Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Top 10 Games of 2018

#10 Lucah: Born of a Dream

Lucah: Born of a Dream is a top-down, 2D character action game with (I believe) fully hand-drawn art. It plays similarly to something like Hyper Light Drifter, albeit in a way I enjoy way more. I also was considering not including it on this list, because it was shown at the Playdate Pop-up, which I organize and helped curate. Then I realized that was really silly. If you want to hear me (& my co-host Bela (who also put out a great game this year that you should buy imo; I did recuse myself from that one)) talk to the lead designer and the sound designer, you're welcome to check out this episode of our old podcast.

I'm not entirely sure I'm the best equipped to talk about the themes of the game, though I would say that central to the story are questions of faith and identity. Central moments involve parishioners self-flagellating, Cardinals hosting bloodsports, and major enemies named things like Christian and Messiah. The main character, who you name at the beginning, is occasionally pointed at as a savior or as a harbinger of doom, and it is revealed late on (unless I misread something) that you have a previous name, though the character who uses it immediately reverts to the one you chose after letting it slip. I should also say that the game probably needs a content warning for ideation; it's not a happy world that you're wading through. It is a beautiful one, though, and one that is always compelling to interact with.

#9 Celeste

Celeste is absolutely not my kind of thing. I hate masocore games, and barely tolerate most platformers. It has a story barely more subtle than Braid's. Playing it on a Switch with finicky Joycons wasn't necessarily frustrating, but it definitely lead to a lot of deaths where my intent didn't match up with the execution.

I also didn't just beat the whole game, but beat every B-Side except for The Core. I think I ended up only missing three strawberries, themselves in the A-Side of The Core. I did not touch any C-Sides or go for any of the secret golden strawberries or whatever, but given that I was fully expecting to barely play past the tutorial - and that I'm not at all someone who cares about challenges, especially ones that come after I've beat a game - that feels like a kind of wild amount to have played.

#8 Rhythmcremental

A rhythm-based idle game with no real endgame. I played it long enough to get all six of the sound stings on each of the available surfaces, which is difficult because there's a bug when you hit one of the items that brings you down to something like a negative billion points.

No, there's not really anything here. I made a bad song out of this game. It's no Tap my Katamari. It's just a cool thing.

#7 Ni No Kuni 2

What an uneven game in so many ways. An incredible opening - Roland, the President, rolls into town and it gets nuked. He appears in a fantasy land lead by King Evan, a child whose father has been slowly assassinated with poison by his chief advisor. He helps the kid escape and set off to create a new nation whose primary aim is to end war, which turns into a game where you wander the world having folks sign a "Declaration of Interdependence" in order to unify, ending war.

The combat is a solid update of Quest 64, and is simple enough as is with room for complexity. The world is pleasantly variegated, and has a ton of charm. Each item has a cutesy twist for a name, and the descriptions are often used in fetch quests. It's full of siloed off systems; a city builder with freemium aspects that is weirdly fulfilling on its own terms, a procedural dungeon crawl with its own difficulty timer and economy, a (kind of bad) top-down real time strategy game with powers and gauges that don't exist elsewhere. The way those things don't interlock is interesting, in terms of how we value games and especially in the wake of things like Breath of the Wild.

Alongside the map's variety, there's a good hook in each of the kingdoms. The first place you convert is a casino town that lays all decisions down to the whim of fate, in the form of a massive statue that rolls a die. The conflict comes down to the fact that the king is (being manipulated to) fudging the numbers; rolls are fixed by a mechanism in each of the dice that weight them according to what the roller needs. Even Lady Luck is being manipulated by remote control, which is why the monthly roll to raise taxes has happened to be as high as possible for the last three months. You expose this corruption and disgrace the ruler. There's an interesting conservatism in the town, though. Disgrace is a hard thing to sustain in a town that is often ruled by superstition, where change is looked at with suspicion at best. The people who are making it are convinced that correlation is causation, and so of course they would be reticent to overthrow someone, especially when it seems he is both repentant and was being manipulated.

