The IGF finalists have just been announced. Usually this happens in January, so that the winners can be revealed at GDC. Guess what, this year is different! Again! But here we are.
Last year, I wrote:
2019 was a heck of a game year, folks. There were so many brilliant narrative games rolling around jostling for attention like fuzzy puppies in a sandbox.
You know what? Even more this year.
They're not easy to talk about, though. Not like last year. What happened in narrative gaming in 2019? Heaven's Vault, that's what happened. State of the art: vaporized.
2020 wasn't about new frontiers in narrative technology. It was about games that were delightful. In lots of ways. Often in flawed ways! You're going to see a lot of comments about "what's wrong with this game" or "why I had trouble with that game". Or even "this game wasn't for me." But the theme of 2020 was, a game can be janky or fiddly or underimplemented or frustrating -- and still be a delight to play. If the creator wanted to do something and did the hell out of it, that shines through.
As usual, I'm going to group these games in rough categories. I'm not ordering them from best to worst (or vice versa) -- it's just games that seem to go together. Also, despite the post titles, I'm not limiting myself to nominees and honorable mentions! Any IGF entry is fair game.
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Beyond Blue, Nuts, and Mundaun. I bought Cloudpunk last year. I played South of the Circle in a free trial month of Apple Arcade.) (My second free trial month; I dunno how that works.)
In this first post: a batch of games whose environments just blew me away. They don't necessarily have the most intricate gameplay -- although some of them pull some fascinating tricks! But if the ambience pulls me in, I'm sold.
- Beyond Blue
- South of the Circle
- by E-Line Media -- game site
Uncut clear-quill fishporn. It's got baby whales, heroic conservationists tracking down illicit deep-sea miners, underplayed but solid environmental narrative. Tiny character details in the background. Everything good. And Mira Furlan, stars light her memory.
Oh, and they paid attention to the science too. All sorts of little fish behaviors: pilot fish following sharks, whales blowing bubble-nets, dolphins rolling around... did I mention baby whales? Nursing? It couldn't be more wholesome if it served me a grilled-cheese sandwich.
Mind you, "wholesome" doesn't mean simplistic. There's an interesting hint that the evil deep-sea miners are hunting minerals for the solar-power industry. No, it's not a soul-wrenching moral dilemma, but there's a bit of dimension to it.
But mostly it's an excuse to swim around reefs and abyssal trenches, surrounded by gorgeous sea life. I'm sure a real diver would say that it's oversimplified and overtidy. I don't care. It's -- if I say "immersive" you'll hit me, but I, um, sank into it.
- by ION LANDS -- game site
This is a straightforward open-world-ish action RPG set in a soaring voxelized metropolis. With flying cars! You work for a punk package courier service, whizzing your cab around and getting entangled in various plotlines.
It's a big-city story with the usual big-city themes: inequality, class warfare, giant corporations pushing people's lives into the margins and then letting the margins sink into urban decay. Androids and artificial intelligences don't have it so good; you might be able to help. Also, you have an AI doggy.
The writing is solid, although the big story arc feels a little threadbare. But it's the visual and audio ambience that absolutely sucked me in. It's a vaporwave utopia/dystopia. Every part of the city is a panorama in a distinctive palette, from the lost undercity to the sun-drenched heights. When you're not flying through it, you're running the (aerial) streets with the city as a backdrop. I'm not the world's biggest fan of pixel (or voxel) art, but this was fantastically atmospheric. I played the whole game with a huge smile on my face and memories of 80s cheesy sci-fi futures tumbling in my head. Then I bought the soundtrack.
- by Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi -- game site
You are a squirrel researcher. Sorry, confusing; you are a human grad student who studies squirrels. Your professor has sent you off to a forest to track squirrel movements.
This is the entire premise, and it's sweetly carried through in gameplay. You set up cameras, watch the recordings, and try to track where the squirrels go. That's it. If you fail, no big deal -- set up better the next night. The squirrels are patient. You can be patient too.
There's a narrative around it; EvilCorp is trying to cut down the forest, you know how that goes. Then the squirrels get... squirrely. The game somehow manages to get creepy, and then tense, and then desperate -- while still being 100% cozy and wholesome. Something about the lack of time pressure and the gentle pastel line-art palette.
I will note that the storyline doesn't exactly resolve. The game ends in an entirely satisfying mise en scene, but the plot threads are... let's call it impressionistic. If I weren't trying to avoid spoilers, I would ask "Jung gur npghny shpx jnf tbvat ba jvgu gur fdhveeryf?!?!" But apparently that's not what the game is about. And that's fine.
To be clear: I admire the designers' gumption in setting up all these ideas and then just leaving them hanging there. And the gameplay wraps up just fine. It's a classic climactic chapter: echo the opening, one layer down. Full closure. The story is, I think, quite deliberately left to ride on that momentum. Gutsy!
- by Hidden Fields -- game site
Norwegian noir horror on a farm. I didn't even know Norwegian farmer noir was a thing until I played Draugen. Now I'm a fan. (EDIT-ADD: Except it's actually Swiss, ha ha, oops.) This one has the creepy farmhouses, the weird, oblique folklore, and the taciturn-if-they're-there-at-all countryfolk. It also has zombies, I'm sorry to say. Haystack zombies, mind you -- more interesting than regular gore-dripping zombies -- but I'm kind of done with zombies. I turned the combat down to "easy" (why not "off"?) and they wound up being pretty easy to avoid. If you can't avoid one, set the hay on fire.
The story is admirably unnerving even without the zombies. It's a convincing mix of folklore, Christian imagery, and What Happened During The War. There's a goat head. I won't tell you about the goat head. The game knows when to slide from lurching horrors to subtle nightmare to a moment of peace and beauty.
The best part is the visual style, which is a stark chiaroscuro built from hand-drawn textures. You can't really tell it's hand-drawn, not until you get up close to something, but the technique uplifts the (really fairly simple) world models into something strikingly textural. (If a spark of color ever leaked in, it'd be more startling than any jump-scare. But that would be a different game.) (We'll get there.)
South of the Circle
- by State of Play -- game site
A Cold-War thriller of sorts. You're a hapless scientist, a meteorologist on your way to an Antarctic research station, when your plane is forced down. The pilot's leg is messed up; you're the one who has to stagger out across the icy wastes in search of rescue. The storyline is crosscut, by way of hallucination, with your life history and your relationship with a nice Scottish lady lecturer.
This is good stuff, as long as you're clear that it is strictly historical and will never shade into aliens or time portals or anything like that. The story involves a fictional political situation in Antarctica, but it's more about the real-life tenor of the times -- the Cambridge Four, disarmament protests, stuffy British sexism, and so on.
The up side is stellar voice acting and animation. The protagonist's characterization flows as much from his body language as his dialogue. He steps as hesitantly into a first date as into his dean's office or an Antarctic snowstorm, although it's the latter that wears him down into an achingly exhausted stumble by the game's end. The visual design is minimalist, but that's what the story calls for; Quonset huts and childhood memories loom with equal suddenness out of the blinding whiteout.
The interactivity is minimal. I felt like the designers didn't quite know where they were going with it. Most of the choices are built out of moods (will you react with compassion, determination, or nervousness?). This works perfectly well as a dialogue system, but I mostly felt like I was following a script, not steering it. The game makes a point of remembering specific choices and sometimes reflecting them back in later dialogue (think Firewatch). But the variations are minimal, until a climactic scene whose import is... well, I'm not sure what it was trying to do.
Nonetheless, it's a solid story, and (as I said) excellently performed. And it sure conveys the experience of being lost in the frozen nowhere. Worth the time.