I played a lot of games this year, to the detriment of job prospects and personal relationships. Here, in no particular order, are the ones that I [REDACTED] the most:
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is the apex of an old and highly conservative form; the linear game about The Man With The Gun Who Kills Things For Reasons. There is little to write about The Last of Us because nothing it does is new.
It is noteworthy, however, for two reasons. Firstly: because what it does do, it does with such competence and skill, and secondly: because among the myriad other games about The Man With The Gun, it is unique in that respect.
If we must make games that simulate murder in such industrial quantities we can at least make the violence as traumatic as it is in this game. The combat is desperate and awful. Many fights take place in claustrophobic dark environments at close quarters. It reminds me a lot of Condemned 2; a game where I spent the bulk of my time fighting for my life in a gutter, terrified, smashing a man’s head in with a brick until he stopped twitching. Those deaths were hard deaths. They did not feel good.
I think that’s what I hate most about Call of Duty and its entourage, the speed and cleanliness of it. How guilt free the killing is. Long range, distant enemies masked in turbans or helmets, othered, anonymous. Soap and Captain Price save the world; poster boys for the military industrial complex. War sanitized for your living room; designed to be addictive. Quick deaths and quick respawns, no horror, just the popup messages telling you exactly how many points you were rewarded with for that last kill, what medals you just won. Again and again. Endorphins. Pavlov’s dogs.
The combat in The Last of Us is not sanitised; it is shocking and brutal. With you always is your charge; Ellie, a 14 year old girl and witness to all your sins. The first time I beat a man to death with a length of lead pipe I turned to find her standing there, mouth open in horror.
Reader, I restarted the damn game.
It owes, it must be said, quite a large debt to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both in style and substance. The world is dark and the dialogue sparse – never using 3 words where one would do. The jump cuts that frame the story’s 4 acts linger always in the back of the mind; the weight of experience that these characters have gone through that we, as players, shall never see. It made me think of Hemingway and icebergs.
Leigh Alexander wrote that The Last of Us is the very least we should ask of videogames. That may sound like too much damning with faint praise but that would be a misunderstanding; it is an exceptional work and it tells its story masterfully – with restraint and humanity. It is just sad we have had to wait this long for a game of its kind to do so.
Fucking Molyneux. That was my initial thought upon hearing the precis of the game; a monstrous cube that we all collectively chip away at, hiding some mysterious prize at its core. The prize itself has, predictably, turned out to be underwhelming and this realisation has tainted the concept for many people.
I will say now that I think Peter Molyneux is much better at advocating for games than actually making them. The last game he made before Curiosity that I actually respect was Fable back in 2004 and that was good in all the wrong ways; fun but mechanically and narratively conservative. No boundaries pushed, no questions asked.
Out of the blue, then, came Curiosity – a construct that felt more like an installation than a videogame. People actually wrote articles arguing that it was morally evil, to make this thing that people would collectively sink hundreds of thousands of hours into completely meaninglessly, without reason or reward, chipping away towards an unknown goal. A ludoweapon.
The game itself is a masterclass in compulsion. Calming colours and ambient music draw you in and tapping away at the cube is satisfying and addictive. You gain a score multiplier that gradually increases as you keep tapping but as soon as you stop it is gone. You gain coins as you chip away that allow you to buy tools that allow you to chip away faster to get more coins to get better tools to chip away faster to get more coins to get better tools…
Molyneux’s cube. Skinner’s box.
One of the things that I loved the most was zooming out and just watching its layers gradually recede, or scanning the face of the cube for messages people had left or pictures they had carved into some forgotten part of its surface. There was a sense that thing had an existence outside of the device you accessed it on, a communal artifact. It was awesome, in the true sense of that word; the scale of the fucking thing.
Curiosity is over now, finished. Molyneux has gone on to rehash worn ideas he had decades ago and his creative flashes have returned to the ether, but I hope people remember this amongst his disappointments and empty promises. A thing that was both beautiful and sinister, situated in that grey area between play and manipulation.
That Dragon, Cancer
I was afraid to play this game. I played a demo of it on a convention floor – a skeleton of a thing; all glitches and missing assets. 10 minutes in I started crying uncontrollably, they had this fucking model of a hospital bathroom that brought back a heap of memories that I had buried somewhere and never even attempted to process. It is an oppressive game, but a very meditative one, it captures that feeling – the one of wanting to be literally anywhere else and at the same time nowhere else – a little too well. I found a strange catharsis there, in the bones of this thing, amongst the first person shooters, the smell of sweat and empty mountain dew bottles.
Afterwards the woman minding the booth came over and hugged me; she was related to Joel, the boy who the game is about and whose fate will ultimately shape its ending. I struggled to talk without tearing up, embarrassed as hell, and told her to send all my love to Joel and his family. She asked me if I had tried praying, I told her I didn’t pray anymore.
I guess games have reached that point in their maturity where they cease to be entirely kitsch fiction. People were inevitably going to try and imbue these pixels and polygons with emotion stolen from their own lives. The game is still in development so the measure of its success remains to be seen and I wonder if the reasons I find it special are not overwhelmingly due to the weight of my own experiences. Either way, it brought to the fore emotions that I had buried immediately after the fact and have been too proud or too scared to let myself feel for a long time. No piece of media before or since has done that.
