2016 was the first year ever that I’ve had a full-time job. I completely underestimated what sort of effect the rigidity of such employment would have on the activities that constitute a major part of my public identity even as they were not a major source of income for me; namely: both my academic and critical writing. I wrote less in part because I no longer needed the little bit of money it offered, but primarily because I simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so around my job. This extended to the games that I played. I haven’t played the new Kentucky Route Zero episode, nor have I played Virginia. I’ve only beaten one or two stages of Stephen’s Sausage Roll. I excitedly bought Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor the day it came out and have hardly had a chance to touch it since. After a day at work, I’m more likely to slouch in front of a console or flick my phone in front of a television show than I am to go sit at my desk and play small indie titles.
Suffice to say, my videogame playing this year was rarely up-to-date with the current big releases and in vogue conversations. I missed so many titles and caught up on so many others from previous years. So, like usual, this isn’t a list of ‘the best games of 2016’ because, even if I had been up-to-date on all the year’s releases, arbitrarily compartmentalising games into units of time like that seems weird and unnecessary to me. The true beauty of end-of-year lists is the reflections they afford. As such, this is a list of the best games I played in 2016, regardless of their release date.
The bright side of me not doing much writing this year is that I’ve not had much chance to actually express my thoughts on a lot of these titles before now, so I’m excited to finally do so.
This list is presented alphabetically.
Catacombs of Solaris – Ian Maclarty
Ian Maclarty’s small experimental games often appear on my end-of-year lists. I’ve written numerous times about how much I love his approach to creating videogames. Each of his games is a comprehensive exploration of a single, imaginative interaction. The sense I get from each of his games is that he starts with ‘What if you could do X?’ and then he figures out how to make that work, and then he just sends it out into the world.
Catacombs of Solaris is perhaps his best work yet. With basic first-person controls, you navigate a grid of corridors covered in a ghastly, multi-coloured texture of jarring colours. At first, that’s all there seems to be here. But then you stop walking for a moment and start again, and everything has gone weird. You’re not sure how, exactly, but it has. Corridors have shifted; textures have warped. Everything has just gone weird.
But then you figure out what is actually going on. Every time you stop walking, the game resets your position in this grid of corridors, and replaces the textures in front of you with a screenshot of the perspective you were looking from when you stopped walking. The effect is that the world feels like it is constantly warping around you. It’s an elegant and simple optical illusion that, once you understand it, can be used to paint all sorts of mesmerising patterns. The ghastly speckled texture the game starts with instead becomes your pallet. You search for a green speck next to an orange one and walk close enough to them that they take up your entire screen; now green and orange and your entire world. You focus on a corner where the green vertical line clips into the orange square of the opposite wall and build a complex mosaic of diamonds.
I’ve written before that I sometimes wish the word ‘game’ never got attached to videogames. I wish we thought of them, ontologically, as videotoys. Audiovisual things that you play with. Sometimes in the form of games, sometimes just in the freeform of ‘play’. Catacombs of Solaris is a prime example of what can be achieved when videogames are considered in this way.
Devil Daggers – Sorath
There’s not much I can say about Devil Daggers that has not already been said by smarter, more design-centric people than myself. It’s the distillation of a certain type of twitchy first-person shooter down to the rocket-jumps and strafing and 180’s. The proprioception and the uncanny knowledge of exactly where every enemy is at every moment, including those you haven’t even seen yet.
It’s mechanical and ‘simple’, but this would mean nothing without the sheer dread the game’s style invokes. The giant skulls and demonic figures emerging from the darkness of the short draw-distance or just flitting in and out of existence at its borders. The carefully placed subtle audio cues merging into a soup of demonic utterances.
Not surprisingly, Devil Daggers has reached a cult status among certain aspects of gamer culture just for being ‘difficult’ and ‘hardcore’, but its more exciting achievements are the sensations of stress and anxiety that a fifteen-second play session is able to instil.
Far From Noise – George Batchelor
All my favourite interactive fiction videogames are less than five minutes long. I will strongly defend the legitimacy of Twine videogames and their ilk, but the truth remains that I struggle to stay focused on them for more than a few moments before I’m flicking open another tab and checking Twitter. This is mostly due to my own tastes; a screen of text doesn’t hold me the same way the immediate dopamine feedback of sounds and colours do. I need to work really hard to stay committed to a text-only game, regardless of its quality.
Far From Noise is not ‘text only’, but the only interactions it offers the player are choosing responses to textual conversations. It’s minimally interactive in that way that, if the game is critically successful when it is released, will see the same old recycled and boring murmurings from naysayers about what really is a game, anyway. Far From Noise, however, is not five minutes long; it’s closer to two hours long. Two hours of just looking, reading, and selecting options. It’s a wild and brave choice that is going to turn a lot of people off. It will demand a player that really wants to be captivated and is willing to work to be so.
The context: you play as a young woman who has ended up trapped in her car as it precariously wobbles off the edge of a cliff. For most of the game, the camera frames a single shot of the car on its cliff, swaying to and fro, and the endless ocean beyond. The young woman thinks about her life and her identity and the other sort of existential things one would think about while suspended off a cliff. Occasionally, there are animals that she speaks to, but for the most part this is a monologue between the woman and herself.
