, and until it delivers on its promises for the future, the events of the present ring hollow.

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Gaming Memories: GoldenEye 007

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

As a kid, we visited our relatives (who lived two states and an eight hour car ride away) a couple times a year. At first, this was exciting because they had a NES and we did not. Once we had a SNES at our own house though, we didn't have any use for their lowly NES; that was old stuff. But when they one-upped us again with a Nintendo 64? Now that was exciting. We got to see Mario and crew in full 3D, and we got to run and jump and race in ways that we never had before. It was a paradigm shift, and playing games like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 on our cousins’ Nintendo 64 was magical.

Even more magical, they had GoldenEye 007.

I think I could still map out the Facility from memory.
I think I could still map out the Facility from memory.

GoldenEye may not have been a better game than Super Mario 64, but as a boy who had minimal exposure to PC games in the 1990s, and who had never played a first-person shooter before, it was revelatory. I knew what Mario was (along with other platformers) by that point, so as amazing as his transition to 3D was, it was still familiar ground. GoldenEye, on the other hand, was completely new. And I liked it. There’s not much more magical to me than discovering something new I like, and the fact that I only had limited access to it via our cousins (at least at first) made those rare moments where I got to play it even more special. As such, those early memories of playing GoldenEye at my cousins’ house are among my most distinct ones. We’d take turns trying our hand at the campaign, and spend hours battling it out in multiplayer with all sorts of different settings and house rules. Every visit to our cousins' house was a chance to see and experience something new; a new interaction, a new campaign level, a new set of multiplayer rules. I took it all in with the wide-eyed curiosity of youth, and remember those early days fondly.

Once we had our own Nintendo 64, however, the memories didn’t stop. If anything, having the time to explore GoldenEye on my own terms revealed how clever and rewarding it really was. I got to play the campaign from start to finish myself, and thoroughly enjoyed its arcade structure that offered a ton of varied, stand-alone levels. Some levels were short, hectic shootouts where you barely had time to breath. Some levels were sprawling environments that you had to bounce around as you completed various objectives. Some levels demanded you take a slower, stealthier approach to avoid being overwhelmed by guards. By offering different layouts, weapons, and objectives, each of the game’s 20 levels felt unique. Then once I finished the campaign on the standard difficulty I started it again on a higher one, only to find one of GoldenEye’s smartest features: levels gained additional objectives as you ramped up the difficulty. Even now, in 2020, most video games adjust their difficulty by simply changing health and damage numbers. GoldenEye was a step ahead 23 years ago, as the way it layered in new objectives made each new difficulty setting feel almost like a new game. The way you moved through a level on Agent didn’t work the same way on Secret Agent, and re-learning the game for each run was a real treat. Throw in other fun challenges which led to unlockables such as cheat codes and bonus levels, and GoldenEye’s campaign had a ton of legs that kept me playing for months.

Being able to play a FPS' multiplayer in the living room was special.
Being able to play a FPS' multiplayer in the living room was special.

If its campaign kept me engaged for months, then GoldenEye’s multiplayer extended that to years, as I spent likely hundreds of hours battling with family and friends alike. It was one of the first multiplayer games I got into, and it remains the only one that I’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to play with friends. While in some ways it was your standard deathmatch, GoldenEye’s multiplayer had plenty going for it. First, its maps were extremely well-designed, and provided ample space to flank and jockey for a better position. Second, it offered a ton of customizable game settings, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with all sorts of different weapon configurations; “remote mines only” was always a personal favorite. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in addition to being my first first-person shooter, it was also among the first successful ones on consoles. It’s hard to overstate how important that was at the time, as you no longer needed a slew of capable PCs to get a game session going. GoldenEye brought the first-person shooter to the living room, and its multiplayer thrived for it. I don’t know that I would have gotten into the genre any other way.

Today, decades later, it’s easy to look back on GoldenEye 007 and see how dated it is: its controls are clunky, some objectives are obtuse, and the escort missions suck (sorry, Natalya). But not only was it a really fun game in its day, it also had a lot of smart, positive qualities that I still remember it for above everything else. It had a varied campaign with dynamic objectives across difficulty levels, a robust multiplayer mode with lots of options to promote seemingly endless play, and even fun little touches like the way enemies reacted appropriately to where you shot them. Yet perhaps most importantly, it was a huge step for first-person shooters on consoles, and introduced me to the genre with panache. GoldenEye will always have a special place in my heart for that, and I can’t think of a better game to fill it.

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Gaming Memories: Super Metroid

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Super Metroid.

Super Metroid opens with you, as Samus Aran, investigating a distress signal aboard the Ceres space station. Its halls are eerily quiet, their metallic blue emanating a cold lifelessness as you search for clues, and it doesn't take long to find out just how lifeless the station really is. The primary lab is littered with dead scientists, and a shattered containment tube sits where the last Metroid in the galaxy had been held. It’s clear that someone (or something) has stolen both the lives of these scientists, as well as the precious Metroid. In the next room? Your nemesis, Ridley, who has the Metroid. After a brief duel, and a desperate escape from the self-destructing Ceres station, you chase Ridley to the nearby planet Zebes. Thus begins your adventure to stop Ridley and find the Metroid.

Super Metroid both starts and finishes strong.
Super Metroid both starts and finishes strong.

Super Metroid’s opening sits among my favorites in any game, as it effectively sets up what the game is all about in ten minutes. First, by having you engage with some light platforming and fight Ridley (a fight you cannot technically fail), you get to try out both the platforming and combat in a safe space. Second, through its thick atmosphere and detailed environment, it sets up the entire premise of the game’s story with minimal exposition. Third, once you land on Zebes, it’s clear you spend the rest of the game exploring its large world on your own as you search for the Metroid. Super Metroid introduces the game’s core pillars effortlessly, without the extensive tutorials or info dumps required by most games. Not only is that a smooth process that gets the player into the action quickly, it’s also a poignant indicator of Super Metroid’s ethos and artistic ambitions. It goes to great lengths to immerse the player as fully as possible, and the result is that its world feels infinitely more alive and believable than it otherwise would. It all makes exploring Zebes feel highly meaningful, and also lends Super Metroid a surprisingly strong narrative. Its environments explain the game’s happenings quietly but powerfully, which culminates in an all-time classic video game moment. When you finally reunite with the Metroid, which has grown into the titular “super Metroid,” it recognizes you as its original caretaker and sacrifices its life to save and empower you. It’s a dramatic and awesome scene, one that's executed beautifully without a single word.

