2018 Sucked, but the Games Were Pretty Good

Well, that was a year. Simultaneously a neverending nightmare and gone in a flash. But hey, we’re still alive!. Constantly exhausted and despondent at the current state of humanity, but still living. Hooray? The role of games in my life has changed due to the paranoia creep inflicted by the daily news cycle. Namely, I played fewer of them, made it a point to read more, stopped looking at Twitter, generally trying to spend less of my life scrolling through feeds on backlit screens. I found it harder to fully enjoy things this year; fully diving into some great virtual world was harder to justify than ever. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s just that there were fewer games that immediately demanded my time and attention the way many 2017 games did. Most of the games I did play came from my always-expanding backlog filled with stuff that is practically ancient in internet time. Those older titles provided some of the best moments in games for me this year - Night in the Woods gamified small town anxiety and young adult angst in a way I’ve never seen before, and Superhot is the best shooter I’ve played since Titanfall 2 - and it was impossible for this year’s crop of games to be anything but a letdown after the glut of greatness that arrived in 2017, but there were a few games from 2018 that made feel joyous in a time that makes enjoyment almost impossible. Here is my top 5.

5. Fifa 19

My relationship with the FIFA series is a textbook case of a love/hate relationship. I play the latest rendition of this franchise every year, knowing that I’ll be annoyed yet again by the game’s design emphasis. I play sports games almost exclusively in franchise modes, and over the last couple of years, it has become blatantly clear that EA no longer makes these games with players like me in mind. Sure, they added the officially licensed Champions League and Europa League to the game, and that’s nice, but that’s the only example of EA remembering that this mode still exists. The same tired pratfalls that have held career mode back for years are still there. Same bizarre line-ups from CPU-controlled teams. Same woefully unrealistic transfers that are far too common. (Congrats to Huddersfield’s Philipp Billing on his transfer to Barcelona.) Same training system that hasn’t been expanded upon since it was introduced three years ago. Meanwhile, anything even tangentially connected to the Ultimate Team stuff (the most consistent moneymaker that EA’s got at this point) get consistent updates and attention. It makes financial sense, but career mode has needed a reboot for the last three years and there’s no sign of this in the offing. To its credit, The gameplay is better this time around; the revamped tactics system does make the differences between different teams and gameplans more readily apparent. But it still doesn’t work as well as you’d want it to, making playing against AI-controlled opponents, which is all you do in career mode, a bit underwhelming. The last pre-holiday patch for the game enacted a widespread career mode ratings glitch despite being made to rebalance Ultimate Team modes. All that said, I’ve still put dozens of hours into FIFA 19, and will only stop when I sell it to get some money back before buying FIFA 20, which will likely impress and annoy me in equal measure. The FIFA games are great. The FIFA games are maddening. The cycle will never end. I am an idiot.

4. Burnout Paradise Remastered

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Saying that a re-release of a racing game from 2008 is one of the best games of the year is either an indictment of the year’s offerings or high praise for a totemic game that still holds up after all these years, but in the case of the last game peak-era Criterion ever put out before becoming just another studio in the EA stable, it’s certainly the latter.

Driving hard through Paradise City, smashing billboards and hitting sick jumps hidden in this impeccably designed racing town, all while listening to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, is an eternal joy. Takedowns are still cool as hell. It felt like seeing an old friend for the first time in far too long. Paradise shows its age in the margins - the inability to set checkpoints would be inexcusable if this was a new game - but the complete package is so blissful that negatives get set aside. The physicality and sense of speed of the cars has still never been matched by any driving game released in the last few years. That there have been so few competitors makes this game even more special to revisit. Arcade racers are nearly extinct, but at least one of the best titles this genre ever produced is available on modern consoles.

3. God of War

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I remember really enjoying this game a lot. I completed every quest, got most of the trophies, but a few months removed from my experience and I’ve forgotten so much about what I actually did in that game. The performances are incredible, but the story revolves around a well-worn cliche about gruff, sullen men reluctantly becoming caring fathers. It’s well produced, but it’s been done before. The two prominent female characters are the dead wife/mother, and Freya, who gets cut down in a late-game twist that does a profound disservice to her character. I literally said “oh no” out loud to an audience of no one when she tried to save her villainous kid.

This game does a lot of things right though! The combat was fantastic, and the open world was surprisingly seductive. The side quests were interesting enough that I wanted to complete all of them, the side characters adding a surprising comedic element to the proceedings. I never got tired of Brock and Sindri’s routine, and the bodiless guide Mimir told stories so fascinating that I would wait in the boat to let him complete his extremely violent tales of Norse mythology. The one-shot camera thing is a bit gimmicky, but there were certain sequences that made good use of the directorial choice, such as the part where Kratos resignedly gets the blades back from the basement of his home.

After God of War 3, I was pretty content to never see Kratos again. That this game managed to give me a compelling reason to spend time with him again is a statement of quality for this reboot.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

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I was as skeptical as anyone when Rockstar announced a sequel to Red Dead Redemption. That first game - who remembers Red Dead Revolver, really? - and I’m so happy to have my pessimism swatted away by the sheer quality of this game. Rockstar’s labor practices deserve plenty of questioning and criticism, but the finished product is easy to be seduced by. From the minute the game begins with the gang trudging through the late night snow on that mountain, I was all in. Their presentation and ability to frame moments in the most cinematic way possible just does it for me. And once the game opened up after that introductory chapter, I was astounded by the breadth and detail of this world. They had more money than God to make this, and thankfully, they used their resources well. From a technical standpoint, it’s probably the most impressive game of all time. I love the painterly landscapes. Blue skies have never looked this good. The amount of detail into making this place feel real is barely fathomable. I drew glee from wandering through the environment and documenting the assorted wildlife in the world. I usually hate survival games, but the crafting mechanics were laid back enough to not be a hassle. I fully committed to living Arthur's life as realistically as possible. I go back to camp every couple day just to see the rest of the gang and sleep in a “real” bed. In its own way, this is the game I wanted No Man’s Sky to be. There’s something intriguing over every horizon. That’s how I ended up a Saint Denis well before the game provides a narrative reason to go there. I went up north into the mountains and found the skeleton of what I think is a Bigfoot slumped under a cliff space for shelter. And I know there’s plenty of other weird stuff out there that I haven’t seen yet.

