Favorite Games of 2018

In all honesty, I love a good year-end list. It’s not that I’m interested in superlatives, but that I enjoy seeing how people cataloged their year. I’m doubtful that there’s such a thing as an objectively good piece of media (except Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; that game is a masterpiece), but I do believe that examinations of subjective good-ness provide a lens for examining where we are, personally, as individuals and as a group.

Anyway, here are my favorite games of 2018. I liked them and maybe you will, too.

RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN

Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn

Developer Lucas Pope has a knack for highlighting hyper-mundane activities and elevating them into gameplay. In Papers, Please (truly one of my favorite games of all time), the player took on the role of a border control agent, having to process increasingly detailed bits of information in just-as-increasingly short amounts of time. While punished for any small mistake, players were pushed to consider the moral implications of their actions, as well as how tyrannic political rises truly are propped up by drudgery..

In Pope’s new game, Return of the Obra Dinn, the player takes the role of an insurance adjuster .They are tasked with going on board a recently recovered ship (the titular Obra Dinn) to figure out what happened to the sixty-some-odd members on board, all of whom have mysteriously disappeared. The adjuster has a log with each member’s name, group photos of the crew, and a mysterious pocket watch. The latter object transports the adjuster to a still image that shows the final moment of each (though not all) crew member’s life on the Obra Dinn. From there, the adjuster must move through these explorable freeze-framed memories to figure out everyone’s name, what their role on the ship was, how they died, and, possibly, by whose hands.

What follows is a puzzle box of a game, an elaborate visual logic puzzle. Just connecting names to people is difficult, since the brief snippets of dialogue before each scene rarely reveal a given name. Rather, it’s more likely to find the name of one person overtly, then have to extrapolate the rest through knowledge of ship relationships. For every three fates correctly guessed, the game seals those destinies. It’s just enough to keep one satisfied, while also preventing the player from brute-forcing their way through pure guesswork. Rather, I found myself examining minute details (including character’s shoes and specific bullet trajectories), trawling through the few crowded group scenes, and making a few lucky guesses.

Pope received some criticism for the visual style of the game, which is done in a two-color pixelated motif that hearkens to old computer monitors. I had no such issue with it. Besides being unique, I found that this style created just enough visual confusion in a few of the more active scenes to contribute to the pleasing difficulty of the puzzle solving.

Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t as politically overt as Papers, Please, but the relations on the ship definitely lent some uncomfortable moments, as known power structures on the boat become clearer (due to class, race, or happenstance). There was also a deep gut feeling of unease, as the player becomes more attached to the stories of the crew members, only to reduce them to an insurance number, either to be paid out to their living family, or requested as payment due to the crimes of the deceased.

Mostly, though, Return of the Obra Dinn is an exquisitely-crafted puzzle that gave me real moments of exuberance each time I found a tiny clue that allowed multiple small pieces to finally connect.

THE RED STRINGS CLUB

The Red Strings Club

The Red Strings Club

This summer, I picked up a handful of games whose theme mostly centered around artificial intelligence and its relationship with humanity. I enjoy a number of these games (Subsurface Circular, LOCALHOST, and, natch, Portal), but really fell hard for Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote when I included it in my summer game recommendations:

Combining noir storytelling, a cyberpunk setting, point-and-click puzzle solving, bartender games, and ceramics (???), The Red Strings Club puts the player in the middle of a conspiracy thriller about the ethics of forcing humans to obey their better selves. I don't want to spoil it, but halfway through the game, I was sitting pretty tall on my high horse of theoretical morality, when a series of questions made me turn my back on everything I had established up to that point. The game pointed out my hypocrisy, before moving on and asking me to make a drink for the next customer at the bar.

I found it beautiful, affecting, and the slowest of slow burns

A stand-out game in its own right, I also want to take a moment to commend Deconstructeam’s itch.io channel. They regularly put out equally beautiful and touching short games, some of which are later pieced together into full-length pieces. Deconstructeam is something very close to my heart: a group of artists who have no qualms throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. From this year, here are a couple games I played on their itch.io channel, all of which stay pretty firmly in Destructeam’s preferred cyberpunk lane:

  • Eternal Home Floristry: The player takes the role of a one-armed hitman, hiding out and recovering with a florist who happens to have the final patch of earth capable of growing real flowers. Orders come in for bouquets, and the player can choose which flowers to pick and send along. The flowers they pick will affect the people who receive them, through the player never actually sees the result of their actions. Instead they hear through the grapevine (as it were) about the results of their choices, from patched friendships to solidified blood feuds. As the flowers become more scarce, the pain of pulling them from the ground only grows, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think.

