This is my only list of “things I liked” this year, though it’s double the length of past years to compensate. It’s been a weird, long, joyful, and depressing year, and though I listened to lots of great music (Boygenius, Emily Brown, Jungle) and watched a lot of great movies (Annihilation, Eighth Grade, Spider-Verse), this was the only list I felt the urge to write. Games continue to be something of a medium of choice. Most of the podcasts I listen to are about games; I think about them more than any other media I consume. I’ll be making a conscious effort in 2019 to balance this out, to read more outside of school, to go to the movies more often, and to gain more cultural literacies (especially since I’ll be graduating soon and thus will have to read less). However, it felt important to work through the year’s experience. 2018 was a dark year and, just as the arbitrary nature of time will have it, 2019 looks no brighter. Most of the games on this list, outside of the ones that are just kinetic play, deal with immediate darkness, apocalypse, and death, but only one or two are bleak. They find ways to push through. Through hope, through anger, through connection, they shout “We Are Alive.” Games are not revolutionary and they will not save us, but maybe they can show us a bit of how we can save ourselves.
PS. I’ve linked the Mobygames credits page for each of these games. If 2018 has proved anything, it’s that we should make labor, and who performs that labor, as visible as powerful.
Titanfall 2 – Respawn Entertainment
One of the few games I have played twice and maybe the only one that I have felt the urge to replay on the hardest difficulty, Titanfall 2 is a bounding riot. The levels pulse in and out of each other, relying equally on bombast and quiet, sleekness and speed. It’s a finely tuned roller coaster, tight and controlled. But its multitude of mech load-outs, weapons, and acrobatic tricks, makes its ride conversational. It’s a dialectical shot of power, as the game gives you stage after stage for you to dance through as you please. Yes, its politics are muddled, bounding between a vague capitalist critique and a loose colonialism. It’s a video game ass video game, with all the good and bad that entails. But I cannot forget the game’s flexible, propulsive body and its storm of steel and fire. This is kinetic, vivid play at its finest.
Where the Water Tastes like Wine – Dim Bulb Games
A game I could not bring myself to exclude, WTWTLW is a storytelling journey. You’re a rambling man, trading tales across a sketched map of the United States. Most reviews I saw complained about how slow you moved, how consumable the stories you pick up and trade became, or the game’s mild survival layer. A parade of inconveniences seemed to keep people from enjoying the game. There’s a fairness to this, but much of this criticism strikes me as missing the point. Travel, especially the slow walking and hitchhiking in WTWTLW, is inconvenient and boring. Mundane concerns drive your every move, empty landscapes flicker by, hours and days blur together. Much of my time with WTWTLW is like this, but moments flicker out and burn bright. Death watches over his flock. Girls in love sleep in haunted houses. A pastor spills his fractured faith before your feet. Threads in a vast story that you can only glimpse through shades of grey existence.
Metro respects the smallness of its world. Entire levels go by without a bullet being fired, instead asking you to move through stations. The vast dangers of predatory mutants, political violence, and irradiated wastes show themselves in bombast and fire, but also in conversations whispered under lamplight and in prayers muttered beneath the rubble of old cathedrals. Existing here is intimate. Both these games give you space to lean next to walls or sit at tables to hear the world moving around you. Both ask you to mire yourself in the dreary survival of its world. You must replace the filters of your gas masks and use bullets as currency. It also, though, has a spiritual vision of traumatized world. The foundations of reality break down and the binaries of the world reveal their emptiness. The result is games that unveil the feeling of a world, both in their grimy detail and their explosive spiritual fallout. Their vision is incomplete, women are practically non-existent and the politics are a muddle of false equivalencies. But the haunting gothic world, the push-pull of violence and quiet, and the attempt to heal broken places all ring true.
Downwell – @moppppin, @strotchy, and @kissakolme
What’s most remarkable about Downwell is its details. You boot up the game and see your genderless blob man smiling, swinging their legs on a bench or gazing down into the darkness of the well. The shopkeeper frowns at you when you jump over them to steal their merch. A flurry of pixels flutter out after a massive explosion. This attention to detail wrings everything out of the slimmest of premises and the most basic of control schemes. Downwell is an example of how artful the simple, kinetic joy of games can be.
Ladykiller In A Bind – Love Conquers All Games
A visual novel about crossdressing as your brother, trying to keep things secret, and having a ton of sex, Ladykiller is queer, funny, and poignant. That does not mean there are no missteps, I have yet to go through the game’s multiple routes, but asking the player to explore their own boundaries teases out their own attitudes toward sex and power results in a remarkably expressive game. Ladykiller allows you to interrupt dialog with action and frames both submission and aggression as active choices. The game’s sexuality is not merely titillating or objectifying, but rather a conversational duel between multiple characters. Truly playful with gender and sex, Ladykiller asks to think through our sense of identity, pushing at the ways we express ourselves. Also it is hot af.