As much as I love the game, I understand why some people seem to hate it. It is pretty wild that a big-budget game came out like this. I applaud the audacity. I love that a game of this size is comfortable with large swathes of empty space to roam and do your thing. Everything takes time in RDR 2, which can be an impediment to fun for some, but to me, speaks to the larger themes of the game, that this lifestyle was difficult and mostly ugly. As much as the game is fascinated by the cowboy myth, the game restrains itself from glamorizing it. The game repudiates and accentuates the cowboy myth in equal measure. Arthur spends most of his time/life working for malevolent egotists who nevertheless have the power to make him do whatever violent deeds they need to get done. The downfall is inevitable. He’s trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic world, and the ways he bristles against that is really well portrayed. The journal is a fantastic touch. I get why the slower pace bugs some people, but a game set at the turn of the 20th century should be slow compared to modern times. It’s slower than most games, but it’s never sluggish. Red Dead asks different questions of the player than any other game of this scope, but that commitment to its own vision is what makes the game so great.

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have any faults. I like many of the characters around the camp, but the Dutch storyline hasn’t done much to grab me. Exploring the same terrain as the first RDR. Dutch’s hold over these people isn’t especially convincing, and since this is ultimately a prequel, I have a pretty good idea of how this ends. I’m still in Chapter 3 at the time of writing, so all of these opinions could change as the plot progresses. The quick draw system was so poorly implemented that I actually bought a new controller to get better at that system. But I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of what I’ve played too much to let that get in the way. Also, this is a game that lets you knock out eugenics advocates and kill KKK members with zero repercussions, so I can only criticize it so much.

1. Tetris Effect

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Tetris Effect is a thing that shouldn’t exist. There are few franchises where the concept of innovation is more undesired than in Tetris. The basic loop is unimpeachable. The more developers messed with the formula, the worse the results tended to be. That is, until now. Tetris has always demanded one's full attention, but Miziguchi’s direction appeals in such a special way. It's sensory overload for the ages. The visuals are exemplary and clear enough that they never get in the way of the actual gameplay. The songs are sumptuous and more varied than the tracks in Rez or Lumines. But the magic of Tetris Effect is in the way it adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.

For a game whose main directive is to put puzzle pieces together to make disappearing lines, Tetris Effect has a remarkable capacity for emotional resonance. I didn’t think it was possible to become emotionally invested in puzzle blocks falling from the sky, but the game’s brilliant aesthetic makes that possible. The first thing I did when I downloaded the game was play through the Journey, the game’s story mode, in one sitting and was genuinely moved by the implicit narrative about humanity’s connection to nature, and by extension, the rest of this mostly incomprehensible universe that we call home. Finishing the last level of the Journey was probably my favorite moment in gaming this year.

The other new modes are pleasantly enjoyable. Mystery is my favorite. It’s chaotic nonsense in the best way. The online component is also way better than it has any right to be. Plays into the game’s message of community and cooperation.

It all adds up to a package that makes all other forms of Tetris look basic by comparison. So many parts of this game - the visuals, the music, the new modes, the online stuff - could’ve been terrible in lesser hands. What Miz managed to do with a thirty-year-old franchise is an achievement worthy of the highest superlatives. What a game.

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The 2018 World Cup Deserves Better Than EA Sports

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There are few events that guarantee joy and excitement with more certainty than the World Cup. It doesn’t matter that FIFA is run by an openly corrupt cabal of capitalist power mongers, or that the tournament will be in the hands of human rights abusers until at least 2030, or that the United States, thanks to a mix of arrogance, incompetence, and a lack of actual talent, managed not to qualify when all they had to do was beat a Trinidad and Tobago reserve team. (I’m not mad I swear.) Electronic Arts, as the preeminent seller of all non-basketball related sports games, has had the World Cup license since 1998, and they have used the occasion to add some substantial content in the past. Previous World Cup games have given players the opportunity to play through the qualification rounds from the very beginning with every recognized nation in FIFA, as well as playing through specific scenarios from real games. The previous installments displayed an impressive amount of ambition considering they were released mid-cycle for a franchise that has to put out a game every September. But the past is the past, and present-day EA has a much harder time making good games now than then. The 2018 World Cup, added to FIFA 18 as a free piece of DLC, features none of that creativity or sense of purpose. It'd be unfair to expect this rendition to be so fleshed out, since those games cost money and this is free, and this fact didn’t bother me when this add-on was first announced. It should have done in hindsight, or at least compelled me to lower my expectations to the point where this update so lacking in basic necessities and flourishes could be deemed acceptable.

Excitement turned into confusion, which turned into anger, which settled as an exasperated sigh for the developers. All of the expected game modes are here: there’s the World Cup, which you can customize to add notable nations that didn’t make the cut like the US or Italy, a spin-off of the ultimate team mode that makes EA crazy amounts of money, a kick-off mode for one-off games, and online multiplayer. But they’re implemented in the most shallow way possible. For reasons unknown to the outside world, the edit mode from regular FIFA 18 isn’t available in this DLC, so you can’t make any changes to player ratings at all, or to tactics outside of a tournament setting. The list of available players is surprisingly finite - forty for every team in the World Cup, twenty-three for those who didn’t make the cut - which seems like a misuse of resources considering the thousands of players that they could’ve given players access to from FIFA 18. The players that are included all have new pictures in their profiles, which I guess is the reason? It’s dumb either way. Customization has never been a defining feature for the FIFA franchise - the edit mode has basically been the same for a decade, and EA still won’t reply to my e-mails about bringing back the Creation Center - but taking the option away entirely is senseless. The inability to change the default formations or game plans of any team is especially egregious considering one of FIFA 19’s main selling points is a more nuanced approach to tactics that will allegedly deliver on the annual promise of making teams actually play differently from each other.