Far From Noise is not out yet; I played it when it appeared in my pile of games to judge for the IGF Awards. I’m grateful that this is how I discovered the game; I’m not sure I would have given the game the commitment it deserved if I didn’t feel pressured to do so by the judging process. I expected it to end after fifteen minutes or so but it just kept going, consuming the entire evening I had put aside for judging.
It’s a difficult commitment, but one that allows the game to travel through powerful movements that a shorter game would not be able to explore. Long moments of meditative silence; watching the sun set ever so slowly over the waves; watching the storm come in and hide the stars; being alarmed by the owl that swoops across late in the night. It helps, too, that the writing is good.
Far From Noise asks for a lot from its player, but for those who are willing to oblige, it has a lot to give back.
The Opening Chapters of Final Fantasy XV – Square Enix
Over the last few years, Helen and I have been playing through all the contemporary single-player Final Fantasy games together. We went back and played Final Fantasy XII, which I never finished at the time, and then played Final Fantasy XIII, which I hardly started. Earlier this year, we played most of Final Fantasy X which I did play at the time, but only as a teenage boy already obsessed with the franchise, not critically.
With all three games, I found something truly enjoyable that I hadn’t at the time of their release. At their release, I was mostly just annoyed at how they weren’t like ‘the classic Final Fantasy games’ which, really, just means ‘the Final Fantasy games that were being released when I was 13’. For me, this was VII to IX. But playing the newer titles in retrospect, with a critical eye and a higher literacy in what it means to actually create a triple-a title in all its convoluted messiness, I found all three titles incredibly fascinating in both the ways they worked and the ways they didn’t. XIII in particular is a mess, but it is such an interesting mess. It doesn’t always work, but it is always interesting in the fact it is clearly trying to do something.
It was strange, then to try to play Final Fantasy XV both as the new title in a franchise I have been committed to for over half my life, and as the next title on this trajectory of very interesting hot messes that I’ve given recent critical attention.
Before I go any further, it’s worth stressing this point: Final Fantasy XV is not very good. Last week, I decided to give up on the game. It stopped being an interesting hot mess the way the previous titles were and started being this bland, lazily-stitched-together clump of incoherent scenes. It feels less like an interesting mess of a game that had a difficult development cycle, and more like a game that had a tedious development cycle that eventually just went ‘fuck it, ship it’ and just tossed it out the door. Maybe in five years I will return to it and play it with a new critical eye and find something in the game that I didn’t this time but for now, it is quite simply bad.
But it starts so strongly! I mean, it starts as a mess, but a hot mess rather than the tepid mess it becomes later on. It has such a strong, committed aesthetic in its weird combination of normcore Americana and JRPG fantasy. Driving down an asphalt road past a parking bay looking over a giant crystal while weird dinosaur creatures cross the road is truly spectacular. Even the blunt product placement of Cup Noodle and Colemans feels fitting in this weird, Frankenstein aesthetic. It’s weird but it is never self-conscious about its weirdness. It just is, and it’s all the more powerful for it.
Best of all is the roadtripping. Just how the long, slow, tedious, spiritual sensation of the roadtrip might be adequately captured in a videogame has been an ongoing discussion for some time now. The way the opening chapters of Final Fantasy XV marries traditional JRPG and Western open-world conventions with the need to drive a car around works seamlessly—much more seamlessly than the JRPG and open-world conventions work with each other, anyway. You are on your way to fight a giant dragon, so you pull in at the next servo and eat a hamburger first to increase your maximum HP. You play some pinball while you are there and also buy a CD to play in the car. You top up on fuel and buy some potions and phoenix downs from the farmer’s ute parked out front. Then you get back in the car and you don’t even drive; you just sit in the back seat while your mate drives. You just look around and listen to the music and just hang out.
When you do drive, the game more or less drives for you. You try to drive wildly and illegally and the car pulls you back on track. You push down on the accelerator and you only go the speed limit. You can crash, but not easily. This isn’t a ‘car game’ like Grand Theft Auto. This is a slow, meditative roadtrip game (sometimes, anyway). The way the car functions in this game is not to allow you to do whatever you want with the car, but to allow you to play at being on a roadtrip. This is in the way the car mechanically functions, and the need to both use it and to stop it occasionally. It’s in the mechanics but it is also in the many wonderful animations of the boys in the car: reading a book, stretching out, passing a drink to the driver, taking photos.
Later in the game, elements of the roadtrip survive in the train trip across the new continent. There’s the seed of a promising look at alternative modes of travelling here, but the game itself just completely falls apart to the extend that the train trip is tragically ruined, along with the entire game.
Final Fantasy XV is a bad game not worth playing to completion, but there are so many good ideas in the first half that I hope to see other large titles pick up. The visual style is wonderful; the sense of idleness and waiting is wonderful; the sense of being on a roadtrip is wonderful. The rough outweighs the diamonds offered in this mess of a game, but the diamonds are still beautiful.
Firewatch – Campo Santo
I don’t feel I actually have that much to say about Firewatch, or that I feel it did anything particularly knew or exciting. To be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. Firewatch is a very stunning looking game. I also greatly appreciated the sense of heightened and irrational paranoia it instilled, just like Gone Home (if a bit more crassly). But the big walking simulator of the year also sort of felt like an end of an era for the genre.