In 1994, when Super Metroid first released, that kind of freewheeling exploration and atmospheric storytelling was rare. It was not the first game to focus on these things (at the very least it was the third Metroid game), but it’s regularly regarded as the game that codified the “Metroidvania” subgenre as we know it today. Super Metroid gathered up the ideas and experiments of its predecessors, and presented them in a more effective and cohesive way than ever before; in its execution, it was a big step up across the board. Much has been written about Super Metroid’s world design, and for good reason: its world is one of the most elegantly designed in video game history. Its network of hallways and doors, locks and keys, did a wonderful job of regularly nudging the player in the right direction while still leaving room for them to think and explore on their own. That’s a fine line, but Super Metroid walked it splendidly, and Zebes remains one of my favorite video game worlds to date. The strengths of its world went further than its excellent mechanical design too, as its artistic design was equally impressive. It managed to tell a compelling story through its environment alone, and the striking art and moody musical score combined to create a powerful and gripping atmosphere. Its soundtrack in particular ranks high among my personal favorites, and hearing those songs takes me right back to Zebes’ caverns all over again.

I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of exploring Zebes.
I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of exploring Zebes.

Zebes was a world crafted with substantial care and attention to detail, and every aspect of Super Metroid was smartly built around your exploration of it. It’s a holistic approach to game design that I greatly appreciate, and its execution was so strong that new “Metroidvanias” are regularly compared against Super Metroid to this day. It set the standard, and holds up remarkably well decades later. So well, in fact, that it’s almost certainly the game I’ve played from start to finish more than any other. While the nature of its construction lends itself well to speedruns and mastery -- it’s still one of the most popular games to speedrun -- it also speaks volumes to my love of Super Metroid that, as someone who rarely replays games, I manage to replay it every few years. I love the openness of the exploration, and how I always notice new details on every new run. I love the calming sense of isolation and figuring things out on my own. I love the atmosphere, the visual design of each area, and the musical score that perfectly captures the mood. I love the progression of items, thoughtful secrets, eerie boss fights, and how it all comes together for a singular experience; it’s one I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of.

Four years ago, throughout the summer of 2016, I wrote a lengthy, multi-part blog series about the Metroid franchise and why it’s such an important series for me personally. It’s a series that has resonated with me and my personality as much as any game has; its world design, its atmosphere, its sense of exploration, and even its isolation are all qualities I hold dear. And in its execution, Super Metroid embodies these traits as well as any in the series. It takes my favorite aspects of this entire medium and pulls them together seamlessly into a cohesive whole, and to call Super Metroid one of my favorite video games almost sells it short. There is perhaps no better representative of my gaming tastes than this, and perhaps no other game I love more.

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Gaming Memories: Chrono Cross

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Chrono Cross.

In one world, Fargo is a proud and feared pirate captain. In the other, he is a cheater at his own casino. In one world, Gogh is a painter following his dreams but living in poverty. In the other, he is a successful trader, but neglects his son in favor of his business. In one world, the hydra marshes were pillaged for resources and destroyed. In the other, they still cling to life. In one world, various characters may be alive or dead, be dealing with profound guilt or grief, or embark on daring quests. In the other, it could all be the complete opposite.

One of my favorite things about Chrono Cross is how its two parallel dimensions present two wholly different, yet equally viable timelines for the world and those who inhabit it. And by letting you explore both of them, you get to see firsthand the many points where they diverge. These differences can range from very personal ones, such as Gogh’s life choices mentioned above, to world-spanning consequences, such as the fate of the hydra marshes, and seeing it all side by side leads to many poignant, thoughtful moments. It’s a highly effective way to present one of Chrono Cross’ central themes: any choice made, at any point in time, nudges the flow of time towards one of seemingly infinite possible futures. We often talk about choices in video games, but that usually refers to the explicit choices made by the player. Chrono Cross has those choices, but is more interested in portraying the larger web of cause and effect that results from the collective choices of everyone. It's a sobering and real meditation on our place in the world, and proves to be a fascinating narrative structure that got me to reflect on my own position in life as much as any game has. It also justifies its comically large cast of characters (45 total playable ones) better than it should. Many of them end up in different places between the two worlds, and seeing two different sides of them can be mesmerizing. Through their personal stories, Chrono Cross regularly highlights just how far our choices can ripple.

Chrono Cross had some lofty narrative ambitions, and for me it worked; I enjoyed pondering its existential ramifications, and felt it all fit with the rest of the game. And while it received some flak for being too divergent from its esteemed predecessor, Chrono Trigger, I always felt Cross’ premise of parallel dimensions was the perfect way to follow up Trigger's time-hopping adventure. Where Trigger was about exploring the flow of time along a straight line as you moved forwards and backwards through it, Cross was about exploring time as it branched into multiple parallel lines. It evolved and supplemented Trigger's themes without repeating them, which, to me, gave Cross its own identity while still showing clear connective tissue. One thing Cross clearly retained, however, was the same high bar of audiovisual quality Trigger was known for. Lush environments, a bright color palette, and smooth animations brought the world and its characters to life, and its soundtrack is regularly cited among gaming's best. It's easily one of my personal favorites too, as its simple instrumentation and soothing tones were not only exceptionally beautiful, but they captured the game's somber and contemplative nature perfectly. From sweeping cinematic movements, to mellow overworld melodies, to cultural town themes, to heartfelt story codas, Chrono Cross' soundtrack grabbed me in a way that so few have. It's one I still listen to regularly today, and I hold it as dear as any video game soundtrack.

Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.
Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.

In addition to its strong narrative, large cast of characters, and stellar audiovisual presentation, Chrono Cross was simply a fun game to play for numerous reasons. It contained a lot of flavor and personality, such as the way many characters had quirky, endearing speech patterns. It handled its large cast smartly, such as how all characters, not just the ones you used, leveled up after every boss battle. It contained many of the quality of life features fans appreciated from Chrono Trigger, such as being able to see enemies on the overworld before engaging in combat, and then added many more of its own, such as the the ability to automatically use any available magic to heal after battles. Your choices throughout the game could branch the story in cool ways that lead to different items or characters, which, along with its new game plus feature and many different endings, afforded tons of replay value. Last but not least, I enjoyed Chrono Cross’ combat. While not all that complex, the stamina system was more nuanced than the combat of many JRPGs of the time, and also a clever way to balance the use of powerful magic. I also enjoyed the contrasting effectiveness of the six magic elements, and the way those elements tied into the game’s “true” ending was surprisingly touching. It’s those subtle touches that made all the difference in Chrono Cross, and it had a lot of them.

Upon its release in 2000, Chrono Cross had a lot to live up to. It came out at a time when JRPGs were at their peak, from a company that had been on a roll for years, and was a sequel to one of the most beloved games ever made. Yet Chrono Cross carved its own path to create a memorable experience unlike any that came before it. Its thoughtful narrative, fun characters, gorgeous art, legendary soundtrack, and countless smart touches made for a game I couldn't stop thinking about, one that became a part of me in a way few games have. It's the exact kind of artistic expression I love this medium for, and I'm happy I got to experience it in this timeline.