A fucking grim Grimm fairytale. It starts light and whimsical and then, very gradually and with no fanfare, becomes incredibly dark. Not that surprising, perhaps, given that it was developed by Starbreeze – a studio responsible for two of the stranger and more gruesome games I have played.
I cannot overstate how much I love this game, once you get past the somewhat abstruse controls, it a fantastic little thing. The single button press that the game culminates with captures the essence of mechanics as metaphor much more succinctly and elegantly than the first Bioshock ever did. In brief; it is a story about innocence, loss and small acts of kindness in the face of great danger, all told without dialogue.
What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word ‘game’.)
Proteus was this year’s game that a lot of people angrily insisted was NOT a game due to the lack of defined challenge or goal. Thus they unwittingly acted as proxies in an argument that Wittgenstein and Bernard Suits have been having vicariously for the better part of a century. The same arguments were levelled at Anna Anthropy’s brilliant Dys4ia with the same vigour (and not a little transphobia) just a year before, to which came the damning reply: ‘why is understanding someone else’s experience not a legitimate goal?’.
I am always suspicious of the monopolisation of definitions. It always struck me as a rather untenable form of gatekeeping; to claim there exists an objective and unchanging notion of ‘game’, hardwired into the universe, against which we can measure all things. #TeamWittgenstein
Either way, Proteus is not your average game. I had to unlearn so many instinctive impulses in the first few hours before it became something that I could really appreciate. I wanted to see everything, to do everything and to get to the end; to complete it. Proteus does have an end, but it is absolutely not in the spirit of the thing to try and get there.
I play it now to unwind when I am stressed. Wandering through the island, not remembering where I have been or planning where I am going. The music swells, generated by the things around me. Oak trees are the low pulsing bass, bushes and flowers provide the harmonies, a swarm of passing bees causes a cascade of synth. I see an old church on a distant hilltop and walk towards it, wondering what new melodies it will bring.
Kentucky Route Zero
A beautiful game. It presses all of the right buttons for me; a road journey through the back roads of middle America exploring old abandoned spaces, references to the life of Alan Lomax and just a hint of the supernatural. If I had to describe it I would say American Gods crossed with Steinbeck. Slow and meandering with a slight sense of menace that pervades everything.
Shadow of the Colossus
What can I say about this game that has not already been said? That it plays to the medium’s strengths, telling its story through space and action instead of depending on cutscenes and dialogue; relics lifted from the medium of film. Or how its wonderful artistic direction of browns and greens grounds everything in understated beauty and decay?
It is a game dripping with mystery. It gives you just just enough information to contextualise immediate events but no more; it drives people fucking mad. People are still tearing the guts of its code apart today, 8 years after its initial release, looking for secrets and closure, and they are still discovering things. Just recently hackers found a series of gigantic structures hidden in the mist far beyond the game’s explorable limits. They serve no discernable purpose, but they are there.
One of the game’s great successes is how much empathy it manages to evoke with so little. Wander, your proxy, hardly speaks save to call out in pain or summon Agro, his steed. He is just some dumb kid, with fat thighs and soft features. I can still picture his stupid fucking run; flicking his legs out in-front of him in pursuit of a love that, in all likelihood, is not reciprocated. But we can see a quiet strength in him; in how far he has come, in the unshakeable loyalty his horse has to him and in the lines he is willing to cross – doing terrible things for good reasons. It is ruthlessly endearing.
Much is made of the Colossus encounters themselves but, truth be told, the majority of the game is spent travelling through the world, navigating space. Stopping occasionally to pray at shrines or to hunt lizards for food. It is quiet; contemplative. I half suspect that was a deliberate design choice, to give you time to mull over your actions. Am I the hero? or something else?
Every so often in my life I encounter something that my mind, through the function of some strange exceptionalism, places in a box apart from all other things. Maggot Brain is there, along with every word Primo Levi ever wrote. Now that box is a little heavier.
- The Walking Dead – It always frustrated me in games like Mass Effect that there was an optimal way to play, to save everyone, which meant you never had to make any hard choices. This game has no such restraint. It will spend hours developing two characters, making you care about them, and then at the drop of a pin make you choose between them.
- Salty Bet – I couldn’t explain this in ten thousand words, let alone a sentence. I’m just happy it exists.
- Papa y Yo – Vander Caballero made a game about his father’s alcoholism that is wonderful and sad in equal measure.
- Superhexagon – The essence of challenge and flow.
- Dark Souls – Alien and unwelcoming. The world seemingly refuses to acknowledge you or even begin to explain its systems. It is Skyrim’s terrifying butterfly-knife-carrying half-sister and I am in love.
- Cards Against Humanity – Randomises offensiveness and removes culpability, hilarity ensues. Guess the predilections of other players to win.
- Papers Please – Eat your heart out, Hannah Arendt.
- The Stanley Parable – Looks at the central conflict at the heart of game storytelling; the melding of authored narrative with meaningful player choice, and does so with wit and style
- Drink – DRINK. DRIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNKKKKKK.
- Flotilla – Fly spaceships. Fight penguins. Listen to Chopin. VIDEOGAMES.
- Call of Duty: Ghosts – New subtitle, same bullshit.
- Bioshock Infinite – Exactly the kind of game the first Bioshock was criticising.
- Grand Theft Auto 5 – Not even the best GTA game released this year.
My favourite writing on games this year
- Tom Bissell on GTAV
- Leigh Alexander on The Last of Us
- Jason Johnson on Salty Bet
- Craig Owens on Shadow of the Colossus