No longer is it noteworthy just to exist as a game where you do nothing but navigate, look, and listen as it was when Dear Esther and Proteus were being released. Enough games have done this now for it to no longer be innately exciting. Never mind all the individual creators on itch.io, like Kitty Horrorshow or Connor Sherlock or Strangethink constantly pumping out weird and experimental navigation games.
What was most exciting about Firewatch for me was actually the fact I heard people criticise its story and writing. Not publicly. Publicly the general rule of thumb as a critic is still, justifiably, that you are meant to applaud these games as a normalisation against and a fuck you to the hegemony of game culture that would rather see them not exist at all. But in private conversations, people often picked holes in the story of the game, or commented on the hamminess of the dude setting up elaborate traps to try to scare us away. People gave the game a scrutiny I don’t feel games like Dear Esther or Gone Home received at their release.
I don’t think this is because Firewatch was bad or that it had a bad story. It was beautiful and grounded and was a videogame about real people who wear shorts and have messy relationships. All of that is commendable. Rather, I think it is because the genre of games where you walk around and look and listen and experience beyond just acting onto a world is becoming so accepted now that we can start to be more critical towards its individual texts and start demanding even more of them.
Giraffe Volleyball Championship 2016 – Sandwich Puissant
One of the best things about teaching game design full-time is having more opportunities to play local multiplayer videogames with people. Giraffe Volleyball Championship 2016 is a very simple two-player game where two giraffes play volleyball. The heads lag behind the bodies, allowing you to ‘kick’ with them, while both the neck and legs can be extended and shortened. It’s a very simple and elegant design, and it’s a lot of fun.
Hidden My Game by Mom! – Hap inc.
One of my greatest joys in 2016 has been discovering the mobile games of Hap Inc. Each of their games have this charming sense of humour not just in isolated jokes but in clever callbacks and teasings of the player. Freekick and Toast Girl are both great, but it is their more recent game, Hidden My Game By Mom! which was both my introduction to them and my persisting favourite.
In each stage, the protagonist’s mother has hidden their Nintendo DS, and the player must locate it by tapping on the various parts of the screen. This starts simply enough: it’s hidden under the couch or behind a curtain. But things get more complicated when you accidentally reveal your mother behind the curtain and get busted for trying to play games. Or when there is a crocodile in your living room, or an entire football team. Things escalate in a silly and absurd way, but with an internal logic that is mostly consistent except when it is exploiting the player as the butt of a joke.
The game makes every joke and challenge it possibly could with the setup it develops (including, on one level, hiding the DS in the game’s pause menu), and then it ends exactly when it should end with an amusing and heartwarming conclusion.
I didn’t play a game in 2016 as charming, funny, or self-aware as Hidden My Game By Mom!. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Imbroglio – Michael Brough
Michael Brough’s games are always mechanically and strategically elegant. His previous cyberpunk roguelike, 868-Hack and his Geometry Wars-like Helix are some of my favourite mobile titles ever. Imbroglio is fascinating both for its own inherent elegance, and as a clear result of Brough setting himself specific design restrictions. He wanted to see just how small a grid he could create a roguelike on, and to then overcome the design challenges this small grid imposes.
Imbroglio is a roguelike played out on a 4×4 grid of tiles, with set enemy types spawning at each corner. The player must collect stars to gain points, and each time they do so walls randomly relocate to create a different layout. Each tile, meanwhile, is a particular weapon of the player’s choosing. When the player is standing on that tile, they attack with the weapon on that tile. Before each game, the player must carefully decide what weapons to place where, considering both the character’s strengths and weaknesses, and where particular enemies are most likely to be encountered.
It’s complicated at first, but Brough’s games usually are. Brough is content to let a game be initially difficult in exchange for the deep satisfaction that comes with learning that system over time and for developing personalised strategies with which to approach it. The ability to see what board layout was used by each player on the leaderboards is an inspired choice, too.
Imbroglio is also stylistically very different from Brough’s previous titles, with a whimsical hand-drawn pencil style replacing his usual black-and-fluro pixel art. The sound design is very clever, too, with guitar strums of a number of strings equal to the attack power of a weapon.
Imbrolio is clever and elegant, and speaks to Brough’s consistent inventiveness while still having a very clear and persistent oeuvre. As an aside, the dev diaries Brough has been writing about Imbroglio since its release are all worth a read.
Mini Metro – Dinosaur Polo Club
There’s something innately satisfying about subway maps. The incoherent mess of railways and train stations so neatly and consistently laid out. Mini Metro turns the abstract symbols of the subway map into the thing it is is representing, asking the player to build and manage an ever-increasingly complex system of train lines.
I was surprised, when I finally played it, to realise Mini Metro is not a SimCity-lite sort of deal, but a more straightforward arcade fare that asks you to just keep going until you fail. But it still manages to not be too fast-paced. It gives you time to think, and time to sit back and just look at the temporarily self-sustaining rail network you’ve built. It’s an ‘arcade’ game but one that goes at its own calm, methodical pace.
