And so we come to the end of another review post run. I have naturally saved my favorites for last.
As I said up top, this year was about delightful games. And that's a personal reaction! This post is not about flawless games, or universally loved games. It's about games that I played through with a big goofy grin on my face because they made me happy. You may feel differently. You may say "But that game utterly failed to do what I want!" That's fine. Just recognize that it did something, and it did it with a whole and joyful heart.
(Okay, A Monster's Expedition is flawless and universally loved. I don't make the rules, nor the exceptions that prove them.)
- Lost Words: Beyond the Page
- Genesis Noir
- Umurangi Generation
And while I'm here, a few titles that I already wrote up. But this is the exploding-with-delight post, by gum, and I can't not mention these:
- A Monster's Expedition
- Paradise Killer
And thus I close. Plenty of games I haven't talked about. Spiritfarer, OMORI, There Is No Game, Signs of the Sojourner are obvious omissions -- sorry! I have not yet played Chicory, Teardown, Bugsnax, Welcome to Elk, or many others. Ynglet and Moncage look like they'll be awesome when they're out. Jeez, I didn't even mention Kristallijn.
Plus, I just got my second Pfizer dose. I should probably get this posted before the fever comes on.
Here's hoping for a better summer and fall. Yow -- if things go well, IGF 2022 judging could start again this October! I better rest up.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page
- by Sketchbook Games -- game site
A narrative platformer which thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, entwines its words, writing, story, and gameplay.
The game presents two layers. Izzy, a young girl who wants to be a writer, is caught in turmoil when her Gran falls ill. In the fantasy story she's writing, a girl (your choice of name) goes on a quest.
Both of these are really well-done, in an unassuming way. I was initially put off by the quest story, which starts tropey and simplistic; but of course that's the theme. It is a whim of Izzy's which changes and develops as Izzy's own life becomes complicated.
Half the gameplay consists of reading Izzy's journal. You bounce around and manipulate the written word in a playful interactive way which reminded me more of Device Six than most of that classic's direct imitators. (Go go gadget story devices!) The quest story has a more platformy approach, but it's still oriented around word-magic; you invoke magic words like BREAK and RISE to manipulate the landscape.
This might all sound pretty standard. But the craftmanship is really outstanding. Every game element is thoughtfully refined. I found myself appreciating the tiny details. For example, the way invokable landscape elements are highlighted: stones that can RISE are carved with arrows. They also have an obvious blue glow to make the game more accessible to kids. But the blue glow takes a few seconds to appear. We grizzled tomb raiders can have the fun of peering around the screen for clues before the sparkles begin. Less experienced players get the help. How smart is that?
Or the fact that most magic words just need to be dragged onto their targets; but to break a stone, you have to slam the word BREAK into it a couple of times. It's subtle but it adds immeasurably to the feel.
Honestly, the game kind of pisses me off with how many clever details it gets right. I wouldn't have thought of half this stuff!
The quest story has a modest scope for narrative variation -- starting, as I said, with the protagonist's name. (Naturally you make these choices by dragging words into place! And yes, the voice-acting budget sprang for all three possible names.)
It's not a branchy story; rather, the variation affects the tone and setting. Is the protagonist playful or curious? Does she explore a lost city of philosophers or merchants? Is her quest to understand or to heal? I don't know how much textual variation comes from these choices -- I only did one play-through. But I think it encompasses both reflective choice (what does the player think?) and enough key lines to affect what kind of story is being told. While still hewing to the outline of Izzy's life. As I said, it's all really well done.
My only complaint (I must muster some complaint) is that the ending drags out a bit. Both layers have extended denouements without much increase in interactivity even as the text dumps get dumpier. Not by a lot, but I did feel rather dragged through an hour of wrap-up after the point where I said "Ok, I see this is wrapping up."
I hadn't heard much about this game, but it's now a surprise favorite of mine among this year's crop.
- by The Game Band -- game site
Blaseball is like a fantasy baseball league only it's Night Vale.
Blaseball is an experiment in improvisational massively-multiplayer role-playing; and I mean role-playing in the D&D sense. The designers are game-masters; the fans are, collectively, a distributed party. The baseball stuff is raw material, it's not the meat of the game.
The game is, "what if you let the fans vote on the rules?" Except that's not really it either, because the rules are intentionally obscure and their consequences unknowable. The rules are also raw material. The game is, "let's try to get the fans to come together in some collective action without explicitly telling them what it is!" While the fans are playing "let's screw around with the rules in some way that the GMs didn't expect and see what happens!" That's what makes it improv; both sides are riffing.
It bears a lot of resemblance to an ARG -- a small team of designers leading a huge crowd around -- except there's no grand plan. Oh, I'm sure Game Band has a roadmap, but it's all subject to the forces of chaos. If you haven't read up on Blaseball history, let me just mention the time the players figured out a way to resurrect a dead player from Hell -- and the designers let them do it -- and then let the players discover the price.