The second town is full of merfolk and run in an authoritarian fashion. Certain staircases are off limits, love is outlawed, and no one is allowed to emigrate. Investigating this, you find that the town was actually destroyed a few hundred years ago. The only thing that has kept it going was the queen's magic. Any new arrivals or exits would upset the balance she has upheld, explaining the laws. In the end, she agrees that the time may have come to pass, and so signs the Declaration of Interdependence and relaxes the laws.

The third city, Broadleaf, is closest to my heart. The president and CEO of this nation/corporation has become a petty tyrant, working his people past the point of exhaustion. Protests are sprouting up demanding better working conditions. You travel with one of the three people who were part of the original startup that ended up as this nation. With her, you see this president go from tech idealist to small business owner to tyrannical CEO. It's an arc that is easy to identify the truth in, even if it too ends in his being manipulated and ultimately offering to sacrifice his own life for his workers/subjects in a redemption arc. At that point, the protests sort of just melt away.

Each of these things are well drawn, poignant stories in their own right. And I even appreciate the motivations in them, often. It's the way they are all brought together that makes me more and more suspicious that this game might, in fact, have an incredibly fascist message.

I wrote too much here and some of this was already covered but okay here are some bullet points:

  • Ding Dong Dell's coup is an oppressed class rising up to … impose an ethnostate. The possibility of that oppression being real is basically denied by Roland during his turn as an infiltrator.
  • Broadleaf's redemption rests on 1) outside interference, despite the clear throughline from startup CEO to tyrant 2) idealism in the form of "jogging memories" and, relatedly, 3) the benevolence of the tyrant.
  • Goldpaw is more or less explicit, really. After the corruption scandal brings down the Grand High Roller, the citizens are basically all about keeping him around. They're wildly disempowered & atomized, and caught up in turns of superstition.
  • Hydropolis is a weird one. The queen has been holding this kingdom together for three centuries without sleep because of an apocalyptic event. She finally lets it go because the outside manipulator has been vanquished and she is finally willing to admit her love. But when she relinquishes the laws and people begin coming and going, the kingdom goes nowhere. The only thing that makes sense is that she just needed to hold the kingdom in stasis long enough for the apocalypse to pass, and has spent the last - let's be generous and say - two and a half centuries holding her citizens hostage in a loopy Groundhog's Day for no reason.
  • The big thing: all of this works well if it's self-directed. The building of friendships, abolishing of war, increasing diversities of place and opinion, are all excellent on their own terms. Even Evan's building a kingdom of low key technocrats is interesting because at no point is it framed that way. People aren't recruited because they offer a specific service to Evermore; they find themselves there for various reasons and end up contributing in the best way they can. The microscopic view of this game is all about comradeship and from each according to their abilities.
  • Which is why the "outside manipulator" thing is so consistently troubling. Presumably it is meant to give this game an end boss. But what it really does is recast all of that in a fashy light. These kingdoms aren't joining together to eliminate war; they're doing so in preparation to fight an outside scourge. And not only that, the scourge is in their midst. The people are being corrupted by it. Nazi shit, my guy.

#6 Into the Breach

Based on my Steam library, and I have no reason to think it's wrong or missing anything, Into the Breach is the first game I've ever unlocked every achievement in. The second, which I also got this year, was Heaven Will be Mine. I think the only game that might have qualified for that would have been getting all the Notices in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which I'm fairly confident I did. I'm not good at videogames. Sometimes I play them for a long time though.

The rough rundown: Into the Breach is a tactics game from the makers of FTL. You pilot three mechs on a series of 8x8 grids, fighting giant bugs that are threatening human cities. Your health bar is the amount of buildings that have been destroyed; your mechs also have their own health. You progress through a handful of levels over the course of two, three, or four islands (your choice) and then do a two-part final stage. I've heard a lot of people say it is very hard. I think I got my first win on my second attempt, on Normal difficulty. I'm not sure how that happened, as I am not particularly good at videogames.