  • 11:45 A Vivid Life: A woman drives to a remote spot with an X-Ray machine and a medical kit. She’s convinced her body isn’t her own, and she’s not sure what happened to it or whose it is, but she is determined to find out through some self-surgery. Is she going through a mental breakdown? Is she part of some government project? Both are good questions but the game posits a bigger one: who do our bodies belong to, and how are we made strangers from ourselves?

CELESTE

Celeste

Celeste

I don’t know how else to say this: Celeste is a perfect game. It might come in the familiar packaging of a hardcore platforming challenge, in the same vein as indie delight Super Meat Boy. But it’s not just a hard game that relishes being hard. Instead, it recognizes the emotions one feels when playing a difficult game and feeds that into the story of the protagonist: Madeline, a women with a steadfast desire to reach the top of Celeste Mountain, crippling anxiety be damned.

Just as a player might doubt their ability to finish Celeste, Madeline doubts her ability to climb the mountain of the same name. Celeste brilliantly marries the struggle of playing the game with the internal struggle of someone with an anxiety disorder, creating a deep bond of empathy between the player and Madeline.

Besides that, it’s a dream to play, with intuitive controls that feel hyper-responsive and light to the touch. Lena Raine’s soundtrack is so incredibly good that I’m listening to it while I write this. The visuals are gorgeous, with each new area of Celeste feeling unique and surprising. There’s also a not far-fetched argument that Celeste makes one better at gaming altogether.

Most of all, Celeste feels fair. It’s a hard game that knows its hard, and works with the player rather than against them. At seemingly the very moment I despaired at my high death count, a pop-up appeared in between levels, saying “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you're learning. Keep going!"

Playing Celeste was the first time I tried to play a game that purposefully made me anxious. Playing it, I developed actual real-world skills to combat my anxiety. It’s a form of gamification that feels helpful rather than exploitative. Games are inherently media forms that traffic in emotional manipulation. Celeste is a rare game, in that it pulls back the curtain to show the player exactly how it is affecting the player’s emotions. In doing so, it gives the player insight into these feelings and, as such, feels like a radical statement in its kindness. Celeste feels like something entirely new, despite its familiar wrappings.

INTO THE BREACH

Into the Breach

Into the Breach

Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game that plays a lot like chess, but with kaiju. The player controls a team of giant mechs dropped into arrays of landscapes and tasked with destroying the monsters that crawl out of the soil before they destroy the world. Here, I don’t have a lot to say on themes or underlying messages or theory. It’s just fun, despite it’s pseudo-apocalyptic motifs.

It’s a game of economy: the player has a limited amount of “power,” which functions as a health meter. At the start of each turn, the kaiju move, and the game shows you exactly what they’re targeting. One might go for a building, while another might target one of the player’s mechs. Once the kaiju move, the player can decide how they want to try to ensure the least amount of destruction possible. There are different teams of mechs, each with different powers. One team might be good at pushing mechs around the board. Another might deal high damage, while also damaging themselves in the process. Another might be very good at lighting everything on fire.

Regardless, every time a building is destroyed by a kaiju, the power meter goes down. When the power runs out, the kaiju take over, and the player has to restart in a new timeline.

Each playthrough on a timeline lasts little more than an hour (at most), but it’s easy to want to try again, and again, and again. It’s a game both enjoyed in small bite-sized moments and in long, lazy afternoons. There are more achievements to unlock than hours in a week, and each one asks you to consider playing the game in a slightly different way. (“Can you light 12 tiles on fire in one turn?” “Can you finish a run without upgrading your mechs?”)

It’s a game of more losses than wins, and the looming threat of losing control of a difficult situation is always on the brink. As the game progresses and difficulty increases, it’s more likely than not that you won’t be able to do everything you want (or need) to do in a given turn. So, Into the Breach is a game of questions and considered decisions: would you rather sacrifice one of your mechs this turn (and lose a pilot who has gained experience and, therefore, perks like increased move range) or do you have enough power to allow a building to be destroyed?

