Something went wrong. Try again later

Splitterguy

This user has not updated recently.

107 1702 7 488
Forum Posts Wiki Points Following Followers

2021 Ranked

The experience of working through the pandemic was a clarifying one for a lot people, me included. That uneasy sense in the back of my head that my superiors genuinely did not care if I lived or died was validated, as the threshold for my safety in the workplace during COVID was – surprise, surprise – quite a bit lower than it was for my bosses. Like many working-class Americans, after losing team-members and picking up their responsibilities, working through every holiday, accepting low wages, trying and failing to assert boundaries to management from situations as trivial as a day off to situations as important as a funeral for a family friend, along with other abuses from the people who controlled my every day, I quit. I'd finally had enough.

I decided that 2021 was going to be the year I seized the opportunity to re-build my sense of self, to re-discover who I was when I wasn’t working for someone else’s profit. I spent a large portion of the year indulging; indulging in my hobbies, my emotional health, my physical health. I was immensely privileged in that I had a supportive partner who helped enable me to put money away so that I might simply exist for a little while. And ‘simply existing’ fucking rocks when every single day of your life sucked shit for a year.

All of this is to say, as 2021 was my ‘year of indulgence,’ so too is this end of year list, which is not a ranking of video games so much as it's a writing exercise I undertook for my own benefit. Below are a series of indulgent, needlessly wordy, occasionally good miniature essays and blurbs about the video games I played this year, all of which are ordered from my most to least favorite game. I don’t really have much to say about the role video games played in my life, or how the creative output of the industry measured up against previous years. This year I tried to separate myself from mathematical concepts like ‘game feel’ and 'technical iterations,’ and tried to perceive video games on a simpler level, as the product of creative people who built worlds and told stories. Because I was having such a good time, I wrote way, way too much, so if for some reason anyone on Earth has decided to read this, I encourage you to skip around.

List items

  • I’ve been a Hitman diehard since Hitman: Contracts on the PS2, so the proliferation of the series since 2016 has been fun to watch. The popular perception of Hitman as pulp or as comedy, though – while understandable and even insightful as an interpretive lens – has obscured some of the series’ other clever narrative tricks. I think this is something that people miss, but IO interactive have been experimenting with a very similar gameplay tool-set for over twenty years now, and have applied that tool-set towards a wide variety of incidental little stories. People often say that the plot doesn’t matter in a Hitman game, and I understand where they’re coming from, but that doesn’t mean *narrative* doesn’t matter in a Hitman game.

    I feel particularly strongly about this after having read critical perspectives on Hitman III, which refer to the game as a boilerplate spy thriller with sandbox parts - a logical perspective if you’re the kind of player who completes each Hitman level exactly once. There’s nothing wrong with that interpretation, to be clear, but approaching the series as a linear campaign is a bit like eating one course in a five-course meal. Hitman games are miniature libraries of discrete puzzle boxes designed for perpetual re-examination. The format of the puzzle boxes, and the possibilities granted to the player, are not only functional gameplay elements, but also narrative elements. “What will [SPECIFIC NPC] do if I intervene with [SPECIFIC LEVEL ELEMENT]?” is the kind of question the Hitman series rewards in big, objective-completing ways, and in smaller, more personable ways. You can get to know most anyone in a Hitman map – you can hit the gym with some guards in Hokkaido, have a conversation with a stranger about the nature of friendship in Chongqing, do shots with a target in Miami, and sell drugs to the globe-trotting Florida Man in Berlin. In fact, you can even *get to know NPCs’ full names* if you start a level in contracts mode. There are hundreds of miniature stories like these in a Hitman map, many of which have their own little variable states based on the actions of the player.

    So: allow me to extrapolate some of the 'structural' narrative which I feel was missed from this final game in the World of Assassination trilogy. Here's the thesis: Hitman III is a deconstruction of the entire Hitman series as we‘ve come to know it. It re-casts the player in roles which are increasingly functionally and narratively opposite of the series’ premise to fascinating results, up to and including the generally disliked final chapter. In a series that emphasized story – like, say, the similarly-intentioned Metal Gear Solid 4 – it would be better understood by these merits, and (I think) better appreciated.

    Here’s a brief level-by-level breakdown. Spoilers below.

    Dubai, the first map, presents the player with two traditional Hitman targets in a traditional Hitman setting. The player is tasked with eliminating a mega-rich, politically conservative oil baron who abuses service workers in his private suite. The other target is an incompetent, albeit more sympathetic, cog in the machine of the economic elite. The setting is a comically enormous golden tower in Dubai. The set piece kills all emphasize direct action on the player’s part (i.e. there are fewer obvious indirect methods of assassination). The Hitman formula is introduced in its most basic form.

    Dartmoor is, in some respects, an antithesis to the first level. The Dubai tower is a glistening, grotesque example of wealth hoarding that the player debases, a space occupied by untouchable people too enraptured in their own success to see failure approach. Dartmoor is the introduction of consequence, for both the player and for the player’s targets. The level features a picturesque mansion obscured by permanent fog, and is set a day after the untimely death of one of the mansion’s occupants, who have hired a private investigator to determine which of them committed the murder. Dartmoor’s target, unlike Dubai’s targets, is aware that her time as a power broker is coming to an end and is resigned to her fate. Every element of the map exists under the shadow of a destructive act.

    While Dartmoor is as flexible a map as Dubai and rewards a variety of play-styles, it heavily emphasizes one approach above all others: the player is able to remove the private investigator from the map and take his place, effectively turning Hitman into a murder mystery adventure game which culminates, itself, in a murder. In a sense, the player is literally tasked with reveling in the aftermath of an event similar to the first mission's assassinations, and the aftermath of every assassination in the series up to this point. To complete the set piece event in the Dartmoor map is to comprehend the immediate consequence of 47’s actions writ large. This is not to say that ‘did you know that when someone dies there are consequences’ is an act of brilliance, but in a series predicated on righteous slaughter, a sudden tonal shift towards the question of death feels meaningful.

    Berlin, Hitman III’s best and most ingenious level, further subverts the Hitman formula. In the Berlin map, the player is hunted by 11 disguised NPCs who will recognize 47 regardless of his outfit. While Hitman III is the easiest and most friendly Hitman game in the series by quite a wide margin, here it is unusually stringent – mission stories and target highlighting is not available on a first playthrough, meaning the player is forced to act cautiously, as prey rather than predator. All of this happens during a rave, and it’s probably the most singularly thrilling experience in the series so far. The player has gone from killer, to coroner, to potential victim. Our understanding of 47 and his relationship to the world has been compromised.

    Chongqing, an oddly demure, easily completed challenge compared to Berlin, makes explicit in the narrative what has so far been implicit in the game design. The targets in Chongqing are technobabbling psychopaths, but this time they’re members of the ICA, the agency which directs 47 to his targets. While Chongqing is a straightforward Hitman map from a gameplay perspective, it is anything but from a narrative perspective: the final objective given to the player is to permanently dismantle the ICA, thereby permanently dismantling the fantastical Hitman premise in the process.

    And then there’s Mendoza: one last old-school Hitman experience before the end, replete with an extravagant 1%-er setting and two transparently complicit tools of the elite to dispatch (although in this case one of the targets is a lot worse than the other). But even here, Hitman III is not straightforward. Mendoza is the culmination of the ‘cause and effect’ theme from the rest of the game, as well as a celebration of the trilogy in miniature. Side characters from other missions in the trilogy re-appear here, alongside discrete set piece assassination options from their respective levels which are re-contextualized for the finale, and they discuss how their lives have changed since the events of their respective missions occurred. Other NPCs explicitly speculate as to the outcomes from past missions. During one particularly gruesome set piece, 47 will casually reference events from Hitman: Blood Money, foreshadowing Hitman III’s forthcoming twist, reinforcing the idea that this last sequence of events is not only consequential for this trilogy, but for the series as we know it. The actions of the player throughout Hitman have culminated here, in a self-referential soiree, and yet the structure which protects the antagonistic elite, the leaders of whom having been mathematically eliminated, still remains intact. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a job to do. You can’t stop the party from being thrown, but you can decide who will be allowed to survive it.

    Finally, we have Carpathian Mountains, a completely linear level in a game about non-linearity. This level caught most new players by surprise, but it made the entire Hitman III experience click for me. It used to be that Hitman games would climax in one huge, guns-blazing John Wick sequence which would not end until all NPCs were removed from the board – OR, they would end in a final, restrictive sequence like this one. In this sense, the Carpathian Mountains stage is a remix of every Hitman finale up to now. The game goes to great lengths to assert that 47, under the effects of a mind-altering substance, is attempting to retain his self-image on his own terms; perhaps, for the first time in his entire life, he has even bothered to consider that self-image. The player is then presented with either a Nathan Drake-like rampage, in which all of the NPCs are wiped off the board like the good old days back on the PS2, or a slow, carefully-plotted stealth sequence in which everyone, even the main target – in a series first – is spared. The player has been introduced once again to the premise, then forcibly made to observe the outcome for the targets, and then been made aware that the end result stops short of winning a wide-ranging systemic change. Carpathian Mountains gives the player the opportunity, then, to decide what the best next step is, or maybe what it all meant in the first place. Maybe that‘s not the fun toybox we usually get in the new-style Hitman games, sure – but as a narrative conclusion, it allows the player to dictate the meaning of the experience in some way, to “sandbox” the narrative climax, if you will.

    Hitman III is endlessly fascinating to me this way, and when I play it, I find myself considering it’s broader themes beyond the normal Hitman tropes I’ve come to love over the years. It’s the product of a studio seeking to explore the meaning inherent to their work, even if it leaves lingering unanswered questions, and as a result, it really resonated with me this year, because hey, me too. In this new, transparently awful world we find ourselves in, dictating meaning in art feels aggravatingly abstract, even pointless. IO’s intellectual distance from its own series, its willingness to subvert the premise of its biggest hit, its ambition to depict some level of complexity in its game about mega rich class disparity, a game which has up until now felt so comfortable offering a cartoon catharsis via the cartoon-murder of its various 1%-er analogues, is an evolution for the studio. Considering IO’s next project will be another mass media adaptation in a medium increasingly full of them, I’m grateful IO was so willing to explore its own work from such a complex and oblique angle. Besides ending their best run of games yet on a high-note, they were able to enrich their entire body of work, too.

  • I’ve been disappointed in the lack of enthusiasm for Mundaun this year by critics. While any deliberately-paced indie horror title is sure to exist within the margins, Mundaun transcends most titles in the genre, even very good ones, and to my mind had the potential to place alongside something like Inscryption on GOTY lists. Most of the write-ups I’ve seen published, though, quibble about tertiary elements of the game that are unimportant compared to the game’s core qualities – I've seen Mundaun, a game which intentionally disempowers the player, dismissed for its ‘poor combat mechanics,’ for example, which would indicate to me that any lessons Silent Hill 2 taught us have since been forgotten.