The way you play Into the Breach is basically how I play chess. I'm pretty good at getting a lay of the board, and if I take a minute or so I can get a sense of how a good number of possibilities might play out over the next two turns. I can't think more than two moves ahead, because (I suspect) I have no sense of what someone else will actually go for (unless it's really, really clear, like a guaranteed checkmate; and even then I'm never sure if they'll see it), which means I hold too many possibilities in my head.

You might be better at Into the Breach than I am if you can keep more information in mind, but it rarely seems to make a difference. You just need a good lay of the land, a sense of what everything on the board is doing, how shifting that around will affect things, and the willingness to sit there and walk through the possibilities before you make the move, for this move and the next. I'm not even great at that, but sometimes I'm in the mood to spend the time to do it. I spent most of my time playing Isaac Jones, the pilot who gives you an extra reset. I rarely needed to use it, but I needed it for mindset reasons. It's that kind of thing.

Before and after this, you'll see me end these little write-ups in ambiguous ways. I'll say something positive, or that I don't have anything deep to say. It's been that kind of year with videogames, for me. Partially because I was so invested in Kingdom Hearts, and partially because I'm trying to use this as a way to recognize games that affected me at the time but haven't stuck with me beyond my playing them, or inspired big, sweeping thoughts. So that's another one of those things this paragraph is describing.

#5 Zones

This collection of five games by Connor Sherlock, the creator of one of the standout early walking simulators, The Rapture is Here and You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Homes, is gorgeous. From the moment you boot up Void Traversal (or Witch of Agnesi; both are in the ACT ONE folder) this is clear. I happened to boot up Void Traversal first, and stood stock still while I took in the beautiful mottling of the world, it's messy pinks and aqua swallowed digitally into black. There's a good chance I would have stood there for a long time, but that the soundtrack made me feel compelled to move.

I was deeply into walking simulators back about five years ago. I've fallen off them, in a variety of ways, in the intervening half-decade. Which is one of the reasons why I'm a little anxious about Zones, despite how much I immediately fell in love with it. Five years of iteration, especially from someone like Connor Sherlock, means I'm almost certainly missing a lot. There have been developments in walking simulators that I don't know, and that bothers me.

Specifically, at least with Act One of Zones, I have no idea if I was intended to just wander or if there were points of interest that I missed; specifically ones that would have progressed my understanding of the whole, or ones that would bring me to an end point. That psychological distress ended up being productive, though. Because Zones, for me, has become an object lesson in ateological level design.

If there are points of interest that I missed, this might be a lie. But that's fine.

So: in Zones you wander around landscapes. I have no idea how they're generated - other than by Connor Sherlock, for his patreon subscribers, I believe on a monthly basis. This collection drops you in them and then you walk around while some synths play cool, propulsive shit and they look incredible. And usually there's something, a landmark like a freestanding structure or a mountain range or a floating crystal or the sun, that you point yourself at and just fucking book it towards. And then, in most of them, you hit the jump button and zoom way too high up, like your character lists sideways high up, and that's super sweet also.

I spent a couple hours just poking at these worlds and I'm so glad I did. Here are some screenshots. Thanks.

#4 Heaven Will Be Mine

Heaven Will Be Mine is a visual novel about mecha pilots flirting over the future of non-humans, and the follow up to Worst Girls Games' We Know the Devil, a game I loved a whole fucking bunch. I'll be upfront about this: Heaven Will Be Mine doesn't live up to my feelings on that, for reasons that I think are a terrible intermingling of personal, aesthetic, and thematic. I also don't think it needed to live up to those feelings to be an exceptional thing in its own right, which I absolutely believe it to be.

