Sunday, January 5, 2020

2019 in Games: Babies, Bushido, & Belligerent Geese

Like most years, 2019 was a parade of dizzying highs and disappointing lows for the video game world. Join me, won’t you, as I hand out some oddly specific awards to the games that entertained, enlightened, frustrated, and fascinated me most.

Best Franchise Sequel
Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch)

No matter what those absolute milksops Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham would have you believe, heroes are always better when they’re fallible – and there’s none more fallible than good ol’ scaredy-cat Luigi. As one of Nintendo’s most eccentric IPs, it’s hard not to love the Luigi’s Mansion games simply for carving out a uniquely charming identity in the catalogue. But there’s a lot more than that to love about Luigi’s Mansion 3, which is a nearly perfect evolution of the brand. It satisfies core fan expectations (explore spooky location; suck up ghosts; get money) while offering bigger, more polished, more exciting elements (a huge setting, amazingly detailed character animations, fun multiplayer modes), it expands the fiction in interesting ways (Mario and Peach are revealed to sleep in separate bedrooms), and its new characters are instantly iconic (Gooigi). It’s basically the Terminator 2: Judgment Day of Nintendo games, is what I’m saying.

Most Claustrophobic
Observation (PC)

We hold Resident Evil’s truth to be self-evident: there’s nothing better for evoking fear in players than limiting their point of view – letting them hear, but not yet see, what’s around the corner. Observation does this by placing you in the role of the onboard AI of a space station, constraining your POV to only what the station’s security cameras can see – like Five Nights at Freddy’s by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You are the HAL 9000 in this starbound mystery thriller, and like that infamous malfunctioning assistant – the original Alexa from hell – you may or may not be fully reliable, even though you hold the lives of living people in your . . . well, not hands. Because you don’t have hands. You only have what you can see and access from the cramped narrow viewpoint of a low-res camera lens. And the way Observation uses these visual and physical constraints creates a very effective atmosphere of mounting tension and dread.

Most . . . Well, Everything
Death Stranding (PS4)

Last year this award went to Red Dead Redemption 2, a game filled to the brim with a ridiculous variety of interactions on a macro and micro scale, whose exacting attention to simulated detail irritated a lot of people who just wanted a simple rootin’-tootin’ cowboy shoot-em-up. Kojima Productions’s Death Stranding doesn’t contain nearly the same amount of variety in gameplay activity; in fact, one of the chief complaints about it is how singularly focused its post-apocalyptic package delivery gameplay is. But because it’s a game directed by Hideo Kojima, a man whose creative whims often lead him down twisted warrens of frivolity, it’s stuffed with unique contextual interactions. One button can have six or seven different uses, depending on the context, from swinging a fist to falling asleep. And in a game with such lofty thematic ambitions, supported by gorgeously well-crafted technical detail in visuals, music, performance, and gameplay, this makes its world a rabbit hole that’s very easy (and very pleasurable) to fall into.

Most Lost Potential
Anthem (PS4)

A lot of bad shit happened in 2019, but this was still the most tragic story of the year. After falling from grace with the disappointing follow-up to their blockbuster Mass Effect trilogy, developer Bioware came out hot with an impressive-looking reveal of their new Destiny-killer: Anthem. Team up with friends to jet around alien planets in awesome mech-suits like Isaac Asimov's Iron Man wet dream – what’s not to love? Well, the game, as it turned out. Bland gameplay, convoluted mission structures, an uninspired story, and a stunning lack of features made Anthem the biggest industry flop since No Man’s Sky. It’s my hope that, like that gloriously resurgent space sim, Anthem will be given the TLC it sorely needs and in a few months we’ll be treated to a similarly satisfying comeback, where the game gets to shine in the way we all wanted it to.

Best Re-release / Remake
TIE: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy (Switch) / Resident Evil 2 (PS4)

The line between remake and re-release blurred with recent Playstation releases like Spyro Reignited Trilogy and MediEvil, which were all but identical to their original versions except for a shiny new coat of paint. But Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 made it abundantly clear what it means to actually remake a beloved object. Yes, the minute details of the 1998 classic are lovingly rendered in super-high fidelity, but the real reason it succeeds is in its recreation of what it was actually like to play the original: suffering through limited resources, hordes of enemies, and the constant fear of being hunted. This is the RE2 not of 1998, but of our memories – improved and updated in a million ways that evoke the original while providing a much more fun, satisfying experience than it ever did. For a true re-release, though, there was nothing better this year than the Phoenix Wright trilogy port for the Switch, which opened up this wacky legal-drama-slash-visual-novel to the wider audience it always deserved. It provides few new features or improvements, but succeeds at packaging the irreverent fun and brain-twisting logic puzzles of this beloved franchise into one convenient, accessible bundle – a new definitive edition for a new generation.