    Mundaun possesses two key features which distinguish it from just about every other video game released this year, or any year.

    One: it’s one of the only video games I’ve ever played that is a tangible product of human hands. Moreso than even the animation industry, video games are alienated from the artists who make them because the spaces in which they exist are brazenly artificial and at a remove from any individual artist, particularly considering the default art style utilized by video game studios is ‘realism.’ Mundaun is subversive in this context. Lead developer/artist Michel Ziegler hand-penciled character designs overtop of the game’s models in a loose sketch style. The results are fascinating, particularly in the late game, because Ziegler’s art adds a complicated layer over top of what might otherwise be familiar folktale tropes. The rougher edges of the art style remind us that when we see, say, a yeti in Mundaun, we’re not only looking at the idea of a yeti, but someone in particular’s idea *of* the idea of a yeti. The aesthetic makes it impossible to consider Mundaun without that interpretive framing device, a thematic conceit which only becomes deeper and more tangled as the game introduces a character who can change aspects of the game world on his art canvas, an abstraction altering an abstraction. If that sounds irritatingly dense, it’s really not – thanks to the human quality of the art style, Mundaun feels familiar and accessible. That artistic remove from literal imagery grants an incidental kind of comfort, at least for me, in that its abstracted quality freed me from the burden of having to possess a comprehensive understanding of every bit of imagery.

    Two: Mundaun is a distinct expression of a specific world culture, to the extent that its setting, characters, art design and plot cannot (unlike most video games) be abstracted to a certain extent to feel familiar to a western audience. Mundaun’s Swiss setting is essential to much of the plot: characters speak in the Romash language, a language native to Switzerland which has been largely abandoned in favor of the better recognized languages of Swiss-German and French. Large swaths of the plot center around invading exterior forces which are at an initial disadvantage due to Switzerland's towering alps. The supernatural elements of the story, by contrast, exist *within* that key Swiss tactical advantage, which makes this unique geographical feature an ever-present focus. The quiet, hushed conversations and the harsh, crisp environments feel distinctly of a place. You could tell a *similar* story to Mundaun if you, say, set the story in and around Mount Everest or Mount Fuji, but then you’d have a significantly different end result. You wouldn’t have Mundaun.

    Because I spent so much of the last two years reflecting on why I engage with the stuff I engage with, I’ve discovered that for me, the immediate and visceral appeal of a video game dopamine rush is ultimately interchangeable between video games, and that the games I seek out multiple times I most often return to for reasons *other* than that instant gratification loop. As I’ve further explored my own stupid brain and picked apart what it is that I derive the most pleasure from, I’ve discovered that the line in my head between games I think are great to play around with but ultimately thoughtless about their artistic intent and games that are great to play but compromise their narrative for gameplay purposes is thin. Games like Mundaun are my favorite kinds of projects in the industry for this reason. There is no combat loop that is preferable to an emotional experience – even a flawed one – that sticks around in my head for weeks, months, or years after I put the controller down for the last time. Mundaun is one of those games.

  • I think the thing that really hit me with Psychonauts 2 – and this is going to sound so lame, but I mean this – is how, in such a simple and perceptive way, it felt like human expression. Maybe I’m too in love with it to see its flaws, but it possesses a confidence and intelligence that other games - even games which appear higher on this list – do not. Every aspect of the design fits perfectly alongside the narrative, and vice-versa, and no aspect of the experience feels unnecessary or unearned. Maybe it’s not as ambitious as AAA titles with photo-realistic graphics and 50-hour campaigns or whatever, but it literally doesn’t matter when every aspect of its design is at this level of quality.

    I find myself making excuses for games that contain certain regressive video game tropes, even great ones; there’s always some stubborn, old-school mechanic or two which regress an otherwise great project back to ‘well, video games just had to be like this back in the day’ apologism. Despite its traditional platforming mechanics, Psychonauts 2 is as close to a friction-less platforming game as I’ve ever played. There’s no ‘meat circus’ in Psychonauts 2, because a sequence like that would diminish the narrative. Maybe Psychonauts 2 is one of the best games of all time, or maybe it isn’t, but I think it would be hard to argue that it’s not one of the most *flawless* games of all time.

    Like a lot of Double Fine’s output, Psychonauts 2 is irreverent and approachable, yet their all-ages-friendly stories never prevent them from convincingly depicting empathetic, even moving human drama. A lot of the games the industry puts on a pedestal as great narratives – a lot of the games that *I* think are great narratives – are only great narratives insofar as they’re able to satisfy the needs of an audience who expects roughly 200-500 murders in a video game, minimum, before they consider purchasing it, while *also* delivering a satisfactory story component. I’m sure this is partially due to Psychonauts 2’s semi-comedic tone, but no aspect of the experience feels out of place that way - even the manifestations of genre tropes fit too neatly into the design of the world to be dismissed as unnecessary. It’s phenomenal.

  • No More Heroes III is a stark reminder that video games can actually be anything we want them to, that we're not, in a literal sense, confined by photorealism, power fantasy, and the demands of a mass market. It's an utter failure of the video game marketplace that there isn't anything else quite like it.

    Like the first game in the series, No More Heroes III positions itself as satire of the western video game industry/culture status quo; protagonist Travis Touchdown still embodies the pre-assumed ideal of the western gamer as imagined by the world's worst public relatons manager: Travis is still a casually violent, wrestling-obsessed dork who isn't so much japan-curious as a fetishist of Japan's nerd-culture exports.

    Santa Destroy, No More Heroes' iconic open world cityscape, is this time a series of sequestered areas full of endlessly repeatable minigames, all of which adopt a different familiar aesthetic, ranging from Cyberpunk to a Call of Duty-like battlefield to a garish suburb. Unlike previous games, which used broad character archetypes as end-of-level bosses, No More Heroes III provides a series of 'superheroes' as Travis' new antagonists, although many of them are obliterated before boss fights in favor of a more interesting encounter. That's a particularly mean joke - not only are the primary antagonists in this game evil superheroes, but many of them - nearly all of them - fade away mid-level, rendering them utterly disposable. Santa Destory also features areas where the player can enter physical 'crypto' mines in which the player can literally, physically mine cryptocurrency, as the game now features redundant currencies as part of a needlessly complex upgrade system.

    More than anything, this upgrade system bit is the one that best illustrates the target of No More Heroes III's ire. The original title portrayed video game open worlds as needlessly large, empty, and filled with interchangeable, useless collectibles, essentially an exercise in futility. The core of that game's criticism still exists within No More Heroes III's world design, but this time Santa Destroy isn't empty so much as it's rotten with interlocking systems, distinct sets of collectibles which all call attention to themselves, and automaton-like NPCs. Somehow, it's a more depressing depiction of the format than before, maybe because this time it took hold of my lizard-brain need to fill out a checkliist. I totally grabbed a bunch of the collectibles in the open world, even knowing they were a joke at my expense. 'Watch the numbers go up' design fuckin' *works*, man. You can convince yourself to do pretty much anything through constant positive reinforcement.

    Inbetween the depressing open world bits, No More Heroes III is a wildly vibrant bossrush game. In spite of the fact that the game exists to satirize the worst trends in the video game industry, a kind of 'what not to do in video games' video game, it's also filled with the wildest shit imaginable in the main gameplay. I promise you, by the time you hit the 3rd level or so, nearly every level from that moment forward will show you some minigame, character, narrative beat or sequence which will be a complete and total surprise. There's a level centered around musical chairs which is maybe the funniest (and definitely one of the weirdest) sequences I have ever seen in a video game before.

    No More Heroes III isn't all about the bad shit in video games. It's not all mean-spirited satire or tired jokes about fanboys; it's also a transcendent rollercoaster ride so headstrong and chaotic that it may well convince you video games have a future, too.

  • One of the coolest aspects of Unpacking is that it got so many people to think about game design as an abstraction of human experience in the same way people treat any other creative pursuit. Its format is so universal that you almost can’t help it. There’s a bit in Tim Rogers’ Last of Us review where he posits that that game’s crafting mechanics could’ve been born from a game developer hurriedly sorting through a backpack while in line for a flight. That’s how that mechanic *feels* in The Last of Us, certainly, but on the surface the game very much wants you to consider the procedural aspects of zombie survival, and so any relatable human experience on that minuscule of a scale has to occur via the proxy of genre. The human experience – the airport backpack sorting - in the Last of Us is used only to enhance the elevated, fictional experience of withstanding a zombie apocalypse. In Unpacking, there is no mechanical layer of abstraction required to enjoy that human quality of the game design.

    Another thing about Unpacking that makes it so cool is that its relatively modest scale never inhibits the sense of fun or satisfaction you get from completing each level. I think that’s part of why it resonated so much this year. Unpacking is one of those indie games which are sort of perfect, in that you couldn’t add or remove any content in the game to enhance the experience. It has exactly as many moving pieces as it needs to tell its story, and it lasts exactly as long as it needs to in order to convey a sense of change, growth, regret, and joy.

    It’s also an extremely affecting period piece. As I was sorting through the protagonist’s GameCube games, finding her copy of The Simpsons: Hit and Run flung me back to 2003. I feel like everybody I knew had that game, somehow! Right?

  • Much ado has been made about The Forgotten City’s use of a time loop and its historical fanaticism, but its most captivating quality is that it’s more or less a philosophy 101 course bound within the blanket of Skyrim’s dialogue trees. The Forgotten City is a game about perfecting a moral framework, in which the player argues (via pre-written dialogue options) for basic ethical attributes foundational to any functioning society, against a variety of people who complicate these attributes via loopholes and technicalities. It is a thoughtful, well-intentioned game that forces the player to rationally consider the concept of wrongdoing.

    Spoilers below.

    One of the most frustrating aspects about talking politics in America is that almost every American who argues in favor of the status quo does so with a brazenly ahistorical understanding of their own belief system. It’s much easier to argue that trickledown economics uplifted workers if your only supporting point is to re-assert the definition of trickledown economics, for example, or to argue that communist states always fall apart if you believe any have been allowed to exist, or to argue that Covid restrictions are immoral by making up statistics about the flu. Anytime I’ve gotten trapped in one of these conversations, I find myself wishing I could Final Fantasy-style summon a pure, objective source of information to referee each side. If only there were a way to manifest history then and there, to gaze upon the subject, or a witness of the subject, and finally ‘solve’ the debate.