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2019: Ranking the Rest

The top 10 list is a fun tradition, but I always wonder, what about the rest? Most of us play more than 10 games a year, so what happened to the others? For the past few years I’ve taken to ranking the rest of the games I played in a given year, and use that as a chance to (very) briefly speak to them. It gives a more holistic picture of my gaming year, and I have fun doing it too. That’s exactly what this blog is: my ranking of every 2019 game I played that didn’t make my top 10 list for the year. Obviously I can’t play everything, and my gaming time this year was down from previous years. That manifested in me bouncing off more games than normal; a good chunk of games on this list I only played for 5 hours or less. Still, I touched most of the games I wanted to, with the only notable omission being Disco Elysium. That’s the first game I plan to play in 2020. For now, these are the games I got to. I tried to order them as honestly as I could, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in the exact order. They’re all in the ballpark of where they belong. And with that, thanks for reading!

1-10. See my GOTY 2019 list.

Perhaps 2019's most surprising mashup, and also one of its coolest.
Perhaps 2019's most surprising mashup, and also one of its coolest.

11. Cadence of Hyrule. What an awesome and unlikely thing. Nintendo, of all companies, let a small indie team have a go at their most hallowed franchise. It's a cool mashup of Crypt of the NecroDancer and Zelda that really works, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. Especially the incredible soundtrack, which I'd put among my all time favorites. These killer remixes were the perfect accompaniment to this killer rhythm game. Cadence of Hyrule was this year's difficult cut from my top 10.

12. Slay the Spire. I wrote on my top 10 list about Dicey Dungeons that I’m traditionally not a fan of either rogue-likes or deck-builders, so color me surprised when 2019 produced two games that combined elements from both genres into something I liked. Of the two, Slay the Spire finishes second due to more random elements making each run feel a little more out of my hands than I’d like, mainly in the way that a single bad hand can ruin you against the toughest bosses. But I still had fun with this one, and am more than happy to have surprises like this from genres I normally don’t like.

13. Magic: The Gathering Arena. MTG Arena is easily my favorite digital interface yet for the only CCG I've ever gotten into. I used to play the physical version heavily, but fell off for multiple reasons over the years. Arena is not only a faithful and competent digital recreation, but it also offers a host of modes and events that make it easy to pick up and play any number of fun formats at any time. I've gotten a lot of cards, and a lot of play, for relatively low cost (by CCG standards at least), which has sparked a mild renewed interest for me in MTG. That's something I didn't think would ever happen again. Thanks, MTG Arena.

Void Bastards has some cool ideas.
Void Bastards has some cool ideas.

14. Void Bastards. This is one of those “gamey” games with a simple loop that’s just fun to go through. It’s not all that deep, and it kind of loses steam the longer it goes. But it’s something simple and fun to veg to for a while. I think it has some neat ideas too in the way you navigate the ships you choose to board and the risks and rewards involved. If it hadn’t lost so much steam near the end in its repetitiveness, it could have possibly made my top 10.

15. Untitled Goose Game. The internet’s favorite 2019 child didn't grab me as much as it seemingly did most, but it's still a good game. I see it as a "lite" version of the recent Hitman games, both simpler and less interesting to veterans of Agent 47's mayhem. But it does have its charm, and a goose is the perfect avatar for causing mayhem.

16. Baba is You. This is a super clever puzzle game that is probably just too smart for me. I really like its ideas from a game design perspective, on how it invites you to break its own rules, yet the type of thinking it demands is very different from how my brain works. That means making progress is a slow, painful affair for me, and led to me not getting all that far before stopping. Baba is You a game I respect more than I enjoy playing as a result, and that's OK.

17. Ape Out. This has so much style, both in its visuals and its music -- I think its procedural generated jazz score is legit rad -- that I can’t help but like Ape Out. The game itself is fun in its rambunctious simplicity, though I did tire of it before I finished it, and it’s a short game no less. That makes me probably appreciate its artistic ambitions more than I like playing the actual game, but it’s a cool thing nonetheless.

I mostly felt like Control was a standard third-person shooter.
I mostly felt like Control was a standard third-person shooter.

18. Control. This might be the best game Remedy has made from a game feel standpoint, and you do get some cool powers that are fun to use in combat. Yet I still came away from it feeling like it was a pretty standard third-person shooter, one that on a mechanical level didn’t do much interesting for me. That’s normal for me with Remedy games, which usually rely more on style and story than their combat anyway, but even that was a mixed bag. I think some parts of Control’s lore are really interesting, but the actual happenings of the story just did not grab me, and the pace of it also felt off. I came away from it not caring much about the characters or what happened to them, and ended up rushing through the endgame just to be able to move on from it.

19. Remnant: From the Ashes. Another mostly standard third-person shooter, but one that gains something from both co-op and some pretty decent ideas and boss encounters. Mostly the former, as it’s less rote when playing with a friend. On the flipside I could do without the terrible writing/acting/story, the bland world design, and the repetitive encounters. I haven’t finished this one yet (primarily due to time restraints), but I would still like to sometime.

20. Katana Zero. I had a very love/hate relationship with this one during my time with it. I nearly stopped playing it multiple times, and it’s not even a long game. One minute I’d be soaking in the thick atmosphere (driven primarily by the cool soundtrack), and puzzling through a room of enemies laid out in an interesting way. Then the next I’d be groaning at the corny dialogue that think it’s more clever than it is, and takes up at least as much time as the killing does. I also got more tired of the standard combat as it went, as the game doesn’t evolve much during its run-time. Even after finishing it, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it.

21. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I don’t think Ritual of the Night is all that great; I didn’t even finish it out of boredom. Maybe I’ve just played too many Castlevania games of this style, but I think Ritual of the Night is, at absolute best, on par with the more mediocre ones. Everyone remembers Symphony of the Night, but seem to forget that half a dozen similar Castlevania games came out on handhelds over the following decade. Point being, there were a lot of these games already, and Ritual of the Night as a deliberate throwback feels dated and unnecessary. Especially given that so many other recent indie games have carried the torch in that space, and have shown so many other more interesting ideas. Then on top of that, last year’s excellent Curse of the Moon not only emulated Castlevania III, but modernized it and arguably bettered in it smart ways. Ritual of the Night has no such ambitions, and while it is a perfectly OK “one of those,” I’m not sure that plays in 2019 for me anymore. I think we can do better.

Pokemon has so much potential, and they're never going to do anything with it, are they?
Pokemon has so much potential, and they're never going to do anything with it, are they?