Mini Metro is a textbook example of ‘good’ design principles, not unlike subway maps themselves. All the information you need is clearly visible at all times. Even after the map has become a tangle of different train lines and stations, it is always clear what track you are moving and which station you are selection.
One could, I think, easily be cynical of Mini Metro as a sort of ‘design porn’ in its sterility, but considering it is a game about subway maps, its a tone that makes perfect sense, and one that nicely marries the satisfaction of a city-building game with the quick pleasures of a mobile arcade game.
No Man’s Sky – Hello Games
About a week before No Man’s Sky was released, I had a look at the comments on a promoted Sony Facebook post of one of the game’s trailers. All these people were so excited about exploring this galaxy with their friends, or for taking over a planet and building a base. I was excited (perhaps even ‘hyped’) for No Man’s Sky in a way I rarely allow myself to become, and for the first time in many years, I engaged with preview material. I watched all the trailers and read all the developer interviews. Every time Sean Murray sat down with IGN to play the game for 20 minutes, I was there to watch it. Every time he would stress how not every planet would be as interesting as this one, that a lot of them will just be plain old boring. And so, when people on Facebook were talking about multiplayer and basebuilding and adventures, I was perplexed as to how so many people could have the wrong idea about what this game was.
No Man’s Sky is like Dark Souls in the way that it offers a very niche experience for a people who want a very particular thing out of videogames, but a niche experience that flirts very closely to dominant myths of what videogames should offer. For Dark Souls, that myth is super hardcore difficulty that proves you are a real gamer. There is so much more to Dark Souls than its difficulty, but its difficulty allowed it to become this awkwardly gatekeeping elite gamer-game, despite its intrinsic nicheness. No Man’s Sky, on the other hand, is a very niche experience about walking around and looking at cool environments. But the promise of No Man’s Sky ‘infinite universe’ flirts with the myth of ‘endless content’. The ‘endlessly replayable’ videogame that encompasses all other videogames. The ur-videogame that generations of videogames have been progressing towards. The promised land.
Of course, No Man’s Sky doesn’t deliver the promised land. No game will ever deliver the promised land. Whereas Dark Souls’s niche-that-aligns-with-a-dominant-myth brought it safely into the gamer’s canon, No Man’s Sky’s alignment with the promise of endless content brought it into the gamer’s crosshairs.
It’s a complex issue with no entirely innocent actors. Perhaps Hello Games could have done more to dampen the hype that built up around the game. They could have explicitly said features would not exist in the game instead of being hopeful that they will appear. However, having followed the promotional material of the game so closely and then receiving exactly the game I thought I was going to receive, I am skeptical that that would have changed anything. Perhaps the only thing that would have changed anything is if Sony never thrust Hello Games into the gamer spotlight to begin with.
At this point you’re probably sighing about the fact I am still going on about No Man’s Sky’s negative reception. I don’t do this because one of my favourite games of recent time was disliked by so many. As I said, the game offers a very particular and niche experience. I don’t expect most people to enjoy it. Why I keep going on about its reception is because the way gamer culture, Sony, and the gaming press treated (and continues to treat) the human beings that work at Hello Games is one of the more shameful and frustrating acts of games culture in 2016.
Hating No Man’s Sky has become the cool thing to do. It was the cool thing to do before the game was even released. To be all high-and-mighty and point out that, actually, procedural content often all looks the same. To chuckle about how you are wise and good and remember the lessons of Spore. To be above all that hype. Hating No Man’s Sky has become a meme. I see students who never would have played the game—students learning game design of all things—mocking it and treating the developers like some sort of joke. Worst of all, I see journalists jumping on the ‘lies’ of an indie developer clearly thrown out of his depth without asking any questions about how the giant corporation responsible for the game’s advertising might have had a role in this. Reaffirming gamer narratives is prioritised over questioning corporate responsibilities.
What I find most disheartening about the reaction to No Man’s Sky is that the videogame press learned nothing from its mistakes after Gamergate. To stress: the harassment Hello Games has received is nothing at all close to the death threats and abuse the women and queer developers targeted by Gamergate received. Nothing at all. However, just like during Gamergate, establishment game journalism chose to stand with the gamer status quo rather than stand up for a creator who, on the one side, was being clearly taken advantage of by a big publisher and, on the other side, were being attacked by the consumer culture the industry cultivates and depends on. Just like with Gamergate, the publishers and the journalists chose to side with the abusers instead of those creators being attacked.
Here are two facts that can’t both be true simultaneously:
1. Videogames are art.
2. Everything said about a videogame before its release is a promise about what features will be included.
Videogames are creative works, and creativity is messy. My students make promises about what will be in their game one day and the next day the game is something radically different. That is how creativity works. You can’t both think that videogames have creative value and expect ‘preview’ material to be 100% accurate as a list of ‘features’ instead of as a general sense of ‘desired experience’. Advertising Standards would seem to agree. The hate that No Man’s Sky received—primarily in the press but in game culture more generally—was frustrating in large part because it showed a clear disconnect with what the videogame consumer culture wants games to be as products, and how they are created as works, and it showed that journalists are more interested in supporting this false divide than critiquing it.