    The Forgotten City is hilarious in this respect, and probably true to life. You *get to concretely prove* consequences of action in this game, present them to a sceptic, and yet – still! - people’s belief in outcomes is arbitrarily conditional. The Forgotten City is a game in which you get to debate theism with Catholics in a world in which Hades is a guy you know, for example. The society’s moral framework is also transparently awful. People agree that stealing is wrong but are indifferent to hoarding. Outcomes that result in death are accepted unless they occur via physical violence. The best part is the conversation you have with Khabash, who views the Roman depiction of gods as perversions of the Egyptian gods, and who prevents you from using a stone tablet that (for video game reasons) will lead you to proving either his, or their, or *your* argument true by tossing this essential bit of information in a bottomless pit; his faith demands the answer remain ambiguous. Progress of any kind is limited when the collective understanding of a topic is immutable and irrational.

    I think if there were any flaw to The Forgotten City, you would probably most likely find it at the conclusion. Like any time loop game, getting The Forgotten City‘s ‘true’ ending means achieving the perfect solution possible, which in this case is achieving the best outcome possible for every living character. In an effort to provide a satisfactory ending, the game contrives a peaceful outcome from the cataclysmically bad structure of its island of collective punishment. In a year as dystopic as this, you know what? I’ll take it. Maybe Hades, after an infinite of human observation, just ‘didn’t think of that’ until I Phoenix Wright-ed my way into salvation. Honestly – why not?

    Contrivances aside, The Forgotten City is an extremely fun way to explore basic ethics, and the cast of characters do a great job of evoking the problem with lawmaking. In order for a society to reach its maximal outcome, it needs to reach a consensus on what that maximal outcome looks like – and sometimes, doing so means undercutting law-abiding actors who nevertheless make life worse for everyone else for their own benefit. Morality cannot be condensed into a pithy catch phrase, in other words. The ‘Golden Rule’ means little if influential people in the society believe subjugation can be deserved. The conclusions The Forgotten City reaches feel fanciful, sometimes, sure, but other times they feel brutally true. This is a complicated, rewarding game, and highly worth a play.

  • There’s this urge in the gaming community to showcase new titles as representative of the medium as an artform, and such attempts are often embarrassing for everyone involved. A month ago, people were passing around a specific cutscene from this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy as evidence of Games as Art, a cutscene which featured staid, utilitarian cinematography, MCU-esque colorlessness, and quippy back-and-forth dialogue; a clip that featured, at best, an ever-so-slightly elevated take on the most-known storytelling property on the planet Earth.

    If I were to try to convince a disinterested non-game-liker to see the potential of the medium, I would choose a game like Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. It meets all criteria for the ‘games as art’ argument perfectly: it is a game in which game mechanics are, themselves, an act of satire, the art and sound design substantially differ from every other audio/visual medium, and which features genuinely funny writing through which the intent of the storytelling is evident. Being a video game about navigating menus, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator is nevertheless a robust example of how powerful it can be to convey a narrative concept through the abstraction of play. It is a machine with few moving parts, sure, but all of those parts are built with the most exquisite of craftsmanship. And unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, it is able to convey its greater ideas without also, by necessity, catering to an audience of pre-teens who might like to request action figures from their parents for Christmas.

  • Omori began production before the release of Undertale, but because it's a surreal Earthbound-like with a dark edge, I think it gets wrongly labelled as an Undertale-like. Thing is, Omori is the better game in some specific and important ways.

    Undertale is ultimately a game which folds video games in on themselves, and like all games which try to deconstruct a genre or a medium, its major concern is ultimately about structure and the interfacing of the audience, leaving its characters largely two-dimensional and undeveloped.

    Omori is emphatically unlike Undertale in this sense. It is deeply concerned with unpacking trauma using the formative language of video games and of psychological horror. Characters realistically develop over time, and the use of video game aesthetics to explore the protagonist's perspective are more developed than in something like Scott Pilgrim, where the aesthetics of video games are used to demonstrate a character's personality. In Omori, video games are a coping mechanism, one which the player character can either evolve beyond or fall deeper within depending on the player's actions. Omori features two game worlds - the real world and a dreamworld - and the shifting nature of the dreamworld depending on the player's actions in the realworld give the narrative a richness other games in this genre are lacking.

    This is a game which would be very easy to undermine by spoiling its various plot twists, but save for a pretty ludicrous epilogue, it treats the emotional landscape in which its characters live seriously. It's a heightened narrative, but it's not exploitative. I don't want to say that Omori is, like, a profound narrative about trauma, but I would argue that it's saying something that feels informed or honest about trauma. Omori generates a lot of interesting imagery and metaphorically-framed game design conceits around that concept which are really interesting.

  • Halo: Infinite is not a soft reboot of the original Halo, but sometimes like one. It ditches the unnecessary mechanics the series began stapling onto itself throughout its many sequels, and sticks to the bare-bones flow of the first title, in which the sorta/kinda rock paper scissors-weaponry and enemy design were married to dynamic, personality-driven A.I. behavior that was emphasized over an expansive feature set.

    Even so, it’s missing the core components that defined the original title, a game which artfully complicated its gameplay by introducing shifts in level and enemy design that would force the player to constantly re-evaluate their tactics. Halo: Combat Evolved was a bold, genre-defining, planet-trekking experience which quite literally wrote the book on new-school first person shooter design; it was the product of a very talented studio with very little time re-writing an industry-scale formula.

    Halo: Infinite never complicates the Halo formula the way the original did - in fact, it intentionally makes a statement of *not* complicating the formula. In contrast to its progenitor, Halo: Infinite trims the Halo experience to its barest, most playful form, a less complicated, simpler game than the very first game in the entire series. Halo: Infinite is not a spiritual remake of the original Halo – it is, specifically, a spiritual remake of the *second level* of the original Halo, the level from the original Halo we all remember the most vividly, in which the open level design concept was introduced. I highly recommend anyone playing through Halo: Infinite’s campaign to go back and try the original game’s second level if they can. It contains all of the components of Halo: Infinite: an open space which can be completed non-linearly, marines which can be rescued and recruited, vehicle airdrops, and quick sojourns into alien bunkers.

    In other words, Halo: Infinite is a remake of the *shared perception* of the original Halo, a remake of what a generation of video game players *felt* when they experienced Halo’s first iconic open space. At its core, Halo: Infinite is a digestible post-modernist reflection on the “need” for a Halo sequel in the same vein as The Matrix: Resurrections, an attempt to trace the thread tying the franchise together in order to reveal meaning in a series doomed to perpetuity.

    The ‘lore’ of the series – the continuation of plot, even – is of lesser importance within the Halo: Infinite campaign than the question “why do people play Halo?” Throughout the campaign’s many chapters, the protagonist establishes a kind of working relationship with the Banished, one which comes to a satisfactory conclusion in the penultimate chapter. Halo is a series about battling a small variety of personalities, personalities which, unlike other first person shooters, we are encouraged to like. Halo: Infinite discovers that, in some small, convoluted video game way, eradication is the problem, understanding is the solution. The veneer of Halo as a ‘war’ game is stretched to its breaking point as ‘war as an abstraction for play’ is brought closer and closer to the surface of the text, as each of the moving pieces casually assert their role as players in a game and not soldiers in a war; Halo: Infinite casually declines the seriousness of ‘lore’ but not the urge to do *something* with its premise, to say *something* about the experience of playing a video game, and that stubborn urgency of purpose is a refreshing change of pace in a medium defined by lore codexes and regurgitations of masturbatory ‘chosen one’ storylines.

    Of course, it all comes together thanks to the fact that Halo: Infinite is a fucking *joy* to play for any length of time at all. No game in recent memory which has borrowed the simplified Breath of the Wild-style open world has so thoroughly embraced joy in its moment-to-moment gameplay. As it was in the original Halo, the loose, low-gravity movement style feels stellar.

    And then there’s the multiplayer suite, the most riveting Halo multiplayer experience since the original trilogy, featuring just enough concessions to post-Call of Duty, post-Fortine game design to feel rewarding but never enough to compromise the simple pleasures of Halo’s high-intensity combat. Halo: Infinite is the real deal. In an age of dystopia, returning to such a fond memory doesn’t feel like regression, but a rejection of misery. We’re all playing Halo and talking about The Matrix again. I’m cynical as shit, but even I have to admit that this newfound sojourn back to the final era in which mass media was not alienated from the human experience has been a blast.

  • Bowser's Fury

    Here’s a hot take: I prefer the way Bowser’s Fury adapts the open world formula using Mario’s language to the way Breath of the Wild adapts the open world formula using Zelda’s language. I failed to personally connect to Breath of the Wild, because the world of Zelda and the raw gameplay experience of the series are not unique in the world of video games, making Breath of the Wild a game which thrives very much within the box of video game design continuity. In Breath of the Wild, when I see a shrine or a roaming dungeon in the distance, I already know exactly what to expect, and without much in the way of immersive sim-type dynamism, even the basic function of exploration feels overfamiliar. In other words, Breath of the Wild feels like a Zelda game in which an open world expanse effectively becomes a waiting room the player resides in before the next piece of content appears. The sense of a living, breathing space in which you are only a small part is never achieved.

    Skyrim, for all of its flaws, achieves that sense of scale. Say what you will about ‘broken’ Bethesda games, but Skyrim’s dynamic encounters with dragons, its set piece enemies, created the possibility of the unexpected in all moments of play. The knowledge that a lurking, high pressure threat could interrupt the flow of gameplay elevated Skyrim’s world from sandbox game to immersive space. The unpredictability and the sense of a space which operates cleanly without the intervention of the player is key.

    Bowser’s Fury predicates the entire play experience around this concept. While the open world aspect of the game is limited in scope and entirely gameplay-driven, the emergent aspect of a perpetual Bowser set piece boss fight transforms otherwise straightforward Mario obstacle courses into harried, delirious races against the clock. Although it’s simple, it makes the mood of the game transition between gentle and disastrous.

    Ultimately, I think I prefer Bowser’s Fury for simple reasons. Nearly all open world games cast the player as an elite soldier-type, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to play as a hyper-nimble character in a colorful space. If we have to accept this world in which 75% of AAA video games now come equipped with a commute thanks to the bigger play spaces, at the very least I’d prefer the commute itself to be fun, and roaring down the ocean with Mario’s weird Loch Ness dolphin-giraffe is preferable to me than another hang glider.

  • There are a lot of Breath of the Wild-likes on the market, but none of them come anywhere near Sable in terms of sheer ingenuity. Sable uses Breath of the Wild’s open-ended design and minimal toolset to achieve something greater than Breath of the Wild, imbuing each and every one of that game’s modes of interaction with narrative meaning. Sable’s “shrines” are centuries-old shipwrecks full of archived secrets, its “dungeons” are ancient puzzle boxes and religious temples, and its “Calamity Ganon” is a career day expo in which the player expresses their perception as to what it all meant.

