Top 10 Fav Games of 2016

2016 has been quite the year. It was my first full year in NYC, which I’ve taken to quite well. I’ve been spreading out from video game culture and investigating the different ways play manifests in the world through multiple disciplines. It’s been pretty rough considering politics, and so maybe it’s apt to talk about the top 10 games that have left an impression on me this past year. Many of these weren’t released in 2016 but I only got around to them now. I now site many of these games in my conversations with students and people outside of games, and in general, I’m interested to see where games go in 2017. But without further ado, in alphabetical order, the games:

 

Amnesia: Memories

2016 was definitely the year of getting more into otome games, or let say, games targeted at women in general. I’m fascinated by what game development companies think women want and what design values come out of not designing for men or the general gamer audience entails. Whereas Hatoful Boyfriend is a more direct satire on the genre of otome dating sims, Amnesia is probably an unintentional but interesting critique. The game is set up pretty conventionally, where you’re an empty lady protagonist courted by men with boundary issues and you live out a supernatural slice of life tale and eventually fall in love. But the twists are plenty, for instance, True Ending routes being clear depictions of unhealthy romantic life choices while the Good Endings are realistic and promotes only what I can call sane ideas of how men should be treating women. It’s definitely subtle and could easily be the problematic fav of the bunch, but it’s worth looking into if you’re interested in some reflexivity in the genre.

 

Bad News

I still have a strong interest in performance and how it can be applied to games, so I was happy there were quite a few games with performance elements in them this past IndieCade. One of the ones I really liked was Bad News, a game where you come upon a dead body and need to find a next of kin in order to break the news. The characters and locale are generated and the performer is assisted by AI to act out the characters and have the relevant information to give to the player if they asked about it. You know how in text adventures, the computer will often reject the commands you put in because it doesn’t understand what you’re saying? This felt like a neat answer to that problem by having a performer be the main thing you interact with. It allowed the experience be supported by rules-based design but not limited. Interested to see more performance and AI stuff in the future!

 

The Danganronpa series

Danganronpa was one of those games I saw the title of floating around social media but never really got around to playing it.  I’ve been getting really into the mystery genre in VNs, so throwing in the death game element just made it perfect for me. I think it presents an interesting new way to do narrative in a mainstream context, and really pushed the idea of mystery game design for me. While the concept of narrative in games is contested, Danganronpa connected some thoughts on narrative design I’ve had and discussions about literary mystery genre in academic contexts. It was during my time playing these games I was convinced of a new video game form or at least genre of mystery VNs, which take the basic form and some conventions of visual novels but uses mystery to complicate the usual slice of life elements you get from them. One could say the Phoenix Wright series started this new genre which eventually evolved into the Danganronpa series.

 

Hamlet-Mobile

Moving to NYC means a lot more interactive theater is available to me, probably moreso than video games. They are kind of pricey so I haven’t been to much, but now that I’ve experienced Hamlet-Mobile and am getting some extra pocket change, I really need to start seeing some more. Hamlet-Mobile actually won best game design at IndieCade this year, a controversial but ultimately satisfying decision to help reconsider what design means for games. I was initially resistant to the piece when it was going through the jurying process because I’m familiar with interactive/immersive/whatever theater but little has yet really made me feel it was stretching the boundaries of what I saw as play. But when I experienced it for myself, I got it. My mind made an unexpected connection between the way Hamlet-Mobile was structured and material rules/design of video games. In short, there are many ‘rules’ or affordances that are not directly communicated to players but still shape their experience, like for instance, your character model will not pass through walls or whatnot. I realized that the kind of theater that Hamlet-Mobile was doing constructed a tight tunnel of experience through material rules much like video games, but at the same time, made me forget that I was ‘interacting.’ Very early on in the piece I stopped thinking ‘this is an experience’ and just experienced. And to do that without being gamey or using conventional attention loops really is worth noticing and thinking about.

 

Mini Metro

I am relatively new to public transportation systems, and they used to really intimidate me. The first subway I ever took was in NYC when I was a child and it was an awful experience, I didn’t remember it until recently and wondering why I kept a certain level of anxiety each time I rode the train (besides the fact that everyone on the subway are anxious about the subway). With that, I’ve come to understand I now have a ‘subway brain,’ or a part of me that is calculating my route and factoring in strategies for need to get where I’m going, which does give me more anxiety. Then I remembered seeing Mini Metro somewhere and for some reason decided it would be a great game to play while on the subway, since it doesn’t need an internet connection. Playing it occupied that subway brain of mine as it toiled on how to make fictional subway systems work. Though I’m trying to do a more Abramovic-like boredom exercise now whenever I’m riding the train, I would recommend it to anyone living in a big city that gets stressed out over the subway.

