Time got away from me. I could have passed on doing this altogether, never published it and nobody would have cared, but I’d know. I’d know and that would gnaw at me. This is a wrap up to 2016. In a way, this is an exercising of the last remnants of that year. Things haven’t improved overall, but carrying on any psychic baggage that could otherwise be compartmentalized away from the present is something I don’t want to do and cannot afford myself.
I would not have to say such a thing had I not wasted half a year before beginning to write this in the first place. It would have come out among all the other year end wrap ups and would have been considered alongside them. It would have been part of the annual ritual of consideration and consolidation. There is an argument against such pageantry to be had. It’s commodifying art, a function of capitalistic imposition against works that shouldn’t be subject to the hollowing out effect. It’s meaningless attributation of objective fact upon subjective reality. It’s a stifling competition of disparate works compared only along arbitrary guidelines.
I don’t care.
Or it used to be. Even last year when I was 5 months late in getting my list out, it was still an effort of enjoyment. However, such a year end list, along with all retrospectives serve another purpose that I feel gets lost in among all the other reasons. One that came sharply into focus with this year. It’s an act of purging.
We purge ourselves of the previous year. Everything is collected up into a single lump, cataloged, notated and then filed away leaving room for the new. Were there ever a year I needed purged more. With this, I cut the last few tendrils tying me back.
Disclaimer: The whole thing took so long because of a self imposed list of games I wanted to play through and consider before deciding upon my final list. However, despite the extra time, too many games came out and I could not play them all. I have not touched Mafia III, Dark Souls III, Dishonored 2, Watch Dogs 2, The Witness, Hitman and many many more, so don’t expect them to make an appearance.
Without further adieu:
On its surface there’s no reason for Steep to work as well as it does, mired as it is in the Ubisoft open world formula. Yet, thanks to some combination of full dedication to self directed play and a highly detailed world completely uninterested in the player’s effect upon it, the game became a sublime experience.
The mountain is uncaring. There are huge amounts of things to do on the mountain that you can check off, but they don’t alter the world in any way. Each of these things are challenges for the player to test themselves against the mountain. The mountain itself remains unchanged. The mountain can be experienced, revealed and conquered, but never altered. Even as a digital construct, the mountain is older and more lasting than any other video game world I can recall. It does not progress. Its time, its geology is measured in eons, not days, weeks, months or years of the video game story. As such I can challenge myself to explore the mountain’s contours to marvel at its beauty, challenge myself against the clock as I ride the mountain’s contours to marvel at my speed, challenge myself against points to master the mountain’s contours to marvel at my skill, or simply traverse the mountain, ignoring all challenges and simply be in the mountain’s presence.
Several times I found myself simply climbing the mountain, ignoring the fast travel to the top. The crunch of the snow beneath my feet kept me company and the vistas kept me entertained. Every so often I would stumble upon some tiny mountain lodge or village or half buried castle tucked away behind some fold of rock hidden until stumbled upon and be in awe of its existence as much as I was when marching along the tallest ridge on top of the world. I was there in nature and it was as effecting as the adrenaline rush as squirrel suiting out of a hot air balloon.
The game lets me switch my focus on a dime. One minute struck in awe by the mountain and the next, completely engrossed in the extreme sports, trying to master one of the game’s many challenges. For as long as it took me to complete said challenge and win a medal, I’d be absolutely obsessed with this tiny corner of the world. It wouldn’t matter how many retries it would take to beat that best time, hit that target score or just pull off the extreme sport acrobatics asked of me, I’d become hyper focused to win.
Then there’s that moment. After all the retries, after learning the course so well through sheer repetition, I’d hit that goal, earn my medal and continue on. There’s no reason to go to the menu to jump back up the mountain. There’s more mountain ahead of me. After so much time traversing the now well known path of the race, I’d shift seamlessly into the unknown and the as of yet unexplored majesty of the mountain.