Of course, it is more complicated than that when creativity is caught up with and dependent on consumerism under capitalism, but the point still stands: it is wrong that we consider anything said before a game’s release by the developer as a ‘promise’, and it is only corporations that benefit from thinking in such a way.
Time and time again, with every new consumer/gamer hegemony drama, games culture has shown itself to ‘critically’ attack individual human creators who have names and faces while expressing a general apathy to large corporate actors who actually commit the shady practices the individuals are accused of in dramatic conspiracy theories. It’s a lazy sort of criticality that just goes after the easiest targets rather than the most deserving.
No Man’s Sky is a beautiful and wonderful experience for a very particular audience that wants to walk around and look at stunning scenery and feel small under the weight of a procedural Nature. The same gamer culture that violently proclaimed that Twine games don’t belong on Steam have now said that experiences such as No Man’s Sky don’t belong on store shelves, and no one with much of a voice said otherwise. We lament the homogeneity and safeness of the triple-a game space and then we do nothing when someone does something experimental but imperfect in that space and gets lambasted for it.
The true lesson of No Man’s Sky is not that advertising can’t be trusted, but that core videogame culture, from the publishers to the journalists to the gamers themselves, have no interest in any sort of change or progress or diversification of experiences.
No Man’s Sky is a mesmerising and meditative experience that I will undoubtedly be returning to on and off again for the next few years. It has clear design flaws worthy of criticism such as incoherent tutorials and obnoxious HUD markers, but these are criticisms that are detached from anything that was ‘promised’ before release. It is a game purely and entirely about exploration for the sake of exploration. Not to fill in a map or to reach some quantitative level of completion but for the intrinsic pleasure of seeing what is out there, which is precisely what we were told it would be.
What is out there that no one, not even the developers have seen before? That is the true promise of procedurally generated worlds. Not the ‘endless content’ many thought the game was promising, but the unknown configuration of known parts that might be out there somewhere. The pleasure of No Man’s Sky is walking over a mountain under the shadow of a giant moon you were just on, and cresting it to see the most absurd structure of stone or ocean or meadow and knowing that no one, not a single soul, has ever seen this before. It’s beautiful and spiritual and most of all intrinsic in the pleasures it offers, and thanks to the vile reaction of press and gamers alike, it is going to be a long time before anyone dares attempt something like it again. That is the true tragedy of No Man’s Sky.
Rain World – Joar Jakobsson and James Primate
Rain World isn’t out yet, but is another title I had the pleasure of playing during IGF judging. I’ve followed it for quite some time on Twitter, thanks mainly to its beautiful and fluid animations that are perfect for promotional tweets. Rain World feels like a mix of Knytt Stories‘s exploration and Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysey quiet vulnerability. You inhabit and slowly explore a dangerous environment as a catlike creature, catching prey while avoid being prey yourself.
The environments are eerie, lonely, and industrial, but it is the character animations that makes Rain World so satisfying to play. The catlike creature can climb, sneak, grab, crawl, slither around each screen with ease. Scrambling away from a prowling predator or pouncing on a moth from up high feels fluid and catlike in a very natural way.
Rain World is also a very slow game, with a very particular rhythm. You’re not constantly progressing but making camp and prodding at your surroundings for a few days before you dare move on to the next base. Spend too long outside without finding another safe space and the nightmarish rains come and wash you away. It’s a rhythm and a world I look forward to spending more time getting to know in the new year.
Really Bad Chess – Zach Gage
I don’t really like Chess. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I don’t like Chess’s esteemed place in the game canon. This idea that it is this perfectly elegant game. It’s an idea that only works if you privilege certain things: mechanics, intellectual strategy, a small set of rules producing a vast range of different outcomes. In the critical and academic discourse around games, Chess is held up as this exemplar of game design that can suggest all other games should try to be Chess. It becomes a circle: Chess is the perfect example of games that are like Chess. It’s frustrating and tiring, but probably only because I spend so much of my time reading about games critically and academically. Most people probably don’t care.
Regardless, this is the main reason Really Bad Chess appealed to me: its irreverence towards the ‘perfect’ rules of Chess. Really Bad Chess takes normal Chess and then randomises which pieces each team gets (but always with one King), so that you might be fighting a battle with all knights or no bishops of five queens. Your pawns might be in the back row a the start. Really Bad Chess walks right past the ‘Do Not Touch’ sign around the Chess display and smears its grubby fingerprints all over it. It feels scandalous and sacrilege: you can’t do that to Chess! How dare you!
It makes the game somewhat amusing; it’s hard to take it too seriously when you’re fighting a whole army of queens. But, ironically, it also helped me actually understand and appreciate real Chess. By taking them out of their usual context, I gained a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each piece and what they were capable of. I didn’t feel like I was trying to get into a game with centuries of strategy already built up that I would need to learn or at least respect. It was all grubby and messed up now, letting me do what I want with it and, thus, letting me feel comfortable to actually learn Chess.