22. Pokemon Sword/Shield. I don’t give a shit about “dexit”; I think there are too many Pokemon at this point, and expecting all of them to be compatible with every game is a pipe dream that lasted way longer than I ever expected. I also don't give a shit about poor textures or animations or whatever else the internet is mad about. What I do give a shit about, is that Pokemon is one of the few Nintendo franchises that refuses to evolve over time. Sword and Shield are still following the same basic formula that the originals pioneered 20 years ago, and it has lost all novelty as a result. Forget diminishing returns; I've personally reached the point of no returns with this franchise, and have no interest in touching Pokemon again until it can prove it has any amount of creative spark left. That makes me sad to say, but here we are. Its minor quality of life improvements are the only things preventing it from falling further down this list.

23. Valfaris. I also have kind of a love/hate relationship with this one, albeit for slightly different reasons. One the one hand, I enjoy it’s retro style side-scrolling shooter challenge, and it nails what it’s going for pretty well; the visuals and music in particular are metal in the best way. On the other hand, it’s pretty one-note, and got old a little faster than I had hoped. I’m still somewhere in the middle, and not sure if I’ll finish it or not.

24. They Are Billions. Probably my biggest disappointment of the year. It had such a promising early access period with great reception, but I held off until I could play the campaign. Yet it turns out that the campaign in the final product is a horrible, horrible mess. Like, seriously, this campaign is bad. Too long, too repetitive, too punitive, and too bare bones to be interesting (I played three missions and quit). The saving grace of They are Billions is that the survival mode is still alright. I feel like I kind of "solved" it after a few games, but it saved the product from being a complete wash.

25. Apex Legends. I'm just not a battle royale person? But this seems like it's as good as any of them, and I enjoyed the handful of games of it I played just fine.

I bet there's a good story here, but I'm not sure I'll see it.
I bet there's a good story here, but I'm not sure I'll see it.

26. Life is Strange 2. I really liked the first season of Life is Strange, but two episodes in season two has yet to grab me. Maybe I’m just over this style of game, maybe I haven’t latched onto the characters in the same way, or maybe its themes don’t resonate with me as personally. My best guess is that this time around you’re not playing as the character with the powers, and that’s not as interesting to me. Part of the appeal of the first season was the ability to rewind time and experiment with your choices. Season two feels like a more straightforward story so far, and I’m not sure I’ll finish it as a result.

27. Tetris 99. Tetris battle royale is simultaneously a weird and effective idea. I'm not sure I'm into either Tetris or battle royale enough to get into this, but I have to admit they pulled it off way better than I think any of us could have expected. For "free" no less.

28. The Outer Worlds. This is the runner up for my biggest disappointment of the year. I’ve liked this style of RPG a lot in the past, and I like Obsidian as a studio. But I think The Outer Worlds is a subpar “one of those.” The loot is boring. The combat is boring. The character abilities and perks are boring. Even the story and dialogue, from what I’ve played, is boring. It all feels extremely rote and perfunctory, as if I was just going through the motions. Worst of all is that it occasionally showed bits of smart, aware writing, and if the entire game had writing at that level, it would have been much better. Instead I had to trudge through too much generic/bad satire about “evil corporations” to get a small nugget of interesting commentary. I didn’t continue past the Edgewater resolution as a result.

29. Gears 5. This is "more Gears," and that's fine. I just think I might be winding down on "more Gears." I'm not all that far into it, and may or may not finish it, but so far it's done very little for me.

I think DMC has always just been a bit too much style over substance for me?
I think DMC has always just been a bit too much style over substance for me?

30. Devil May Cry 5. I haven't bounced off a game this hard in a long, long time. DMC has never really clicked with me, so maybe I was setting myself up for disappointment by giving this latest iteration a shot. But less than an hour in I was already tired of the sluggish combat, the adolescent tone, and the rote game design. I didn't play much more before calling it quits, and think my DMC days are now truly done. Which is fine; nobody needs to like every franchise, and this is one that's clearly not for me.

31. Sunless Skies. I may have bounced off this one even faster than DMC5 if it wasn't such an odd thing. I kept going a little longer because I wanted to understand it more, but the tedium quickly overwhelmed me anyway. You have to be really, really into reading quirky lore that revels in its own quirkiness, which I was not able to do without at least some interesting gameplay systems to back it up. But the bulk of my time was spent trekking across large, empty expanses, while occasionally engaging in dull, rote combat. I don't know that I’d say Sunless Skies is a bad game, but more than any other game I played in 2019, it did not grab me in the slightest.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2019

It’s time again for one of my favorite personal annual traditions: looking back on the year in video game music, and sifting through my favorite soundtracks to share in a fun collection. It’s a testament to the strength of the medium that I can do this every year, and looking over this year’s list, I can’t help but marvel at the continued diversity and quality of video game music. There’s something here for everyone, and there’s plenty more good stuff past these 10 games. Please feel free to share any of your own favorites; I’d love to hear them and discuss all that 2019 had to offer. Music only makes the games we play better, and that’s worth celebrating.

As always, a few notes about this list. First, I only considered music from games I personally played, as I feel like context is a big part of what makes this music so meaningful to me. Second, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to embed here, though all of these games have many songs worth listening to. Finally, these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy listening!

Wargroove

Featured Track: Fledgling Queen (by Phonetic Hero)

Just like Advance Wars before it, Wargroove has a catchy, endearing song to match the personality of each of its many lovable commanders. This is the kind of personality I grew up loving in video game music, and Wargroove carries the torch forward confidently. It’s fun, quality stuff that I enjoyed listening to from start to finish.

Ape Out

No featured track, as it uses a “reactive music system” (by Matt Boch)

I don’t even know if you can call this a soundtrack? At least not in the traditional sense. But Ape Out’s music is critical to its appeal, and is more directly integrated into its action than most. Dubbed a “reactive music system,” its procedural jazz, driven primarily by a simulated drummer, rises and falls in speed, volume, and intensity along with the action. It’s super fascinating and incredibly effective. I love musical experiments like this, and Ape Out’s music is perhaps the biggest reason the game works as an art piece.

Katana Zero

Featured Track: Sneaky Driver (by Bill Kiley)

I love the little touch where, at the beginning of every level, you see your character stop to put in their earbuds and press play on their portable music device. It suggests that he’s listening to the same music you are while ruthlessly murdering countless thugs, which goes an extra step towards bringing you into the game. It’s also just infectious music that fits the game’s trippy and violent vibe splendidly.

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

Featured Track: Action Over Words (by Erik Gudmundson)

This soundtrack snuck up on me. What began sounding like good-but-traditional fantasy RPG fare grew on me over time, as it became more ambitious and creative along with the game itself. By the end I was rocking out to some surprisingly epic boss themes during some equally epic boss battles, and found myself humming along to the quieter themes too.