I really haven't seen anything like this before. Long long ago, A Tale in the Desert explored the idea of "RPG where the players can vote on the rules". But its pace was measured. Blaseball just piles nonsense upon nonsense. There's a rule proposal up this week which just says:
"turn the tables. winning will be losing. trust me"
In-game, it is clear that this proposal was illegitimately interjected by the giant floating squid god who currently runs the concession stand. It is also clear that the players are going to vote for it by a landslide, because what could possibly go wrong with this plan.
That, my friends, is interactive narrative.
- by Feral Cat Den -- game site
A trippy interactive... animated movie? ...about an archetypical guy in a fedora. He walks down the mean streets, selling watches, until...
Okay, I'll admit that the story is so indirectly sketched that it's almost incomprehensible. The tropes are straightforward -- trenchcoated Joe, lounge-singing Dame, overly-coiffed Golden Boy with a saxophone. But the opening blurb places us outside of History. Our hero has a propensity for swilling cheap nonlinearity until the world comes apart into a matrix of moments, void of causality or free will. Plus the hangover. At least I think that's what's going on.
Suddenly, a shot rings out. The bullet-trail is the complete history of Time -- Big Bang at one end, the ultimate collapse of Miss Mass's heart at the other. In between, the Universe. Our protagonist stands there, watching. What can he do?
I'm telling you the obvious stuff so that you can get a handle on how little is obvious. I am a stone-cold sucker for this kind of allegorical tropey cosmology mashup. (Neil Gaiman, Ian Tregillis, ...) This game does the trick at its frothy, hallucinatory best. It's a glorious trippy mess -- a festival of hand-animated line art which uses CGI to advantage without ever losing track of its own style. It's beautiful. I still don't know what happened to the universe.
If you want my criticisms, then, first of all, shame on you. Second: yeah, it's opaque. Mentioning the protagonist's name during the finale would have more bite if the game had rememebered to introduce him by name at the start. Also the pacing is pretty janky. Some chapters involve a lot of running around doing whatever the game says you should do, and you have to do everything three or four times. (I still don't understand the molecule puzzle either, but I bumbled through.)
But, look, I don't care. Go play this. It's like smoking a Hertzfeldt animation and then flicking the doobie into a black hole afterwards. (This happens.) It's beautiful. Did I make that clear?
- by Origame Digital -- game site
This presents itself as a photography walking simulator. It's actually a wild dystopian punk New Zealand future history.
The genius of the thing is that it is a photography walking sim. It tells an entire story just with environment, and just by inviting you to take photographs of it. Nothing else is necessary. There's no dialogue. There's no puzzles. All you can do is observe, and therefore you must. It's furious, it's political, it's got a perfect soundtrack.
Okay, there's a certain amount of jumping and climbing on the scenery. That's puzzle-like. I found it easy, but I'm good at that sort of traversal. If you're not a habitual gamer but my line about "wild dystopian punk New Zealand" caught your attention, you might get stuck. This is a shame! (And a longer post about game difficulty options which I have not yet written.) The good news is that you can probably stagger around and get most of what's going on.
(Get the "Macro" DLC when you get the game. It's the second half of the story, as far as I'm concerned.)
It's hard to explain. It's a simple formula of camera and palette and scenery. The scenery isn't even that fancy -- it's 90s-retro low-poly. Somehow it comes together and I stand up and cheer. If you look at the IGF lists, I'm not the only one. It's the dance party, it's the graffiti, it's the jellyfish in the corners, it's the angry soldiers and the angry skaters. Someone has to start shouting.
A Monster's Expedition
- by Draknek & Friends -- game site
I've already fawned over it three or four times, and yet how can I not mention it again? A puzzle mechanic that runs groundwater-deep, presented one sip at a time and you'll never see it coming.
Full post on AME: Puzzle games of the year: my favorites (November 2020)
- by ION LANDS -- game site
Fly around a grimy, luminous sky-city. Listen to the music. Buy noodles. It's like a night in Tron, only with way more colors. There's a massive DLC expansion due later this month and I am salivating.
Full post on Cloudpunk: IGF nominees: stunning environments (last week)
- by Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi -- game site
A quirky pastel squirrel-tracking game. Or is the squirrels... who are tracking... you? It's sweet, it's compact, the story spirals outward and has no time for your petty explanations.
Full post on NUTS: IGF nominees: stunning environments (last week)
- Kaizen Game Works -- game site
Sure, it's a weird pastiche of a detective game that doesn't involve actual detectiving. Sure, you spend most of your time climbing buildings. Sure, the background material upstages the hell out of the plot. So what? It's got snazzy music, it's got stylish and bloodthirsty anime demigods, it's got ancient horrors from beyond time phoning you about the soda machines. Enjoy.
Full post on Paradise Killer: Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians (January 2021)