Not quite an accurate portrayal of Senegalese culture at the World Cup.
Not quite an accurate portrayal of Senegalese culture at the World Cup.

The atmosphere around the matches themselves is similarly disappointing. One of the best parts of the World Cup experience is seeing disparate cultures congregate together and show out on the world stage. No other tournament will make you fall in love with a team/country you’ve never watched before quite like the World Cup. Shoutout to Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Egypt, Senegal, Colombia, Iran and South Korea, all of whom I’ve become fans of during this year’s tournament for mostly inexplicable reasons. But EA’s traditional inability to reproduce that sense of theater continues here. The Icelandic Viking clap is in there and that’s cool, but it carries nominal weight when it’s the only display of pageantry with a specific sense of place. I’m not saying you have to simulate Senegal and Japan fans getting together to sing the One Piece theme, but they could do more than reusing the same three crowd shots with different jerseys. As funny as it is to see a crowd shot of Senegal’s surprisingly diverse supporters, EA could have done more to make fan groups more distinctive between nations.

If this update does succeed at anything, it’s in reminding me how sports games are a mostly futile exercise in verisimilitude. (Verisimilitude being a word I definitely knew before I saw it printed on a wall at the Detroit Institute of Arts last weekend.) As graphics get better with each iteration, the minute details that EA is unable to replicate become more and more apparent. The actual soccer is only part of what makes the World Cup so special: it’s the unparalleled human drama that elevates it into something magical, a quasi-religious experience that allows grown men to openly cry in public with a freedom our masculinity-obsessed society normally doesn’t give. The pressure star players such as Neymar or Lionel Messi must feel during these tournaments is unfathomable, considering that the mere act of watching World Cup games on television with a level of stress that is usually reserved for the latest news story about how the world is falling apart. By the end of the Germany - South Korea game, my hands were shaking so much that I could barely scroll through Twitter, and I desperately wanted to take a long nap. Implementing emotional rollercoasters like that in a sports game are next to impossible - Virtual tear technology isn’t quite there at this point - but a more concerted effort into framing the action as a piece of a grand tournament, and not just a light variant on an oft-iterated formula, could go a long way.

Case in point: there’s a real lack of tension in how the group stage is presented. In real life, the final round of games in each group happens simultaneously so that match-fixing is hard to do, if not impossible. Trying to follow the group standings in real time as teams fight to advance leads to incredible moments of tension and release. In the hands of EA, unfortunately, the World Cup is a decidedly lifeless trifle. There are no live standings to add dramatic context to the final group games. I was playing as Senegal during one playthrough, and much like the real-life Group H, there were three teams with the chance to qualify on the final day. I had no idea what was going on in the other game, which could’ve potentially changed the way both teams played. EA already has a workaround just sitting there, waiting to be used: while playing matches in FIFA’s career mode, scores from other games in the same competition will be periodically fed to you while you play your game. I wouldn’t think that would be hard to add to this DLC, but I’m not a game developer.

A traditional Spanish midfield, this is not.
A traditional Spanish midfield, this is not.

It’s one thing to not add anything new for your one-off DLC; it’s another to not include features that have been done years before. One of the basic tenets of The World Cup is that each nation puts together a squad of 23 to compete in the tournament. It’s like the first rule in the World Cup rulebook. Previous World Cup games made by EA have been aware of this fact and made squad selection a part of the game. And yet the World Cup of FIFA 18 completely ignores this idea, so every team has access to all forty players at all times. On the bench, you can only have seven players as potential substitutes instead of the twelve available in real life. This doesn’t have any effect on the fundamental gameplay - it plays like FIFA for better or worse - but this franchise is built around being the most realistic soccer game out there. Errors like this make it readily apparent how far off from reality these games are. I was playing as Uruguay in my first game, and seeing Egypt start some dude with the number 31 starting at striker for them was a little deflating.

It’s a perplexing lack of attention to detail for something that has been treated as a pretty big deal in the past. The World Cup update reminded me of Mass Effect: Andromeda in the sense that the failures of both games are emblematic of the self-inflicted structural issues that caused EA’s disastrous 2017. Making games is a labyrinthine process full of unforeseen problems and technical issues that leave games as scattered messes until the end of production. EA knows that better than anyone. No one ever tries to make bad games. The most obvious reason for all of the strange decision-making is that the team at EA Vancouver simply didn’t have enough time or resources to make this DLC as good as it could’ve been, so they focused on the visual touchstones they had to recreate, like the new jerseys or the licensed Russian stadiums (Those stadiums do look really nice, to be fair.) As a result, this update feels like a shell of itself, a retrograde product brought forward from a time where standards for downloadable content were not as refined, and the idea that you could just add something like the World Cup to a game post-launch still felt revolutionary. I’ll still play loads of it because I can’t not play the official World Cup game while the World Cup is happening. I have very poor impulse control! Still, it will be impossible to play this version of the best sporting event on the planet and ignore all the ways that it should be better.