Outer Wilds

Featured Track: Timber Hearth (by Andrew Prahlow)

Outer Wilds may not have a lot in the way of traditional songs, but it’s nevertheless my emotional gut punch soundtrack of the year. The moments that do have melodies are incredibly poignant ones, and songs often swell during the game’s major thematic touchstones. The intimate instrumentation and somber yet hopeful tone further help the music lend the whole adventure an emotional resonance it wouldn’t have otherwise. Bonus points for the game’s navigation system, where you follow the sounds of other travelers’ instruments across the galaxy. What a cool touch.

Cadence of Hyrule

Featured Track: Gerudo Valley (Combat) (by Danny Baranowsky)

So what if you let a talented indie composer remix the music from one of Nintendo’s longest-running and iconic franchises for an official game? That idea may sound far fetched, yet it somehow came to life in Cadence of Hyrule even more brilliantly than I could have predicted. Indie games have carried the torch for personable, memorable soundtracks this generation, and here that sensibility is expertly combined with some of gaming’s most iconic music of generations past. And being a rhythm game, its music is front and center of the experience. It’s a match made in heaven, and I struggle to fully express just how freaking rad this soundtrack is.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Featured Track: Voyage of Promise (by Michiru Yamane)

Last year, Curse of the Moon’s soundtrack perfectly replicated the vibe of the NES era Castlevania games; this year Ritual of the Night successfully takes on Symphony of the Night. It not only nails the vibe it’s going for, but it’s also just genuinely good, catchy video game music. Its music is almost certainly my favorite part of the entire game, and proves (once again) that a throwback score can still be great today.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Featured Track: Fodlan Winds (by Takeru Kanazaki)

I’ve always enjoyed Fire Emblem music, but Three Houses raises the bar substantially; this is the soundtrack I could not stop listening to all year. It’s main theme, The Edge of Dawn, perfectly captures the game’s emotional core. Even better are the many epic and memorable battle themes, which combine and remix multiple recurring central motifs in dramatic and affecting ways. It all matches the story’s equally dramatic moments, providing big, bold exclamation marks every step of the way. It’s a well-made and special soundtrack that captures a lot of what I love about both Fire Emblem and video game music at large.

Valfaris

Featured Track: Cosmic Decay (by Curt Victor Bryant)

With Doom Eternal getting delayed until 2020, someone had to carry the heavy metal torch. Valfaris happily stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park with this guitar-shredding, face-melting score. Good job, Valfaris! *throws up the horns*

Hades

Featured Track: God of the Dead (by Darren Korb)

I don’t know what their secret is, but Supergiant Games and Darren Korb seem incapable of producing a game soundtrack that’s anything less than amazing. While Hades technically entered early access at the end of 2018, they’ve continued adding new content and new music all throughout 2019, and I’ve continued listening to its music all year too. It’s one of those quality soundtracks that just feels right, and defines the experience of battling your way out of the Greek underworld way better than I could have ever imagined. I suspect I’ll be rocking out to this one for a long, long time; here's hoping there's lots more music to come.

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Gaming Memories: Super Mario Galaxy

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

It was a bad week. I failed a test, was physically injured, and had some social troubles going on. I sat down on a rainy Friday evening in November of 2007, and turned on my Nintendo Wii to start playing Super Mario Galaxy. I just need to rest a little, I initially thought. After a brief introduction, I took my first long jump into the gravitational pull of Good Egg Galaxy. As I circled around its brief orbit, and took in the sights and sounds of this wondrous and magical new celestial frontier, my spirits were lifted. I had never seen anything like it, and I spent the next two days forgetting my worries while exploring the cosmos.

Things could sometimes get a little... weird.
Things could sometimes get a little... weird.

That’s what made Super Mario Galaxy stand out: despite being part of a decades-old franchise by 2007, it still felt as fresh and inventive as Mario ever had. Nintendo games, at their best, show you an old thing from a new angle, which results in a new way to play. Mario Galaxy was Nintendo in peak form. It embraced a new setting, and the new physics that came with it, with wide-eyed curiosity, and that led to all sorts of new ways to think about how Mario runs and jumps. Previously simple platforms now had more to consider, as gravity could shift directions between jumps, platforms themselves could shift their position at regular intervals, or you could find yourself in a circular orbit amidst a cluster of small planetoids. Hell, sometimes your best option was to launch yourself out into the empty sky, all to get caught in another gravity field dangerously far away. Such actions may seem like small tweaks on the surface, but they are precisely the kind of subtle changes that made the basic act of jumping -- one of gaming’s oldest actions -- feel exciting all over again. Mario Galaxy was by no means a radical reinvention of the platformer. Rather, in true Nintendo fashion, it presented platforming from an angle we had never viewed it from before.

But it’s not just the gravity effects themselves that made Super Mario Galaxy so fun to play. The game’s vibrant art style was gorgeous, and its whimsical soundtrack remains an all-time favorite that I still listen to regularly. Artistically it was a noticeable step up for Mario, and perhaps more importantly, Mario’s movement also felt better than it ever had in a 3D Mario game; and maybe better than any 3D platformer before it. His large array of jumps, from triple jumps to wall jumps to long jumps, felt spot on, with timing windows and animations honed to a tee. Such flexible and precise movement is always desired and fun, but it was even more impressive when combined with Mario Galaxy’s new physics. When Mario’s jump is affected by all sorts of new and different forces, such as the gravitational pull of a floating space rock, you want to feel confident that you can jump in and experiment. In Mario Galaxy I had that confidence in full, which encouraged me to play around with all sorts of maneuvers, and develop a real sense of mastery over the course of the game. This was especially rewarding in the game’s later stages, which grew to be fairly challenging; I have fond memories from tackling Mario Galaxy’s toughest gauntlets.

So simple, yet so devious.
So simple, yet so devious.

Finally, and perhaps the single trait I remember Super Mario Galaxy most for, its level design was impeccable. Not only were its levels expertly constructed, but its galaxy theming cleverly allowed for an unprecedentedly large and diverse set of them. It made perfect sense to have an entire level devoted to collecting a single star, and showcase its own gameplay idea that you never encountered anywhere else. Yet it also had plenty of larger levels that you returned to for multiple stars, which could showcase a more robust set of ideas in a larger space. This struck a great balance between focused challenges and exploratory platforming, which helped the pacing tremendously. More than that, the sheer variety of things you did to earn stars within this structure was staggering; you rarely did the same thing for more than one of Mario Galaxy’s 120 stars. This was another subtle but important way that Mario Galaxy distinguished itself from previous 3D platformers, Mario or otherwise. There were almost no repeated challenges or fluff, which made nearly every level and every star feel worthwhile and interesting. Mario Galaxy never stopped searching for new ways to play from start to finish, and managed to seamlessly flow from one fun challenge to the next. Terms like variety, pacing, and level design aren’t flashy or easy to define. But Mario Galaxy showed a clear understanding of these design concepts, and that’s a big reason why I hold it in such high esteem.