Roughly, you can play through three routes, each with its own main pilot and faction. I went with Pluto first, whose faction ending I found to be the most compelling and rich; I then played through as Luna-Terra and Saturn. Each route has at least a few interesting things; some to do with mech size, some to do with personal histories and relationships outside the triad, some to do with the possibility of a future. The structural aspect of We Know the Devil that so enamored me to think of collectivity, where you functionally always play all three, is dissimulated here into your choices being between who wins and who loses in any particular conflict. It's also a very neat mechanic, but one that didn't hit me quite as hard.

I'm so glad this game exists, and I am fully in for whatever Worst Girls does next. And maybe at some point in 2019 I'll poke back into this and see if I don't get more out of it. I suspect it has that in it, at least.

#3 Dead Cells

Dead Cells definitely has that thing. The thing that roguelites do. It's a run-based action platformer, where drops and levels are procedurally generated. It has persistent progression; you unlock things that show up in later runs. Deaths feel like your own fault, most of the time, whether that's because you managed your build poorly, rolled or attacked at the wrong time, or dove deeper than your current state could reasonably handle. That thing, though, is that you - I - feel like run-to-run, you're - I'm - improving. Not because of those unlocks (though they help), but because you have a slightly better understanding of the game, its mechanics, its flow.

This is not, generally, a thing I'm interested in. I like roguelikes - Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup is probably in my top five or ten games of all time at this point - but I'm mostly interested in playing games on easy. I prefer Kingdom Hearts' combat to Kingdom Hearts 2's, and am probably the only person who would rate Snowblind Studios' action higher than, say, Platinum's. Being as honest as I can be, execution is probably my least favorite aspect of videogames. That, or smuggled-in libertarian/fascist propaganda (This War of Mine (and probably Frostpunk (I haven't played it))), I guess.

That last bit isn't totally irrelevant, I promise. The tone of Dead Cells kind of sucks. The character gives the bras d'honneur (that thing where you flex one arm forward and slap your bicep that's like giving the finger; they are a French studio, I guess), there's a hidden room with a bonfire and the text "GIT GUD," and it's replete with jokes about how prisoners are stupid (you shouldn't look for missing books in the prison, lol) and "magic mushrooms" and shit.

All of which might have turned me off had I not known that they self-describe as an "anarcho syndical workers cooperative," according to this Kotaku article. That bit of knowledge - plus the fact that I didn't have to buy the game myself, and that I needed something to play while listening to podcasts for a big chunk of this year and didn't have anything else great - ended up leading to me putting something like a hundred hours into Dead Cells. And beating it on every difficulty up to Expert.

As with many of these things, I don't have a big thesis statement. Getting that feeling of genuinely improving over time was nice, and the game feels good. They're about to nerf the strategy that got me those wins, so I'm almost certainly never going to play the game again. Which feels good too. Dead Cells, hey, congratulations. I'm probably going to forget about you very soon but you were kinda important to my year.

#2 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I fucking really like Smash, okay. I dumped what probably amounted to thousands (plural) of hours into Melee when I was in high school. I was not going to tournaments; I never learned how to wavedash or shield drop or edge cancel. I was largely not even playing it with anyone else. Sometimes I'd force my little brother to play with me, because I was a dickhead. I played a lot of the single player modes, and I played a lot of me vs. level 9 computers. I did this over and over and for so long that I've since been pretty passable at every subsequent game. I didn't play a lot of Brawl; my heart wasn't in it, my life wasn't in the same place, and the one thing I did want to try - playing online against my friend Wingus, who lives in Australia - was so laggy that it happened only once or twice. I ended up playing a lot of Sm4sh, because that game was really fun, and I even managed to go to one local. Mostly I played alone again, or with one friend who picked up the series with that game and actually put in the mental work (instead of just the time, like me) to go from much, much worse than I was to - well, let's say somewhere between "a little" and "much" better.