    In the world of Sable, people undergo a ritual called the “gliding” as they become adults. During the gliding, they are given a hoverbike and an unlimited amount of time with which to decide to do with their life. The goal is to do odd jobs for various professionals, at which point a badge of completion will be awarded. If a glider earns enough badges in a given field of study, they’re granted a mask and a new job title, if they’re inclined to take it. Once the glider feels satisfied with what they’ve learned, they return to their tribe as an expert in whatever field best suits them, and wear their chosen mask as a symbol of their role in the community.

    I found Sable surprisingly moving that way. So many video games take society as we know it and make it infinitely worse, tasking the player with destroying an exaggeration of contemporary evil. Sable is one of the only video games I’ve ever played with the bravery to try and depict something *better* than the society which exists now. I think a lot of people who read someone like Mark Fisher find comfort in putting words to their own existential angst; ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’ is one of those ‘unlocking’ kind of thoughts. At a certain point, languishing in the understanding that the system is too big for you to change ceases to bring comfort and only breathes life to despair. I’m grateful when a game tackles systemic issues, but the truth is, I sometimes feel like art languishes more than it instructs in this case.

    And here’s Sable, effectively re-imagining society as we understand it, boldly considering both an end to the world and a beginning of something new. I love it for that. This Legend of Zelda-inspired indie game has an objectively more functional and competently designed society than any that actually exist. Maybe I’m being too U.S.-centric, though. It’s similar elsewhere, but in America, we expect children to already understand what they want to do for the rest of their lives before they reach adulthood, and then we have them stake potentially decades or lifetimes of their total annual income in debt before they even begin to work. This is a baffling and transparently stupid way to run a society. Most people go their whole lives withut ever knowing themselves – the idea that one could effectively suss out their entire life’s purpose before they’re old enough to rent a car is idiotic. Sable’s independently driven buffet of life choices makes so much more sense. In a world in which currency-based exchange is tertiary to a society’s economics, it seems so simple and effective to design a world this way.

    Of course, Sable is also a presentational tour-de-force thanks to its sublime pastel-colored visuals, Enter The Spiderverse-esque limited-frame animation style and a subtle score by Japanese Breakfast. It is a singular, inspired experience.

    Yet – if there is any game that’s flawed this high up on my list, it’s Sable. I’ve never been one to fret over technical issues in games, particularly games by small studios, but Sable is unforgivably busted. It’s so eager to show off its expansive natural landscapes, but every tasty vista is accompanied by a cripplingly low framerate. It only gets worse the longer you play it, too - in certain sequences, my game suffered from a *less than one frame per second* framerate. Some items effectively removed the use of my character’s hands when used. Even the pause menu would occasionally leave the game in a frozen, purgatorial state. At least on Xbox One X, Sable is an exceptionally poor experience, and the game’s minimalist world design and sometimes deathly quiet audio made me feel like I was playing an unfinished game.

    It’s a shame, because there are so many good things to say about Sable – but every single one of them comes with a huge caveat. Sure, Sable’s vision of the world feels fresh and revolutionary, but the camera might fall asleep and stick itself in some sand dune forever, or the pause menu might render your character functionally dead. The promise of Sable, then, is distinct from the experience of Sable, and even at that layer of abstraction, that still makes for an inspirational experience.

  • Scarlet Nexus is two thirds a GOTY contender and one third exactly as nonsensically anime as it looks on the box. Because it’s been so overlooked this year, I feel compelled to try and sell it. Here’s a run-on sentence pitch: Scarlet Nexus is a flashy, over-stimulating Platinum Games-like which marries Persona-style social linking and Mass Effect-style post-mission hangout hubs, all set in a semi-Starship Troopers-esque cyberpunk dystopia.

    Conversely, Scarlet Nexus is also one of those games I really love that I also can’t recommend to anyone point blank, as it perpetually does more with its narrative than it could possibly hope to handle. I therefore feel obligated to share some qualifiers before discussing what it is I like so much in this tactical gifting/brain-eating warfare simulator: it’s got a fantastic premise, but the final act of the story is a parade of melted, Earth-shattering non-sequitors. The combat is much better than you’d expect, but all of it occurs in needlessly spacious, function-first dungeon-crawler corridors. You will *believe* you understand what Scarlet Nexus is about until you hit the end of the fourth chapter, at which point the game ties itself into a completely different thematic knot. Until you hit the fifth chapter, at which point another interminable lore dump shifts the focus *again,* until you hit the *sixth* chapter, and – well, you get the idea. If you like a game to bewilder you, Scarlet Nexus will do so, and it will do so frequently.

    The reason why I love Scarlet Nexus has a lot to do with the ‘successfully contemporary vision of a Starship Troopers-influenced dystopia’ part I brought up in the first paragraph. Last year’s most infamous flop, Cyberpunk 2077, got me to do some reflecting on why I care about cyberpunk in the first place. It’s a genre which emerged from the collective paranoia of the nuclear near-miss atmosphere in the 1980s, and as such seemed tailor-made to be re-used as a media explainer of our contemporary miseries. Yet, most contemporary cyberpunk media feels either too detached from the current moment or too transparently an attempt at catering to nostalgia for the movie Blade Runner. So what use is the cyberpunk genre, which demands a sharp eye for social or political outcomes, if the people making cyberpunk are no longer forward-thinking? After all, the first cyberpunk media I really fell in love with was Cowboy Bebop, a show I had assumed would be an evergreen example of the genre’s potential which was itself adapted by Netflix into its own Cyberpunk 2077-esque catastrophe.

    Scarlet Nexus, a game which goes for narrative Hail Mary passes literally every single time the plot develops, resolves this dilemma. To Scarlet Nexus, contemporary cyberpunk is a teenage soldier failing to assassinate a person and then angst-fully blocking that person on their brain cell phone because their would-be victim’s text messages are too depressing. Cyberpunk is the miraculous symbiosis of human brain and space-age tech resulting in a society which sees pop-up ads on every flat surface in the world, rendering entire cities into the equivalent of your hometown’s local newpaper’s ancient ad-monetized website. Cyberpunk is a soundtrack filled with pretty good video game music which, for no reason at all, explodes into a mesmerizing sax solo or electro-death metal percussion without warning. Cyberpunk is being menaced by the largest, most vaginal enemy design in the history of video games within a bunker-sized, human-shaped megacomputer, and then, without the slightest glimmer of self-awareness, cheerfully announcing to your comrades that you feel like going home to hang out and watch TV, and then fixating on the TV part instead of the Godzilla vagina which almost obliterated you a few hours ago.

    In other words, Scarlet Nexus’ cyberpunk is the persistence of the human spirit despite the corruption of life by invasive and dystopic artificial misery. Scarlet Nexus doesn’t reveal much about how 2021 feels, maybe, in the way Blade Runner may have felt prescient in 1982, but it *does* illustrate the potential catharsis of a genre otherwise dominated by creators who use it to look backwards instead of forwards.

  • What a hilarious, inspired, wild video game Resident Evil Village is. Mechanically it’s a pastiche of every popular game in the series: it’s got the viscerally gross first person violence for fans of Resident Evil 7, a suspiciously pristine centuries-old mansion for fans of the original Resident Evil, a rewarding combat/reward loop for fans of Resident Evil 4, and a straight up rip-off of P.T. for fans of...uh, P.T.

    I usually disengage when I feel a studio intentionally retread old design ideas like this, especially if it’s a naked nostalgia play, but Resident Evil Village is different. If on a game design level Village is over-familiar, on an aesthetic level Village is the weirdest contemporary Resident Evil game by an extreme margin. It may surprise you to learn that the enormous rich lady with knife hands is *not* the wildest imagery in this game. In fact, the enormous rich lady with knife hands is the most traditional antagonist in the game. It feels like the Resident Evil team made a blood pact to make every single new area as indescribably weird as humanly possible. Even when a new enemy type or character doesn’t work, it almost doesn’t matter on a first playthrough because the game places you so far on your back-foot that you’re just trying to keep pace.

    I’m perfectly fine with a game – especially a game from a big, AAA franchise like this – playing it safe on gameplay level if it means they’re going to get this weird with every other aspect of its design. Village is a huge success *because* it’s such an intentionally sloppy combination of ideas, which is a lot more than I could say for most other major video game series’ that are this long in the tooth.

  • It’s a shame Boyfriend Dungeon was briefly the discourse du jour, as it shut down conversation around what the game does in favor of what a game in this format should be “allowed” to do. And it does a lot more than you’d think! Boyfriend Dungeon isn’t just a campy, female gaze-y Dream Daddy-like. This game, at its core, is about the *full* experience of dating. It’s about fleeting encounters, unfolding vulnerabilities, finding your own line between a casual sexual relationship and feeling like you’ve been used. It’s about navigating gaps in age and maturity, making yourself vulnerable for better and for worse. More than anything else, Boyfriend Dungeon is about boundaries: where they are drawn, why they are drawn, the hurt that develops when they are transgressed, and the importance of asserting them.

    It’s also a Hades-like dungeon crawler which utilizes the Persona social link system, which is pretty neat. There was some response to this game which indicated a mass displeasure that Boyfriend Dungeon was more than what it appeared to be, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. This is a really good game! If nothing else, I think it really captures the bittersweet thrill of short-term romances. And also of obliterating your own anxieties with a small arsenal of medieval weaponry.

  • Murder on Eridanos

    This was a huge surprise this year. I get the feeling like the pandemic fractured Obsidian’s workflow, as this stellar expansion came out two full-on years later than what, I assume, was planned. Murder on Eridanos is the pint-sized addition to the original game’s campaign that I wished Peril on Gorgon was. It leans way more heavily into The Outer Worlds’ color-blind friendly Seussian pastels, and features a galactic mega hotel for the super-rich in the middle of a hostile, anachronistically hot pink alien planet. You come to find that workers on the planet have been infected by a disgusting slug parasite which contorts their faces into a perpetual Joker grin and transforms them into cultishly obsequious customer service representatives. That’s the kind of premise I like to see for a questline in The Outer Worlds!

    Peril on Gorgon felt a little grim for me, and a little too ‘crawl around some nondescript warehouses’ considering the otherwise colorful personality of the rest of the game. Murder on Eridanos is able to do more, with more. While The Outer Worlds was largely concerned with the miserable state of the working class in a society driven by untethered capitalism, Murder on Eridanos is more specifically about the relationship between service workers and those they service. It’s also got a pretty fun murder mystery plot to speech-check your way through. If you, like me, have missed Obsidian’s more tactile take on the Bethesda-style open world RPG, I’d say this expansion is worth the money and time.