Nintendo often gets a lot of flak for making the same games time and again, and relying on their core franchises too much. I’ve been critical of this as well, but when they do it right, they create great new ways to play seemingly old things. Super Mario Galaxy was a prime example. At its core, this was quintessentially a Mario game: you ran, you jumped, you stomped on goombas and you collected stars. Yet we had never seen Mario quite like this. It built on the strong Mario fundamentals with new physics, gave its art, music, and controls a big facelift, and then placed it all within some of the most well-designed levels the genre has ever seen. The result was something both familiar and new, both comforting and thoughtful, and comprehensively joyful. Super Mario Galaxy was a magical game that grabbed my heart when it was down, and lifted it up into the stars.

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Extra Life Thoughts With Hades

Hey duders! This past weekend I did my part for Extra Life 2019; I’m out of town on the actual game day, so I had to do it a week early. (For anyone interested, my Extra Life page is still up here, and I recorded my stream and uploaded it to YouTube here.) I thought my stream went very well; I for one had a good time and managed to (barely) hit my personal goal. Best of luck to all my Giant Bomb teammates this coming weekend!

Anyway, the game I played all day, for 16+ hours straight (with some short breaks), was Supergiant Games’ latest, Hades. I’ve really liked all of Supergiant’s games, and really like a lot of their design ethos as a studio. I have been eager to check out Hades for a while, but am also someone who tends to wait until games exit early access to check them out. Extra Life seemed like a good place to just dive in fresh, and see what the game was all about. In short, I ended up liking what I played a lot, and find myself thinking about it and wanting to play more; and this is even as someone who generally doesn’t care for “roguelikes.” As such, I thought I would quickly write up some thoughts from my day of playing Hades: here are four rambly bullet points that stood out to me!

1. Good Game is Good

Hades simply feels great to play.
Hades simply feels great to play.

One of the most important things about Hades is that it immediately feels great to play. I feel like this is a pretty hard requirement for a run-based game that is theoretically intended to be played indefinitely, especially a fast-paced action game like Hades. But right out of the gate moving around and attacking feels great. All your actions are responsive with good feedback, and the enemies themselves are generally very easy to read too. Every now and then the screen got way too busy for me to pick out what was happening, but for the most part the combat in Hades is great. That’s almost more impressive since there are (currently) five playable weapons in Hades, and each one is completely distinct. At the start of a run you pick a weapon, and similar to the different ships in FTL or the different squads in Into the Breach, they offer a completely different starting point. Yet each one feels equally great and equally viable, at least in my experience. It’s hard to overstate the importance of great game feel here.

In addition to just feeling great from a tactile standpoint, Hades feels great in its progression. Different roguelikes offer different ways to make different ones feels worthwhile, and in many ways Hades follows a lot of roguelike traditions. But I think there are a number of smart, subtle things around the edges that help it stay fresher than most. For example, in addition to the different weapons, the game also smartly doles out new mechanics and challenges over time, often in surprising ways. I won’t go into detail at the risk of spoiling (and I seriously doubt I’ve unlocked everything myself), but it almost feels like a traditional single player game at times in the way it introduces new mechanics. There’s a proper learning curve here, rather than just throwing you into the thick of it and banking on the player figuring it all out at once. It’s admittedly a fine line, but I think Hades does a good job at being mechanically deep without overwhelming new players. Stuff like that just makes the game feel even smoother at every moment.

2. It’s Still a Roguelike

You'll see this room a lot.
You'll see this room a lot.

All of that said, Hades is still a roguelike (at least in the modern parlance of the word): you go on runs through very similar rooms against very similar enemies over and over, with death being swift and permanent. Each run yields random drops and rewards, and as such not all runs are created equal. This, in short, has been my biggest frustration with roguelikes at large. With the amount of randomness in play, some not insignificant part of your success is going to depend on factors outside of your hands. In Hades, this mostly manifests in two ways. First, the normal way: the drops that influence your character build are random. Hades actually gives you optional perks that, if chosen, help you nudge drop chances towards one build over another, which is nice. And being a skill-based action game, you can in theory beat any run without any additional help at all. But there is still randomness, this is a very challenging game, and more than once I found myself heading down one build path only to not get what I needed to finish it later. One of Hades’ strengths is there sheer number of different, interesting, and hopefully viable ways to build out your abilities during a run. But when you get a string of unlucky drops it makes completing the run that much harder.

The second way Hades’ randomness frustrates me is much more specific, and maybe a little spoilery, so I’ll keep it brief. In the game’s fourth and final area, you have to collect a specific item to advance. You have a choice of five rooms to enter, and the item will randomly be in one of them. And these rooms are among the hardest in the game. So, if you get unlucky and have to go through all five rooms until you find it, your run has become way harder than if you found it in the first room. Yes, you do get more rewards by going through more rooms. But I always prefer it if that risk/reward choice is left to the player, not random chance. I personally think roguelikes are at their best when the player is making interesting choices between compelling trade offs and taking risks, and the more luck you introduce, the more you undermine such interesting choices.

3. Keep It Positive

There are a lot of exciting boons to choose from.
There are a lot of exciting boons to choose from.

To rebound from my previous point, one of my favorite things about Hades is that nearly every choice you do make is a positive one. Plenty of other roguelikes and run-based games have done this, especially recently, where you choose between compelling positive options. But it’s still worth noting since a big part of the genre has traditionally involved random events where bad things happen and completely screw you over. To reference FTL again, I remember a lot of events where I had a few options to choose from about how to resolve something, and something very good or something very bad could happen as a result. Worse was that the dialogue options almost never gave any indication whether it would lead to a “good” or a “bad” outcome. So I was choosing blind and regularly getting punished for it. Hades has no outright negative event outcomes, at least not that I encountered. It at worst has neutral ones, and even those you know the result of your choice before you choose it.

How does this play out? Every room in Hades offers a reward. Usually you have a choice of which room to go into, and you get to see what the reward is before you choose the room. And then, once you get the reward, you get a choice within that type of reward. For example, one of the rewards is an upgrade to a boon (these are like your powers, both active and passive). These are always strictly positive upgrades, but you will only get to choose among three random equipped boons to upgrade. So you may not see the one you really want, but upgrades are always good regardless. That leads to a feeling of always getting stronger, and that your choices are about what ways you want to get stronger, rather than hoping things fall your way instead of knocking you back down. This is exciting, and encourages you to be curious and try things out, a process I very much enjoyed from start to finish.

4. Story Time

Hades has great characters and tons of personality.
Hades has great characters and tons of personality.