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Twin Peaks: The Return is The Best Thing about 2017 So Far

There are so many reasons why a third season of Twin Peaks shouldn't have worked. David Lynch’s last movie came out in 2006. The reboot era has become progressively underwhelming, and judging by the mediocre numbers at the box office this summer, I'm not the only one bored by all the reimaginings. Season Two of the original Twin Peaks was a confused, dull affair that was lost sight of what made the show so unique. A third season, 25 years after the show’s first ending, didn't seem necessary or even wanted at this stage. The prevailing emotion while I was watching the premiere that first Sunday night was curiosity rather than excitement.

And yet here I am, the day after the eighteenth and final part of Twin Peaks: the Return, already missing it dearly. Appointment television basically doesn’t exist anymore, but the show revived this notion with a vengeance. By the time we got to the final stretch, I was planning my Sundays around being home at 9:00, like I was still a teenager imposed with a strict curfew. I had to see the next piece of the story as soon as possible. Discovering which band was playing the Roadhouse at the end of each episode as something I looked forward to as much as any sliver of plot development. I never want David Lynch to explain the meaning behind his work, but I would love the hear the story of how the performers at the Roadhouse were chosen. I just hope the person who suggested Hudson Mohawke and the Chromatics are the same person.

There were so many decisions and ideas that could only be made by the mind of David Lynch. Your beloved Dale Cooper? He won't be himself until the final three hours of the series, trapped inside the body of his Las Vegas doppelganger Dougie Jones, forced to relearn how to drink his beloved coffee or even urinate properly (I don’t care about awards, but Kyle MacLachlan better win all of them for his performance this season). Audrey Horne? She’s reintroduced through a few disconnected scenes with her shitty egghead husband who may or may not exist. The movie that seemed minor in comparison to the landmark television show? It’s more important to the plot of The Return than the original series, honestly. And is there a bigger creative swing in the history of television than the masterful Part 8?

I grew to love the often turtlelike pacing, so unlike anything else on television. The dedication to never rushing into anything led to sumptuous character moments that made a world with interdimensional doppelgangers and talking trees feel as tangible as the laptop I’m typing this piece on. It was a show capable of immense horror (Richard Horne ransacking his grandmother’s house, Sarah Palmer ripping out that dude’s throat out), sweeping romance (Norma and Ed finally got together!), poignant goodbyes (RIP Log Lady), and absurdist comedy (Wally Brando, Dougie and Janey-E’s sex scene) with equal craftiness. I can’t think of another show that could rubberband between moods so swiftly without feeling incongruous - except for maybe “Atlanta” which Donald Glover often described as “Twin Peaks with rappers”.

And on the few occasions where David Lynch decided to make a normal tv show, it was fist-pumpingly brilliant. I mean that literally. As an assertive and awake Dale Cooper told Bushnell Mullins “I am the FBI”, with the signature Angelo Badalamenti theme swelling above the scene, I began involuntarily punching the air like Michael Jordan after hitting a game-winning shot. The delayed gratification of the moment annoyed me at times since we all knew it was coming, but the payoff was perfect.

The two-part finale was everything that made Twin Peaks intoxicating and maddening compacted into two hours. Part 17 was a certified classic. The meeting of the two Coopers has been inevitable since we learned there were two Coopers, but I did not see Lucy being the one to deliver the decisive shot. Seeing the real Diane after spending so much time with her tulpa was great (Laura Dern was fantastic), even if it was only for a few minutes before things got real weird again. The second half of the episode took my breath away with how audacious it was. Fire Walk With Me was pretty divisive when it was first released, and I understood why after watching it for the first time a couple weeks ago. If I watched it without the knowledge of a third season, I would’ve hated spending so much time watching Laura Palmer do things and have things done to her that we already knew about from the original series.

The Return re-contextualizes everything the film says to such an extent that you could almost convince me that 25-year wait was planned all along. It’s the history of that film that seems to have brought Lynch back the most. Part 18 was a typically Lynchian descent into madness. I found it bewildering while I was watching it - I’m really annoyed by the treatment of Audrey Horne, how inconsequential one of Twin Peaks’ best characters became -, but I feel better about the episode after sleeping on it. The Phillip Jeffries scene was already my favorite part of the movie, and after last night I consider it the smoking gun for this entire season. Unnerving non-sequiturs - The insistence on not discussing Judy, Jeffries’ questioning of which Cooper is standing there, the first reveal of the Woodsmen - now act as ominous statements foretelling the fate of Dale Cooper.

As Cooper and Not Laura Palmer stand outside of Not Sarah Palmer’s house, as lost and confused as most of the viewers at home, Cooper shakily asks the heavens: “What year is this?”, a question that seemingly unlocks Not Laura Palmer to the despair of the situation, at least according to the primal scream that’s become so familiar. Cooper, who can’t help but try to be everyone’s hero, overstepped his station by trying to stop Laura Palmer’s death from ever occurring. He’s become untethered from all sense of normalcy, with home looking farther away than it ever has. There are forces that even someone as objectively good as Cooper can’t overcome.

This putdown of humanity’s place in the universe also aligns with Part 8’s assertion that the portal between the violent mystique of the Black Lodge and our own reality was created by the invention of the atomic bomb, a weapon of such destructive power that it can only be used once any sense of empathy has been completely drained. Exert too much force on nature, and nature will show your role really is.

It’s a tragic sentiment for what is almost assuredly the end of the series. Even accounting for the few issues I had with the season, I still love the show for inspiring such a level of discussion and thought in its audience. As the world around us devolves further into dipshit-run dystopia, it felt downright quaint to visit a world where ash-covered demons lurk in the margins, Cheeto-loving hitmen kill in cold blood, and the FBI and the police are still trustworthy institutions. To paraphrase Dale Cooper’s farewell to Janey-E and Sonny Jim, Twin Peaks: The Return made my heart full. It won’t be long before I give it a rewatch. Thanks for everything, David Lynch.