9. Doom (2016)
More so than any other shooter I tried this year, Doom is dictated by the rhythm of its action. The Doom Marine’s character as gleaned from cutscenes and his animations is built to kill the denizens of hell. That alone gives us impunity to do so. Not that we needed it. For all the power fantasies shooters have offered us, the loop of shoot, glory kill, repeat becomes a macho ballet of viscera and death. The well considered combat design, the thumping metal soundtrack and the red tinged color pallet combine together into an awesome hell destroying power trip.
All of that is good, yet, my praise is for what the game adds that it didn’t need to. Without the narrative, without the mythos and without the character seemed into every corner of my time playing, it would have been a satisfying experience in shooting and killing. It is a master of the ultra-violence. Most players would have been happy and their omission would not have effected the game’s bottom line. But Doom still goes that extra step.
It explains why hell is coming through a portal on Mars: a man’s hubris and mankind’s greed. There’s more of a rational and politicking going on behind that simplified reason, but the Doom Marine interrupts. He hasn’t time for their bullshit, he has demons to kill. We are shown a narrative that explains why we’re running from one end of the facility to the other chasing a mad cult leader worshiping the denizens of hell, but then we shoot first and the questions are left unasked and unanswered. Logs and artifacts hint just enough to get a picture, but never intrudes on our reason d’être. Broad strokes are enough, we don’t need to sweat the details.
Then in hell, our profession is mythologized. We are the Doom Slayer and are the feared boogieman to the unholy monsters. We are deity of destruction to who we’ve been satisfyingly slaying by the hundreds over the course of the game. There is an ancient order of Doom Slayers of which we are the most recent incarnation. In the final levels, the spirits of the previous members point us the way to our next objectives. And with this twist on the basic, if goofy, Doom concept, we become more than just another violent being with a lot of guns on our back. The Doom Marine becomes part of something greater and, by extension, so do we.
This more than anything sold me on Doom being not just a great shooter, but an exceptional one. It elevates the pleasurable play loop of run and gun into an almost religious experience. We are not a godly warrior, but a demon’s demon. In the face of the religious madness in the breakdown caused by those man made evils — capitalism, imperialism, fanaticism — we are framed as a purifying figure awakened to kill the manifestations of those evils. The details aren’t important, we just the need to kill and end them.
8. The Last Guardian
Many years ago, there was the assertion that games will have arrived when one can make you cry. It’s such a facile and reductive statement regarding both the effects of art and multitudinous manifestations of personal emotions, but persisted for a long time. Still, way back when, I started keeping a running tally of the how many works in various mediums that achieved this with me. I still keep the list. At current count, five movies, three TV episodes, two comic issues, zero books and four video games have made me cry. The Last Guardian was the third video game to pull that off.
I still remember that Penny Arcade comic from many years ago in the wake of The Last Guardian‘s original reveal. It was a joke about how by the end of the game, either the boy or the bird/cat/dog would die and we would all feel sad. Despite all the close calls over the course of our adventure, neither I nor my companion died, and yet, in that final cinematic sequence I lost it and the waterworks commenced. Years later people thought it a spoiler that a main character died in The Last of Us because a reviewer commented that he cried during the game. We still have reductive and facile ideas about art and emotion.
Thankfully, the developers of The Last Guardian didn’t go for cheap pathos. They took their time to build up a relationship between the creature and myself through play and circumstance. The game truly is a technical triumph of AI and an artistic triumph of putting it to proper use. The game is a series of emotional building blocks disguised as levels. Each block help build another step in our relationship. They provided challenges for us to overcome together and probably more importantly, had us engage in aftercare. The separated the bond from the pure goal oriented mindset of the gamer, a mindset that is all too easy to slip into. Then they trusted that the bond they helped me crafted with my digital companion would be enough to carry the weight of the emotion without needing to break it to break me. Ultimately, the final emotional tears were not of sadness, nor joy. They were the strange and complex mix of relief, contentedness, awe and nostalgia for our time together.