In the long run, I think Hades lasting contribution to the “roguelike” structure may ultimately be in its narrative trappings. Supergiant’s previous games have all been pretty linear, single player, story-driven games. This is compared to roguelikes which are very divergent and often devoid of any meaningful story. And still, they have found a way to work a story I’m genuinely interested in in Hades, via a lot of smart touches around the edges. First of all, the art, music, and voice acting are all top notch as one would expect from Supergiant. They continue to be an artistic powerhouse, and these touches all imbue so much personality and flavor to the word. More importantly, the writing in particular stands out, as it’s easy to quickly pick up on characters’ personalities and goals from a few well-written lines of dialogue. More than that, they use the writing to explain the game’s run-based structure in a way that makes sense, and enables a larger narrative to unfold. I’m still in the middle of this process, and given the game is still in early access, I can’t say where this ends up. So it might be a bust in the end, but I think they have shown great potential for weaving a through-line story into a run-based game. I’m certainly interested in seeing where it goes, and I’ve been delighted multiple times when I’ve gotten new story reveals and advancements after coming back to the hub after another run. And the characters are all fantastic; a personal favorite is the shopkeeper Charon, who has seemingly endless variants of a groan as his only dialogue. It’s good stuff.

One of my favorite little bits of dialogue is how they reference that the game is still in early access: they refer to this as “underworld renovations are still ongoing.'' These kinds of narrative touches are literally everywhere, and show how much care Supergiant has put into this game already. One of my favorite things about them as a studio is nothing in their games feels like it happens by accident, or goes overlooked. They pay extreme attention to detail, and their games feel very complete and intentional as a result, and full of personality to boot. Even in this early access phase it already feels extremely lively, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

What’s Next?

I want to play more Hades, but in the interest of tackling some more of 2019’s games before GOTY time, I am putting it on hold again for now. But the itch is there; I find myself thinking about what different builds might be like, where the story might go next, and wanting to try out the fifth weapon that I didn’t get to try this past weekend. And it’s cool to know that there are still more updates to come. I will definitely play more of Hades, if nothing else when it gets out of early access, but almost certainly sooner than that. It’s a cool game, and it may end up being the first “roguelike” I’ve played that I get super into. And it was fun to play it for 16+ hours straight for Extra Life. My particular experience was varied and exciting from start to finish, and even ended in the most dramatic way possible: I had my first victory on my final run, just past midnight. Tasting sweet victory at the end was awesome, and only left me wanting to play more.

Anyway, I should stop my ramblings here- thanks for reading!

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Gaming Memories: StarCraft

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

In the summer of 1999, my brother and I went to a week-long programming camp. Every day we had a couple breaks where we could chill out for a bit; get some snacks, go outside, or the most popular pick, play computer games. And there was one game in particular that immediately drew a crowd. My brother and I looked over the shoulders of a group of kids gathered around some computers, screaming with excitement. What we saw on their screens was like nothing I had ever seen before. Large, majestic spaceships battled for control of the airways, hardened soldiers and primal aliens spilled blood below, and large, diverse armies composed of imaginative and just plain wild stuff weaved their way around a large, complex map. My mind raced with possibilities, and thirty minutes later I was shooting zerglings with own marines. The rest, as they say, is history.

This is Jimmy.
This is Jimmy.

StarCraft was a revelation in multiple ways. First, my exposure to strategy games (and PC games in general) was limited at the time, so it was still a fresh genre to me. Second, unlike the few strategy games I had played at that point, StarCraft had three distinct factions with completely different units; it’s hard to fully convey how cool that was. Third, its campaign was an awe-inspiring and epic sci-fi tale that saw you control each of those three factions equally. It was an ambitious game with a scope I wasn’t used to, and that sprawling campaign was precisely what got me on board. To this day, it (combined with its expansion Brood War) remains one of my favorite campaigns in gaming. It stood out for its setting, characters, and writing, all of which were (and in some ways still are) well above your average video game fare. I remember all the big story beats, the characters and their motivations, the betrayals and big political shifts. Things happened in this campaign in a way they didn’t in most games of the era. And by seeing the story through the eyes of each faction, you got a sense that there were no true “good” or “bad” characters. It’s one of the first video game stories I encountered that presented a large ensemble cast in predominantly gray light. That was a clear inflection point in how I viewed the storytelling potential of the medium.

But it wasn’t just the narrative that I loved about StarCraft’s campaign. It looked and sounded great for its time, the map and scenario designs were dynamic and engaging, and most importantly, its fundamental mechanics were rock solid: gathering resources to research technologies and build up large armies felt right. In some ways, compared to other strategy games, StarCraft was a simple one with relatively few pieces. You only had two resources to worry about, and the number of technologies and units per faction was not all that large. But each of those technologies and units had a clear, defined function, and you needed different ones for different goals. These were not linear upgrades that saw early units and technologies become obsolete by the end of a long game. StarCraft had no replaceable units, which meant those starting marines and zealots were very much still viable at the end of a long game. In this way, StarCraft gained a lot of depth out of surprisingly few pieces. Late game armies could look wildly different in their compositions, and that led to all sorts of fascinating strategic options. Then you toss in the fact that all three playable factions had distinct technologies and units, and the possibilities grew exponentially. In this way, StarCraft embodied that “easy to learn, hard to master” dynamic extremely well. The limited resources, technologies, and units made it easy to understand for a newcomer, but the strategic depth created an extremely high ceiling for veterans. It’s a beautiful game.

My life for Aiur.
My life for Aiur.

If it was the campaign that wowed me and pulled me in initially, it was StarCraft’s other features that kept me hooked for the long haul. First, StarCraft remains perhaps the only game to date whose creation tools I got heavily invested in. The scripting options allowed you to create dynamic, story-driven missions, and I spent dozens of hours creating my own custom campaigns. But more long-lasting was StarCraft’s famed multiplayer. I was too young to play competitive games on the internet in the late 1990s, but even just playing LAN games with my brother against the AI was a lot of fun. For as much as I loved engaging with the strategy of StarCraft in the campaign, its depth became infinitely more apparent in a multiplayer setting, especially against other human competition. I did get to experience this years later in college, and trade lurker ambushes and carrier assaults with skilled and unpredictable competitors. It held up, and StarCraft stands tall among my fondest multiplayer experiences. Competition was where the game’s smart design shone brightest, and I have countless wonderful memories battling it out with friends.

StarCraft remains one of the most awe-inspiring games I’ve played. It was one of the first strategy games I played, one of the first sci-fi games I played, one of the first video game narratives I loved, and one of the first multiplayer games I got into. It’s a game that sparked my imagination through its artistic and aesthetic design, and captivated my inner strategist through its smart and balanced game design. I get a little wistful just thinking about it and all the little moments that come with it. It’s hard to fully express how formative StarCraft was, how much joy I derived from playing it, and how much it affected my view of the medium. I can’t imagine life without StarCraft, and I’m so happy I don’t have to.