It reminds me of playing chess with my dad, and the moment before I would take my finger off a piece a just moved and commit to my choice. He’d meet my eyes and ask, “Is that where you want to move?” Into the Breach relishes that moment when you decide to take your finger off the piece because, for good or bad, it was the choice you made.

GRIS

Gris

Gris

Gris would be a winner on its art style alone. It looks like a watercolored animated film in the style of The Secret of Kells. The screenshot above is from a section of gameplay and not, as I originally thought after watching the game’s trailer, from some sort of hyper-produced cut scene. When I first opened the game, I literally spent a few minutes having my character jump around, just so I could watch the flow of her jacket and skirt swoop around as she arced and landed.

Gris uses color as a storytelling method, with an opaque story of loss that leaves the player’s character in a world of black and white. As she navigates puzzles, she slowly adds color back to her world in layers. It’s a simple trick, but one well-executed, with new colors emerging in blotches and swoops and revealing new layers to the world.

In its unique art style and beautiful wrapping, Gris reminded me a lot of perennial favorite Monument Valley, a game which remains close to my heart for quiet moments of introspection and puzzles. However, I’m sometimes looking for a little more of a challenge, which Gris was happy to provide. None of the puzzles ever had me tearing out my hair, but a few were difficult enough to make me feel a little ping of self-pride when I figured them out. There are occasionally optional harder puzzles to solve, clued by glyphs that react once they’re reached. But solving this harder puzzles isn’t a requirement to finishing the game, so they act as a little cherry on top for folks looking for something extra.

With its short run-time and idiosyncratic style, Gris feels like a gift, like something that landed outside of your window and sang a you a song when you least expected to hear it.

DEAD CELLS

Dead Cells

Dead Cells

Listen, I can talk a good game about playing thoughtful indies or whatever, but the game that I spent the most hours on in 2018 is, without a doubt, Dead Cells, a game I never thought I’d like in a million years, but here we are.

Dead Cells is a “soulslike metroidvania rougelike”, which is a super-douchey way of essentially saying that it’s hard (“soulslike”), involves 2D exploration and dungeon crawling through sprawling rooms and biomes (“metroidvania”), and places the player back at the start of a randomly-generated map each time they die (“rougelike”).

The player controls the Prisoner, a little lump of cells that makes its home in a beheaded body. At the start of each run, the player is presented with three randomized weapons: a shield, a ranged weapon, and a melee weapon. The choice in which weapons to pick up first sets the tone for the rest of the run, since the randomized weapon drops forced the player to adapt their play style to what is available: if an ice bow drops, the player can freeze enemies at a distance and control the speed of actions; if the player has the assassin’s blade, they’re encouraged to roll and get behind enemies, since the weapon does more damage when backstabbing.

Further, the choice in what to pick up and what to leave behind is a core mechanic in Dead Cells. The player can hold no more than two weapons and two technical assists at any given point in time, so in order to take on something new, something must always be left behind.

As the player moves through different levels, the difficulty increases. The player can travel through the world in a couple of different ways in order to reach the final boss. However, each path offers something new. One path might give the player access to a special upgrade. Another route might have bigger loot drops but much stronger enemies.

What connects any run, regardless of direction, is that the player will likely die a lot. Dead Cells offers a solace: when the Prisoner inevitably dies, they will keep access to whatever upgrades they’ve accumulated over their past run(s). So, each time the Prisoner sets out, they do so with increased powers and access to better weapons, giving each run just an edge of an advantage over the last. Further, even when the player defeats the final boss, it unlocks new ways to up the difficulty, leading to more challenging runs and even bigger payoffs.

The flow of the game is incredible, which makes sense given how long Dead Cells was in development. It feels weird to include it on this list, since I had logged nearly a hundred hours well before the start of 2018. Dead Cells has been out in early access since early 2017 and, during that time, I enjoyed watching its developer, Motion Twin, make both small tweaks and substantial overhauls every few months. With each new patch, they included notes on what changed and why. Often times, those changes were brought about by reactions the players had to the game. With such a long and public early access period, Motion Twin had an immense amount of data on how people were playing the game and where they were getting stuck. So, when the game was “released” this year, it came with all the lessons learned from its past. Like the Prisoner, it too got a little stronger every time it started again, and it’s all the better for it.

Side note: Motion Twin is an exciting company in part because it’s a cooperative. Each company member has equal stake and equal say in the company. In an era of video game companies working their employees to the bone, Motion Twin is a model for alternatives for company structures.

