We come to the end of my IGF review posts: the games that made me stand up and say "Holy zorch, you did not just do that!" Because, let's be clear, they just did that.
As I said at the beginning, this is not the same as being my "favorite game of the year". All of these games also did something else that I wasn't into. Maybe I didn't even play them all the way through.
But this is an important point! I don't want my favorites to become the best-of-the-year stars. I mean, yes I do, of course I do. But next year's games aren't going to be the same as this year's award-winners. They're going to build on these games. They're going to learn from them. So we must talk about the games that pushed the boundaries of technique or design or straight-up bravura.
- Opus: Echo of Starsong
- Tux and Fanny
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of some of these games. I bought Inscryption, Overboard, and Opus: Echo of Starsong on my own before IGF judging started.)
- by Daniel Mullins Games -- game site
Okay, this starts as a faux-90s card battler and then weird crap starts leaking through all the seams. All the seams. The first thing it does is tell you to "stand up from the table!" -- the table you're playing cards at -- and then you can walk around the creepy cabin and mess with your opponent's stuff. After that we're in no-spoiler territory, but the game spares no effort to rip holes in your assumptions and make origami out of the scraps. Then you get to a whole other layer that you didn't know existed and has implications for what you've been doing all along, and you start you realize you have no idea how deep this thing goes.
Plus it's a good solid card game. Until you figure out how to break it. This is part of the story.
However -- admission time -- I didn't finish Inscryption.
Act 1 blew my mind. Act 2 recontextualizes everything, which is awesome, but playing it is a bit of a slog. Then act 3 recontextualizes it again, with even more metatextual fireworks, but it's even more of a slog. (Maybe I wasn't good enough at breaking the card game.) My patience wore thin. I finally bailed out when they did a "Ha ha going to hack your real-life hard drive" gag, which, sorry, I am not up for. (It's a consent thing. You understand.)
I know, right? Isn't this exactly the experience I am looking for in games? And if I hadn't felt worn down by losing card battle after card battle, I might have stuck until the end. Or if I hadn't run into one metatextual gag that tried my patience, I might have plugged through another few card battles. But it hit the wrong nerve. This is an entirely personal reaction.
Look. Inscryption is unquestionably the narrative head-trip of the year. It is madness of the finest kind. It is exactly the quantum advance beyond The Hex that that head-trip game deserved. Inscryption also annoyed me and I put it away.
I will not give it a mixed review: it's great and you should go play the thing. You may not finish it. That's okay.
- by Inkle Studios -- game site
Inkle does it again, and by "it" I mean "something completely unlike what they've done before, but still clever as dammit and unmistakably Inkle."
You're a society lady on a cruise ship. Last night you pushed your louse of a husband overboard. Convince your fellow passengers that something else happened to him, and it's off to merry widowhood in America. A reverse detective game, if you will.
The thing flies entirely on the power of its narrative engine. (Ink, but more importantly Inkle's experience in using Ink.) Your options in a given situation are always contextually appropriate to what you've learned and done. You have plenty of ways to sneak around, fake evidence, and subvert people -- but only if you properly set yourself up to do them. And if you don't get caught. The game tracks what everybody sees and knows, not just you. When you reach the big "why I've called you here" scene at the end, it will all come out.
I confess that I had trouble getting into the game. Veronica is a terrible person, and capable of truly terrible decisions, and the game is gleeful about offering both sorts of options at every turn. And that can be fun! Clonk the steward over the head and stuff his corpse under the bunk! (Spoiler: don't do that.) (Unless you want the achievement for "murder as many people as possible", which, come on, of course you do.)
But real victory depends on methodically mapping out everybody's weak points and then taking advantage of every one. I had trouble forcing myself to go through it all, over and over. You're supposed to do it that way -- you can speed-replay scenes -- but the friction was still a little high.
(As with Outer Wilds, I found myself wishing for a Hadean Lands-style "replay goal" command. And as with Outer Wilds, I realized that it's not really possible! My alchemy game was set in a frozen domain of perfectly replicable actions. No minor variations; no messy human factors. Paints a picture of me, doesn't it? But this is not that. Overboard isn't randomized, but it's about people and details always matter. You can't do just one thing.)
Anyhow: Overboard is smartly done, deeply explorable, and always has that seamless Inkle narrative flow that makes any play-through seem hand-crafted. I managed to avoid jail time, but I didn't come close to a perfect ending. Even if you get there, you've got a rolling list of shipboard secrets to uncover. If that's the sort of thing you're into, it will be very satisfying.
Opus: Echo of Starsong
- by Sigono -- game site
Reviewed back in September. I was not really into the headline story arc, which is angsty anime romance of a very generic sort. However, the back-end world-building is great and the presentation of the world is spot-on fantastic. It's a explorable storylet space full of history and viewpoints. Your path through is a matter of chance, choice, and contextual relevance. Reminded me of what I liked best about FTL, Out There, and Voyageur.
Tux and Fanny
- by Ghost Time Games -- game site
A screwball point-and-click riff in an MS-Paint-Adventures sort of style. Help a pair of blobby cartoon shapes fix their soccer ball.
The design, like the visual style, is deliberately simplistic -- except when it gets glitchy. You're running around, or rather Tux and Fanny are, picking up items and solving basic adventure-y puzzles. Except there's also a cat and a flea. And sometimes you, or the screen, or the universe starts to hallucinate. It's not all pixel art, trust me.
It's a big silly world with a great number of puzzles to solve and things to collect. As to where it's going, I can't tell you. I played a fair way into it before losing momentum and putting the game down. I'm generally up for glitch and chaos -- that's pretty much how Inscryption hooked me. But in Tux and Fanny, the chaos doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I don't feel like there's either a story or a Terrible Secret waiting to appear on stage.
(Or a Wonderful Secret either. I'm into those too.)
As usual, all reactions are personal. You may well find that the torrent of attention-deficit absurdity is exactly your thing, in which case be assured that Tux and Fanny has a firehose of it.