The story is simple and its themes are likewise. These are usually what I gravitate towards when digging in to evaluate a game as great or not, but it will always be about the execution. A simple idea told complexly, a simple idea explored in humanizing detail is worth just as much. These are skills often overlooked and underappreciated, yet Ueda and his team seemed masters of them in their trilogy of works. I couldn’t help but see The Last Guardian‘s ending as a reflection of my time with these creative minds and how that time is now over. A perfect swan song not just as a great game, but in the details that allowed them to metaphorically say goodbye.
7. That Dragon, Cancer
The Last Guardian was the third game to make me cry; That Dragon, Cancer was the fourth. I worried for a long time how I would react to actually playing That Dragon, Cancer. Would I feel nothing? Would I just be able to admire the craftsmanship and the challenge they undertook? Would the game only be of interest to me on a metalevel for all it symbolized in the current climate of the medium? Given that the game was about a very personal thing for the developers, the death of their infant child to cancer, I was worried it wouldn’t effect me and no one wants to be the asshole who says the story of your child dying of cancer didn’t move them.
Thankfully, to my own selfish mind at least, it did. The game’s subject matter would have allowed it for easy manipulation of the player’s feelings and maybe they were easily manipulated, but I felt everything on display was too honest to act cynical in the face of it. Honesty and sincerity are in such short supply that the starkness with which the Greens open themselves up to the world, I cannot but help feel that power. Part of that was that the game wasn’t about dying. It was about living. Living with pain, with suffering, with faith and with doubt. A child dying is sad, but seeing everything that entails and what that means to those who live is far harder to experience.
I don’t consider myself a religious man. I was raised Catholic, but I can’t be bothered with faith nowadays. It doesn’t have a place in my life, yet, to see the Greens struggle with their faith and how it doesn’t seem to offer them comfort in their time of trials is, in parts, harrowing. It’s another thing, something truly important to them, that doesn’t seem to be working in their lives.
In movies or books, I find myself sometimes able to disconnect with what is going on. I witness what is going on and understand how it functions to elicit emotion, but I manage to pull myself back from it. That Dragon, Cancer would not let me look away. The various scenes and interactive metaphors at work disallowed such subconscious tricks and forced me to contend with their story and their lives. The game cannot progress without my input. Everything that could trigger an emotional response was triggered willingly and consciously. That is something video games do and here they managed to harness it to help me experience a slow motion tragedy.
I feel That Dragon, Cancer unlocked a form that video games have always danced around and never fully committed to. It forgoes the repeatable action to be done in myriad, slightly altered situations and changed what you had to do to progress from beat to beat in a way that would match the narrative. The game doesn’t follow plot or chronology. It feels guiding me through an emotional journey much more important and so tailors itself to that end.
6. The Banner Saga 2
The Banner Saga 2 continue the work of the first game, a game I called a true war game, one interested not just on combat, but on all the other devastating experiences of war. You’re still guiding a long train of refugees to hopeful safety from disastrous circumstances, but the game evolves what the series is trying to accomplish beyond that both in narrative and theme. The first game was about the stable lives upended into the most horrific of circumstances, always beset by enemies and tragedy. The second game escalates the face of war from a destructive element into an apocalyptic one. Your enemies are not only the encroaching Dredge or opportunistic bandits, but the very world ending around your race to safety.
Only desperate hope, the goal of the human capital, keeps your surviving character as leader pushing forward, setting an example to those desperate for hope themselves. The world is ending and there is little you can do about that. Yet, even in the face of that fact people still try and get one over on you and push their own selfish interests to the front in a desperate grab for power in an ever shrinking pond. As the world ends, the power hungry become that much more desperate as time runs out. It seems what little hope remained or was restored at the climax of the last game is running out and the world is becoming more cynical.
Your second protagonist, introduced in this game, Bolverk the berserker, leader of the Ravens mercenary company is not the heroic warrior many others have been up until now. The story gives you no illusions what type of person he is, as he explains to a wide-eyed romantic wanting to join the legendary company, they kill people for money and if you can’t do that you don’t belong there. Even at the end of the world they have a job to do and paycheck to collect.