  • Supermassive Games’ anthology series gets exponentially better with each entry. While House of Ashes is a bit more esoteric than its predecessors and therefore a little less gleefully absurd, I’d say it’s a minor miracle they were able to pull this one off. Unlike Man of Medan’s haunted warship or Little Hope’s take on the Salem Witch Trials, House of Ashes is a period piece about the early stages of the US invasion of Iraq. And honestly – I'm going to pause here for a moment to just say – that's WILD, man, what a bold move. They go so far as to cast you as an Iraqi soldier at odds with the US troops, and they – wait for it – don't tokenize or villainize him! In fact, in one particularly ingenious sequence, House of Ashes illustrates the catastrophic potential of any given US soldier by forcing the player into quick time events where both the character *and* the player assume they are under threat where no threat exists. I’m getting outside of the purview of this list, but I have to say, after seeing the viral clips from CBS’ transparently propagandistic “United States of Al,” it’s genuinely hilarious that Bandai Namco produced a more realistic and considered portrayal of the Iraq War than CBS with their annual horror anthology series. I mean, I don’t know what to do with that, but – hilarious.

    I’ll admit, House of Ashes falls apart during its third act due to a *very* Shyamalan-ian twist, and some of the facial mocap tech that felt so dynamic during the release of Until Dawn feels like an uncanny valley nightmare in 2021. The Dark Pictures Anthology still isn’t perfect yet, in other words, but with House of Ashes the series has gone from ‘it’s fun, if you like that kind of thing!’ to ‘I think I’d recommend this series to anyone with at least a minor interest in horror series.’ If season 1’s final episode keeps up this trend, Supermassive Games will start feeling less like fun surprises than hotly anticipated tentpole moments in the year for me.

  • Deathloop is the Arkane game in moderation.

    It's got Dishonored's world-class power-set, but only two of the half-dozen or so abilities are usable at a time. This has a two-fold effect: for one, it makes PVP combat more intense by limiting the potential countermoves the player character has. On the other hand, it makes *most* of the available moves basically null, at least for me. It's really hard to want to experiment with, say, telekinesis or increased damage output when doing so might mean removing blink, a teleportation power than fundamentally improves every aspect of the game experience by making the full gameworld easily navigable.

    It's got the same im-sim philosophy of world-building, in which level and narrative design fit in perfect synch with one another, but the verbs available to the player to interact with that space are limited, essentially, to "kill," and even then, "kill" is a heavily conditional concept in the world of Deathloop. In Dishonored, minimizing violence meant minimizing social discord, which, in practice, altered the behavior of NPCs and important characters. In Deathloop, all the unnamed NPCs are quite literally faceless psychopaths who act as fodder to be dispensed of by the player. The only dynamics which change from run to run are the number and placement of NPCs. That's it.

    Deathloop's also got the high-concept mashup of parallel aesthetic movements that Dishonored and Prey had. Dishonored mashed steampunk and 19th century-era London together, Prey mashed turn-of-the-century retro-futurism with contemporary sci-fi horror; Deathloop combines the color and candor of hypercolorful 1960's pop art with the contemporary James Bond film. I think Deathloop features a more inspired combination of aesthetic traits, for its part, but it's a shame that it's style gets personified by probably the weakest cast of antagonists in the studios history.

    Most disappointingly, Deathloop borrows from Prey: Mooncrash's run-based, rogue-like structure, and *limits* the potential of that game's systems rather than expanding on them. Whereas Mooncrash placed hard limitations on a given character's abilities and provided progressive challenges from one run to the next, Deathloop, in spite of using the narrative framework of an endless timeloop, actually ends up making a more linear experience than it's expansion pack-based forebear.

    Mooncrash encouraged me to utilize the full suite of combat and movement options at my disposal to finally complete a 'perfect' run, and had a genuinely interesting narrative framework to justify it's repetition. Because Mooncrash randomized so much of the game's various threats and obstacles, each run felt totally distinct from the next, particularly once the difficulty started ramping up.

    Deathloop, by contrast, is all about leveling up so many moves and weapons that the nature of the run-based format no longer matters. To win at Deathloop, the player doesn't need to use ingenuity or craft unique solutions to the problems presented to them; ;rather, the player essentially eliminates choice by making a hyper-functional set of equipment and finding the 'correct' set of circumstances which the game necessitates to earn the ending.

    All in all, I liked Deathloop - at least, I liked it up to the point where it made good on its potential as a AAA roguelike or an Arkane immersive sim. It's Dishonored, but only a little, and so I liked it only a little. Really, it's like bowling with the bumper lanes on. It's fun but the process is practically automated.

  • As a prestige racing sim, Forza Horizon 5 is equal to Forza Horizon 4 in many respects. It’s got the same stellar suite of accessibility options, the same impossible balance between arcade thrill and simulation, the same gratuitous dopamine-drip rewards scheme. Forza Horizon 4 was the first racing title I sank serious time into, and I’m happy to echo the same sentiment as everyone else – 5 is a butt-ton of fun, too.

    Yet, for all it’s splendor, it’s also a bit...well, it’s a bit much. I appreciate Horizon’s almost creepy desire to placate the player at each and every moment, because the relentless positivity is such a fun mixture with the weight-y, complicated mechanics. However, it turns out, there’s a thin line between relentless positivity and *relentless* positivity. In the world of Forza Horizon 5, every single person you meet – including the player character, who now has a speaking role in a series first – is your summer camp’s most agonizing youth pastor. Everyone is so chirpy, so irrepressibly gobsmacked by the player. Do anything with a car in Forza Horizon 5, anything at all, and these cult-like freaks will slobber over you with words that *sound* like compliments but *feel* like aggravated assault. A woman will lend you her grandfather’s car, ask you to drive it down a road, you’ll instead drive it through a guardrail and into a lake, and she’ll tell you that you are the automotive industry’s gift to mankind as she hands you a $10,000 check. It’s *scary,* like the entire world of Forza Horizon exists within the fumes of a planetary gas leak.

    The moment Forza Horizon 5 goes from annoying to actually infuriating is when you realize they’ve compromised the entire open world experience of their open world game for the sake of AAA presentation – and that their AAA presentation happens to be accompanied by members of The Cult of Forza. Forza Horizon 5 is really, really eager to get you playing it’s epic, dialogue-heavy set piece races, to the extent that you can only squeeze 3-5 regular races/challenges in the open world at any given time before the game will – no joke! – *literally slam the emergency break on your car as you’re driving it,* slap an event unlock menu on-screen, and shriek, ‘TIME FOR AN EVENT UNLOCK, COMPADRE!’ with an emotional investment in your time that borders on hostility. It feels weird to have to ask, out loud, for a video game to *please stop calling you* while you are playing itself, but this is the situation.

    When it shuts the fuck up, Forza Horizon 5 is a really, really fun time. When it *doesn’t* shut the fuck up, it's the most unsettling experience of your entire life.

  • The Artful Escape alternates between two modes: delirious celebration of the self and pompous reflections on the merits of popular art vs. foundational art movements. I like it more when it’s going for broke with its galactic space opera coming-of-age indulgences than when the game gets quieter and I can hear it better. Most if not all of The Artful Escape’s cast are in an identical headspace to your average art school student at the end of their freshman year, which is a *great* personality type to make art with, and an excruciating personality type to *discuss* art with.

    This is a game with a big personality, and like anything with big personality, a little of it goes a long way. Certain sequences from this game really stuck with me, but sometimes in spite of the rest of the game and not because of the rest of the game. It’s fun ride, but as far as linear narrative side-scrollers go, there’s a lot more hype than content, here.

  • 10th and 11th Seasons

    It feels a bit perfunctory to place ApeLegs’ 2021 season on this list as they didn’t add anything that revolutionizes the experience, but it was a big enough part of my year that I feel like it would be disingenuous not to include it. Seer, the Lil Nas X-lookalike with the Kung Lao hat, was a super fun addition to Apex’s cast of brand-friendly, market-tested weirdos. The battle pass is mathematically perfect, which especially stood out once I abandoned the game to try out Halo. Continuing to make an excellent, easy-to-pick-up shooter that functions like a well-oiled machine doesn’t usually earn a top spot on end of the year lists, but I still feel like Apex Legends is the best battle royale title around.

  • I was pretty hyped for The Ascent, what with its hand-crafted cyberpunk messiness and its easy-to-fathom Smash TV gameplay, but I only felt compelled to spend a few hours with it. It gets cyberpunk genre conventions right, I’ll give it that, but at a certain point, perfecting a trope doesn’t get you past relying on a trope to convey a concept. The Ascent’s fatal flaw is that it executes on its dystopia with a painstaking craft but with little purpose or panache. The devil is in the details with projects like these, so maybe the game subverts expectations at some point or uses its over-familiar neon parts to build something new later, but games aren’t lacking in cyberpunk stuff lately, and you need to do a bit more with the idea to stand out.

  • Virginia, Variable State’s first game, was a surreal, dialogue-less Twin Peaks-like that left me with some lingering questions about the studio after completing it. As far as video game takes on Twin Peaks goes, I thought Virginia was pretty good. That said, Twin Peaks is a show which absolutely leaks metaphoric imagery, and I’m not always convinced that artists in the video game industry have the bravado or the inclination to match Twin Peaks’ narrative density so much as they want to echo Twin Peaks’ hazy, catchy visual non-sequitors. Virginia was a game that fit into that camp for me – I couldn’t quite get a read on how deeply Variable States wanted me to perceive their similar magical realist project. Were Virginia’s dream-state visuals as straightforward as they appeared, or was I one step behind?

    The Last Stop, a Tell-Tale-style adventure game with multiple primary storylines and one absolutely bonkers late-game plot twist, clarified some of these questions for me. It is Virginia’s opposite in every way that matters, but it similarly hides its otherwise straightforward plot behind an arbitrarily complicated narrative structure. The Last Stop’s three plotlines are told via discrete episodes which occur non-chronologically between each protagonist. None of the individual stories are particularly interesting by themselves, which is key: Variable States aren’t blazing any new ground with their seemingly complicated plotlines, but those complicated plotlines are really just an excuse to enshrine much simpler character-driven stories in a genre fiction wrapper.

    So, how does The Last Stop do with its characters? It’s a mixed bag, I’d say. There’s Donna, the precocious teen who finds herself within the extraordinary circumstance of having kidnapped a demonic serial abducter. Donna’s plot is the most extreme, and she has the least personality of the protagonists, so her chapters are pretty uneven. There’s John, the middle-aged single dad, who gets into a Freaky Friday-type body-swap with a younger, fitter yuppie-type. I can’t say I *loved* John’s storyline, as it’s a pretty basic copy-paste of other comedies in the genre, but I also credit Variable States’ willingness to provide starring roles to normal people like this, which is a rarity in video games.

    Then there’s Meena. I like Meena quite a bit. She’s a James Bond, Don Draper-type with an insidious government job and a stable family she avoids like the plague. Despite the fact that Meena is the more average ‘video game’ character compared to John and Donna, she’s far and away the most fascinating character in the game. ‘Problematic sex-addicted person in power’ is a character-type almost entirely inhabited by traditionally attractive men, and the gender swap alone raises interesting diversions in the trope. It also helps that Meena is sort of a bad person driven by selfish motives, as the story choices the player is given go from ‘should I be a normal person or a piece of shit?’ to ‘what bad action will lead to the least bad outcome?’

