It’s the time of year again, to reflect and chart our motions through the past 365 days, if only to try and find some path for the next. Here are games I played in 2015, not necessarily was released in, that come strongest to my mind when I think of the year. Some might might be surprising, others are probably on most others lists, but for good reasons. Either way, if you haven’t played these, check them out if you can! In a vague order in which I played these:
Being a bespoke card game, I only got to play this a handful of times, but what I enjoyed the most about Consentacle was watching others play. The heart of play is the tension between trying to do right by yourself and your play partner with a communication barrier that forces you to mess up sometimes. To be sure, this game isn’t “about consent,” though it uses the contemporary fraught context of consent to create compelling relationships between players. I’ve seen all sorts of people play it, from random bros just looking to master another card game to teens to friends I knew were savvy in the practice of consensual play. Besides just being entertaining, I liked that it makes people notice how the do communicate, how they don’t, and what they are saying or not unintentionally. I was really happy to present Naomi an award for this at IndieCade, since I think this is a sort of playfulness I’d like to see games foster more often.
The Beginner’s Guide
A game that became a lot more controversial than I would have ever imagined. I first played this game a year or two ago while it was still in development, and then again earlier this year near its completion. I remember it being something special, and it weighed heavy in my heart. A lot of the reception of the game got caught up in some meta-level critique, which interests me because my impression and conversation with Davey about it was totally different. To me, this was a game about inevitable pain, about realizing you’re flawed and hurt someone but only after you have had some time to grow up. You did something awful and you don’t really deserve to be forgiven, but your heart aches too much to not try. When I first sat down with this game, the topic of Coda potentially being trans came up, and it really solidified my relationship with the game. I could relate to Coda, who has to burn bridges from others to keep themselves safe. This is alarming to others, especially because they can’t help it; we were raised in a society that doesn’t respect each other’s boundaries, that doesn’t educate about people and transformation and change. I hoped the piece I wrote on it spoke to these feelings… that, with tears in my eyes, and still some love in my heart, I must say goodbye, possibly forever.
There was a solid couple of weeks earlier this year where I dragged the tower of my old computer up next to my bed, placed my monitor on it, and created a nest of pillows and blankets, leaving only when I needed to desperately pee or find something to eat. Why I chose Endless Legend to be the game I woke up and fell asleep to, I’m not exactly too sure. There is a section of my brain that is soothed by map-based games I think, since later in the year I’d lose some time to Etrian Odyssey games, but this game felt a lot more charming than a lot of other strategy games I’ve played. Most strategy games affix themselves in historical, Tolkien-esque, or hard sci-fi wrapping and are caught up with number exchanges; their societies don’t feel very distinct, and you don’t really care about them or how they came to be. Endless Legend solves some of that, where all of the different factions you play are pretty different from each other, and one of the victory conditions is attached to a story questline. It doesn’t take care of all my issues with the genre, but playing through all the different stories made me intrigued about the world and interactions between the factions instead of feeling completely compelled to play in some hardcore min/max way.
I’ve always been a fan of Robert and particularly of his games this year. I find it to be some of the most compelling work of the year because they engage with the erotics (the body-feel, if you will) and (dis)embodiment of digital games while tying these themes to larger cultural contexts. The one I feel exemplifies this is Cobra Club, because of the not-so-talked-about topic of our contemporary sex lives and self-esteem being mediated by surveillance politics via new technology. I feel personally invested because places where queer sexuality is allowed to exist is typically ignore and/or obscured by dominant culture and therefore open to exploitation by oppressive institutions and forces. I’ve also had my own brush with gay men’s cruising culture and sites, and it’s been interesting to have these sorts of games to contextualize those experiences.
Admittedly, I got weepy when this game was in development. Besides really respecting Tale of Tales, I loved everything about the game, mostly, I loved Angela. This would be the second time I could look at a character and be like, wow, I can most likely identify with her (the first being my own game). I know straight-up identification isn’t really that simple or without it’s issues re: diversity, but it’s so rare that I think “this game is going to be for me.” And it did feel for me; I was extremely soothed by the daily routines, and the little battles in the home that reverberate to the outside politics felt like how I currently feel like how I can affect things. Angela’s relationship to Gabriel allowed me to express some of the power tensions I find in my own intimacies, a topic that very few, if any, games allow me to do. Sunset, to me, was a bid for recentering the focus of entertainment games, for maybe the ‘new normal’ to follow along in its example of mixing various forms of culture and new settings. Being about the mood instead of the overt action.