And the world is ending. The game’s climate change allegory is rather clear on that front. Where once the land was fertile and the heavens forever bright, now the earth is upending itself beneath your feet and the light in the sky turning twisted and dark. Your map shows as much as its becomes magically enchanted to display the changes.
It’s bleak and your main characters’ decisions, your decisions, are constantly questioned. They question themselves, unwilling to ease up on the idea that everything you’ve done up to this point was wrong. War itself creates the situation that no choice can ever be right. Even a bid to end the fighting just opens everyone up to further destruction. The fighting cannot end, not when survival in the face of a world catastrophe is on the line. Everyone is scrambling to get on top to supposed safety, yet it also says that safety may not exist. The Banner Saga 2 drilled this into my head as the stakes and scope of its story seemed to scale ever upwards.
What does it all mean? That has been the question on everyone’s lips since Inside‘s release. It’s fairly obvious what the game is about and that’s the trap. So many others fell into that trap by thinking they’re staring at something inscrutable by completely misunderstanding what they are looking at. They’re looking for a structured narrative, a bad guy, a leader, a cause and an effect. But Inside is surrealism. Cause and effect are interchangeable. Antagonists and helpers switch roles when you aren’t looking. What something symbolized in one scene has no bearing on its meaning in the next.
So many players thought they had been transported into another world, with tangible rules, not a nightmare with a overarching concern, but no rules. The game is concerned with the idea of mind control, but not actual science fiction mind control with machines and glowing lights. That may be what we see on screen. That may be how we solve the game’s puzzles. But as so many have point out as a fault of the game, ultimately the world doesn’t make sense from that perspective.
What Inside is interested in is the invisible mind control of the state or society or social groups and the rules we all implicitly accept and obey. The loss of freedom showed in Inside is the freedom we give up to simply function in a group and then never think about. It’s about how horrifying those rules we choose to follow without thinking about them can be and all for the rational: because that’s the way thing are. It’s also about how we cannot even see them, yet we still feel their anxiety inducing effect.
I’m reminding of the Joker’s speech from The Dark Knight. The one he gives to Harvey Dent in the hospital. In it he explains how everyone has plans. He namechecks individuals and then points out society as a whole has a collective plan its largely unconscious of and as long as the world conforms to those plans nobody ever bats an eye, no matter how horrifying the plan is. Yet, if you disturb the plan, everybody loses their minds. Yes, he’s lying in the scene to antagonize Dent and push him over the edge, but in this he has a point.
So many people knocked Inside for essentially bucking an established formula. A plucky upstart kid fights against a shadowy, clearly evil government system of control and subjugation by freeing the people under it through endurance and ingenuity. It’s the story of the Hunger Games, of The Maze Runner, of hell, Harry Potter. The story would have been understood, but it couldn’t have reflected upon the underlying rot. The Resistance too is part of the plan and nobody would bat an eye. To truly get at the underlying anxiety it wanted to address, Inside had to twist the natural order of the world and of storytelling with surrealism to expose the conceptual problem underneath. It removes the plan and the internet lost its shit because Inside no longer followed the rules. I love it because of that.
4. Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born
Every year I seem to put at least one traditional style point-and-click adventure game on my end of year list. This year, that game is Kathy Rain. The thing with traditional point-and-click games is that exceptionalism in the genre can be very difficult to discern. The devil’s in the details and the shade difference between bog standard and inspired genius isn’t as distinct as it is in every other genre. In the end, it always comes down to the narrative and how well the puzzles are integrated into the narrative. Parts of the adventure game cannot elevate the lesser elements. It either stands tall together as a whole or it doesn’t.
Kathy Rain has some of the best puzzle work I’ve ever played in a point-and-click adventure game. Every single one either advances the plot, reveals character or has thematic meaning relating to its subject matter. They are exceptionally well designed and all completely rational with regards to their solutions and how the game guides you towards them. Kathy Rain clears a hurdle most adventures games don’t manage to, even those designed by people who have been making these sorts of games for over two decades.