    The Last Stop is a good, if imperfect, narrative adventure game. Too much of The Last Stop is recycled content, and the story goes completely off the rails – just, unequivocally insane off the rails – by the third act, but the pockets of the game that shine *really* shine.

  • While I haven’t connected with all of Swery’s work, I’m a pretty big Deadly Premonition fan. That game did something really fascinating to me that I haven’t seen executed on nearly as well as other titles. Despite the fact that Deadly Premonition is a Twin Peaks-mimicking Resident Evil-like, it has this vast open world simulacrum of a small midwestern town in which its townspeople all operate on rigid and consistent daily routines. For all the gripes about the game’s transparently measly budget and its baffling shooting mechanics, its attention to detail in its open world is second to none. For example: some of the townspeople work in businesses, but they don’t all work at the same time or on every day. Different townspeople work different shifts at the same jobs, and do different tasks on their days off, a granular attention to detail I still haven’t seen in another game of its scope. For all its faults, Deadly Premonition featured a uniquely complete vision of an open world that way, a functionally perfect clockwork space in which concessions are rarely made for video game purposes.

    The Good Life, then, feels like spiritual sequel to that specific slice of the Deadly Premonition experience, except this time the town is a small, rural, British community, and the horror-shooter mechanics have been replaced with photo-journalism. Like Deadly Premonition, The Good Life features a large clockwork world in which many bizarre side-characters live. Eating, sleeping, and bathing will affect your appearance and other peoples’ attitudes towards you. There are dozens of miniature quests, and a murder mystery with which to solve.

    The ingredients are all there, but...as much as I hate to say it, The Good Life is a painfully slow, clunky attempt at building an accessible open world. Too many of the objectives are fetch quests which last way, wayyy too long thanks to the game’s archaic approach to exploration. An alarming percentage of my time with The Good Life consisted of me tilting the analogue stick upwards in complete silence. Even though the town parts and the photography parts seem really cool, playing the game itself feels like such a chore.

    I keep returning to The Good Life hoping I’ll finally get past the slog and get myself into a loop where things move a bit faster, but that’s made the game into a kind of homework simulator. I’ll probably keep at it.

  • What Comes After

    What Comes After is cute, but it’s formulaic. The protagonist takes a train (during COVID, as evidenced by the uniformity of masks), dozes off, and finds herself in a train-shaped purgatory, in which she speaks to a bunch of ghosts who dispense life lessons. As this is an entirely narrative side-scroller, the success of What Comes After hinges on its writing. This is a toughie, as the dialogue is imperfectly translated into English, and a lot of the characters come off as strangely blunt and robotic. The heart is there, but lacking expressive dialogue, What Comes After feels incomplete. It’s the video game equivalent of a thank you note at work, or a Christmas card without a note.

  • I’m about to be really mean about Life is Strange: True Colors, so before I dig in, please understand that I’m a *massive* fan of the series. LiS 1 and 2 are both in my top 100 games of all time, and Tell Me Why, an LiS game in all but branding, is in my top 250 of all time. Before the Storm excepted, I’ve had a strong personal attachment to each game in the series so far, and even then I mostly enjoyed Before the Storm. The corny, just barely self-aware dialogue is a feature of the series and not a bug, as far as I’m concerned. When I hear Chloe christen Max as “hella badass,” I clap like a seal.

    All of this is to say: I am embarrassed by the quality of writing – specifically, the characterization and banter - in Life is Strange: True Colors. The kinds of early twentysomethings who populate this game feel like they were generated by an alien’s ‘millenialism circa 2013’ simulator that was still in pre-alpha at the time of release.

    As a cultural product, True Colors exudes the same noxious fumes as semi-ironic mustache finger-tattoo Instagram ads and faux-rustic eateries in which a bowl of Macaroni & Cheese costs more than $15. The primary cast are not simply normies out of time – they are a crystalline menagerie of enthusiastic ‘Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist’-likers who spew lowest-common-denominator jokes that fit neatly in the ‘See? Just because I’m the RA at your dorm doesn’t mean I’m uncool!’ genre of human interaction. I was going to make a joke about how all of these people would exist comfortably within the Avett Brothers fandom, but even that geriatric example of manufactured counter-culture is a few rungs too high on the ladder of forgotten Millennial trends. Early on, two of the lead characters banter about what the worst genre of music might be: “Smash Mouth – wait for it - *cover* bands,” says one of them, before they purchase “good” music: a late-era Kings of Leon record. I *say* True Colors is attempting to replicate 2013, but then, *I* was 21 in 2013 and if I had played this game back then I would instantly go comatose from the sheer culture shock of it all.

    The thing is, not connecting with the characterization in True Colors is an even bigger problem than any of the other titles. Perhaps because Deck Nine is helming a ‘mainline’ game in this series for the first time ever, the character interaction stuff that fans liked most in past entries (romances, banter, character-driven player choice of seemingly little plot consequence) has taken priority over plot. To be agitated with True Colors’ cast is to be agitated with the game itself.

    While there is a mystery to unravel, it’s a very straightforward story about corporate greed, and as a result you can see red herrings from a mile away. I won’t dig too deeply into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, the problems I have with characterization similarly drive my problems with the plot. The players’ potential actions have consequences which seemed obvious to me, but the main characters are always blindsided by straightforward outcomes. For a game by an American studio that released in 2021 about small town injustice, these people sure seem amazed when ‘go to the cops’ does not turn out to be the correct course of action. Contrasted against Dontnod’s Tell Me Why, an LiS-style game with a near-identical premise, True Colors feels like a paltry collection of half-understood tropes, like a guy at a bar repeating a joke he heard a comedian tell, removed from context.

    I’ll give Deck Nine this: it’s the deviations from the formula that stand out more than the attempts at satisfying existing LiS fans. Their focus on utilizing a hub-world which changes slightly each episode is a pretty good concept for a narrative driven adventure game, if a bit underwhelming for a narrative adventure game produced by a major publisher at a $60 price point. There are a few discrete sequences which punch *way, wayyy* beyond the rest of the game’s weight class, one in particular involving a grieving mother which is one of the bravest, harshest, truest monologues I’ve ever seen in a videogame. For all my gripes, I sometimes felt enamored with True Colors when it left its flimsy attempts at YA fan-service behind and tried exploring darker and more realistic experiences – even if one of those attempts ended in what amounted to a half-assed one-act play ripped right out of undergrad. Deck Nine’s first major entry in the Life is Strange series is far from an out-and-out flop, but it does – and this is maybe worse – seem to indicate that the studio doesn’t fully grasp what made the original games great in the first place.

  • 2.0 Update and Happy Home Designer

    Two contradictory things are true about Animal Crossing: since Wild World, Animal Crossing has emphasized the gameplay-driven, task-oriented daily grind of the experience over the quirky, life-simulator aspects of the original titles, and has, as a result, gotten exponentially less fun with each new release. It’s also true that even as the series has gotten worse and worse, Animal Crossing is nevertheless still an absolute must-play every single time, because even a compromised version of Animal Crossing is better than most other video games (except for Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp – let's not talk about Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp).

    The New Horizons 2.0 update was promising, as it rejiggered some of New Horizons' most frustrating aspects to be just a bit more palatable. We get a whopping *two* possible Redd visits than potentially less than one every week, now. The island scavenging trips are better, too, originally acting as mostly useless sojourns onto much smaller landscapes to a daily chance at catching critters from different seasons. The return of Brewster’s Café and the gyroids has also added a much-needed dose of personality to what had originally been an annoyingly function-first version of the Animal Crossing formula.

    Just when things seemed to be trending in a positive direction, Nintendo also released the (for-pay) Happy Home Designer expansion, which is an unintentionally comedic example of the series’ worst instincts. In the expansion, players are given a traditional 9-to-5-type job as a salesperson-slash-home decorator, replete with an overbearing, agitatingly peppy sales manager who seems to sit on her ass all day when she’s not entrapping you and your coworkers with forced-fun team-building exercises.

    The worst singular experience I’ve ever had with Animal Crossing occurred in this expansion, as my manager, with proud and pitch-perfect shamelessness, advised me that “you can get people to buy anything if you convince them they need it,” before throwing me into the fray of a beach-themed sales floor filled with cute animal people eager to start a down payment on a vacation home. Hilariously, after I completed my first shift, my manager paid me with something *other than money,* instead handing over – and I can’t stress enough how real this is – actual, factual company scrip which can only be exchanged within my place of work.

    All this, and Animal Crossing won’t give me a lawyer to talk me through a potential lawsuit, or at least an ability to tell my boss to her face to burn in hell. And I thought hearing Harvey, Animal Crossing’s hippy-ish co-op founder, utter the phrase “do a capitalism” was bad - we have a cute, pseudo-capitalist feudal state to ‘play’ with, too. Knowing my Animal Crossing villager has a *manager* at his *real estate job* is genuinely enough to get me to stop playing. What the fuck kind of fantasy vacation life is that?

  • A “dystopian noir” adventure game with an immersive pixelated world which degrades before your very eyes as you continue experiencing it. Seriously – Backbone isn’t a bad game, but I don’t think I’ve ever played a game which got worse and worse with each new chapter as consistently as this one. The first chapter features multiple pathways to solve puzzles, a dynamic space to explore, fairly smart use of character tropes, a variety in gameplay. And then chapter 2 comes around, and it’s a lot more linear than chapter 1, but it basically does the job. Chapter 3 is markedly *more* linear than chapter 2, one of the only memorable characters disappears from the plot, and the mystery gets exponentially dumber. Chapter 4 is a bizarre, clunky digression into an entirely new genre the script just can’t find a foothold in. Chapter 5 is so hilariously past the point of no return in terms of tone and scope hat it retroactively makes the earlier parts seem worse than they actually were.

    This game is a really good example of why maxims about good writing should be understood through the lens of proficiency and intent. In other words, when we throw around the idea that ambiguity is a strength, that leaving questions unanswered is usually a positive, it’s because most writers might write a ‘dystopian noir’ story in which the big mystery is revealed to be a device that fails to intersect with every thematic element of the narrative up to that point save for the literal plot. Writers should try to answer questions more than they ask them, I think, but if you don’t have an answer – maybe think of a better question to ask?

  • Skate Bird is charming, but it’s not charming enough to disguise the clunky, sometimes frustrating gameplay. While I respect that Skate Bird is probably meant to be a closer analogue to something like Octodad than it is to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, there’s something inherently frustrating about being unable to fully control the perpetual locomotion of a skateboard, particularly in a score-based game like this. It’s just not comedy enough of a comedy game to look past the janky gameplay experience. I hate to say that, too, because I really like the vibe of this game and the art style is attractive.

