Play the game for a set amount of time (we do 1 month)
Discuss the game a little every week or all in one go at the end of the month
Why do a Video Game Book Club?
Video Game Book Club (VGBC) is just a book club, but for games! What follows is not an end-all-be-all guide for how to make VGBC happen for you and a group of friends, but it's what's worked for my friends and I for the better part of a year. It started in the pandemic, but I'm convinced it would've come up eventually without these circumstances.
At its core, VGBC (similarly to a book club) is a way to congregate for conversation that is focused and outside the normal day-to-day topics that are dictated by current events or personal news. More than that, it is a way to somewhat capture and recreate some of the phenomenon that surrounds a hotly anticipated/freshly released game, where you have seemingly endless avenues to express your thoughts and feelings about a title with seemingly endless numbers of people and forums.
The Internet of gamers loves to commiserate over the shared feelings regarding The Backlog many people have and feel unnecessary guilt over. Some people just get stuck in ruts, playing the same games over and over and not feeling fully satisfied, but also not entirely willing to branch out on their own. Both are great reasons to participate in a VGBC.
For us, neither of these were the inspiration for our group to start up. We just wanted to play something "together" without having to work around everyone's schedule to play multiplayer titles. On top of that, we all have a mix of different systems, and there are so few cross-platform multiplayer titles, so our choices were limited there. VGBC seemed like a great way to play some truly great (or not so great) single-player titles that may have come and gone in terms of overall hype or even play a newer title together.
Without further ado, here are the general guidelines for how we operate our Video Game Book Club.
Since our group consists of 4-5 people, we have a rotation that has been established to give everyone the opportunity to contribute and allows us all a fair go at selecting games that interest each of us personally. This allows for a lot of fun variance and will offer everyone the opportunity to consider games they otherwise may have completely looked over based on their own biases.
Here's how it usually looks:
Person 1 selects anywhere from 5-8 games and provides a brief, 1-2 sentence personal pitch about each game. In our case, we try to limit the games to being around 10-15 hours long at most to make sure we're not over-committing ourselves, cause we busy.
Share that list with the group - give them at least a few days to peruse it. We use Giant Bomb dot com to build and share our lists.
Each member of the group takes some time to consider how they would rank the options available from Person 1 according to their level of interest in each game.
Everyone meets and shares their ranked lists from among the options. See the next section for a detailed breakdown of our game selection system.
Next time, move to Person 2, then 3, then 4, etc. and do it all over again.
Determining the game
Each member, including the member assigned with providing the list, will rank each game provided. The most desired rank will have a value of 1 (one) and the least desired game will have a value equal to the total number of games provided that month. Members will then submit their rankings simultaneously for tabulation.
The standard determination for the game played that month will be the sum of the ranks – with the winning that month’s vote. Usually, this is all you'll need and the game will be chosen.
In the event of a tie, the following tie breakers will be used in the following order:
Number of Top Ranks Earned
i.e. the game that has received the most “1” rankings
i.e. what is the middle rank of all ranks received for the game
In the event that these tie breakers do not yield a clear winner, the group will:
Eliminate the game that has the most Bottom Ranks earned
i.e. if 4 (four) games were submitted that month, the game that earned the most 4 (four) ranks would be eliminated
If this final tie breaker does not yield a clear winner, the remaining two games will enter a coin flip to determine the winner. The game that is first alphabetically will be assigned “Heads.”
For additional clarity, please see sample chart below:
Playing the game
We keep to a pretty strict 1-month long timeframe for playing games from start to finish. That's why we try to impose a 10-15 hour completion time-to-finish on the games someone selects - so we don't make anyone feel pressured to complete some super long title. Honestly, 5-10 hours is the sweet spot for game time, as it allows VGBC to be something that someone can do in a couple extended sittings or doled out an 30 mins-an hour at a time.
Sometimes we have to move goalpost for "finishing" the game. For example, if we're playing a story-heavy game, we'll aim to complete the main story, even if that means ditching a few side quests for the time being to get through the primary content to discuss. Another example: for roguelikes/lites, we may just opt to get as far as we can all get and talk about our varying experiences with the game.
Overall, limiting the time to play and finish the game helps move the process along and ensures that you don't drag out time with a game to the point of wearing out its welcome.
Discussing the game
This is really the most freeform part of the whole thing. Our group meets a few times a month and discusses the game bit by bit as we progress at different rates. The final meeting on a particular game usually aims to collect the thoughts of the group as a whole on the game, the mechanics of the game, whether people liked it or not, and we'll discuss the plot if the game has one worth discussing.
That's it!! Nothing else to it, really. Have fun and enjoy some focused game discussion with friends.
The last couple years I've enjoyed cataloguing all the games I play in a calendar year for two main reasons:
It's kind of like keeping a gaming-centric journal that helps me reflect on what games I really enjoyed.