All of that is well and good, but the true master stroke of the game is titular character, Kathy Rain herself. We are introduced to her as an irreverent punk college student, with dye in her hair and a motorcycle to her name who stays out partying all night and sleeps until noon. Then she gets a message her grandfather has died and his funeral is tomorrow. Then she begins an investigation into what happened to her grandfather over the years she’d been estranged from him. The game begins to reveal the parental issues underneath. That in itself isn’t remarkable. Tough girl secretly has daddy issues (and mommy issues) news at 11. But the game keeps going. Those issues don’t define her, but instead help reveal the true tragedy about her.
Throughout the game, Kathy makes self-deprecating remarks, jokingly, when dealing with authority figures of one type or another. They’re light and play into the expectations and prejudices of those authority figures with regards to how she looks and her acting out the standard adventure game protagonist behavior. However, near the end, it’s never said but becomes quite clear that those disparaging remarks may have sounded like jokes, but they weren’t. She sincerely believes everything she said about herself, that she is evil woman, a worthless human being not deserving of love or compassion. A condition she learned from those parental figures in her life and society at large. It was never intentional. No one was the villain pounding that lesson into her head. It’s just the result from the constant background radiation society at large gives off in the form of expectations towards a girl growing up in the 80s and 90s. That Kathy Rain went the extra distance to dig down to an emotional truth is a feat, that it went for such a complex one is amazing.
Tyranny is a game whose marketing I believe let it down. It declares that evil has won and you are one of its minions that keeps the law of the overlord. You are a functionary of evil, a middle manager of malevolence and that is where the marketing stops its pitch. It gives the impression that is all the game has to say. But that’s just the beginning of Tyranny’s message, not its end.
You begin trying to manage your reputation among different factions in Kyros’ army, among the population of the Tiers and members of your own party. All standard western CRPG material, just you’re on the side of evil, not a champion of righteousness. The game might have been interesting in its own right had it just been about managing the various legal squabbles of the people in the conquered lands, but Tyranny isn’t interested in being that game. It wants to explore the concept of tyranny, and now that it has won, how it was allowed to win.
There are multiple different paths to play through the game and the choice as to which path you choose is made very early on. It’s subtle enough that I didn’t even realize there was a choice at all. You can follow one of the two army factions, help set up a resistance among all the people of the Tiers or strike out on your own to grab power. And right there begins Tyranny‘s indictment of the player.
The indictment is baked into the very structure of the game. The easiest paths to follow are those that uphold the status quo either by ingratiating yourself with one of the two army commanders or trying to steal power for yourself. Trying to legitimately resist the hypnotizing power of tyranny is the path of most resistance. Difficult to begin, to navigate and to keep on track without the alliance between all the factions completely falling apart. Yet, I played through the game completely oblivious to the better world I could have fostered, as if there was only one story path to follow. Their potential was right in front of me, but I didn’t realize the other options existed.
How do we collectively play RPGs? Are we truly playing a role? I, like many others, follow my instincts about the situation, a variation of I’m playing me in this game. As I played, I realized some uncomfortable truths about myself thanks to my unconscious choices. My two favorite characters who I built my relationship up to the highest point are the two most, well, evil characters. They are part of the Kyros’ forces, meant to represent the two army factions. Yet, they were my friends. I may profess to love freedom, but all my choices favored order. I thought I was making hard choices, but really they were just the choices that made me feel queasy. I confused that unease as the difficulty of the job instead of the evil of the job.
So how does tyranny win? Because life’s easier that way. That’s not a fun lesson, but a necessary one.
I have so much trouble putting into words why I like Firewatch so much. I think that’s due to so much of the conversation surrounding the game having to contend with the narrow and fragile expectations of the video game audience. It was such a sustained and dominating presence in the conversation that it has conditioned me to the point that I find I have trouble praising the game on its own merits outside of a counterargument structure.