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Finally finished this game

After 137 hours of playtime, I finally finished Persona 5. I mostly enjoyed my time with the game - the gameplay is multitudes better than the last game, the art and soundtrack are exemplary, Shibuya is vast and overwhelming and full of things to do. But I can only say I mostly enjoyed it because the game’s statements on self-discovery and belief ring more and more disingenuous the more I consider it. I blame Ryuji. Okay, that’s not fair. Ryuji is not the sole proprietor of Persona 5’s shortcomings. But he is the most representative of them. To be blunt, the cast of characters that make up the Phantom Thieves came off as really dumb to me. The so-so translation likely exacerbates these problems, but the number of times plans and situations had to be re-explained during the same scene became increasingly grating to my ears. In Ryuji’s case it’s intentional since his lack of intelligence is the basis for the grade-a beef between him and Morgana, as well as the general dunkathon that occurs whenever he says opens his mouth:

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That stuff is ultimately harmless at the worst of times, but Ryuji’s grossest act is far from that. In the beginning of Futaba’s dungeon, the Phantom Thieves enter the metaverse in the middle of the desert miles from the actual palace, so they all pack into Catbus Morgana in order to escape the punishing heat (how great is it that someone put a playable catbus into a video game?). After a short conversation with Makoto, Ann starts fanning herself off before the camera cuts to a view looking down on Ann as she fans herself with her sweat-drenched shirt. Ann then looks behind her to find her fellow phantom thieves and alleged friends staring directly at her slightly revealed chest. Ann is understandably aghast at this and throws them back with the emergency brake. "Morons", she utters. Catbus Morgana then rolls up to the giant pyramid that houses Futaba’s treasure and the focus quickly shifts to saving Sojiro’s secluded daughter.

And that’s the end of the scene. The incident is never brought up again, the guys never really apologize, the episode amounts to a total non-sequitur that’s never referenced again. This really bothered me. Aside from the fact that brazenly ogling your teammate is a real scumbag maneuver, but it’s also tonally asynchronous with the game’s themes. The Persona games, the ones I have played at least, are a longform metaphor for self-realization and acceptance. Discover your inner power, defeat the malevolent opposition standing in your way, save the world in the process. Freedom is the ultimate goal in Persona 5, but the freedom the game believes in still clings to an old-fashioned view of society. The inability to have gay romantic relationships between the player character and your friends didn’t strike me as peculiar when I played Persona 4, but that was eight years ago. My desire to see stories from unfamiliar perspectives has increased, and so has the conversation surrounding representation of different subcultures. It’s still depressingly controversial, but refusing to give players that choice in a game where you decide how this character behaves almost every day feels like a missed opportunity.

Then again, given how Persona 5 depicts gay people, leaving this possibility unseen was the best move for all parties because whoooooo boy is this game a sorry representation of that community. The only openly queer characters you come across during Persona 5 are tired stereotypes incarnate, obsessive perverts who can’t stop themselves from shamelessly creeping on Ryuji’s young body. Their existence is played for cheap laughs, like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake except with a group that is disrespected and discriminated against far too often.

For all of the gameplay improvements Atlus made with Persona 5, the game’s collective voice is disappointingly two-faced. Atlus’ view of empathy is still a very heteronormative one. The depiction of homosexuality in this game is out of step with the rest of the game’s ethos. Persona 4 certainly had some of these problems in retrospect - the hoops they leaped through to make Kanji not gay weren’t necessary - but society has inched forward just enough that the adherence to tired stereotypes feels way off. Persona 5 wants to have its cake and laugh at the people who are banned from the dessert table. It’s still an excellent game, but it could have stood for something more.

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Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch Presentation

Ever since Nintendo announced that they were going to fully unveil their newest console a few months ago, I’ve been working to keep my expectations in check. The initial trailer seemed promising, but after the Wii U became the dampest of damp squibs, it was hard to get too hyped. Nintendo has been running headfirst into nonsensical decisions ever since the halcyon days of the Wii. It was truly impressive that games like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker were able to implement their design vision so thoroughly despite the retrograde online systems they were built upon and the elementary school kid’s toy feel of the tablet. But the Switch seemed to represent a switch change in direction for the company. There was at least an appearance of a necessary realization that the company had stretched themselves too thin, that maintaining two technically deficient systems that didn’t collaborate or even share the same online account had stopped being sensible a while ago. Putting the best ideas of the Wii U and the DS in one place is an appealing concept, and the teases of potential games to come were tantalizing. Don’t ask how many times I re-watched the few seconds of the new Splatoon and Mario games, scrolling through the video as if there was the chance that if I watched the video enough times, Shigeru Miyamoto would manifest out of the air and tell me some great secret about the Mushroom Kingdom that I’ve never heard before (Maybe Wario and Mario’s are the same person after all).

The presentation was an example of what makes Nintendo such a singularly creative and frustrating company. There are still plenty of questions about what numerous aspects of the Switch. I love that the controllers are called Joy-cons because I have an excuse to use the word Joy-cons in daily life, but they look like they were made for certain elected officials with tiny hands. How intuitive playing games with this set-up still seems unclear. The renewed development on motion controls is a tad surprising to me since I thought they were moving away from that control scheme. The idea of paying to play Switch games online seems laughable given how rudimentary these networks have been in the past, even if they’re throwing virtual console games into the deal. The launch lineup, Zelda: Breath of the Wild aside, looks alarmingly barren of support. 1,2 Switch looks like a mediocre clone of a much better Warioware game, and ARMS (again, great name) could be a decent party game, but it doesn’t appear to have anything deeper in it. Yet again, Nintendo appears to be making a system that will lack for system-shifting third-party titles and will be survived by the few first-party games they create themselves. This is far from surprising, but it’s still slightly disappointing to see.