Said friend (who is responsible for every game on this list that isn't a PC game, due to their having consoles for which they get games; thanks) also keeps me up on the competitive scene, from the petty dramas (sorry about Ganondorf or whatever, reddit) to the discovery of tech, what's forthcoming, and just about everything else. I am not particularly invested in this, but it is nice. I love Smash Bros, you know? Knowing where it's healthy and where it isn't is nice.

I genuinely don't have much to say. World of Light is really cool, even though I give zero fucks about Nintendo's history. The Squad Smash variant, where you choose 3v3 or 5v5 and run through that number of characters against your opponent, is a lot of fun. I think I main Peach now on accident? That's weird as hell.

And the game feels fucking good. I imagine I'll go back to Sm4sh at some point and wonder how I ever played it, even though this game feels so familiar to that. Movement is crisp, and it feels like getting more familiar with it will make me better. It's just a good nice videogame.

#1 Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Powered By Blood

Extreme Meatpunks Forever is, well, kind of excellent. It's a hybrid visual novel and arena beat 'em up based around ring outs and movement skills, set in a world where the sun is gone, everyone has mechs made of meat, and you play as a group of antifascist queer folks who regularly beat the fuck out of (and even kill!) neonazis. The game follows four meatpunks - antifa, more or less - as they get run out of their rural town, trek across the desert for a week, and meet up with another group. They eat gas station food and chill with a sun cultist along the way, fight fash, and develop crushes and explore their own traumas, past and present.

I've been aware of Heather Flowers' work for a little while now - 10,000 Years was showcased at the Playdate Pop-up in 2017 - though I haven't engaged with nearly as much of it as I have wanted to. Her work, at least to me, continues the tradition of the extremely personal, political, revolutionary games that got me back into the medium back around 2012-13. It rages against the world as it is, the forces of reaction, and it is equally comfortably embodying that raging as it is transmogrifying it into abstract aesthetic spaces that draw the player in and force them into reflection.

Extreme Meatpunks Forever might be the crystallization of her work so far in this particular way. It also might not - again, I really need to explore her work more - but either way it is excellent. Its characters blossom out of sketches to become messy coincidences of allegory and people; the explosion of worldbuilding coheres as much in aesthetic fury and incendiary joy as it does in suggesting a world. Flowers explains all this better in her Meatpunk Manifesto.

The biggest surprise was when this game got hard. The mechanics are fairly straightforward; in the visual novel side, you click to advance and occasionally make a choice. In the brawler side, you use the WASD keys to move, left click to punch, and right click to use a special action (dependent on who you are playing as). It isn't the deepest, and the first two episodes were about what I expected from the tutorial; play whoever, barely use the specials, just be aware of your positioning and you'll be able to mash it out. That's true for everything but maybe two or three fights. In the last two episodes, there are pieces that ended up taking me a half-dozen tries or more, and forced me to really learn the right-click mechanics and whose I was best at using (or cheesing. I relied on Sam a lot at the end). It was frustrating. Which felt right. The same way dying repeatedly in Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus kind of felt right, even if it was largely because the game made poor decisions if you were looking at it solely from the perspective of gameplay flow.

Those brief difficulty spikes ended up producing the kind of friction that, up to that point, had only ever partially existed in the narrative, through the forcing of choice. Going in, I was honestly expecting not to have this game end up on this list. Not because I thought it would be bad - as I've said, I've liked everything I've seen of Heather Flowers' work before - but because I expected it, I think, to be somewhat slight. That expectation lead to me wanting to be able to see everything in one playthrough. Forcing me to only see one or two people's interactions, then, made me feel like I was going to be forced to replay through to see the rest when it might not really be worth it. That all turned out to be bullshit on my part. But having those pain points crystallized into having to replay specific fights - which, I should also state, are totally skippable from the moment you fail one, indicating that I was probably more bought-in than I even thought myself to be from early on - made me understand on a conscious level what I was experience subconsciously.

And hey, counterpoint to a lot of those others: this game fucking stuck with me. It's still itching at my brain on the regular. Good shit.

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