It’s all more the pity, because Firewatch is a worthy work of art deserving of all the praise it can receive. It visibly moves the medium forward. Not so much with anything new, most of its techniques are lessons learned from other works and creative movements, but as an unapologetic interactive narrative work concerned only with what it wants to be about. It wants to be about maturity and how that means taking responsibility for your actions and life choices. And so everything in Firewatch works to that end. It is meant to be dealt with as a work of fiction, of art, rather than product meant to be consumed. Other games on this list can survive that latter lens, but Firewatch isn’t built for that, on purpose.
Yet, the majority of its audience wishes to deal with it as a failed conspiracy thriller of government scientists gone mad, a bread and butter standby of video game storytelling, and not as a piece of western nature fiction centered an adult losing himself in a guilt trip and trying to divorce himself from responsibility.
The conspiracy stuff isn’t a needless bait and switch — it emphasizes Henry’s paranoia and ultimately the lengths of another man still wanting to hide from his responsibilities — but it is still one so many people cannot look past. Because looking past it would require confronting its critique of escapism and the dangerous path that escapism can lead one down. It would require confronting their own anger and frustrations when something doesn’t go their way. Henry is a lot luckier than the rest of us. He gets a clean slate and a clear life lesson. Or maybe I just think that because I’m not Henry and can view his story with an outside perspective. How many life lessons did I miss over the course of 30 years.
I want more games that allow me to chew on their messages and the nuanced way they tackle their themes. Games that are proud to be themselves unapologetically. I want games that assume I’m an adult and can handle what they have to say to me. I want Firewatch to be the vanguard of a wave of mature games. But most of all, I want to be part of an audience where all of that isn’t some weird outlier meant to be crushed underfoot in commercial games. That doesn’t mean we have to lose the Two-Orcs Lairs or Lakes of Acid or Witch’s Houses. Just that the games take their underlying material seriously and think about it deeply.
I knew the moment I played Oxenfree that it was going to be my game of the year. It was one of those moments where you’re hit by a flash of insight. Without even having played most or really any of the other titles listed here for comparison, I simply knew. High was the hurdle for any game if it was going to outdo Oxenfree.
It was rather obvious that it was going to be my top pick, simply because could have been a game tailor made for me. Young adult fiction coming of age story? Check. A fantastical setting or supernatural occurrences? Check. Naturalistic, banter-like dialogue? Check. Space/time reality warping spectacle? Check. Thematic undertones of Nietzsche metaphysics? Check.
I have very specific tastes.
Obviously, not all works I like have all of these elements. These are things I like about the works I like. Needless to say, Oxenfree has brought them all under one title. It hits a sweet spot I didn’t realize existed until I examined why Oxenfree got to me. And part of that is how the game makes me love it and despair at it in equal measure. I blame the ending. The game didn’t try to cop out even though it could have and no one would have been the wiser.
One of Nietzsche’s philosophical concepts is how all things repeat in an endless cycle of eternal recurrence. It relates to history and human behavior, but when realized as a metaphysical truth in fiction, the story has to repeat. All the permutations of Alex and her group’s actions can be played out endlessly in a loop. By allowing these metaphysics into their lives they are destined to repeat their night on the island eternally.
No matter how much I turn it over in my mind, I think there must be a way out. I know there isn’t. I know that if I just get everyone out alive, get everyone their happy ending, learned all my lessons, then I would be free of the loop. Isn’t that how the story is supposed to go? You learn a truth about life, you grow up and move on. Oxenfree says no. The lesson is learned, but then the loop forces the lesson to be unlearned and it must be learned again. It’s not about you. The world keeps on turning in cycles and so do I. I play thinking there is a way out, like Alex does. I succeed and the adventure is over, the night has ended. But then the loop resets to the beginning of the game and all the work has been undone and I understand what the game is telling me about Nietzsche’s universal truth. Time passes and once again I think there must be a way out of that loop.
I feel there is something in my mentality as an American that just cannot seem to accept it and so I am forever trapped in that young adult story, reliving the same lesson over and over never truly absorbing it.
I can’t help but feel there might be a lesson in there for all of us. One we wont learn, one we cannot learn and that is the true tragedy.