That said, the first-party games we did see were Very Good. The vast, colorful spaces of Zelda continues to look incredibly attractive, and Splatoon 2 just looks like more Splatoon, but the original game is such a jubilant, strange thing that I don’t really mind. It opened my mind to the wonder of what more welcoming multiplayer games could accomplish in the way Overwatch revealed new avenues for a lot more people over the past year. If it was a launch game, I would probably get a Switch on day one. But it’s not, so I won’t.

But Super Mario Odyssey? That's the jam.

I can’t remember the last time a Mario game looked this unabashedly weird. Putting the plumber next to vaguely realistic cities and jungles is a jarring sight. It reminded me of Bayonetta and Uncharted, but instead of playing as a generically handsome white man, or a giant, sexualized witch whose bodysuit is made of her hair, you play as a stocky Italian man. The presence of (assumedly) actual human beings next to Mario raises a lot of questions. Does this mean Mario is a different species? What is the relationship between the Mushroom Kingdom and the rest of this society? What happens if Mario makes sweet, sweet love with a human woman? Can they make a baby? (I hope those last two questions are never answered. Call me a bigot, but I firmly believe that humans and whatever species Mario is should never be physically intimate with one another. Sorry not sorry.) Either way, the trailer is great.

I'm really looking forward to traversing around a pseudo-realistic world with Mario and his sentient hat and wreck Bowser’s life again. Super Mario Odyssey looks like the true creative leap after Super Mario Galaxy that the Wii U never got. As long as he doesn’t kiss any of the human women in the game. That is a step too far. I cannot stress that enough.

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2016 Games of the Year

2016 was a total disaster for anyone who cares about justice, equality, or not being a complete fucking monster. It was the kind of year that could convince one to spend the rest of their life in the fetal position under the whims of anxiety and terror. But at least the video games were good! Due to time, money, and stable Rocket League servers, I didn’t play as many games this year, so this is a shorter list than the usual. Here is my top five:

5. Dishonored 2

Dishonored 2 doesn’t offer much you don’t expect if you played the first game, but damn if it doesn’t execute on its ideas. The beginning of each level is always overwhelming for me; there are so many pathways to go down, so many runes and bonecharms to collect, so many enemies to avoid or takeout via nonlethal means. My version of Emily Kaldwin isn’t a rampant killer. She’s just a poor leader who apparently had no idea that her kingdom was filled with rotten politicians doing everything they could to help a mysterious step-sister supersede her throne. The story strikes a really strange tone that left me feeling more sympathy for the Delilah than Emily or Corvo. But the gameplay systems are so vast and the aesthetics so strong, that I can easily look past that. Thanks to all of the ludicrous amounts of lore and the tender care given to each piece of architecture in the world, Karnaca feels like a real place where people live in. The new powers are great (knocking out a group of enemies with Domino never gets old) and the litany of ways you can complete quests is really impressive. It’s also got a lot of hookahs.

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I love the insinuation that this faux-Victorian fantasy realm is filled with erudite people who hit the water pipe while reading from their large collection of books about whale oil and whatnot. That alone makes Dishonored 2 great. The rest is just a bonus.

4. Inside

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God, this game is a trip, isn’t it? I actually found Inside frustrating to play at times. This writer you've probably never heard of wrote a piece for Waypoint about the Uncharted: Lost Legacy reveal and why the demo, and the whole series in general, has never connected with him the way it has with so many other people. Initially, I had a similar reaction to Inside. The world this game inhabits is disturbing, surreal, and alluring as hell. I wanted to see how dismal things have become in this place, and sometimes the actual puzzle solving got in the way. Getting stuck on a puzzle for five minutes because you didn’t see that there was a second floating box panel in the floor has a way of disrupting the atmosphere. But those moments are more than worth it in exchange for how well the game expresses its ideas. The game can be read as an allegory for control, life in the corporate world, the human body, and even game development itself, and there are literally no spoken words to be heard in this game. Playing through Inside reminded me of how I feel when I watch a David Lynch movie for the first time.That is, confused and creeped out by what I’m seeing, but compelled to go as deep down the rabbit hole as Playdead will allow me. I can’t remember ever thinking about a game in that way. The frustration is more than worth it.

3. Downwell

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This game technically came out in 2015 on the PC and mobile devices, but I didn’t play the game until it was ported to the Vita in 2016, so I feel like it counts. Downwell really put a trance on me for a while. The simplicity of your goals (get to the bottom of the well) and the control scheme (one button and the d-pad) tricks you into thinking that Downwell is a lot more slight than it is. But once you make a few runs through the levels (down the well, if you will), you realize that Downwell is a Russian nesting doll of a game, with additional layers of depth and customization options revealing themselves the more you play. The game is hard as hell, but it never feels unfair or unpredictable. I floundered initially to get out of the first area, but as I played more of the game, I fell into this rhythmic groove as I bounced and shot any creature that had the nerve to impede my descent, creating longer and longer combos as I improved. I realize the Vita is a zombie with no legs and stumps for hands at this point, but if you are one of the few people who bought one, this game is a perfect fit for the platform.

2. Uncharted 4

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After bouncing off of Uncharted 3 and the contentious departure of Amy Hennig, I wasn’t that enthused about the prospect of another Uncharted game. I am very happy I was wrong. Finales are incredibly difficult to land, and stories often wilt under the pressure. But the story in Uncharted 4 digs deeper into what makes Drake so prepared to rip up his life, go to previously undiscovered landmarks, using them as his personal jungle gym, and murder hundreds of people in the search of rumored treasure. Supporting characters finally call him on his nonsense, and it opens the door to some really emotive moments. Seeing Drake’s and Elena’s life when they’re not making death-defying discoveries was a beautifully heartfelt moment that most developers don’t even try to achieve. Naughty Dog even managed to retcon a long-lost brother into the picture in an understandable way. The signature Uncharted staples are still there too; The dialogue and the performances of the actors are in perfect harmony, and graphically, it is the most realistic game I’ve ever seen. The improved stealth mechanics are highly useful as well. I actually enjoyed sneaking around, covertly taking out soldiers one by one, much more than the shootouts. It would probably be my game of the year if not for an elongated combat sequence near the end and the subpar final boss fight. But those moments are there, and left me feeling more frustrated than triumphant. So for that reason, I have to give my number 1 to…….