Even the Ocean – Analgesic Productions
Death comes slowly; there are no sudden drops or spiked walls in Even the Ocean. Rather, the player must balance light and dark energies, both beneficial until they kill you. Mistimed jumps do not end you immediately, but rather add to the danger. The narrative has the same dynamic. Doom is seen from far away. Every level reaches closer until everything ends. However, this is not a story about death, rather what we do in the face of it. The confrontation of death is shown in every aspect. Even the Ocean follows a typical structure of level escalating in complexity and difficulty; it’s a clever game. Yet it lends its characters and its places space, give them soul beyond quick-footed thrills. Between every level, the game lets you explore the world and the city you find yourself in. It’s a world you can breathe in, even as you watch it die. That world’s soul lives on, in surprising and thoughtful ways. In yet another year of apocalypses, Even the Ocean is vital.
Tacoma – Fullbright
It’s easy to see Tacoma as a simple expansion of Fullbright’s Gone Home. After all, it has more characters, more dialog, and a slightly longer runtime. However, framing it as normal video game sequel does it a disservice. Tacoma’s narrative is sharp and brilliant, weaving many disparate threads into an organic and flexible whole. Where Gone Home’s ambitious were modest, Tacoma’s are vast. Its haunting sci-fi world where corporations directly control education and currency feels close to our own. Its portrait of artificial intelligence deftly blends genre expectations with pathos. It lets us scan through its space station like a vhs tape, rewinding to view new angles, hear new conversations. Its spaces are no pastiche, but have a sharp, lived-in beauty, granted by the multiple avenues of meaning they explore. This is the real deal, an ambitious and astounding picture of what interactive storytelling can be.
Dark Souls – From Software
This is a game of simple rituals. Death and rebirth. Fire and ash. Victory and defeat. Dark Souls’s loops burrow into your brain, until minutes lost become no annoyance, but a sacrifice to a dark god that you do not understand. You are small, part of narratives and systems that are much more vast than you. Whatever you choose, you will not escape. Its difficulty is often emphasized, and indeed it is inaccessible. Its world is dark, mysterious, and hostile. So are its systems. But there are two things that have stuck with me. One, the aforementioned smallness. Two, the warmth of the bonfire. The bonfires are the game’s safe spaces, places where the darkness of the world cannot reach. They represent the link that binds all the players, and many of the game’s characters, together. Dark Soul’s dead world makes these moments of life all the more vivid. Solaire of Astoria and Siegmeyer of Catalina are beloved characters because they provide companionship and joy in a game full of darkness and death. I dropped off Dark Souls for 3 years, playing pieces, but never the whole. It was that warmth, the joy of community, of common experience, that pushed me through this year.
Bayonetta – Platinum Games
I was nervous going into Bayonetta, having heard both that the game is subversive, feminist power fantasy and a playable pin-up. Instead, I found something in-between. There is no doubt that Bayonetta’s camera is sometimes leering. There is also no doubt that Bayonetta herself is a force of her own. She is no mere avatar, like the nearly silent protagonists of Metro and Titanfall. The entire narrative consists of powerful forces attempting to pin Bayonetta down, to make her a child of prophecy. She avoids all definitions, jumping, diving, slowing time to evade an identity that she doesn’t get to define. Still, she defines herself through a flurry of joyful, dancing violence. Despite the game’s problems, Bayonetta’s body and soul remain her own. In one scene, Bayonetta puts her younger self to sleep, promising her that she will be powerful someday. She claims the right to agency for both a past and future self. The player inherits Bayonetta’s cleverness and strength, but that power is not meaningless and not cruel, rather freeing and exhilarating.
Anodyne – Analgesic Productions
Much like Even the Ocean, Anodyne pulls out of a few simple verbs a whole world of mechanics. Its obvious inspiration is the early Zelda games, most notably Link’s Awakening’s surreal metatext. Anodyne shrinks this formula in scale though. It becomes clear that you are not saving a world, but exploring the player character’s own mind, attempting to kill the trauma found within it. Thus, the game’s weirdness is grounded in a psychological reality. Like Dark Souls, its embrace of its form enables a compelling illusion, unbroken by its jankiness. It draws attention to its own construction. Anodyne’s world asks you not to leave, but to revisit. To poke and prod at its pieces. An already fractured world becomes more fractured. A dream more dreamlike. However, it is not an experience to escape into, but one that is difficult to escape from. After you discover the game’s secrets, it asks you to carry its message of friendship and healing, despite violence and trauma, to the real world. Most games that are critical of their violence blame the player, but Anodyne offers them mercy. It’s a confrontational game that heals rather than condemns.