Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2018 in Games: Detectives, Dads, & Dang Ol' Cowpokes

There’s no way you could contain 2018 in a list, no matter how long. The year was too chaotic, and too much incredible art rose up to counter the encroaching dark. I’m pretty much done with numbered lists in general – so no "Top Ten" this year. Instead, I thought it would be useful to find new angles to help contextualize and categorize the video games that kept me enthralled. Enjoy, and here's to a 2019 filled with even more game-making and game-playing.

Most Improved Franchise: God of War (PlayStation 4)

I wrote at length this year about the ways in which Sony Santa Monica’s blockbuster behemoth matured the God of War series, breaking away from its established (and quite puerile) ethos of “be angry, get vengeance, viciously murder everything in sight” and succeeding at the extremely long-shot ambition of instead telling a nuanced, emotional, resonant story about legacy, family, responsibility, and love. It’s not without issues – particularly its troubling tendency to make its female characters passive observers, rather than direct actors, in its narrative – but God of War’s extremely thoughtful game design and beautifully realized presentation are merely secondary achievements in the face of its real triumph: breathing hot, vital new life into a brand that seemed fully played-out.

Runner-Up: Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee (Nintendo Switch)

Most Surprising Addiction: Into the Breach (Nintendo Switch)

I’m garbage at most strategy games; victory comes at the cost of a level of mental effort I’m just not willing to put in. Winning at chess for me is like doing math – I have to twist my brain into uncomfortable positions and grit my way through it, only to get half of it wrong anyway. Yet the very chess-like Into the Breach gobbled up more hours on my Switch than any other title this year, and I’m still struggling to quantify exactly how that happened. Aren’t I supposed to be terrible at this stuff? The devil’s really in the details here: countless small design decisions – everything from the way information is displayed on-screen to the customizable weapon and ability loadouts for your mech squad – combine to create a seamless, instantly grokkable gameplay loop that disguises fathoms of satisfying depth. The game’s apocalyptic, mechs-vs-kaiju framework provides a narrative layer that’s more interesting than it needs to be, but the real meat is in the thrill of a perfectly chosen combo maneuver (and the crushing defeat when it backfires on you). Maybe I oughta give chess another go.

Runner-Up: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (PlayStation 4)

Smoothest Learning Curve: Monster Hunter World (PlayStation 4)

Monster Hunter is an extremely popular franchise in Japan, and though it had found a niche audience overseas, it remained an obtuse and confounding experience for most Western players. It took a great deal of effort to refine its manifold gameplay loops into something a newcomer could enjoy, and the critical and commercial success of Monster Hunter World has proved that effort was worth it. There were few experiences more satisfying in gaming this year than surviving your first real hunt, having learned the steps you needed to follow from start to finish, knowing how to properly prepare, and dealing with unexpected setbacks along the way. Wearing a jaw-dropping set of armor crafted from the scales and horns of your quarry has never felt more satisfying, or more well-earned.

Runner-Up: Wizard of Legend (Nintendo Switch)

Most… Well, Everything: Red Dead Redemption 2 (PlayStation 4)

RDR2 was in development for almost ten years, and it shows, both in its insane level of detail and polish, and in the ways it remains outdated and clunky. I can’t recall the last time I was this torn on a triple-A title: one moment I’ll be frustrated by an awkward set of new controls or a railroaded cinematic sequence, and the next I’ll be close to tears at a soft comment made in passing by an NPC I’ve come to think of as a true friend. I can disappear into the game’s dying post-Expansion world, letting hours melt away unheeded as I care for my horse, visit the barber, and hunt for rare game, helping strangers I meet on the roadside. I enter a kind of fugue state in these sessions, where my own manifest destiny is mine to unravel, in a simulation that’s at once as real and as visibly artificial as a Holodeck projection. There’s just so damn much in this game, both good and bad, its experiences so varied and rich and colourful and empty and aggravating and beautiful, that everything you can say about it is true. Every review and think piece and article you’ve read is correct. The only way to know if it’s for you is to dive in yourself.

Runner-Up: Super Smash Bros Ultimate (Nintendo Switch)

Shiniest Polish: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PlayStation 4)

The more I played Insomniac’s much-lauded web-slinging simulator, the more the cracks in the facade began to show. By the time I’d completed the game’s free DLC, which added some short story lines and additional open-world content, it had become a downright slog, a checklist of mundane chores to complete. But it took nearly eighty hours for those cracks to form – that’s how shiny and perfect the facade was. I’ve never seen a more successful application of a fresh coat of paint on an old, well-established formula. Bolstered by a wonderfully human story that understands the core appeal of the brand and expressive performances matched with excellent narrative design, Spider-Man is a game I’d played a million times before, but I didn’t care – for the majority of my experience, I was having too much fun for that to matter.