1. Firewatch

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If you had told at the beginning of the year that my favorite game to come out this year would be something where you wander around a national park for a couple of hours, I would’ve called you crazy. But Firewatch is the epitome of interactive storytelling that only video games can achieve. The game harnesses the qualities of its locale to brilliant effect. In real life, walking through the forest can elicit conflicting emotional states. As the internet and social media becomes more ubiquitous in our lives, being able to go somewhere that is more or less untouched by industry can be a calming experience. At the same time, though, that disconnect from modern reality we’re obviously accustomed can leave a person feeling out of place and slightly anxious. No other game has ever prompted both of those feelings the way Firewatch does. Camps Santo does a great job at making the park feel like an idyllic sanctuary for both you, and the player character, Henry, during the first act. The dialogue between him and Delilah (big year for Delilahs) is great from the outset, naturally making both characters feel like real, affable people who decided that their summers would be spent living in lookout towers all alone for months. But as the story reveals itself, as Henry and Delilah become more a bundle of frayed nerves, the same gorgeous vistas and little enclaves of unperturbed nature become markers of foreboding doom. I was running through the third act of the game not out of a desire to get the game over with, but because I was so nervous about something or someone doing harm to two characters I really connected with. And when the plot finally comes together, I was shocked at how it managed to be relatively mundane and as brutal as a kick to the head in equal measure.

My only gripe is that the pictures I took on the in-game camera weren’t saved as screenshots on my PS4 so those dope potential wallpapers I had are lost forever. But even that’s worked out in a way; It provides an excuse to play the game again. We could all use a walk through the forest sometimes.

Honorable Mentions:

FIFA 17

Severed

Rez Infinite

Oxenfree

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Well, That Was A Thing: On the 2016 Game Awards

Awards shows are always productions of bloated, self-involved trash, but few shows inspire my body to recoil backward with white-hot intensity the way The Game Awards often do. There were a few pleasant moments: Geoff Keighley's speech to Hideo Kojima made me deeply uncomfortable, but it clearly came from a space of genuine affection. The speech from the dude that made That, Dragon Cancer was touching and represented how the modern tableau of video games has changed in recent years. But those moments were life rafts in a sea infested with unadulterated advertisements and corporate-sponsored sewage masquerading as jokes. I’d say whoever signed off on the Sentient Razor From Hell should be shot into space and forced to listen to Duke Nukem’s very timely jokes from the Bulletstorm remaster for the rest of eternity, but that would mean that person still gets to go to space and that’s not really a punishment. Also, the only black people I remember seeing during the show were Killer Mike and Rae Sremmurd, so that was nice.

Regardless, the main (let's be honest, only) reason this show still happens are the game premieres, and some of the games looked really cool, so let’s get to those:

Death Stranding

Kojima’s brand of cinematic insanity has always intrigued me from a distance, but being forcefully untethered from Solid Snake seems to have pushed him to another level. Why is there a fetus in a mason jar? Why is Guillermo Del Toro carrying that jarred fetus? Why is there oil everywhere? How do those soldiers manifest out of that oil? What’s up with Mads Mikkelsen's face? Did that doll just wink at me? I look forward to trying to make sense of it when the game comes out in 2027. However it turns out, it will be fascinating.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I’ve never played, or even been particularly interested in playing, a Legend of Zelda game. The art style of the series is usually dull in my eyes (high fantasy often bores me to tears), and the staid nature of the gameplay never gave me a reason to jump in. But this game seems different. The new art style is beguiling as hell. The open world is more intriguing to me than any other Zelda game has been before. I want to see what that bird-man (not THAT birdman, unfortunately) is all about. For the first time in my life, I’m interested in seeing what a Legend of Zelda game has to offer. Here’s hoping Nintendo can fulfill the promise of what they’ve shown so far.

Mass Effect Andromeda

The first footage of Mass Effect Andromeda was pretty underwhelming to me, so it was good to see what the main gameplay looks like. It still resembles the previous Mass Effect games, but there was plenty of material there to show that this is more than just another iteration. The combat looked energetic and varied, but the introduction of resource management and scouring planets for supplies is what caught my eye the most. Add this to the game’s plot, where you and your crew are searching for a hospitable planet, and the game gives off some serious No Man’s Sky vibes. Bioware has a much better than Hello Games when it comes to making games I want to play, so I’ll hold out hope that they can create a universe that is actually worth exploring. EA still hasn’t shown enough conversations for my liking, but trailers for games this big tend to paint in broad strokes. Action scenes are more marketable than multi-colored aliens talking to each other. Luckily, Mass Effect Andromeda appears to have much more going on than simple gunplay in space.

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Just Played Gone Home For The First Time.

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I remember being intensely annoyed by how highly the games press rated Gone Home when it first came out in 2013. I was twenty at the time, and I internalized the game’s widespread adulation as an attack on myself and what games meant to me. “So you’re telling me this game where you just walk around a house is a game of the year contender? It’s really capable of standing on equal footing with the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5, The Last of Us, Tearaway (shout-out to my Vita-heads out there) and Bioshock Infinite? It’s not even a Real Video Game! There’s no way this is THAT good.” My discomfort with the game, and what it could mean for the direction of my favorite medium, made me reflexively lash out against the game’s success. The price point didn’t help either. $20 for a game most enthusiasts talked about finishing in one sitting was not a reasonable concept in my admittedly immature brain. I deeply resented a game I hadn’t played, and had no interest in ever playing, all because it had the gall to merely exist.