I remain really bad at it. But by knocking over its pedestal and messing with Chess, Really Bad Chess helped make Chess more accessible to me as a game I wanted to understand.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and The Dice of Fate – Chunsoft
The PlayStation Vita remains my favourite piece of videogame hardware that I’ve ever handled, but with each passing year Sony seems less and less interested in supporting the handheld console in any meaningful way. This year, the convolutedly named Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and The Dice of Fate was the only new Vita title I really engaged with (with the exception of the much-awaited Nuclear Throne port that is perfectly at home on the Vita).
Shiren the Wanderer comes from a line of roguelike games in the Mystery Dungeon franchise, or so I understand it. It seems to be one of those complex franchise ancestries that breaks off and merges with other franchises here and there. It’s a franchise I’ve never engaged with previously and which provides a dazzling number of rules and systems and conventions and ideas in a very short amount of time.
It looks and feels like it should be obtuse and difficult to learn. It’s a sort of janky and very unforgiving tile-based roguelike. It uses that serif font you only see in Japanese games of a certain middle-ground budget. Yet, somehow, Shiren the Wanderer manages to feel welcoming and accessible, easing you into its systems and making concessions around its own jankiness. That’s all very vague sounding but I have great difficulty in pinning down exactly what I mean by this. I wrote out this example of the sort of ‘deliberate jankiness’ of the game earlier this year:
The best example I can think of is the pots. You have a pretty limited inventory and it is going to fill up very quickly. There’s no way to see what an item is before you walk over it, and walking over it will either automatically pick the item up or pause you to notify you, once again, that your inventory is full so you can’t pick up [what the item actually is]. So you end up playing the whole game with essentially a full inventory, walking over different items to see what they are, and deciding if you should be swapping it for something else you are carrying. Oh, another revive grass. I should take that. I guess I’ll drop this sword I was carrying just to sell. One of the types of items you can find is pots. Pots take up one space in your inventory, but you can put things in pots, effectively creating sub-inventories for you to use. Some pots you can only open by throwing them at a wall and smashing them, scattering the items on the ground. Other pots have special abilities, like the Synthesis Pot that takes several weapons and merges their abilities into one weapon. But the main kind of pot you encounter is the Preservation Pot. This pot allows you to both place individual items into them, and to take individual items back out. Further, any food placed in a Preservation Pot don’t rot over time, which is important. I pretty much play with my inventory three-quarters full of Preservation Pots. But Preservation Pots aren’t risk free. Enemies can curse items, rendering them unusable. If an enemy curses a Preservation Pot, all the items inside it are now unaccessible until you lift the curse, so you’re in trouble if all your Revive Grass in a the one pot. If you walk over a trip trap, you fall over and drop a few random items. If you drop a Preservation Pot, it might shatter. Suddenly, you don’t have room for all the items you were already carrying. Some monsters throw dirt at you, which can get stuck in a pot and take up the available slots. Sometimes you will find a character who will enhance or identify all your weapons not in pots, so if you were keeping a stash inside a pot, well sucks to be you. So you end up with this complex balancing game of inventory management: deciding what items you should put where. Making sure all your eggs aren’t in one pot, so to speak. This could quickly get frustrating and boring, but the interface, as janky as it looks, encourages these really nice rhythms of menu navigation. When standing on an item you can’t pick up, opening your menu gives you access to ‘Backpack’ (your inventory) or ‘Feet’ (whatever item you are standing on). This allows you to use items on the ground without first having to be able to pick them up. When you choose a pot in your backpack or at your feet and click ‘Insert’, you can choose items from both your backpack or your feet to put in the pot. So if I come across a scroll I want, I don’t have to make room in my inventory and then move it to a pot, I can just pick it up off the ground and put it straight in the pot. I can also put items in pots on the ground. If you try to buy something with a full inventory, the merchant will tell you you can’t do that. Unless you have a Preservation Pot with some free slots. Then the merchant will offer to place the item directly in the pot for you.
Pots, at the same time, feel clumsy and arbitrarily awkward and like a solution to something that only exists as a relic of the past (limited inventory space), and like a core mechanic that is truly satisfying to engage with. Much of Shiren the Wanderer is inventory management, but the menus themselves are a simple pleasure to navigate, both obtuse and fluid in the right ways, that is all just works.
The game also looks stunning in its intricate SNES-era pixel art full of colour and style. The cherry blossoms and waterfalls and sunrises and monsters are some of the best pixel-rendered art I’ve seen in a videogame in recent years, made all the more stunning on the Vita’s screen.
Everything about Shiren the Wanderer feels like it should be hostile to newcomers. The legacy of its franchise(s); the ruthlessness of its roguelike ancestry; the complex interlocking of systems and enemies and upgrades and risk/rewards and turns and day/night cycles; the name that is over a third of a tweet long. But it remains such a warm joy to not only play but to learn. It is standoffish in the right ways, and it is there to hold your hand in the right ways. Never too punishing and never too pandering.
Slime Time – Incredible Ape
Many years ago now, on a whim, I started playing Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box. It absolutely consumed me for a whole weekend and then some. I just couldn’t stop playing it. It is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling actually addicted to a game. I don’t just mean that I really liked it. I mean something about the feel and rhythm of it tapped into me in some really base, carnal way and it wouldn’t let go of me. The crunchiness of it and the quickness of it. The ‘just one more’ mentality mixed with the feeling that I could easily do better next time. I just made a silly mistake this time, that’s all. I would decide that, right, after five more games I will stop playing, and then an hour later I would still be there.