FLORENCE

Florence

Florence

Florence tells a familiar story in a way that feels both new and intimate. It’s the story of a relationship, from its enthusiastic beginning through its sad end. Like I said: there’s nothing new in this arc that isn’t also in some Lifetime movie.

Where Florence excels is in its use of medium. Specifically, I played it on my phone (something I rarely do), and was surprised by how well it utilized my phone as a framing device. Each moment in this relationship was executed in a mini-game style. When the characters cooked breakfast together, the player moves the pan to make everything sizzle. Or, as the characters try to work out their difficulties, the player tries to keep a photo of the two of them from drifting apart. Or, early in the relationship, the player puts together puzzle pieces in the shape of a dialogue bubble and, as the conversation continues, the puzzle pieces get bigger and easier to put together, replicating a growing comfort between the two.

Through all these small tapped interactions, there’s something additionally special about interacting with such a personal story on a device that we increasingly use for emotional closeness in our daily lives. Here’s what I wrote about Florence earlier this year in my summer games recommendations:

As a mobile game, playing it on a phone with headphones lends a certain special intimacy to the story that would be difficult to replicate on a traditional desktop.

Curled up on a late-night subway ride home, it was difficult not to feel deeply involved with the characters. Florence recognizes how much we use our phones for emotional attachment, and plays off that technological relationship in crafting a story about connection.

Like Celeste, Florence understands how the player is interacting with the game, using this knowledge to create something that feels supported and enriched by its medium, rather than just told through it.

DELTARUNE

DELTARUNE

DELTARUNE

In 2015, Toby Fox’s Undertale took gaming by storm, mainly due to one central conceit: though Undertale looked like a traditional JRPG where a character was faced with fighting a world of monsters, the player quickly learned that they didn’t have to kill any of the creatures they encountered. Instead, the player could talk to the monsters and convince them to stop attacking, thereby sparing their lives. By sparing monsters, the game became harder, since the player never accumulated any experience points. However, the “true ending” of the game could only be reached through this pacifist path. Further, this incentive flew in the fact of 99% of other video games, where killing creatures is a necessity to advance the game. (Imagine trying to beat Ocarina of Time without defeating Ganondorf.)

Undertale felt like a game of choice, in a landscape of games that feels determined to railroad players on a certain path. People loved it, including me.

So, when Toby Fox surprise-released DELTRARUNE this year (a convenient anagram of Undertale, natch), folks like me were quick to gobble it up. It had a lot of familiar elements: many of the same characters were there, albeit with slightly different backstories; the gameplay was similar, though with more complex mechanics; above all, there was still that same reminder that we didn’t have to kill any of the characters.

In my playthrough, I was delighted by how much felt the same. What a salve for 2018, to have a game so insistent on kindness! However, I noticed that more characters than usual were reminding me about my potential to be kind. It felt repetitive to the point of pathological. And it started to seem that I wouldn’t have been able to hurt characters if I tried. Where was my choice? What did it mean to be kind if there wasn’t any other option? As I wrote in my original short write-up:

When I finished the game, I immediately searched to see if there were multiple endings, a la Undertale. There aren’t. There’s just one, and it wasn’t what I expected. (Though, perhaps I should have known. Undertale, too, told me everything I needed to know in the first 10 minutes, if I bothered to listen.)

Undertale’s 2015 release date feels a world away here in 2018. We’re living in a world where it might be easy to question the imperative to be kind, even in the face of those who wish to do us harm. DELTARUNE feels aware of this shift in public thinking, and serves as a response to (or, perhaps, intends to question) the thesis of Undertale. Again, Toby Fox seems to have made a game that asks us to examine our ability to choose. It just takes a different angle this time.

MONSTER PROM

Monster Prom

Monster Prom

You’re a monster, at a monster high school, trying to get another monster to go to prom with you. You have a certain number of turns to try to win their hearts before asking them to prom. Play against your friends. Watch them all get rejected by the beautiful gorgon. The writing is fun. The game is purposefully dumb as heck. If you play your cards right, you’ll accidentally plan an all-monster orgy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Games for Lean Times

Maybe what you need right now isn’t a puzzle game for when the world is too much. Maybe what you need is to hoard a little, to conserve whatever resources you can scrounge together to make yourself feel safe and secure.

