Saturday, January 14, 2017

Top 10 Games of 2016

10. Final Fantasy XV by Square Enix

I played maybe just under a dozen hours of Final Fantasy XV at the top of this new year, under conditions of being at my old house and using my friend's PS4. So basically I tried to run through as much of it as I could as quickly as possible, which didn't feel like how I wanted to play it at all. I didn't understand the combat at all, I did almost no side missions, and I didn't even get very far. I still thought it was pretty great.

Mostly what I thought about, because it was still the Big News at the time, was the storytelling. Twitter and publications and podcasts let me know that I would understand nothing about nothing if I hadn't seen the movie and watched the anime, and I'd done neither. Around a half dozen hours in, my friend explained the plot in full to me, having beat the game. My reaction was largely that the game did a good job of conveying everything he'd said, excepting a bunch of bullshit fantasy names of people, places, and trinkets. My suspicions are that people didn't get it because they didn't want to, mostly, or maybe that they're big rude jerks.

Anyway, someone send me a PS4 and this game please.

9. Virginia by Variable State

The thing about Virginia is its use of jump cuts. You could, I suppose, enjoy it as a Twin Peaks/X-Files inspired narrative, but I don't think it uses its material particularly well. You could also dismiss it as an overwrought Thirty Flights of Loving (which, to be fair, I hadn't played until after I played Virginia), but there's a fundamental difference in scope that makes that comparison untenable.

As far as medium-to-large budget walking simulators go, I think Virginia is probably the best of this year; even though its lack of speech is mostly a crutch and the low-poly style isn't particularly well executed, the environmental design is incredibly strong and the movement -- including cuts -- works pretty perfectly. I also really appreciate that they frame the game as a DVD, which is a more intentional choice than I think they got credit for, and a very good one.

8. Pokémon Moon by Game Freaks

The first Pokémon game I played since, I don't know, Gold, maybe? is good as heck.

7. Let it Die by Grasshopper Manufacture

Let it Die would likely be much higher on this list if I'd had more time with it, but I opted to spend my limited PS4 time trying out The Last Guardian (which seemed good but it kind of confirmed that there's a reason I've never gone out of my way to play Ico, as much as I adore Shadow of the Colossus) and getting through about half of Final Fantasy XV. Let it Die is so good though.

As a defender of late pre-GungHo Grasshopper Manufacture, though (Liberation Maiden especially, but also Sine Mora and Killer is Dead to different extents), maybe that's not surprising. In some ways, I expected to kind of hate Let it Die; I've never played either No More Heroes game or Shadows of the Damned or Lollipop Chainsaw; Killer is Dead is the only game-ass game of Grasshopper's I've actually played, and I like that game a lot more for the colors than anything else. I do love messy, shitty third-person action games -- Snowblind Studios is probably my favorite developer and I only say "shitty" because I don't want to yell for a thousand words -- at the same time, but the only roguelike I didn't immediately bounce off of was Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup (and that took me over a year to get into in tiny fits and starts). In other words: I have no idea what I'm talking about, or what I really expected.

What I got with Let it Die was exactly the kind of game I actually want to play; something that has enough cool shit around the edges to dive into if I feel like it, something that has combat that feels good but also is kind of mindless, and a structure that allows for repetitive play that can be done with multiple levels of (dis)interest. This is actually the game I want you to send me a PS4 for.

6. Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe

I spent more time playing Stardew Valley this year than anything else -- well over a hundred hours -- and I really would prefer that there were better things to put on this list. It's the kind of game that I immediately disliked when I started playing it, seeing it as so obsessed with the proliferation of #content that it failed to deliver on anything. I eventually got over that when I started using it as a vehicle to listen to music with and trying to find my own fun, and that worked for a while. But then it just worked too well to listen to music to, and so I racked up those hundred plus hours doing menial bullshit with garbage balance. I still haven't finished the museum because I guess one of the artifacts that's supposed to have a 4% drop rate just doesn't spawn in some towns or something.

Which, even if we assume that's a glitch, isn't so much a problem in itself as it is a thing that (re)illuminates what kind of sucks about Stardew Valley to begin with. The repetitive busy-work aspect is great, but the focus on #content is the killer. Whatever. It's pretty good.

5. Thumper by Drool

I've never been good at rhythm games, and Thumper is no exception. I really love them though.

Mostly, Thumper is on this list because level 1-13 might be the best single level of a rhythm game I've ever played. I feel up and down about the rest of the game as a whole, and largely stopped playing it within a week or so of getting it, but god fucking damn that level.

4. Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment

Overwatch is a pretty good game, y'all.

3. Tap My Katamari by Bandai Namco

I only really played the original version of Tap My Katamari, the one that was soft-launched on the New Zealand app store at the beginning of the year. I spent a few minutes with the full version a few months after release, and it was in many ways a different game, but the core of it was still there.

When I wrote about Tap My Katamari in February, it was with a special emphasis on the fact that I had played the game sufficiently to fear I was developing an RSI. Alongside the ways that Katamari Damacy was initially interpreted and intended as a critique of consumerism -- and my own feeling that such critiques are fundamentally useless at best -- Tap My Katamari came to me to be a sort of practice. I said then that "[t]here is no phenomenology of film that can make you aware of just how often your wrists are required in daily life," and how "[t]his demand -- that the body mutate to the desires of the software -- is still not an analysis, but it is at least a reflection that does not demand a moralism. If the consumer society is unique, then it is unique in its demands on bodies; not to produce, but to watch the numbers keep going up."

If Katamari Damacy stems from a moral stance on consumerism, in other words, Tap My Katamari is a repudiation of that stance. In the ways that make it a hypocritical object, sure, but more importantly in ways that it forces the player to live in the world the way that they do live in the world, not the way that they should.

2. Final Fantasy Brave Exvius by gumi, inc.

Final Fantasy Brave Exvius is a free-to-play mobile JRPG, and it is both of these things in full. 'Active' turn-based battles bleed into energy hooks bleed into level grind bleeds into card-game cannibalization mechanics bleeds into melodramatic story bleeds into server reimbursement garbage bleeds into one of the most holistic critiques of capitalism as a social order available in a medium that literally can't be anything else.

To call Final Fantasy Brave Exvius strategic in its failures would ascribe it an intention I have no interest in, but that is very much how it feels. Most notably in the ways it fails to replicate the energy structure of a Candy Crush or a Puzzles & Dragons, instead opting for what feels like a straight asymptote; the early game is easily played to your hearts content, the late game impossible to progress reasonably through. As a kid who played JRPGs largely by burning through them until I got burned out (which is to say largely never finishing them, including Final Fantasy VII (which I sometimes call my favorite game of all time still) until year and years later), this feels less like a predatory action in itself and more like an externalization or systematization of the affect of playing these kinds of games. As does the cruft of free-to-play mechanics, from cannibalizing units for experience to the use of gems to the constant, incomprehensible special event being run.

1. Anatomy by Kitty Horrorshow

It wasn't long after playing Anatomy that I kind of burned out on smaller games, and became mostly interested in playing things that would simply allow me to listen to music while performing repetitive actions. Part of that was because of my starting work on QROCC; part of it was because Anatomy hit me in a way that was exactly what I wanted from these kinds of games.

Anything I try to write about Anatomy will likely just be a retread of the piece I wrote at the beginning of the year, and while it could use some edits, I'm not in a spot to do that. The gist of it is that Anatomy is a horror game that uses not only the game but the executable itself to create horror; it is a game that crystallizes and rewards familiarity with Kitty Horrorshow's work to this point, which is some of the most vital work happening in games, and; it is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant haunted house.