Earlier this year I downloaded Slime Time based on a gif tweeted by the official itch.io twitter account (which I strongly recommend following for game recommendations). It was the only game I played for that entire weekend. It was a relapse of sorts. It was Super Crate Box all over again. I just couldn’t stop. It felt too good, and I knew I could do better.
Slime Time is a game built around the absurd kickback of the guns in a Vlambeer game. You can’t ‘move’ per se; you can only fire left, right, or down, and in doing so move right, left, or up. You are in an arena with no floor and enemies popping out of the walls and ground to kill you. You are always falling. So you shoot down on this near constant rhythm to keep yourself from plunging into the acid, and you shoot left and right to take out the enemies and to dodge their projectiles at the same time.
It’s complicated, hectic, and inaccurate. But it has such a rhythm to it! I love videogames where you rarely touch the ground, those games where you do Dragon Ball Z mid-air combos for infinity. Slime Time taps into that sensation because from start to finish, your character has not stopped falling. You’re just suspended here trying your best not to die for the 30 seconds or so your play session lasts.
But most important of all is the attention to game feel. The screen shake and the music and the audio feedback and the rate of fire. Slime Time feels really good. Not in any particularly new or novel way, but in a really comfortable conventional way.
Slime Time is a very special little game that I think is easily on par with the stuff Vlambeer were producing five years ago. If 2017 gives me anything, I hope it is Slime Time on my Vita.
Thumper – Drool
For five stages, Thumper was my perfect rhythm game. It prioritised a sense of integration with the music over simple score gaining or rigid timing. Tracks went for a long time, giving you time and space to really sync with the synaesthesic experience in a way that a game like Dyad rarely allowed. They were almost too long, invoking a sort of temporal claustrophobia along with the more general claustrophobia the game induces. Most importantly of all: Thumper never felt like it was punishing me for missing a beat. I mean, I might die and respawn sometimes, but I never felt like my experience of the audiovisuals was ever punished by missing a beat in the same way you lose the vocals of Garbage’s Cherry Lips if you stuff it up in Amplitude.
That was for the first five stages. Stage six introduced a new mechanic. Every stage introduced a new mechanic. Usually these combined with the previously introduced mechanics in interesting ways that typically introduced a new button or gesture into the mix, so that each level felt like you were building up an ensemble of moves that might be called upon at any time. Stage six, however, just altered an existing mechanic. Now, when you miss particular beats, you get damaged in the way you previously only got damaged when you hit a wall. Get damaged twice, and you respawn at the last checkpoint.
This added nothing to the rich tapestry the game had been building while making it all the more difficult. It didn’t encourage me to play any better—of course I was already trying to hit the beats! But it punished me more when I slipped up. It was an ill-conceived difficulty jump that messed up so much of what the game had done well up to that point. Once I got to the boss at the end of Stage six, I gave up. No longer could I repeat on endless loop each stage of the boss until I learned it. Now I had this stop-start dying-respawning jilted rhythm preventing me from learning anything. I quit the game and haven’t gone back.
Which is really tragic as those first five stages are staggeringly good. It’s a rhythm game that doesn’t just go for the same easy techno tunes that is the genre standard. It finds its own music and then reimagines the rhythm game genre to fit that music, and it does it so meticulously.
The game builds a palpable sense of dread and anxiety as it whine and screeches at you, rattling your head not so much around its corners as into them, slamming you this way and that way. I got a callous on my thumb from playing it not because I was pressing so many buttons but because I was pressing the button so hard. My entire body was tense and on edge playing this game and all that tenseness just pushed my thumb into the gamepad like teeth ground through a nightmare. It had a particular sensation it wanted to evoke in the bodies of its players, and it injected it right in there through the thumbs and the eyeballs and the ears. Right until Stage Six ruins everything.
A side note: it was so great to see synaesthesic and abstract experiences headlining Sony’s dive into Virtual Reality, rather than just ‘triple-a videogames but closer to your face’. While Thumper is no worse for being played on a normal television, it’s also exactly the sort of videogame that should be encouraged for VR, and to see Sony do so is really great.
Another side note: Garret Martin’s review of the game is really good.
Titanfall 2 – Respawn
The best military shooter campaign since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Titanfall 2 took everything that was satisfying about Titanfall’s mechanics—being real nimble as a pilot and real powerful as a titan—and managed a way to make that into a single player campaign. They couldn’t give you access to the titan the whole time, because the game wouldn’t work. But they couldn’t destroy your titan like they could in a multiplayer arena, because that wouldn’t make sense. Instead, they made the titan a companion character that at times you are with and at times you are separated from, allowing the game to ebb and flow between the swift wallrunning of being a pilot and the invincible might of being a titan.
The campaign is also endlessly inventive with the situations it throws at the player. Most are just interesting in the environmental challenges they offer, or the spectacular scenery they provide. One mission sees the player work their way down a conveyor belt of platforms slowly being developed into bits of town and populated with mannequin to end up emerging among the fabricated training fields under holographic skies. Even the obligatory sewer level near the start of the game entices the player with various paths to move through and over and around.