Cut to three years later, and my opinions have matured greatly. Firewatch and Oxenfree, both narrative-focused adventure games with no real combat, stand among my favorite games released this year. So when I saw that the Playstation 4 version of Gone Home was free to download with my Playstation Plus subscription in June, I made it a point to play the game for myself one day. The game’s format and focus on plot has clearly been an influence on modern game design. Does the game stand the test of time? Was the hype justified? How wrong was my twenty-year-old self?

The answer to all of these questions is “kinda?” I didn’t know most of Gone Home’s story beats, but I did recall that the game’s supernatural teases were just a grand misdirect. This knowledge took a lot of the energy out of my time with the game. The Fullbright Company seemed to build the entire game around this bait-and-switch. Between the dead silence of the Greenbriar house, the storm rumbling outside, and Samantha’s exploits with an ouija board, it’s clear that the game is playing with horror tropes in order to provoke a certain level of anxiety about what really happened to Samantha. It’s priming you for a jump scare that never arrives. I’m sure if you went into the game unaware of any of Gone Home’s story, this would all be pretty effective. It tries really hard to make you feel uneasy. But knowing this crucial detail made the whole game feel I was rewatching an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Knowing the twist made the whole experience feel more laborious and vaguely pointless.

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The story also suffered from the lack of active participants in the story. This is where Gone Home most glaringly shows its age. I felt like I was wandering through a museum dedicated to depicting what living in 1995 was like. The sheer amount of 90s ephemera is truly impressive. The amount of information you can glean about the lives of your parents and sister is emblematic of a rare attention to detail. But ultimately, Gone Home is a game that places all of its weight on the story, and the story left me pretty cold. Without any other characters to bounce off of, there was no propulsive sense of drama to anything I was doing. It was plainly obvious early on that Samantha (spoilers, I guess?) left home to be with her girlfriend, and the amount of fetch quest-y nonsense to find Samantha’s locker code felt like an artificial way to make the game longer.

What Gone Home did do was show me how far storytelling in games has moved forward in the last few years. Other games have built on the base that Gone Home created. Maybe I would’ve liked it had I given it the chance when it was first released. Or I would’ve called it pretentious trash and forgot it ever existed. I think it’s better this way.

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A First Timer on the new Tribe Called Quest Album

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Subconsciously, I’ve known I should be more familiar with the discography of A Tribe Called Quest for a long while. I try to be knowledgeable about music from before my time, and knowing so little about one of the most seminal and revered rap acts of all time, is something I should’ve amended by now. That said, I’m only twenty-two years old, and I’m interested in many different genres. There is a lot of music I feel like I need to catch up on. I just started listening to Bjork’s old stuff for the first time last week (shit is fire, btw). Midnight Marauders came out on November 9, exactly seven days before I was born. Somehow, socially conscious jazz-rap didn’t catch my ear as a toddler. After that, the paucity of music from any of the group’s members meant that their presence was never felt in my life, outside of listicles ranking musicians and albums by some arbitrary metric. Those lists can feel like homework to me sometimes, and I’ve never been a fan of homework. So A Tribe Called Quest became very much out of sight, out of mind for me.

Fast forward to 2016, and that eighteen-year gap between albums actually became a selling point for me. Due to the speed and vastness of the internet, albums are very rarely treated as events anymore. But the wait, combined with the untimely passing of Phife Dawg (the outpouring after his death really got to me), made the album feel like it was more than just a collection of songs. This mere existence of We Got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service meant something to a lot of people. The excitement of other people was incepted into my brain.

And my first reaction to A Tribe Called Quest? “Hooollllllyyyyy shit, this is heavenly.” For an album made by a bunch of dudes in their forties, the vibrancy on show here is incredible. They clearly had a lot of fun making this. “Dis Generation” feels so playful to me. The way Q-Tip, Phife, Jairobi, and Busta pass the same verse off to each other would make Gregg Popovich cry a single tear Denzel-in-Glory style. The words are substantial as hell, too. Phife Dawg’s verses exacerbate what a shame it is that he’s already gone. He was so good at rapping! The songs where the rest of the group say goodbye are an appropriate mix of beautiful and sad. Songs like “We the People” and “The Killing Season” would be stirring any time of the year, especially during a week where an inexperienced fascist became the leader of this wonderful country called America. The greatness of this album keeps the anxiety and despair I’ve felt since Tuesday night out of my conscious mind for a little while. I needed that.

The production is generally fabulous throughout. It feels retrograde and futuristic at the same time. Every song has so many levels to them. “Solid Wall of Sound” is smooth as hell. The beat switch in “Mobius” is godly. The daring choices in the instrumentation reminded my millennial ears of Kanye and Kendrick Lamar, especially. I retroactively feel the influence of Tribe’s work in a lot of my favorite hip-hop artists. I have some catching up to do. RIP Don Juice. Thanks for the art.

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I Thought... (Election topic)

I was wrong.

I thought America would laugh at the idea of a reality TV show host becoming the president.

I thought that Bernie was the outsider we could believe in.

I thought that Hillary was clever enough not to blow it.

I thought (some) Republicans would have the balls not to support a monster.

I thought telling blatant lies was a black mark on your character.

I thought presidential candidates were supposed to have a plan.

I thought the fact that he was a bad businessman would put off conservatives.

I thought multiple marriages and affairs would offend religious people.

I thought the KKK’s seal of approval was a death sentence.

I thought “grab em by the pussy” was the last straw.

I thought going on trial for child rape would be a bigger deal.

I thought white America didn’t hate us this much.

I thought we were better than this.

I was wrong.

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