  • Genesis Noir made some waves upon release for its unusual high concept: it is about the creation of the universe, but told via the format of a noir detective story. A lot of this game's buzz was a direct result of the fact that these high concepts seem diametrically opposed to one another, so you might be wondering - how *do* those high concepts interface with one another if they seem so diametrically opposed?

    Truth be told, sometimes they don't! Genesis Noir never actually commits 100% to either high concept. The straightforwardly noir sequences contain a multiplicity of incidental details which feel completely detached from the creation of the universe, for example; in what way does, say, a bus station in an urban environment relate to the big bang? What, exactly, is public transit in a metaphor about colliding celestial bodies? And on the other end, sequences which lean most heavily on an abstracted representation of scientific minutiae abandons the pretense of the noir story entirely. There are sequences in this game that depict primordial creatures evolving within and subsequently out of the ocean floor; try to find The Big Sleep in there somewhere, I dare you.

    So the final result of Genesis Noir is that sometimes it's about one thing, sometimes its about another thing, but only rarely does it actually marry it's high concepts - that's so much less interesting than the game's premise would suggest! I wanted to see a metaphor tortured nearly to death - nearly! - not a metaphor's rotting carcass left by the wayside like week-old roadkill.

  • I’m not sure what happened, but video games are drowning in Ninja Gaiden-likes all the sudden. I mean, that’s cool, I guess – I like Ninja Gaiden. But it also means there’s suddenly a higher standard for indies tackling a game in the genre. Cyber Shadow doesn’t quite cut it. It’s more of a Neo Geo-like than a NES-like, which could be cool, but it feels stiffer and less responsive than other titles. It’s also, like, y’know...there are a lot of games that look and feel quite a bit like this. Being faithful to old-school tropes only gets you so far these days, and the titles that do manage to stick out feature a twist on the format. Maybe Cyber Shadow does, too. I’ll probably never find out.

  • Seeing as how I bounced off of Knockout City within just a couple of hours, I thought Dodgeball Academica might be the dodgeball game I might actually like to play. Apparently, I have strong opinions about dodgeball mechanics in video games, who knew? Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. Like Knockout City, Dodgeball Academica is more a game of high velocity catch than it is a game about dodging projectiles. This one’s better, because it’s not an arena shooter disguised as a dodgeball game, but in certain respects it’s harder to play. For one thing, this game is *drowning* in fucking dialogue. Like, I get that they’re going for a Saturday morning cartoon thing, as the whole game looks like a rip from a Cartoon Network show, but there is a *staggering* amount of passive, expository conversation in this game which would appear to be a fun, cartoon-y arcade title. I like what it’s going for, but you could quite literally cut out, like, 75% of the dialogue in this game and it would be fine. When you actually get to play dodgeball – just like with Knockout City - throwing and catching are emphasized over dodging. I’m a dodgeball realist, OK??? Please allow me to do Max Payne leaps in my dodgeball video game.

  • Exo One is fascinating in that it doesn't try, at all, to make sure the player is paying attention. This is a game in which an elastic object of pure energy rolls and soars through a series of natural landscapes, punctuated by smidgens of dialogue at the start and stop of each level. In simpler terms, Exo One is a thatgamecompany title like Flower or Journey boiled down to the barest parts of the experience it can. You're an infinitesimally small being - in this case, a being of plain geometry rather than a character - navigating an enormous world abandoned by those who used to exist in and around it.

    I'm not a thatgamecompany fan, so you can imagine how Exo One failed to grab me. I just don't find that there's much to chew on in a game where every single piece of the experience is representative of genre tropes for the sake of exploring the function of genre tropes rather than a story which uses genre tropes to extrapolate on a specific narrative concept.

  • Despite the fact that Outriders seems like a serviceable third person Destiny-like, I have to admit that I found the dismissive general response to it to be kind of funny. There are so many post-apocalyptic, gun-toting power fantasies out there that you *really* have to do something with the format for anyone to give a shit about it. And that’s a good thing! Outriders is basically competent at what it does – arguably, it puts a whole lot more care into its lore and grants the player a greater flexibility in combat mechanics than other games in the genre – but, it’s still ‘another one of those,’ and that’s just not enough anymore. As recently as ten years ago, simply making good on the same combat mechanics as everyone else and layering it all underneath prestige-tier visuals was enough to garner mass critical praise. I won’t go as far as saying we’re free from same-y, mechanically identical, combat-driven games garnering high Metacritic scores – that is verifiably not true – but I do think the way game critics think about games has gotten better over the last few years.

  • Big spoilers below, for this one.

    I think part of the reason 12 Minutes grossed people out so much stems from the fact that the game feels so artificial and robotic until the twist, so you’re spending all this time in this aggressively artificial space waiting for something to happen to humanize any part of the experience, and then when it hits, boom – incest! It was the fantasy of incest all along!

    12 Minute’s twist is not disturbing so much as it is frustrating. There’s never a point in which the game feels like it wanted to do anything in particular with its narrative – not that a story *needs* one specific ‘big thought’ in mind to be enjoyable, but in this case it would help. The twist really drives that point home. 12 Minutes *could* be a game about deciding for yourself that ignorance may or may not be bliss for its cast if the game was able to get us to care about Daisy Ridley’s character, but she has no personality. She is an exposition vessel who sometimes says she likes a book or remembers a person in a photograph. There’s no human being there. Even if she *had* a likable personality, asking the player ‘should you forget about this incestuous pregnancy because that would feel bad to know about?’ is such a big ask. You’d have to be really, really good as a storyteller to make good on that premise. 12 Minutes is not the game which makes good on that premise.

  • On a surface level, Lake would appear to be a cozy game in which Meredith, an overworked businesswoman from "the big city," takes a short term, two week-long gig at a rural post office as a mail carrier and learns to love life in the country as she interacts with a dozen or so quirky locals. Read more critically, however, Lake depicts a bizarrely propagandistic image of rural America that eulogizes exclusionary small town politics while skating around the implications of those exclusionary politics.

    I want to be super clear that I'm not about to go on a rant about how small American towns are inherently conservative and therefore a failure to depict that political conservatism is a failure on the game's part, or something like that. No; what I mean to say is that Lake, in a very straightforward, surface-level way, celebrates the small town politics of exclusion and isolationsim, all the while surrounding its protagonist with endless reminders of the benefits of rural living and the anxieties of "big city life."

    In Lake, the player encounters several characters who need assistance of some kind from the player. Most of these side stories feature the kinds of quirky small town archetypes you'd probably expect. There's an elderly woman who hoards cats and needs help caring for them, a retired veterinarian who loves fishing but has become too socially isolated, stuff like this. Then, there are the two romantic options for the player: Angie, the video rental clerk, and Robert, the lumberjack who lives alone in the woods.

    Angie's subplot is simple enough: she loves movies, particularly movies by, let's say, a group of directors who one might place in an 'I Just Started to Watch Movies Seriously Starter Kit' (David Lynch, John Carpenter, Stephen Spielberg, etc). Angie is also a lesbian whom the player can romance. Her fate in the story is predetermined: her business will fail due to lack of interest from the populace, and she will decide to close up shop and travel elsewhere. In her exact words, Angie is "too different" to fit into Lake's rural citizenry. You can probably start to place the missing puzzle pieces together in this subplot: Angie is the one openly queer character in the story, which is otherwise filled with traditional small town archetypes, and for reasons that go beyond business and into material realities of Angie's person-hood which go undefined explicitly, Angie feels that it's in her best interest to go somewhere else. She doesn't fit in. In order to complete Angie's romantic subplot, the player, also, cannot choose to remain in town. Much like today, the 1980's were a period of rampant homophobia in America, particularly outside of major cities. While Angie cannot be made to want to migrate to the big city with the player, it's difficult not to fixate on this unexplained, intangible element to Angie's story: 'I am a queer woman, I'm open about that, and for reasons that I won't specifically explain, I cannot exist here.'

    Angie's subplot, and the way her identity fits within the context of small town politics, is told via implication. Robert's subplot is not. For his part, Robert's big problem is that the local government wants to build an apartment building nearby to his home. When Robert presents Meredith with this information, she can only express sympathy for him. Much of Robert's story treads this path: neutral information is presented as obviously problematic for Robert without any further elaboration on why that would be. There are no apartment buildings in Lake's small town, and the population is extremely low. The only way one could afford to live there would mean one could purchase a home. The proposed placement of the apartment building, in fact, is in a completely empty piece of land; it's not as if the city is attempting to destroy a local landmark. Robert is simply against the notion of affordable housing nearby to him.

    The rest of Robert's story, then, is just a straightforward bit of Not In My Backyard drama. Robert enlists Meredith's help in writing a letter to city hall, he gets the local radio DJ to agree to spread his political message, and successfully prevents the town government from building affordable housing. The player is not given space with which to disagree or request clarification on the motivations behind the political act; instead, Meredith can only sympathize with Robert or eagerly agree with his point of view. While the politics of housing are inevitably complicated by their mandatory intersection with one of the most insidious political organizations in America - corporate real estate developers - and therefore demand some nuance, Lake is not presenting a nuanced argument on the building of affordable housing to its audience. It's just arguing that affordable housing is automatically bad, with all of the political and racial implications of that perspective left lingering in the background of the proceedings.

    Unsurprisingly, if the player chooses to remain in Lake's small town, they can complete Robert's romantic subplot. There's nothing preventing Robert from feeling at home there, unlike Angie. If the player agrees, Meredith happily gives up a job at a multi-million dollar job at a computer company (in the year 1987, immediately before it will become the biggest industry on the planet) to wile away the hours with her NIMBY boyfriend, listening to the same four or five pop-country tunes that play on the radio in Lake again and again, all of which are about the beauty of small town living for the benefit of people already living it, all the while discussing zoning regulations, or something equally terrible. No thank you.

  • Knockout City is heavily promoted and discussed as an online competitive dodgeball game AND a Rocket League successor, but it's neither of these things. I think the dodgeball part bothers me the most, as Knockout City doesn't capture what made dodgeball such a fun gym class activity at its most basic premise. When I was a kid, the fun of dodgeball was in the kineticism of dodging projectiles - catching the ball was incidental to the real fun, which was, y’know, *dodging* the ball. Knockout City gives players a dash button with which to dodge, sure, but in my mind the better dodgeball mechanic would be a bullet time, Max Payne-style leap, not a Platinum Games dash. Knockout City is ultimately more a competitive three v. three shooter without the burden of precision aiming than an actual dodgeball sim, which is - fine, I guess, but it also made the game feel more derivative and threadbare for me once that thought wriggled its way into my head. I also don't love how shamelessly it apes Jet Set Radio's aesthetic, right down to the charismatic disc jockey narrator. A swing and a miss, for me.