Maybe it’s lean times, with GoFundMes for gender affirmation surgery, or necessary medications left uncovered by insurance companies, or a sudden need to rebuild a home after a rental apartment burned down. Or maybe you’re starting a retirement plan that isn’t “Maybe the Force will just take me away when I turn 60.” For instance.

So, I’d like to continue this small series of recommendation on what you might need right now: here are some games for lean times.

All the below are either free, $1, or pay-what-you-can.* Most are sourced from itch.io, repository of the wonderful and weird and experimental in gaming. Some are betas. Some are the result of developers futzing with mechanics before making a bigger game. Most are short. All are totally and completely lovely in their own way and no less so for being very affordable.

*If you are in the fortunate position of not being in lean times, please consider the true meaning of “pay what you can” and toss extra money towards these creators.

11:45 A VIVID LIFE

Deconstructeam’s The Red Strings Club was one of my surprise favorite games of 2018. A touching exploration of free will and morals, it challenged my belief in my own moral compass, akin to Papers, Please.

So, I was thrilled to see that they regularly release small vignettes on itch.io. I was taken by Behind Every Great One, which told the story of a woman supporting her “genius artist” husband while she slowly falls apart under the weight of making herself constantly available and ever-smaller. However, I preferred 11:45 A Vivid Life (trigger warning: self-harm & descriptions of abuse). The player’s character has stolen an X-Ray machine and is determined to find out why she feels like her skeleton has been stolen and replaced with another. Who stole it? Whose it is? Where is hers? As something with occasional bouts of body dysmorphia, I connected with the specifically gendered feeling that my body isn’t mine.

ARC SYMPHONY

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Arc Symphony is about a dedicated group of fans to a classic Japanese role-playing game of the same name. For weeks in 2017, game developers posted on social media about how much they loved Arc Symphony as kids. The thing was: no one outside of these folks remembered the game. Turns out, that’s because the game doesn’t exist.

Or, rather, the JRPG Arc Symphony doesn’t exist, but the game by Aether Interactive totally does. This latter Arc Symphony puts the player in the role of a fan of the JRPG who is trolling through the online comments board. Through private messages, quizzes, and chats, the player gets an idea of the world of the JRPG. It’s a deeply interesting take on how a story can get told. Because what is a game, anyway, besides a creation made between the player and the object? In viewing the (fictional) relationships between (fictional) people and a (fictional) game, the player gets a very real feel for Arc Symphony.

DAVID LYNCH TEACHES TYPING

I grew up on Mavis Beacon typing. Though I recently learned that Mavis Beach isn’t a real person (!!!), David Lynch certainly is (against all odds).

In David Lynch Teaches Typing, you’ll learn all about proper placement of your fingers on a keyboard, and also hear the existential wailing coming from within. In that way, it’s exactly like Mavis Beacon.

I also want to take this opportunity to share another piece made by Luke Palmer, who helped bring David Lynch Teaches Typing to life: his video essay on why the film Snowpiercer is the logical sequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Luke shared it with me a few weeks ago and I HAVEN’T STOPPED THINKING ABOUT IT SINCE.

THE ANNA ANTHROPY INTERMISSION

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In putting together this list, I tried to decide on my favorite Anna Anthrophy game, and I just couldn’t. In addition to being a thoughtful critic of video games, Anna is making some of the most interesting games around. I love her ability to hone in on specific mechanics and put them under a microscope. (For example: her use of a countdown clock in Queers in Love at the End of the World, which I wrote about at greater length here.)

I’m still working my way through her games, but here are a couple to get you started:

  • Someone on this Train: Anna has recently been publishing bite-sized alternate-reality games (“ARGs”) that ask the player to put themselves into a slightly different headspace while they go about their normal daily tasks. There are games for when you open packages, or when you’re dressing yourself, or when you’re cooking. But my romantic heart likes Someone on this Train, a love story for when you’re on public transit.

  • And the Robot Horse You Rode In On: A steampunk cowboy text adventure, built on Twine and full of beautifully lush descriptions of its world. It’s also hella queer.

  • Put On Your Makeup In The Dark: It’s exactly what it sounds like.

  • Herding Cats is the puzzle game I like when I’m tired of all other puzzle games. Did I expect to be so delightfully frustrated by my inability to understand spaces while also trying to get all the cats? No. Was I anyway? Yes.

LIEVE OMA

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When people talk about “walking simulators,” it’s sometimes meant as a pejorative, wherein it’s used to belittle games about exploring a space (often slowly) instead of dodging bullets.

