The IGF finalists have been announced. 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. Okay, some of them were grim and bitter fuzzy puppies, but we take all sorts.
My habit is to post reviews of the narrative finalists. This year that's spilling over into finalists for other categories. And entrants that weren't finalists but I still want to talk about them. And... It's going to take a while! I have reviews cued up; I'll do a post a day for the coming week. Or maybe a post every couple of days; we'll see how life runs.
It's no use trying to structure these reviews into a numbered countdown. Spoiler: my top-favorite games of 2019 were Baba Is You, Outer Wilds, and Heaven's Vault. Baba and OW won IGF awards during development (2018 and 2015 respectively) and weren't eligible this year. So my "top nominees" post would be "why Heaven's Vault is amazing", and I already wrote that review, right?
(A couple people have asked about Disco Elysium and Pathologic 2. Those games weren't on the entrant list either. I don't have any information on why not; I'd guess they just weren't submitted.)
Anyhow, this year, I'm breaking my list up into rough categories of form, subject, or style. First up: fuzzy puppies!
No, seriously. I played several games which were just good-natured, honestly and sincerely. They left me feeling good about myself and my life. This is a feeling which 2019 was desperately short on -- and 2020 looks to be headed downhill fast. So it's worth calling out the games that stood against the tide.
- A Short Hike
- We Met In May
- Wide Ocean, Big Jacket
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of WOBJ and We Met In May. I bought Eastshade and A Short Hike earlier in the year.)
- by Eastshade Studios -- game site
You know, Sam Ashwell wrote an excellent review of Eastshade and now I feel like I have nothing else to add. It's a very pleasant game. It's cozy. It's pretty, not in a mind-blowing AAA-budget way, but in a friendly way which invites you to enjoy the beauty because beauty is the entirety of the game. It's got a low-key RPG structure that doesn't get all that deep into storytelling. Each quest has just enough storyline or character to get you over the next hill and poking around through the next copse of trees.
I would absolutely recommend this to anyone who wants a smallish game with all the exploratory landscape of a traditional RPG but none of the murder. I wouldn't say that it's a great advance in nonviolent RPG writing. But it's committed to doing what it does, which is always admirable.
A Short Hike
- by Adam Robinson-Yu -- game site
Exactly what it says. You go on a hike up a mountain. The park is full of people sitting around, walking around, making sand castles -- whatever floats their respective boats. You can talk to all of them. This turns into a series of RPG-ish mini-quests which get you the stat boosts you need to reach the top of the mountain. Did I mention you're a bird? You can fly. Not very high, at first. You'll buff up.
So yes, if you want to get reductive, it's a micro-RPG. But it's a cozy micro-RPG that you can finish in an evening. The design is so generous! Most RPGs assume an economy of scarcity, but ASH just nods in that direction before throwing open an expansive playground of games, challenges, quests, and interactions. It's got far more stuff than you need to reach the ending. Do whatever you want; you'll be fine. If you feel like lawnmowering the place, it's because you enjoy it, not because you need to grind one more boost to scale that last cliff.
And if you do search exhaustively, you'll run into a bonus challenge: revisit the peak after giving half your stat boosts away to an NPC. See? All about generosity.
We Met In May
- by Star Maid Games -- game site
Star Maid's previous semi-biographical games were primarily narrative, with a few interactive mechanics salted in. (Cibele; Lost Memories Dot Net) This one evens up the balance by trimming the narrative down to four moments of a blooming relationship which are expressed entirely through game mechanics. (Riffs on JRPG special attacks, quicktime events, and so on.) Nothing is deeply implemented, and the graphics are deliberately cheesy -- that's fine, these are goofy moments.
One could imagine an immersive dating sim built this way. But of course this game isn't that. It's a fifteen-minute expressive piece. It does one thing (or rather four things) sweetly and then bows out. Maybe not a standout in narrative terms, but I have to applaud the sheer effrontery of its minimalist feel-good-ness.
Wide Ocean, Big Jacket
- by Turnfollow -- game site (not yet released)
Two grownups take their annoying 13-year old niece and her is-this-a-boyfriend-situation friend camping.
Okay, this is now fighting it out with Mutazione for "best relationship game of the year", except Mutazione is a big sprawling thing with lots of characters, and WOBJ has just four people (plus Mister Glowbones) in a tight one-hour package. But that's fine. It does everything and gets out. Each character knocks into each other character, there's a couple arguments, a couple smooches. At the end you feel like you know and love each of them. It's a bit of a trick -- you've seen a bunch of goofing around and about two personal quirks for each of them -- but that's enough for a story this size.
It's interactive mostly in the sense of walking around and pushing X to start the next bit. It's not a branching plot, or even branching dialogue. But some of the walking around has stuff to do -- spotting birds, peeing in bushes -- and the game reflects this back enough to make it a degree of choice. Then, at the end, you have some choices which boils down to "which character relationships will I highlight in my ending". Again, it's minimal, but it keeps your hand in.
And the writing is good stuff. I don't want to compare everything to Night in the Woods, but yeah, that's the level of honesty and snark and edging up to the truth and poking it with a stick before running away. The difference is that NITW was one person's tight focus; everyone else was seen reflected in Mae. WOBJ is balanced among the four, kids and grownups, level with each of them in turn. It does them justice.