  • It's been interesting to watch Square Enix's studios attempt to integrate their genericized adaptation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the format of the AAA video game, because each time the idea seems to die upon impact with the video game industry. For its part, Marvel's Avengers was a conceptual failure, attempting to drown a single player narrative under the never-ending loop of a Destiny loot 'em up, a combo of design conceits which would satisfy virtually no one from either the games-as-service audience, nor the MCU fans, and least of all the readers of the original comic books. Guardians of the Galaxy, however, is the full-fledged mega-budgeted video game movie-like fans supposedly have been clamoring for, yet it was a massive commercial failure. Why?

    This question is easier to answer by thinking through the 'whys' of the MCU's success than it is from reading into Guardians of the Galaxy itself.

    Audiences have lately been complaining about the low quality of the MCU's special effects (included in this group, apparently, are some of the MCU's very own actors and directors). Meanwhile, film critics have more or less given up on the idea of criticizing Marvel films as 'normal' movies, as the elasticity and interchangeability of the MCU film makes major cultural analysis a moot point. After all, what kind of meaningful new conclusions, even on the behalf of someone debating on whether or not to buy a movie ticket, can you unearth from your sixteenth or seventeenth review of an MCU film? They're functionally the same project again and again built with different parts.

    It's tempting to point to the wishy-washy, interchangeable nature of the broader MCU project as a problem with its cultural monopolization, that the frequency of complaints with MCU films and the perpetual discourse around those perceived flaws are problems, that they're accidental. Thing is, those apparent problems are, in fact, indicative of the MCU's success as the dominant product of the film industry. This is because Disney's MCU series is designed with the explicit intention of being an endlessly repeatable, cheaply produced, mass-marketable media event which continually expands but never contracts.

    The MCU film is a perpetually repeat-able - re-sell-able - media object. Because of the MCU's ubiquity and Disney's cost-effective budgeting, the MCU film has dominated the capitalistic industry of moviemaking, and has consequently begun to collapse in on itself. Like any industry which becomes 'too big to fail,' its perpetual failure is, paradoxically, a non-insignificant reason for its success. It thrives off of your attention, positive or negative, so an infamous failure reads to its producers as a great success, so long as the numbers keep ticking upwards.

    All this is to say that Guardians of the Galaxy: The Video Game is too expensive, too big, too shiny, too fully-featured - yes, too "AAA" - to replicate the plastic nature of the broader MCU project. It is not cheaply produced or interchangeable with other games of its scale. It fits the *tone* of the MCU film, sure, it has the general air of pleasant indifference, the preponderance of snappy bickering as the default mode of dialogue, and the pseudo self-awareness of the average MCU film. But this protypically MCU narrative has been placed in an environment in which it must compete with games that have not been subsumed by the MCU industry; as a result, it doesn't work. It's too expansive/expensive to be thrown out the door and forgotten like the average MCU film, yet it's also too narratively and conceptually under-cooked to stand its ground against other narrative-based video games of its budget.

    To be clear, I don't believe all of Guardians of the Galaxy's shortcomings are resultant from its noxious source material. No: Guardians of the Galaxy is a messy, frequently frustrating mishmash of contradictory video game mechanics that make it a strange and frustrating experience in its own right. Which genre of video game Guardians of the Galaxy fits within is context-dependent. The game smash cuts between Tomb Raider 2013/Uncharted-esque disaster-platforming sequences, Mass Effect hangout sequences, walking sim sequences, Tell Tale adventure game-esque branching narrative-choice sequences (Rocket Racoon Will Remember That), and arena combat sequences which are, themselves, full of individual component pieces which feel incongruous with one another: featured are Gears of War active reloading, Marvel Ultimate Alliance special moves, action-platformer dodge mechanics, and God of War quick time events.

    All of these disparate mechanics are replicated from other games which were designed *around* these concepts. Guardians of the Galaxy does not appear to have been designed around any of its primary mechanics, and seems to instead bluntly transition between modes of play without any attempt to marry its many mechanics into a cohesive whole.

    I don't think this is a nitpick, either, as Guardians of the Galaxy's lack of focus is its defining quality. I mean, think about the mechanics it uses and the way they were used in the titles that spawned them. The Uncharted games feature a combination of third-person shooting and platforming just like Guardians of the Galaxy does, sure, but Uncharted's 'disaster-platforming' design makes intuitive sense considering the vast majority of those games' focus are placed on the situational context of the shootouts and the platforming. The Uncharted games place an immense amount of import on their level design, because the environments are nearly always the point of focus. Even the narrative and the characterization of Uncharted's cast is predicated around the notion of one man surviving microcosmic catastrophe after microcosmic catastrophe. Every element of Uncharted's design revolves around a few specifically-considered themes and aesthetic concepts. By contrast, in Guardians of the Galaxy, the levels are flat, stable, machine-designed spaces until the level designers have decided they need an Uncharted-like platforming sequence, at which point levels become suddenly vertically-oriented and naturalistic. Another little mechanic Guardians of the Galaxy borrows: the active reload, in which the player has to play a timing-based minigame in order to optimally reload their weapon during a shootout. Active reloading made sense as originally used in Gears of War, because Gears of War is a stop-and-start cover-based shooter, in which there will be naturally-occurring downtime during combat in which players will need to heal and reload their weapons. Adding the additional risk/reward complication of the active reload makes sense in the context of that game because it gives the player something to do in moments where they would be otherwise sitting still. In Guardians of the Galaxy, active-reloading is one in a series of meters which fills throughout the space of any given combat encounter, another spinning plate among spinning plates.

    Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't have anywhere near the level of focus of the games it borrows from, or it at least lacks any intuitive intent with its mechanics to compliment its haphazard mechanics. For about eight minutes it'll be an Uncharted set-piece platformer, before it becomes a mish-mash of Marvel Ultimate Alliance-slash-Gears of War arena combat game for about ten minutes, before it drops paragraph after paragraph of expositional dialogue in a loose approximation of Mass Effect's hangout hub area for another twenty minutes. This is a loud, expensive, monstrous media object, a kind of metaphysical doppleganger of every AAA video game of the last twenty years.

    And even then I don't think I've gotten to the core of why I dislike Guardians of the Galaxy. Truth be told, I don't like Guardians of the Galaxy as much as I do because it *never shuts the fuck up*. While I understand this game is an adaptation of a famously chatty action-adventure franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy takes the protoypical Marvel quippiness to new levels; it is fucking *drowning* in banter. Characters banter so much with one another that - and this happened many, many times throughout the course of my playthrough - scripted banter sequences would be interrupted by other scripted banter sequences which would *themselves be interrupted by yet another banter sequence* in the span of minutes or less. I'm already allergic to this style of dialogue, so hearing such an incredible volume of it was deeply irritating. Worse, unlike the original movies (and I'm intentionally not discussing the original comics, here, which are their own thing), Guardians of the Galaxy makes heavy use of fake swears: this game is rotten with the word "flark," rather than the word "fuck." So an extreme majority of sequences are dominated by this cute-sy, baby-ish allusion to cuss words. It's beyond grating.

    I say all that, but what was really beyond grating was the character Mantis. I thought I had a handle on what flavor of annoying this game was until Mantis entered the cast, at which point I sort of dissociated and fell backwards into myself. Mantis is a fortune-telling mystic filtered through the lens of, say, Rick and Morty. She can see into the future, and makes frequent allusions to what *could've* happened to the rest of the characters were they in another timeline, so a vast majority of jokes written for her are just her describing catastrophes which could have but did not occur. She also has these diminuitive nicknames for the rest of the cast, and refers to Rocket Racoon - the only good character in this godforsaken Marvel game - as "little fuzzy." She has the general tone and demeanor of a sociopath in a white collar office, and she drove me completely fucking insane.

    I say this as someone who grew up reading Marvel comics, obsessing over their lore, keeping tabs on all the big, cross-comic events: I truly, in a totally straightforward way, do not understand what it is people see in this game. I do not get it.

  • Goat Simulator did a lot more harm than good to video games. Making a game predicated on how scream-able it will be if a puerile baby-brain twentysomething plays it on Twitch – man, I can’t think of a *worse* premise for a video game. If nothing else, Goat Simulator’s descendants have gotten weirder. DEEEEER Simulator, for example, has a kinda-sorta barebones narrative beneath the surface, but in practice its really a sandbox third person shooter with a couple boss fights and some dumb sight gags. This isn’t the worst one of these I’ve played, but it definitely fails to elevate itself above its peers. This is an old joke and I think it’s past time we stop telling it.

  • OK listen - we really, really need to let go of this reverence for '80s mass media. It's been decades of this junk. We're like, what, fifteen years of this and we're *still* stuck in this purgatorial worship of the 1980s? Back to the Future was good! The pop music was good! Tron was good! They weren't *that* good!

    Narita Boy not only weaponizes '80s toys/movies/neon nostalgia as a blunt object to the temple, but it painstakingly reconstructs familiar '80s archetypes with an obsessive zeal. It's so weird to see a team dedicate such painstaking effort towards saying something everyone else has been saying for years and years and years. It's weird, even. Like, at the beginning of this game, the protagonist has to deal with his mom's insistence that video games are a waste of time before venturing into Tron to save the digital world or whatever. What level of emotional regression does the game expect of the player, exactly? Because this feels like a 10-years out of date digression.

    Probably not as irritating as Ready Player One, but close.

  • It occurred to me as the fallout of this horrific remaster unfolded that we’re in for a LOT more Cyberpunk 2077s. And not just in video games. I have a running theory: as mass media continues to double and triple-down on funding just a few enormous projects rather than many large to mid-scale projects – and as mass media continues to maximize profits by cutting as many corners as humanly possible – we are going to experience continual unprecedented, hilarious mass media fiascos on an annual or semi-annual basis. The pre-release Sonic the Hedgehog movie fits in this category, as does the movie Cats, which was infamously ‘patched’ to fix unfinished special effects work present in the final film. Cyberpunk 2077 was last year’s most gratuitous disaster. Grand Theft Auto: The Definitive Edition was just the next one of these, a stupefying miscalculation of one of gaming’s most widely understood titles which will continue to act as the industry’s favorite punching bag for a few more months until the next video game disaster occurs.

    To its credit, GTA: The Definitive Edition Trilogy managed to get a mass audience of players to argue *for* limiting technical specs in favor of maintaining the integrity of world design/art design, which is not the kind of discourse I usually expect from mobs of angry Grand Theft Auto fans. Forget the bugs and the sketchy framerate – The Definitive Edition took the sparing, technically-limited art style of the original games and transmogrified them into horrible webcomic facsimiles of the original key art.