Lieve Oma is a literal walking simulator, where you play a young child who has been brought to the forest by their grandmother in search of wild mushrooms. The grandmother moves slowly. The child doesn’t want to chat. Mushrooms and few and far in between. The pace moves from slow to slower and back to slow.

With a beautiful color palette and gentle woodsy music, I was completely charmed by Lieve Oma from the outset. Those factors alone would have been enough for me to recommend it to someone looking for a few moments of quiet. However, developer Florian Veltman has an exquisite ear for timing, and the pace at which the story unfolds both compliments the aesthetics and supports Florian’s goal to make an ode for people who know how to make space for children.

MONSTRUOUS

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Monstruous, as described by its developer, “is a puzzle game in which you have to figure out in which order to use 8 actions to kill the monstruous creature.” That’s literally all it is. There’s only one correct order for the actions, and it’s up to you to figure it out.

Despite its simple premise, it comes in some very pretty wrapping. The animation is smooth, bright, and fun, with distinctly Adventure Time notes.

Moreover, like the logic puzzles of my youth, Monstrous required me to actually get out a pen and paper to figure out the order of operations in order to defeat this big ol’ worm. I respect any game where I have to physically plot out my plan of attack.

GAMES I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE BUT WILL AGAIN

Lost Constellation

Lost Constellation

There are a number of games for lean times that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on Gentle Gamers, but I love them dearly, and would feel remiss in not mentioning them again.

  • Lost Constellation: Finji’s Night in the Woods is a wonderful game, but Lost Constellation (which they made while working on NitW) is stronger in my books. With a shorter running time and a more distinctly folklore vibe, it’s a beautifully crafted story of loss, hauntings, and old gods. Originally discussed here.

  • Where the Goats Are: The player plays an old woman who, despite the requests of her relatives, has decided to stay in her small farmhouse and care for her goats, despite something terrible looming on the horizon. It’s a smart, sad story of dedication amid hardship and war. Originally discussed here.

  • Hot Date: You’re a pug trying to date another pug. It’s weird and sweet and dumb as heck. Originally discussed here.

  • Un Pueblo de Nada: Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero is a masterpiece, and I will never stop shouting about it. Un Pueblo de Nada is one of their “interstitial” pieces: exploratory games that are put out in between the acts of Kentucky Route Zero. Cardboard Computer takes the interstitials as a chance to experiment, and past episodes have been in the form of plays, or phone trees, or art exhibits. This one is in the form of a public access station. They also released an actual episode, showing the same events that happen within the game. It’s ace, all around. Originally discussed here.


Hoard to your heart’s content, my friends.

Puzzles for when the world is too much

Listen. I can't afford to keep buying skincare products.

I thought I was maybe it was just me, but given the recent rash of thinkpieces dedicated to Why Millennials Love Skincare, I am (for once) decidedly on trend. And it makes sense. Living in the US in 2018 is a constant reminder of how little control we individually have in the world. Sure, there is power in the mob, but pushing back against the gears of capitalism on one's own can feel outside of our individual abilities, especially on a day-to-day basis.

In grappling with waves of anxiety about our own ability to affect change, it would make sense to lean into small acts of pointed control. Routine and ritual are a security blanket against the entropy of the universe. 

Thankfully for my bank account, I have recently replaced buying acid exfoliants with another tool: puzzle games.

Ever since my hours spent in early childhood playing Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, puzzle games have helped me scratch a certain itch for a small sliver of order and control. Puzzles are problems posed with the knowledge that they are solvable (unlike the problems that come with hormonal adolescence or, say, that of political existential dread). In the moments just before solving, they are like those "perfect fit" videos, where everything suddenly falls into place if you just turn it the right way.

Below are a few suggestions for puzzle games to peruse if you find yourself needing to scratch a similar itch, and ranked according to what level of the-world-is-on-fire feelings they help address.

For when there are a couple of small fires but you're on your way to work anyway because this is just how the world is now: 

MONUMENT VALLEY 1 & 2

Monument Valley  by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley by Ustwo Games

Monument Valley is a short mobile game series, wherein you help a small be-hatted person navigate an M.C. Escher-esque world. 

The puzzles aren’t especially confusing or difficult. Though there might be a couple of moments where you try to figure out exactly what needs to go where, the game is more about ambiance than challenge.