Her Story is the game that signaled to me that the nostalgia train is beginning to arrive at my station. I don’t really identify with retro platformers or classic CRPGs, but along with trendy low-poly it seems like the FMV genre will see a return. It’s like we’re descending into a new level of glorifying the ‘obviously bad,’ since the production values of FMVs and early low-poly makes for current viewing quite cringe worthy. What’s most interesting for me about Her Story is the reception, mostly that people are excited to see a game mostly about a woman, making it Of The Time for video games. However, I’ve always been for bad women, or marginalized people who are well made bad characters, instead of heroes on some journey few would actually identify with. Hannah and Eve, or Hannah/Eve, are bad women who are still compelling. I don’t think some of the themes that came out of the game could have happened when framed as a hero, and really, I think that’s the case for most stories about the marginalized in a culture that villainizes them.
Playing through Panoramical, I quickly knew something was wrong. I would set each level to something I found nice, pause for a couple seconds and then move on to the next. Having had a few conversations with David Kanaga, I knew there was something more to how I was supposed to be interacting with this game. For him, music and play are analogous, or interacted with in similar ways. One could reduce Panoramical to a musical toy, but I don’t think that’s all that fair. At the time I was playing this, I also was reading some dense material, and found myself particularly moody and distracted whenever I tried to read. So I would try to find a particular, well, music video I guess, on Panoramical that I could edit to counter my mood and read to. I ritualized it a bit and now feel compelled to continue that as I start to pick up on academic reading again.
Virtue’s Last Reward
Experiments in the visual novel genre is one of the few things that keeps me into games these days, and I was late to the party with playing 999, and so I eventually got around to Virtue’s Last Reward this year and could not put it down. Games about jumping through multiple realities to solve a mystery is pretty much Mattie-bait, all it would have needed is some dating. I strongly feel that VLR gets at what is interesting about digital narratives for me, or even digital games overall. Video games that manipulate our relationships to time and space like this to share its values or stories really get to me, I think that’s what they do well. For sure, VLR is an entertainment game about a sci-fi mystery, so it didn’t exactly shake any understanding of myself, however I found it to be compelling on its own as a structure and something that should be more normalized, because experimentation on that would really get close to something I would find amazing.
This was an interesting experience I ran into at IndieCade’s Night Games, and everyone knows I’m into fortune-telling-related experiences. Here, we have something of an iterated digital tarot reading, where you pick a card at random and it shows a digital scene that you play through as the creator narrates some interpretive context around it. In the middle of rowdy games with running around and screaming, it was serene and left an impression on me, mostly about how we could start getting more playful with interpretation, or having more interpretive play. I’m also fascinated by digital methods of divination and the implications surrounding that.
Happy Home Designer
Closing out the year is probably my favorite, mostly because I take a particular joy in turning corporately-tuned clean and cute worlds like Animal Crossing’s into a late-capitalistic hellscape. I didn’t go for HHD for a bit because so many reviews and people said that it would get boring fast since as long as you included a couple objects, the client would always like what you’ve created. And I get this, one of my favorite renditions of interior design was in The Sims 3: Ambitions and clients were more discerning about what you did. However, I find the fact that, no matter what, that cute little animal person will be happy with what you do means you should make things that no typical person would actually enjoy. So I’ve been making homes with government surveillance cameras lining the walls and cafes that insert flavor into your mouth through dentistry. I feel like games like these are places where we can express our discomfort for the tidy lives games present to us, that this forced happiness is the real dystopia, and disturbing it is creating our own pockets of sanity.
And that’s it! I hope to explore more visual novels and I’m looking into more home-making and designing games (looking at you Style Savvy), so if you happen to know of any, let me know!
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