It allows me to more easily frame what I think were my favorite gaming experiences of the year and feel more a part of annual Game of the Year conversations in a small way.
But as I was cataloguing my 2020 in games, I noticed a difference from previous years: that my time with two games (my top two of five games, that is) was incredibly skewed compared to the rest. This left me feeling the need to express some thoughts and feelings about these two games and somewhat chronicle my experiences. Both games mean a great deal to me for different reasons, but ultimately they both greatly contributed to what semblance of a social life I could achieve online this year, and for that I am thankful.
When Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out in March of 2020, it was lauded as the end-all-be-all social stimulant that everyone craved as quarantine was just beginning in the wake of the coronavirus. My love of Animal Crossing began with New Leaf on the 3DS, and this long-awaited sequel was already something I was convinced would be Nintendo's top showing of 2020. But in combination with a worldwide quarantine, Animal Crossing transcended all criticism and became the newest must-buy for more people than I'd ever dreamed of becoming fans of the series just for the opportunity to, like, visit each others' islands and like, trade stuff? There actually isn't that much to do with fr- OH YEAH THE FREAKIN' TURNIPS.
Sorry, it's been a while since I was really in the heat of the turnip craze that blazed across the Animal Crossing part of the internet. The Stalk Market is an entirely optional feature in the game where you play the odds by purchasing turnips from the cutest little boar there ever was and see if you can sell 'em off at a much higher price during the week. This mechanic was partially why I resurrected my old Discord server that, up until that point, I had used strictly for occasional multiplayer game chats. I was getting Animal Crossing-related messages via text, Facebook, Instagram, and Discord and I really wanted to bring it to a central location with all of my lovely friends so we could revel in the game's greatness together. At its peak there were about 15-20 people (or @Villagers as they're known in the server, as this also prompted me to learn more about Discord server roles) actively using the chat to track turnip prices together and talk about the game. For several consecutive weeks we had anywhere from 8-10 people tracking their turnip prices and it always ended in huge payouts.
Thanks to @nataliewatson (AKA The Joyous Gamer) on Twitter who provided a Google Sheets template that we used to collaborate and track our prices each week. Eventually, I created a #turnip-stonks channel for us to communicate about all things turnips at a rapid pace. To put it in perspective, my #animal-crossing-new-horizons general channel has 4,041 messages since I started the channel on March 23, where #turnip-stonks has 1,240 messages, and was last used frequently in June where the general chat continued to be used after the heat of the turnips simmered down. That may not seem like much, but I can say that nearly every single day for about 3 months, people were chatting about and coordinating turnip logistics. We were tracking trends, firing off Dodo codes to our islands or the islands of outsiders to get a good price, and generally raving about the sheer magnitude of digital wealth gained in record times.
We went from having tens of thousands of bells to tens of millions practically overnight. Money became trivial, which is like, not the point of the game, but also, the mechanic is very there for you to exploit, so actually I think it was the point of the game for us at the time.
And that's really the beauty of a simple life sim like Animal Crossing - it can be whatever experience you want it to be. The social aspect of the game served as a great distraction from the insanity of 2020 for myself and I imagine my friends and family who were also participating. And it also served to introduce some friends to each other who may not have met otherwise, and to this day I smile just thinking about how happy I was to see my friends from different parts of my life interacting with each other over a game we all love.
But, I'd be lying if I said it was still just as hoppin' in my server's #animal-crossing-new-horizons channel. After the hunger for turnips was sated when we'd all become bellionaires, activity dried up, and now there are just a few messages every once in a while. But I will always treasure my time hustling those dang turnips and regularly discussing the game with so many of my friends.
During this time where I had a great, big Discord community of all my friends, I also got to bear witness to my mom and dad falling head over heels for Animal Crossing. My sister, her husband, and I had already been enjoying the game, but I could have never guessed the amount that my parents, especially my mom, would absolutely love Animal Crossing. This was their first entry in the series, and really the first single-player game that my mom actively wanted to play. Before this, all she had really played with us growing up was Dr. Mario, whereas my dad introduced my sister and I to video games and he had always played games with us and on his own throughout my childhood. At the time of this writing, my parents have many hundreds of hours played between them in this game alone, and with little sign of slowing down. Granted, going off my own experience with the game this year, a chunk of their hours were likely racked up keeping their islands open for a while to allow visitors to wish on stars or visit shops. BUT STILL.
Ultimately, my family loving this game led to us using it as an intermediary for interaction in a year where we didn't feel comfortable gathering together in person as often as we might usually. After the turnip craze died down, we focused on other goals and shared our progress together through our family group chat. We shared all our new island design ideas, fun items we received, and importantly when we'd get a new villager photo. That has become one of the main reasons we all log in as often as we still do, to get those lovely little photos villagers reward you with when your friendship level is high enough.
Animal Crossing is great. It's cute as heck. I love it. My friends love it. My family loves it. Long live Animal Crossing.