And what an ambiance it is. The music is gently tonal, and the colors all seem to be in a perpetual golden hour of lighting. Some of the level design gave me the same feeling as staring too long at that glorious fractal broccoli in the supermarket, with some levels opening up like puzzleboxes on one’s screen.

It’s also a moment of respite from words, instead adeptly building feelings within the player through gameplay. An early puzzle in Monument Valley 2 has a parent and child moving in tandem; every time the player moves the parent, the child also moves. Getting them both to the end of the puzzle together is the puzzle, while also being a lovely nonverbal analogy for the level of bonding between the two characters.

I found it lovely to put on noise-cancelling headphone and open up the game on public transit. While crammed in between commuters, and despite playing on a small screen, it felt both vast and personal, and much needed.

For when you’re taking a moment to ignore the fires to instead stare into the abyss, and you are also wondering “what if the abyss was cuter, tho?”: 

DONUT COUNTY

Donut County  by Ben Esposito

Donut County by Ben Esposito

Donut County has been compared to Katamari Damacy, except that instead of using a ball to collect objects, Donut County gives the player control of a hole in the ground that grows as it eats up items.

Who knew that eating up the lives and existences of these characters could be so gosh-darn cute?

Developer Ben Esposito crafts a lovely little vignette in Donut County. The characters have witty one-off retorts (a la Night in the Woods), and the arc of the raccoon perpetrator of all this chaos is strangely effectively sweet. It’s a game full of “I don’t need this, but I like this” sorts of inclusions, like the glossary of all the items you’ve accumulated called the Trashopedia, which names each item and gives a raccoon-appropriate view of what it is (“Candle: really bad version of the sun. Tastes OK”).

Donut County’s downfall is two-fold: that half of the already easy puzzles have their clues given away from the game’s trailer, and that the game ends just as it feels like it’s getting started. Just as I felt like I was entering new, slightly more challenging territory, the game was over. None of the levels were so difficult that I wanted to revisit them by playing again, no matter how pop-y the level music or twee the graphics.

Nevertheless, it’s sweet dumb fun, and sometimes that’s all a person needs.

For when all the fires have come together into one giant fire monster and you’re wondering how time can ever move forward from this point:

GOROGOA

Gorogoa  by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa by Jason Roberts

Gorogoa sat in my game library for a long while before I played it. Sure, it looked beautiful, but I was having a hard time choosing it first over the other games I had yet to play. But you know when something seems to wait for just the moment when you need it?

In Gorogoa, a boy tries to solve puzzles so as to gain materials to defeat a giant dragon who has stomped into his city. This journey goes across time and space, and the boy as a character is almost always present, but never fully fleshed-out. For this game, it works. There’s an air of the mystical without trying to shoe-horn a “why” requirement onto any of the actions.

The entire game takes place in a four-square design. Each square might be blank or show an image. The player can interact with any image individually, zooming in or out to get different perspectives. By zooming into the right perspective, the player might reveal an item that can be pulled into another square to complete the puzzle, or can change the order of the squares to cause two to interact with each other.

It’s a little like an interactive version of Zoom, a book where each successive page reveals itself to be a zoomed-out image of the page that came before. Part of the joy for both Zoom and Gorogoa is a joy of new perspectives: the reveal of something seemingly familiar as both strange and new.

The game’s default setting clues the player in to where on each image can be clicked for interactivity. I kept this on, and still found some of the puzzles challenging. But if you’re a point-and-click veteran, or someone looking for a little added difficulty, you have the option to turn this off in the settings.

Regardless, Gorogoa’s eschewing of any traditional narrative gives the game a feel of questing. You might not know exactly why you’re doing the thing you’re doing, but you know that to do it is the goal. And, when things finally clicked (sometimes literally) into place to reveal something larger than you thought it was, it feels a little like magic.

For when there are too many fires for you, right now, thank you very much, and you would just like to dissociate for a little while:

THE WITNESS

The Witness  by Jonathan Blow

The Witness by Jonathan Blow

The Witness was one of the first games I wrote about on Gentle Gamers, and, honestly, I don’t have too much more to add from my original thoughts. However, it most certainly needs to be added to this list. For a game that’s literally just a bunch of line puzzles, it occupies a place in my brain and heart.

The Witness was a game that, at one point in my playing it, I felt the distinct need to lie down, even though I was already playing in bed. I was so thoroughly upset by a puzzle that I had yet to beat that I got on the phone with my partner and literally cried.

