My favorite games of 2017

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Comments: 1   (latest 3 days later)

Tagged: reviews, gorogoa, narrative, interactive fiction, night in the woods, cinco paus, igf, universal paperclips, if

I started this post as the capstone of my "IGF nominees" post sequence, and then it fell to pieces because I kept wanting to write about games that weren't IGF nominees. Also the Meanwhile release swamped me for a couple of weeks.

If I just call it "favorite games of 2017" I can write about anything I want. Right?

"Favorite game of the year" is an indefensible category. I will not say these games are perfect, only that they did something perfectly. Did something right, with a rightness that felt both surprising and inevitable, beginning to end.

In this post, in no particular order:

  • Gorogoa
  • Cinco Paus
  • Universal Paperclips
  • Night in the Woods


I finished Gorogoa and then ran around in circles (Twitter, etc) telling everybody to play it. I compared it to the work of Graeme Base, Nick Bantock, Kit Manson, Chris Van Allsburg, Dave Whiteland.

I name authors of picture books here, not game designers. The comparison is obvious, as Gorogoa is drawn with the delicate and precise abstraction of the best kids' illustrations. But I name, in particular, those authors who tease out the fine layers of what a book is -- how a book can be puzzling, mysterious, surprising in its very structure.

That's how Gorogoa reads to me. It's what a book could be if a page could shift fluidly from a picture of a window to a window through a picture. If pages could be rearranged to reveal a greater whole, and then stacked or unstacked to make use of that whole. It's the magic trick which pop-up books and hidden-picture books hint at, but freed of the limitations of cut-printed paper.

(It is curiously unlike a graphic novel, although that comparison should be obvious as well. You spend most of the game in a four-panel grid, after all. I'd say that Gorogoa's panels are inherently non-sequential -- the opposite of comics. You rearrange them at will, and their congruencies are parallel and cumulative, not serial. I'm sure there are graphic novels that work this way -- Richard McGuire's Here? -- but I don't know the field well enough to discuss them.)

The story, too, is built of parallel congruencies: nonverbal images of scientists, artists, discoverers caught in struggle. I admit that on my first run-through, I was concentrating too hard on the puzzle mechanics to fully absorb the story. That's a tricky balance. I will certainly play through it again.

Cinco Paus

I haven't spent much of my life on roguelikes; Nethack never snared me. But occasionally a micro-roguey shows up and hooks me for weeks or months. My last two ratholes were both created by Michael Brough: Imbroglio last year, and Cinco Paus this year.

In both cases, I started out saying "What the heck is going on? Is this really playable?" And then I kept playing. The balance of gained understanding and progress is, well, tricky -- and individual, I'm sure. 868-HACK, Brough's earlier classic, never grabbed me at all. But Cinco Paus did.

You have five wands; each wand has five spells. They're randomly selected at the start of each game from a catalog of 50 possible spells. To find out what wand does what, you have to experiment. That's the entirety of the game, and it has enough subtleties and corner cases that I'm still playing obsessively after three, four months. That's design genius. And I've been pushed way down the leaderboard (although I'm still visible! 203 pontos em 12 jogos!) so a lot of people must agree that it's pretty darn good.

One must decide how to deal with the language issue. Cinco Paus is entirely in Portuguese: menus, tooltips, and all. You roll with it. Or you don't, and don't play the game. I found it nicely positioned between fractional readability (a Latinate language, I know the roots) and an alien-language puzzle. And, to be sure, I threw spells into Google Translate when I was most desperate for a hint. Now I've just got the spell icons memorized, of course; the language issue is finite.

Universal Paperclips

The incremental or "clicker" genre is not new; I can't even say that the "commit to exponential growth and head for universal catastrophe" is a new twist. (Take a look at Spaceplan, it's good.) However, Universal Paperclips is the example that perfectly marries theme, form, and content.

You are an AI paperclip factory. Click the button to manufacture a paperclip. Now do it again. Sell paperclips until you have enough money to buy an autoclipper, and... you know how the genre goes.

So why is it perfect? Because of a little thought experiment called the "paperclip maximizer". The idea is, if you build a super-AI whose purpose is to create paperclips, it's going to learn to defend itself (because damage is detrimental to paperclip production). Eventually it must destroy the human race (humans compete for paperclip raw material, and we can't have that).

Nobody thinks that we should plan our technological infrastructure around this kind of worry. Well, some people do, but they're either silly or making a mint launching "AI Ethics" conferences. But philosophers and science fiction writers go nuts for this stuff, because they are in the business of taking ideas to absurd lengths for entertainment.

And now game designers too. Nothing does procedural rhetoric like a computer game, and when a game tells you to maximize paperclip production, you get into it. Because that's where the fun is. And nothing does scale like a clicker game. If a million paperclips are good, a trillion are better, right? The absurdity of the concept doesn't even register as you play. (This is perhaps an argument that I should be more worried about the thought experiment...)

Several shifts in scope keep the multi-hour progression from getting boring, although "total paperclips produced" remains the headline figure from beginning to end. Along the way you will find a host of sly references to classic and modern SF, a narrative arc of mind-expanding proportions (remember the Driftwar!), and... the consumption of the human race doesn't even rate a footnote, as it turns out. Because paperclips are what matters.

Night in the Woods

  • (Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, Bethany Hockenberry)
  • Home page

Ah, Night in the Woods. I don't have a lot to say about it, because when I first played it I said "game of the flippin' year" and nothing has budged me since then. The characters and dialogue are just indelibly memorable and relatable and awesome. The teenagers are great. The adults are great. The way they talk to each other is great. Mae's angry, frustrated, stress-fractured immaturity is great. The understated fantasy worldbuilding is great. Everything about the story is great.

It's also the most honestly political game I've seen in years. There are plenty of political games, of course, but they tend to the historical or the science-fictional dystopia. NITW is relentlessly immediate; it is about now, the designers' generation, the designers' society. (I, older and more privileged, merely rent a place here.) Heck, I'll just quote Abigail Nussbaum's commentary:

The cuteness of its graphics, and the gentle repetitiveness of its gameplay, can serve to obscure the fact that Night in the Woods is a profoundly angry story. [...] Throughout these adventures, Night in the Woods refuses to separate the personal from the political.

-- Asking the Wrong Questions: Night in the Woods, Abigail Nussbaum

The game is unflinching without being dogmatic. It isn't even all that simple to interpret. You can read the story as being supernatural horror, serial-murder thriller, or hallucinations in the aftermath of an industrial disaster. You find deliberate hints of support for each of those contrary ideas. But the rage -- expressed as metaphor, allegory, or stark autobiography -- is consistent and real.

This is not to deny the game's structural weirdnesses. I think the designers have a skewed idea of their audience's traditional-game skills. I suck at Guitar Hero, so I sucked at the in-game band practice -- that's fine, you're allowed to suck at it. I happen to be good at platformers, so I was able to get through the platformy dream sequences -- but you have to get through those. (As far as I know.) If you don't have the particular spatial bloody-mindedness to climb every possible rope to every corner of the screen, you're just going to get stuck and stop playing. That's sad, because the game is great and it shouldn't be limited to people who enjoyed Tomb Raider.

Or does the recent "Weird Autumn" expansion-or-directors'-cut address this? I haven't replayed the game. (I should.) I have curled up with the two prequel/side-games, Longest Night and Lost Constellation, and I was instantly drawn back into the snarky, irreverent, back-handedly truthful voices of the writers and their creations.

In any case, you should play it. Game of the flippin' year.

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