But it’s the “Effect and Cause” stage with its swiftly implemented and then swiftly tossed-aside time travel that steals the show. Imagine if Half-Life 2 gave you the gravity gun for exactly one stage, giving you just enough time to realise how freaking cool this is, and then taking it away again. Titanfall 2 does that and it works so well. You learn how to use it, you use it, then you stop using it before it gets old.
This is made more possible by the fact the whole game is only about 4 hours long, which is one of its greatest strengths. There is no sense that the game has been stretched out to make it ‘worth’ its price tag. There’s no arbitrary amount of content here. Just a well paced and great feeling and incredibly tight shooter campaign that I will undoubtedly play over and over again in the future.
Train Conductor World – The Voxel Agents
A good year for mobile train games. Train Conductor World is a sequel to The Voxel Agents original hit, Train Conductor, that asks the player to switch trains between lines to avoid head on collisions and send the trains to the correct track. A straightforward game that was successful like all early mobile games for simply really thinking about what sort of games a touchscreen device encourages.
Train Conductor World is pretty much the same game with a nice graphical overhaul, but with a really nice meta-game of progression added. As you play you unlock different pieces of track. These track pieces are then used on the overworld map to connect different train stations and unlock new levels. I found plotting out my rail network between the different levels immensely satisfying, and it had me devoted to the game than I otherwise would’ve. Probably my favourite straight up ‘casual’ mobile game of the year.
Transformers: Devastation – Platinum Games
The greatest triumph of Transformers: Devastation is that it feels just like a Transformers game and it feels just like a Platinum game. It’s not just Transformers with a veneer of Platinum. It’s not just Platinum with a veneer of Transformers. It’s the perfect marriage of two aesthetic wholes that complement each other greatly.
Devastation looks and sounds like the cartoon series I obsessed over in the 1990s with these starburst colours that just glow on the screen. The bright blue sky and pink energy cubes and green and yellow robots all look the part. And there the game could’ve stopped, just relying on the nostalgic quality. Instead, Platinum have crafted an intricate and intense fighting game up there with Vanquish and Bayonetta.
There’s the typical Platinum sense of progression. You fight a bunch of small enemies and feel pretty good about yourself. Then you hit a boss and get demolished. Then you demolish the boss two tries later. Then you confront two lots of that boss at the same time and surprise yourself when you don’t get hit once. It’s intense and unforgiving and demands you learn quickly, and it somehow just works.
But, again, it’s not just a fighting game with a visual veneer of Transformers. Devastation thinks about how a fighting game of giant robots who turn into cars and jets should work. Transforming is as simple as holding down R1, and turning into a car becomes just part of your combo system, so that you are knocking enemies over as a car, transforming to punch them a few times, then smashing them again as a car. It’s seamless and satisfying.
Clumped in with all this is an overly complex upgrade and weapon synthesis system that is entirely unnecessary but which points to the general depth and effort and care in this game that could have very easily just been another lazy branding exercise.
Triennale Game Collection – Mario von Rickenback & Christian Etter; Tale of Tales; Cardboard Computer; Pol Clarissou; Katie Rose Pipkin
A virtual exhibition of videogames created as part of the XXI Triennale International Exhibition in Milan. It’s always great to see art institutions supporting videogames, especially when those supported are some of the most exciting independent developers currently creating games.
Released for mobile, each of the small games in the collection is a playful and thoughtful little scenario. Some ask you to explore spaces, others ask you to explore objects. Together, they present a rich and vibrant body of original works.
Uncharted 4 – Naughty Dog
A fourth Uncharted game felt about as necessary as a fourth Indiana Jones film. Uncharted 3 wrapped things up nicely enough and, also, was the weakest of the trilogy despite several great set pieces. I was pretty happy to let the franchise rest. Yet Naughty Dog managed to justify Uncharted 4’s existence by using it as an opportunity to address some of the criticisms of its previous games while also going all out on the new set pieces.
While the game never reaches the series’ pinnacle of Uncharted 2’s opening, it also doesn’t introduce zombies or demons or blue men in the final act, either, which is a net gain overall. The drawn out car chase through city streets and mud and workyards is particularly memorable.
Uncharted is often criticised for the number of people that Drake kills, which I often feel misses the point. To be sure, we should never be ambivalent about the fact that so many videogames are so very casual about the act of shooting a bunch of dudes. But the gun violence of Uncharted to me always felt more akin to the gunning down of Stormtroopers or Nazis in Star Wars or Indiana Jones rather than the bloody violence of Grand Theft Auto or the self-righteous militarism of Call of Duty. I enjoyed Uncharted 4’s own shrug at this with the ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ trophy for killing a bunch of dudes. Like, yeah, we know this is weird and jarring, but that’s what this is.
The game also does a good job with accessibility and difficulty setting that ensure the game rarely becomes a Gears of War shooter. At the easier difficulties, shootouts just feel like cinematic skirmishes that you can be a part of without ever really having to be ‘good’ at them.
Ultimately, Uncharted 4 is just more Uncharted. But for a few down moments, it’s been a consistently good romp of a franchise that rarely tries to be something its not and never takes itself too seriously.