Hades has impacted me in ways most games never even get close to accomplishing. And what's crazy is that it's only due in part to its magnificent storytelling, gameplay, art, and music. What really cemented Hades as an all-timer for me was the extremely fun early access experience they provided. When I heard they announced Hades at the Game Awards in December 2018, I immediately downloaded the Epic Games Store app so I could purchase the game. Where I know that announcement was supposed to garner attention from a wider audience, it felt like it was tailor-made for me and every other Supergiant mega fan out there. Why? Because it had only been a year's time since the release of their previous title, Pyre. Up until that point, Supergiant was releasing games 3 years apart from each other, so to have a new game from them only a year later? In short: mind-blowing.
Early access was a real treat for me and so many others. It was a dream come true to interact with my favorite developers on Twitter and Discord to contribute feedback and bug reports on an already great game and make it better and better. Every update felt like a major event because they always added something significant, from new characters and art, to new weapons, enemies, and zones. They may not be the only studio to do early access this way, but they certainly executed it with near-perfection from my view.
The only downside for me during the early access phase and exclusivity period on the Epic Games Store was that none of my friends felt as inclined as I did to pick it up and dig in. I understood why, and had played very few games in early access prior, but I wanted so badly for my friends to see this game I already loved and experience the magic of watching it come together.
Eventually, I would end up buying a few copies for friends shortly after the game came out on Steam, and they all liked it, so that was definitely satisfying. But not nearly as satisfying as the feeling I felt in September 2020, when the final game was released in 1.0 for PC and Switch simultaneously.
When 1.0 dropped, all bets were off. For most of 2020 prior to September, I was only dabbling in the early access version a little after each update. I knew the final game was to be released later in the year, and I wanted to experience the complete game on a new save the moment it happened. So, I started my fresh save and "encouraged" (which is a nice way of saying "forcefully pushed") my friends to pick up the game as soon as possible. And, one by one, around a dozen of my friends picked it up and were loving it. So many conversations were being had, that again I created a separate channel for Hades in my Discord server and we started having regular discussions and sharing our victories and memes about the game.
To see all of these friends of mine rally around a game I had been championing for 2 years was not only satisfying, but vindicating. I had long suspected that Hades would be well received by many of my friends, but to see their reactions to the game in real time be so overwhelmingly positive was truly special.
There is no multiplayer in Hades, but of course there is a speedrunning community that emerged out of the early access scene and began to thrive now that the game was out. A favorite streamer of mine, @MFPallytime, also made a video featuring a race between him and a friend to see who could clear a run of Hades the fastest with a certain set of restrictions in place. This inspired me to host a race of my own with my Discord community that we called The Hermes Invitational, a nod to the previously established Hermes Cup stream from the Hades speedrun community. I had a little fun making some graphics to go along with the day, including a certificate of participation for those who came (see images below). I practiced every day leading up to race day, cramping my hand real good in the process. The race day consisted of me and a couple friends battling it out for supremacy, and I have to admit that I completely beefed it in the primary race - didn't even get to Lord Hades. However, on our second attempt, I beat my personal best by clearing a run at 11 minutes, 13 seconds. Felt good.
If all of this had happened in a bubble, and I had this great game to play and talk about with just my friends, I'd have been happy. But, Hades turned out to be nothing short of a smash hit with the wider gaming community. Rave reviews were coming fast and furious in the days and weeks after the full release hit. Really great think pieces and articles filled my Twitter feed. Virtually no one I spoke to or heard from online had bad things to say about Hades.
The greatest contribution to my excitement for the game was Noclip's 6-part series on the early access development called, "Developing Hell." Each episode tackles a different aspect of developing the game, and also addresses the challenges the team at Supergiant faced at various points in the timeline of development. It was particularly fascinating to see how the pandemic affected the studio since they were so close to the full release of Hades. The final episode is set to release in January 2021, and I am absolutely psyched to see the conclusion of the series.
Hades has also gone on to win a number of awards, including The Video Game Awards' "Best Indie Game" and "Best Action Game." All well-deserved, and it's been fun seeing the developers' reactions to every nomination and win. Hades even won TIME's Person of the Year award.
At this point, I am mostly done with Hades, as I've played through half of its content twice between my time in early access and my new save. I've completed all the achievements, unlocked the majority of the cosmetic items, unlocked all the weapons and their various aspects, and seen all of the character relationships through to their apex. But, having a little left to do will serve me well when, in probably a matter of weeks I will want to FEEL that good gameplay all over again.
Hades and Animal Crossing are wildly different games, and both brought me together with friends and family this year more than any other game. They also 110% delivered on everything they promised and fulfilled virtually all my hopes and expectations. And nothing embodies the feelings I've had about both of these games more than the orchestral arrangements of Hades music transitioning into Animal Crossing music from the 2020 Game Awards, so I'll leave you to listen to that:
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