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To Fear the Edge of Dawn

SPOILER WARNING: This blog speaks at a very high level about mid-to-late game happenings in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It's stuff that has been covered in other reviews and marketing materials, but I want to mention there are mild spoilers here just in case.

About two-thirds of my way through Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as I walked through the emptier-than-they-used-to-be halls of Garreg Mach Monastery, my mind filled with memories. I passed by Bernadetta’s room, and hoped she was happily eating cake somewhere. I walked into the blue lions’ old classroom, and wondered if Dedue was still happy serving as Dimitri’s retainer, or if Sylvain had ever changed his skirt-chasing ways. I fondly remembered chatting with Ashe, Caspar, Annette, and many other former students of the monastery (but not Hubert, dude has an attitude problem). I reminisced about holidays, events, and how bright the future seemed with so many bright students working and thriving together.

Little did I know, I would soon have to kill them all.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a case study on the inevitability of war and human conflict. It follows the citizens of Fodlan, a politically charged continent that is split into the titular three houses: black eagles, blue lions, and golden deer (the latter of which was my chosen house). Each house contains numerous students, and when combined with the other members of the monastery, as well as the many characters throughout Fodlan and its history, there are a lot of people to get to know in Three Houses. And what the game does so well, and so much better than previous Fire Emblem games I’ve played (which is all the ones officially released in the West), is make Fodlan truly feel like a living place full of diverse people with wildly differing beliefs and dreams; a realistic environment that breeds unfortunate but unavoidable conflict. Three Houses creates this environment in numerous ways. First, the characters are simply much more fleshed out than before; gone are the days where most of them are defined by a single, one-dimensional trait. Everyone I encountered in Three Houses has at least one substantial story arc past their initial quirk. And many of them turn out to have complicated thoughts and/or motives that intersect with other characters in fascinating ways. One small example among dozens: Lorenz began the game with the belief that nobles and commoners come from different worlds and cannot truly be friends (much less romantic partners), and he didn’t always treat commoners with proper respect as a result. But Dorothea, a commoner herself, pushed him to question what he had originally accepted as self-evident. By the end they were indeed friends, and Lorenz had a new perspective. I was genuinely surprised more than once at the depths of these characters, and consistently delighted to see them all interact in meaningful ways.

Fodlan is a historically rich, and politically busy continent.
Fodlan is a historically rich, and politically busy continent.

Second, you are exposed to Fodlan’s extensive history and geopolitical structure more than the comparable locations of previous games. Right from the start, you can peruse the monastery’s library to learn about a wide array of historical topics: the forming of the Church of Seiros, which is the continent’s central guiding religion (and borderline oligarchy); the conflicts that led to the formation of the titular three houses; an ancient, bloody war between Seiros and a bandit named Nemesis; Fodlan’s various noble houses and their leaders; how certain individuals are born with crests that enable them to wield powerful relics (which ties into Foldan’s power structure); and on and on. More importantly, all of these topics and then some are further expounded upon throughout the course of the game. They are revealed naturally through your interactions with other characters, and just how many details you are exposed to varies wildly depending on which house you choose to join, and which characters you choose to spend your time with. This isn’t a game that delivers every bit of information to you by its end, regardless of context. It understands that the world is a big, complicated place, and that no one person will see every angle of it. As such, every character is shaped drastically by what knowledge and experiences they are exposed to, and that importantly includes you. There are secrets, struggles, and relationships I never encountered in my playthrough, and that’s OK. It made the ones I did encounter feel more real, just as everyone’s limited experiences in our world shape them in very real ways. You experience a lot in a single playthrough of Three Houses, yet it is still but a single view of life in Fodlan.

Three Houses doesn’t shy away from complicated and worldly topics either, very real ones that lead to conflicts including racism, the inequality of class, or the church’s abuse of knowledge and power. And unlike most video games, it presents actual conversations around these topics where the characters involved have things to say and actions to take. They have firmly rooted beliefs formed through their life experiences and the powerful cultural dynamics in play. As the game goes on, and various characters have their beliefs and trust challenged, they decide to act, which naturally causes conflict. The detail in its characters and world make it impossible to avoid the parallels to our actual, real world history, and that’s precisely why these conflicts feel wholly believable. Three Houses is not about black and white “good guys vs. bad guys,” in the way that some Fire Emblem games have (somewhat cartoonishly) been. Rather, Three Houses operates in perpetual gray, showing how people from different walks of life clash in very much the same ways they always have. The (usually strong) writing helps a lot here, which consistently caught me off guard in the way it develops intrigue and reveals poignant information. It’s a game that knows what it’s doing, and likes to constantly remind you as much in clever ways. One of my favorite examples: everyone’s starting class is mechanically identical, but is called either “Noble” or “Commoner” depending on their social standing. It’s subtle, but it absolutely means something.

Garreg Mach Monastery is critical to Three Houses' emotional core.
Garreg Mach Monastery is critical to Three Houses' emotional core.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Three Houses’ new structure does wonders for its narrative trappings. Fire Emblem has always provided great tactical battles, and has always had endearing characters (and sometimes interesting plots too). Yet I never became invested in the narrative like I did here. This is a long game, but that length feels necessary to flesh out a world as complex as this: spending time every month roaming the monastery gives the narrative breathing room to develop. I got to know the characters better as they reacted to every mission. The plot could slowly but steadily build in a way that neither too rushed nor too lingering. How you choose to spend your limited time each month imparts a real weight on the actions you do take. It also allowed for the feeling that time was passing, which in subtle but important ways made me feel like I was part of this world. I became more invested mechanically too, in the way I could manually instruct students and guide their growth in the game’s many skills and classes. Three Houses is much more divergent and hands on than any previous Fire Emblem game, and over time that created a real sense of pride in the students I had recruited and trained. Rather than everyone being hardened veterans at the start, who follow predetermined upgrade paths, we spent months honing our skills and improving. I watched these students grow, both on and off the battlefield, and the effect was powerful. Three Houses took a big risk by adding so much time spent outside of the series’ famous tactical battles (which are still great by the way). But the result is one of my favorite hubs in any game I’ve played; within the large, complex, and sometimes frighteningly overwhelming land of Fodlan, Garreg Mach Monastery came to feel like home to me. I cherish my time there greatly, and thinking back to the early hours of my game is now almost nostalgic.

That nostalgia is perhaps Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ greatest gift and its most wrenching curse, as well as its most profound artistic achievement. As I walked through the halls of Garreg Mach Monastery one last time, and think of all those happy early memories, I can’t escape the sad memories that follow; its halls now entomb stolen time more than anything. The edge of dawn only brought pain and sorrow, as the memories of war and bloodshed tainted the peace we once had. But the lesson is that it always does, and among the characters and history of Fodlan, it finally felt all too real.

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