 

Mystic Messenger

There’s always that one game a year that I’m referring to everyone as an interesting experiment, and this year it’s Mystic Messenger. Whenever I make a reference to it in talks and lectures, half of the audience immediately goes to their phones to download it. I am super fascinated by the evolving presence of UI in the play experience, and this game struck me at where I’m weakest: texting with boys. I’ve played a lot of otome this year, and this stuck out to me the most because it used my natural habits of texting, email, and chatting to involve me emotionally into the story of the characters. The setting is very unconventional, a Line-like chatroom, and you learn about the others through this periphery method. But isn’t that true for how society works now anyway? How many people do you feel like you know well enough through Twitter, but the moment you meet them you realize you know nothing about their life? Also, the spontaneous calls from Korean boys always gave me a moment, especially when I had to answer in front of other people and explain the situation. I really hope this is iterated on and other artists take note on how we can use familiar interfaces to include more than just gamers into play.

 

Pokemon Moon/Sun

You know, I was very close to not picking up Pokemon this year. I’ve been fed up with the saminess and the PR around this generation seemed to be full of nostalgia. What began to tip me off that something was different were the leaks of very dark Pokedex entries. It was the first time I feel like a Pokemon game actively tried to court anyone above 12 years old, with more mature themes, while still at the edge, present. Finally, Pokemon mixes things up and tries new things, which points to a more interesting future for this legacy series. I played through it with Nuzlocke rules in place and it felt like a really challenging game that kept surprising me. I’m curious to see if the series takes more jumps in the future.

 

Stardew Valley

I believe the nostalgia wheel is turning to the kinds of video games I was playing when I was young and had too much time on my hands, evidenced by the strong impression made by Stardew Valley. Harvest Moon 64 was one of my early favorite games, and one of the only games my mother would watch me play. At the time I didn’t know anything of visual novels or dating games, genres I would come to love later in life; I dated farm girls before real life boys. The series ended up losing itself by just trying to produce a bunch of sequels and not really getting to the heart of why Harvest Moon was so good. In a way, Stardew Valley is a proper successor to Harvest Moon, in that there are some new things, and really affective flourishes, but it takes what I loved about those games and represented them in a 2016 context. I took a break from it and I’m itching to play it again, and I hope it inspires more like it. There aren’t enough games like this, which is a huge shame.

 

The Style Savvy series

2016 was definitely a year of me catching up on games I should have known about a long time ago but missed by chance. Style Savvy was such a case, a very cathartic and creative outlet for a time when I was more deeply exploring fashion. I have a lot of feelings surrounding ‘girl games’ and the contexts in which games aimed towards girls and women are forever pushed aside despite the fact that ‘boys games’ were used as a barometer to decide whether or not something was appropriate for gamers of all genders to play. There was something neat about many people publicly playing Style Savvy and related games like Happy Home Designer. The series made me think a lot about what style and taste mean in games, and how few games address the topic. Overall, the subjective experience is rarely played with, only preconstructed and handed to the player to consume. Can we as designers craft more experiences that revolve around personal expression or something so deeply ingrained like taste? Would be fun to see some progress on that front in 2017.

 

Zero Time Dilemma

Along with its prequel Virtue’s Last Stand, Zero Time Dilemma is one of the more interesting narrative experiences I’ve had in games in a while. It confirmed how much of a sucker I am for time travel and alternate dimension conceits, which I feel are particularly suited to video games but are hardly explored on a form level rather than just story flavoring. In these games you traverse the story through what looks like a narrative map which you might see while storyboarding or in the backend of Twine, story nodes connected so you can visualize the branching paths of the game. Parts of the path are blocked off until you do things in other paths and begin to piece the mystery together. I love the idea of exploring a situation from multiple angles by repeating time or changing some things but not others to see what happens. I’ve always wanted more Rashomon– or Memento-like games that really challenge players on a perspective level and play with time some more.

And there you have it! I’m excited to see weirder and more different games in 2017. Persona 5 and maybe the new Mass Effect are on my list. I’m interested in Death Stranding and I hope it is as weird as its trailers make it out to be. Having just gone through a Steam sale, maybe a new favorite will come out of games I’ve missed this year. Make sure to recommend new games to me!

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Fav games of 2015

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:

Consentacle

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.

Endless Legend

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.

Cobra Club

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.

Sunset

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

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.

Panoramical

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.

Patient Rituals

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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