Runner-Up: SEGA Genesis Classics (Nintendo Switch)

Most Harrowing Experience: Paratopic (PC)

Paratopic is a nightmare. A playable Godspeed You! Black Emperor track, an interactive David Lynch short film, it conjures the flat tedium of a dead highway, the overwhelming solitude of a quiet forest, the alien strangeness of other people, the non-logic of untethered, unreliable object permanence, and the visceral leaps in and out of a place or a moment that your unconscious brain performs when it's on its worst behaviour. It’s a short, single-sitting experience, a quick jolt of jagged textures and polluted spaces, like closing your eyes for forty winks and sitting up screaming. It’s one of the most effective horror games I’ve played in years.

Runner-Up: Ashen (PC)

Most Peaceful Diversion: Parkasaurus (PC)

I can’t devote all of my gaming time to violent power fantasies anymore. Not only would depriving myself of the full spectrum of available gaming experiences make me a worse game developer, but I could feel myself being driven crazy by the empty repetition of it. Thank god for games like Parkasaurus, an early-access dinosaur park tycoon simulator that was like a cuter, friendlier, less stressful version of the Jurassic World park game that also came out in 2018, where my chief concerns were making sure my triceratops couple (whom I’d named after my grandparents) remained as fat and happy as possible. Games like this are the antithesis and the antidote to games like Monster Hunter, where tending and befriending is prioritized over the fight-or-flight, kill-or-be-killed ethos we’re so used to. Try it, especially if you don’t normally play games like this – I promise you’ll feel the benefit almost immediately.

Runner-Up: Diablo III: Eternal Collection (PlayStation 4)

Favourite Older Games Revisited: Metal Gear 1-4 (PlayStation 3)

In the doldrums of the early year’s winter, when no major game releases were in sight, I took it upon myself to patch a major hole in my gaming resume, and finally play through the core games in the Metal Gear series. I had so many thoughts, I created a whole new column for Critics at Large just to explore them – that’s how rich in complexity the series is, when you dive into its design, storytelling, and execution. (And I still haven’t been able to wrestle my piece on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots into submission. 2019 goals.) I learned that there’s a good reason why the series, and its chief architect, Hideo Kojima, are so revered: they’re rare examples of games (and game-makers) with something more than temporary diversion on their minds.

Runner-Up: TIE – Dark Souls Remastered (Nintendo Switch) & Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PC)

Most Ingenious New Design: Minit (Nintendo Switch)

I’m so thrilled that indie games continue to flourish in the modern landscape, allowing little experiments like Minit – a game that you experience sixty seconds at a time – a platform and an audience that in decades past, they’d never have found. Being forced to reset your progress every minute might sound frustrating, and for the first few cycles of Minit, it is – you flail about in different directions, trying things out, not really understanding how you could possibly achieve anything in this lo-fi, Zelda -esque world within such a limited window. But as you go, you realize you actually do possess tools for making progress: you can keep items you find when you reset. You can find new places to wake up, so you don’t have to waste half a minute getting back to where you were. And slowly, surely, Minit’s tiny, endearing, thoughtful little grace notes begin to unfold in an adventure that’s as satisfying as it is surprising and unique.

Runner-Up: Florence (iOS/Android)

Best Insurance-Related Detective Mystery: Return of the Obra Dinn (PC)

There’s no runner-up to this one, because there’s no game out there that’s anything remotely like Return of the Obra Dinn. It exists entirely within its own category of design and storytelling, transcending the trappings of the puzzle/adventure/detective/point-and-click genres it borrows from to create an experience that’s utterly unique, and perfectly spellbinding. You’re an insurance investigator in the early 19th century, tasked with logging the fates of each and every soul lost during the last tragic voyage of the good ship Obra Dinn. To do this, all you’ve got is your logbook (complete with crew manifest, deck maps, and sketches) and a strange compass that lets you witness the final moments of these unfortunate wretches’ lives. You visit scenes of past misery and horror, examining these grim frozen tableaux from a safe, clinical reserve, taking notes (which I’d advise you do literally, in the real world) and trying, through logic and deduction, to determine who’s who and what happened to them – all while steeped in an atmosphere of mystery and murder on the high seas. Excellent use of music and sound effects injects each action with tension and excitement, and the game’s beautifully hand-crafted retro graphics aren’t just a tool for eliciting early Macintosh-era nostalgia, but for presenting (and hiding) information with cunning precision. Return of the Obra Dinn is a game I recommend to everyone, even those who don’t often play games, specifically because it’s a game unlike any other. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also one of the most satisfying and compelling games I’ve played, not just in 2018, but in my whole damn life.

 Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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