Jankiest Mess
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PS4)

Respawn Entertainment is to be commended for their work on this game; everyone involved was clearly a huge fan of the material and that passion for Star Wars shows through in every frame of the experience. It’s just too bad those frames are dropped so often and so violently. I didn’t find the actual gameplay experience – which combines the basic appeal of the Force Unleashed games with Metroid-style backtracking and the combat philosophy of Dark Souls – to be as engaging as everyone else seemed to, but the splendid space-fantasy environments and the solid (if unremarkable) storyline kept me in to the end. It was unfortunately a chore to reach the end, though, because of the litany of technical issues plaguing every play session – from the aforementioned framerate drops to excruciating load times, horrid texture pop-ins, near-constant navigation and collision issues, inconsistent hit detection, audio bugs, UI bugs, total freezes while the game struggled to load new areas, and straight-up hard crashes. For such a pretty game, it sure was an ugly mess to play.

Most Murderous Zen
TIE: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PS4) / Outer Wilds (PC)

I never stop harping on this point, because it was a major moment of clarity and pride for me: I was only ever able to beat Dark Souls – and all of FromSoftware’s games since – by mastering my worst impulses, shaving down the sharp edges of my impatience and frustration and smoothing them out with calm and concentration instead. This means that Sekiro, a game that made waves both online and within my own social circle for being controller-crushingly difficult, was actually an extended experience in Zen relaxation for me. Though it was indeed very tough, it never once frustrated me or stressed me out, which would probably seem weird to an outward observer watching me lose literal fountains of blood, over and over and over again. There’s a strange psychology of masochism, focus, and detachment at work – something that makes me think Sisyphus was probably a pretty chilled-out guy, too. Outer Wilds was strangely calming as well, even though the majority of the experience is spent huddling under the constant shadow of your impending death. Part of its genius, I think, is in the beautiful serenity of its clockwork toy solar system, hanging in the firmament like a a nursery mobile, and how that peaceful atmosphere somehow isn’t broken by the ticking clock of the game’s fatal, inevitable 22-minute reset timer. I’ve never been more relaxed than while I stared out at the stars, waiting to die.

Most Stagnant Franchise
Pokémon Sword/Shield (Switch)

I’ve loved my time with Pokémon Shield, just as I’ve loved my time with pretty much every mainline entry in the series. But laying its common complaints aside – which have far more to do with whiny fan entitlement than legitimate criticism – it’s become unavoidably clear that Pokémon has been a blind spot for me, a gleeful diversion to which I commit very little mental effort. Stepping back to look at this newest, most “innovative” version revealed how wilfully ignorant I’d been to its stagnation in design. We’ve all been subsisting on reheated leftovers for decades – the Pokémon Company is unwilling to fix what ain’t broke, Game Freak is creatively throttled by their corporate overseers, and Nintendo is whistling absent-mindedly while cashing the cheque. Sword & Shield were the fastest-selling entries in the series and Pokémon is still the highest-grossing entertainment media franchise of all time, so it’s pretty unlikely we’ll see any fundamental shakeups to the formula any time soon, which is a real shame. From here, it’ll just be more and more difficult for me to bury my head in the sand.

Best Backlog Experience
Hitman (PC)

These games are astonishing pieces of precision-engineered strategy and fun, with beautifully polished 3C’s, remarkable attention to detail, and an amazing breadth of variety and freedom. I have Splitscreen’s Kirk Hamilton to thank for describing the immersive sim series in a way that finally clicked with me: he related its “stumble, fail, learn, repeat, succeed” cycle to, yes, Dark Souls, a process which was already familiar and satisfying to me, but which I had never realized was also integral to learning the hidden paths and assassination opportunities of each mission. I greedily devoured the 2016 edition this year, and I can’t wait to play its sequel.

