By Mathey 0 Comments
I'm a sad old person who felt real sad and old in 2016. These games helped me cope.
The Thief games are an old favorite of mine, but to be truthful I never finished a single one of them. The number one reason was that those games could be hard as hell, and as was often the case in the time they were made, they relied heavily on trial-and-error. I'd sneak into one of the super detailed environments, start snooping around and listening in on conversations, then inevitably screw things up by peeking out at the wrong time or stumbling into a trap or a guard. While you could try fighting or running away, the lethality of the game and my obsessive tendencies meant I'd often restart from a save - repeatedly. That could get tiresome, and while the games still impacted me greatly, I bailed on all of them.
Also, those games could be scary, and I'm a big puss.
Dishonored is Thief for people who want to enjoy quality environments and characters but who want more options to deal with their inevitable screw-ups. The same stealth play is there, as are the spooky and cool setpieces littered with goodies and chatty guards, but tricks like Blink open up whole new ways to "cheat" your way around the map.
While it is true that Dishonored 2 is mainly a rehash of the gameplay of the first one, I really like what it does, and (unlike most of the other games on this list) I will likely revisit it more than once. There's so much to discover, spy on, steal, and stab, and the atmosphere is fantastic.
Also, the redemptive aspects of the story, at least the Low Chaos version, those appeal to my old sad heart. The setting of the games is gloomy in ways I sort of take as my default worldview, so having options to make things a little better for most people felt genuinely good.
Tyranny is another isometric RPG from the guys who made Pillars of Eternity, and in many ways it feels like a very polished DLC for that game rather than an entirely new invention. Its got the same emphasis on strategic combat and talent trees mixed with wordy text narrative, and as such its not a revelation. What it does differently, however, is notable in its presentation and its execution.
It may seem like a backhanded compliment, but the best part of Tyranny is definitely its opening, which features a sort of strategy game choose-your-own-backstory that not only establishes your character's role in the recent history of Tyranny-land (not the actual setting name) but also educates you on that place and the people in it. The big world map with its playing piece aesthetic and illustrated story points is real effective, and I hope some more RPGs steal its way of letting the player guide the creation of the setting through narrative choice.
Anyway, a more important part of the experience for me was the fact that I got the game shortly after the 2016 Presidential election. Given how much angst and anxiety that mess created in my head and heart, it was strangely cathartic to be able to dive into a world that was perhaps even more fucked up and participate in assorted atrocities as a cold-blooded ninja henchman.
There's some genuinely gnarly shit going on in Tyranny-land, and the evocative art and writing go a long way to making it clear that the world you inhabit is harsh and unforgiving. Instead of following my usual RPG instinct of trying to fix the state of the world, however, in my post-election haze I decided to double down on awfulness.
Get a chance to stop a fight? Why not encourage violence and then profit from the spoils?
Need to get information from a captive? Why not tease a prisoner with the prospect of freedom and then betray them to your horrible allies to motivate his buddy to talk?
At turn after turn, where I'd usually try to reason or hug it out, I'd let my loathsome avatar cruelly manipulate, cajole, and coerce things to his personal advantage at the cost of everyone and everything around him. I revelled in his slimy rise to power, and it was doubly satisfying when he disposed of the scumbag associates he no longer had any use for.
Doing all this was pretty cathartic and helped me exorcise the bad vibes I felt post-election. By becoming as bad or worse than the kind of dictators I'm afraid of in this fantasy setting, I felt relieved.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
I like sneaking around and exploring detailed environments, so I liked the gameplay of this latest Deus Ex game. The story was pretty forgettable, despite its ambitions for relevance, but as a vehicle for cyberpunk spy action it did okay.
I'm not a big fan of the idea that you're supposed to "turn off your brain" for popcorn entertainment. I can't help but analyze even the dumbest b-movie action flick, which tends to result in things like me leaving in the middle of Armageddon. Its just boring.
Doom, however, works real good as brainless agression venting.
Zipping around the great looking environments and blasting away with a variety of weapons at waves of disposable demon meat is just a good time, and in terms of escapism from real life misery, all that gore and guitar riffs does the job. Great for numbing yourself and feeling like a virtual badass.
This game hit pretty close to home for me, given that the protagonist is another old sad person. His avoidant behavior, his guilt about his past relationship, his increasing paranoia about the hijinks around the park - all pretty relatable, even if I'm not an outdoorsy type. I really loved the look and the little details that filled the world, and while the ending may have annoyed many for its seeming anticlimax, I found it quite impactful and resonant emotionally.
There is a certain expectation in modern audiences that plots need to be puzzles that are unraveled, either adding twists to known formulae or providing completely unexpected sequences that also get "solved" by the conclusion. I get it - we want a sense of order out of chaos, of redemption of past mistakes, of seeing a clever magic trick pulled off. But, sometimes, its good to be reminded that a quiet and unsettled conclusion has a purpose - it tends to sink in for me slow and subtly, haunting me rather than hammering me with a point.
And that's how Firewatch worked for me.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I put dozens of hours into the original release of Skyrim, and after sufficient time collecting plants and visiting the assorted dungeons tucked away in the icy landscape, I got burned out. The sense of wonder wore off and all that was left was the repetitive and fairly bare-bones cycle of killing shit and taking their stuff. I'd wrung all there was to wring out of it.
So, when the remastered collector's edition came out, naturally I felt compelled to play it.
The repetition and shallowness is still there, the graphics upgrade isn't that big of a leap, and I don't get much of a thrill out of the story beats or setpieces - but for compulsive, obsessive meandering in a virtual space, its still hard to beat the meandering provided by Skyrim.
Project X Zone
I got a 3DS for my birthday in 2016, mainly to try out Fire Emblem Fates and the Professor Layton series. I enjoyed what I played of both, but the secret surprise hit for me was the surpremely dumb cross-over game Project X Zone. Its a fairly simple tactical RPG with some timed super move stuff, but the main attraction is the fanservice-laden mix of Mega Man hanging out with Chris Redfield from Resident Evil while battling an increasingly absurd hodge-podge of villains from various Capcom/Bandai Namco/Sega games.
There's little to no substance here, either in narrative or gameplay, but the thing it nails real well is being super diverting. There's a sense of fun and childlike glee in the whole thing, and it has enough flashy animation and reference-laden nonsense to keep the adolescent nerd in me entertained.
It won't win any awards for logic or innovation, but it was light, fluffy fun that kept me amused.
Sniper Elite III
You can shoot Nazis in the balls from half a mile away.
So, when the new Hitman game came out and the Bombers started doing playthroughs of the episodes, I was reminded of my past fondness for the series. Dan and Brad's experiences in wacky murder plots were hilarious, of course, but they also encouraged me to go back and try playing Absolution again - a game I'd bailed on after the first or second level.
Something about know that fucking up is okay and even part of the fun got me to loosen up my play style, and the result was a lot more enjoyment out of the whole experience. Its generally looked down upon by the Hitman fanbase - the developers even put out an apology about the game - but in retrospect, playing through it in parallel with the Giant Bomb crew's killing sprees, it held up pretty well.
Like Skyrim, this is another game that has little depth but a lot of density, if that makes sense. You turn any corner in the wasteland, you're likely to find something to talk to, shoot, hack, or steal, and it plays good enough that the cycle is worth repeating.
In terms of games that you can play mindlessly while listening to podcasts, it high on my list - so much time can be spent in walking the post-apocalypse, and I find it comforting that even after nuclear annihilation there's plucky girl reporters to crush on and trusty doggies to pal around with.