Most Storytelling
Control (PS4)

Even if Control didn’t have my favourite setting, worldbuilding, and storyline of the year – which it absolutely does – it would still earn this award simply for the sheer volume of storytelling work on display. It’s the rare game whose disparate development groups were clearly all unified towards the same narrative goal; a game that feels like a coherent vision made by very talented people who were all on the same page about what they were making. (A unicorn, in other words.) Everything from the staggering art direction to the sound design to the hidden collectibles helps to deepen the very tangible un-reality of the Oldest House, drawing from familiar sources like Twin Peaks and The X-Files to create a wholly new psychodramatic paranormal sci-fi mindfreak. Particular shout-out to the Dead Letters room and the Threshold Kids videos, two pieces of “optional” content whose writing and execution is some of the creepiest, funniest, and most compelling bits of game narrative I’ve seen in years.

Blandest... Thing
Rage 2 (PS4)

Boy, this sure felt like a game from 2006, huh?

Most Absolutely F**king Metal
Blasphemous (Switch)

I spoke on Twitter about how this game gets closer than any other 2D platformer – or game of any genre, really – to actually achieving the same effect as its main inspiration, Dark Souls. (I will not apologize for talking about Dark Souls so much; this was indisputably FromSoftware’s decade.) I think this is because Blasphemous is overtly a game about pain; it understands the effect and importance of this theme and knows why Dark Souls did it too. What this means is that the stunning pixilated pastiche of Catholic medieval iconography that is Blasphemous’s aesthetic doesn’t just look metal as fuck – it burns deep in its soul with that howling aggression too.

Best Ripoff
Dauntless (PC/PS4)

If you think it’s a bad idea to take a successful formula and resell it with a slightly different coat of paint, then you clearly didn’t make Fortnite. Dauntless is Monster Hunter in all but name, drastically simplified for a non-Japanese audience and ported to every platform imaginable. Its visuals are lackluster, its combat is squishy, and it’s sorely lacking in originality – all major points against it, when compared to the series that inspired it. But its one major leg up is its quick, seamless crossplay: my friends and I were able to play together effortlessly on different consoles and we spent way less time joining up to hunt our quarry than you do in Monster Hunter. An A+ racket if I’ve ever seen one.

Most Inscrutable
Kingdom Hearts 3 (PS4)
A.K.A. the Sonic the Hedgehog Memorial Award for Most Fans Hoodwinked into Staunchly Defending a Shitty Franchise

Listen, we are each of us outsiders in one way or another. There will always be a phenomenon that’s inaccessible to you; you will always have to peer enviously through a window at a group of people enjoying something you don’t understand. I know this because some people don’t like Star Wars – and because I can’t even begin to grasp the appeal of Kingdom Hearts. Everything about it grates. Its gameplay feels like a churlish toddler is violently telling you how to play with your toys. Its story is an overlong, convoluted, syrupy, self-indulgent anime nightmare. To me it is the ludonarrative equivalent of someone putting a pot over my head and swinging a sledgehammer into it. There are few blockbuster game franchises that are this hostile to newcomers, and yet so utterly and fervently beloved by their fans, despite those same fans constantly complaining about its myriad annoyances. (Hang on. Maybe it’s more like Star Wars than I gave it credit for.)

Best Space Scoundrel Sim
TIE: Void Bastards (PC) / Rebel Galaxy Outlaw (PC)

Would you rather be a grizzled space trucker out to make your way in a dangerous galaxy, or an unfrozen corporate stooge destined to break free of your overlords? No matter what your flavour of space skulduggery, Blue Manchu’s Void Bastards and Double Damage’s Rebel Galaxy Outlaw have you covered. Both are highly-detailed sims with satisfying strategic depth, gorgeous and colourful visual styles, and an anarchic stick-it-to-the-man tone that will scratch any sci-fi pirate roleplaying itch. (Obsidian’s Outer Worlds might have made this shortlist too, but its Fallout-like pleasures aren’t as deep, varied, or satisfying as the game’s uniformly-positive reviews would suggest.)

Most Ornery Waterfowl
Untitled Goose Game (Switch)

This year, no honk was as mighty, no flap was as fierce, no villagers were as frightened, no garden tool was as coveted, no beak was as snatchy and sharp. And no game could match Untitled Goose Game in charm, personality, and originality. My mum, who doesn’t play video games, became an instant savant when she picked up this game – all it took, apparently, was a title that combined an idyllic English countryside setting with a mandate to be as horrible of a little goose as possible. (Also: the fact that this game actually shipped without a name might be my favourite thing that happened in gaming all year.)

 Justin Cummings is a scriptwriter 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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