None of this sounds particularly fun, now that I write it out, but the opposite side of that particular low was the stunning high that came with solving the puzzle, finally, after looking at it for hours.

The Witness makes everything in the game shining and beautiful, because you’re going to be looking at each vista for a while as you solve the puzzle. It’s a game about making you emotionally uncomfortable, even when surrounded by digitally-rendered beauty. It invites you to question why exactly are you so upset about a bunch of computer-game puzzles.

After playing The Witness, I found myself questioning how I approached frustration. There was nothing in the game that told me I needed to feel upset or low or frustrated. And, when I felt the incredible high of solving a puzzle, there was always another (usually even more) difficult puzzle right after.

The Witness instead invites the player to approach their frustrations as a given and to sit with them, rather than let them overwhelm or overtake. Since finishing the game, I’ve also thought about statements from developer Jonathan Blow in reference to a final, non-mandatory puzzle in the game that is heart-clutchingly difficult. This particular puzzle, unlike any of the others in the game, is timed, in addition to being randomly generated (to prevent looking up the answer online). Blow discussed how players complained that the challenge felt unfair with the rest of the game, and how having it as a “challenge” at all felt outside of the meditative ethos Blow had otherwise cultivated.

Blow countered with a question as to why people felt that it was a requirement to complete the puzzle at all. In an interview with Kotaku, Blow says “I don’t expect myself to master 100% of Gravity’s Rainbow. In fact the idea of ‘mastering’ a novel is kind of silly. It must not be a very good book if you can do that! So the fact that we have this kind of expectation of games is a sign that the work hasn’t really been that deep, all this time.”

In other words — and pretentious book choice aside — there is a skill in knowing that we don’t have the answers to everything, that (further) we can be (further still: are) complete without the answers to everything. Especially in this day and age, it’s a difficult lesson to learn. So, perhaps now is a great time to return to The Witness and re-learn to celebrate the joy in finding the puzzles we can solve, and challenging ourselves to see them through til the end.

Celeste & the potential of emotional manipulation

CELESTE

Credit: Matt Makes Games

Credit: Matt Makes Games

With seemingly all of my friends on the opposite coast getting married this year, the Nintendo Switch has been a blessing. Every time I am crammed into some middle seat on whatever budget airline will have me, I can power up the Switch and push down whatever anxiety comes from over six hours of pinching my sciatic nerve. 

So, imagine my surprise when, about 30,000 feet over Earth and all of its terrestrial concerns, I found myself so stressed out by Celeste, an adorable 2D pixel puzzle platformer, that I reflexively shut off the system without saving and stared at the black screen until I calmed down.

If there was a list of things I do not like in video games, I can guarantee it would start with the following three mechanics:

  • Time trails
  • Situations where I'm being "chased"
  • Any sort of requirement to be 100% exact with the controls

Having heightened visceral reactions to fictional material is the reason I even started writing Gentle Gamers. If the word didn't make me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit, I'd more regularly label myself an empath, in that I absorb emotions in a room without discrimination. I'm easily affected by any whiff of stress in those around me, so I try to avoid media that knowingly manufactures that stress within me (e.g., horror movies, "cringe" comedy, stealth-based missions in video games). 

At the point in Celeste when I turned it off without thinking, my player's character was having to run away from something, while navigating a complex puzzle that required utmost gamepad precision. My heart raced. My hands tensed to the point that I had to shake them out. I felt truly miserable. But after a few minutes staring at the black screen, I turned the game back on and resumed my attempt. Returning to it wasn't masochism, and it wasn't because I still had over three house left on my flight to the East Coast. It was because, from the start, Celeste was purposefully leaning into these stressful game mechanics to make a point about those feelings inside myself, and I was curious where it was leading me.

In that way, Celeste is not only an exquisitely constructed game, but one of the most empathetic I've ever played.

Short Games for Short Nights

June is around the corner and that summer feeling is coming with it: 'tis is the season to sleep with the windows open, put on your summertime clothes, and pine for those hot muggy summers of childhood with the Mr. Shane's ice cream on main street and sneaking in to Great Pond after dark or jumping off the cliffs into Lake Mamanasco in a misguided attempt at teenaged bravado.

Woof, that summer feeling, indeed.

Regardless of your personal summertime prep, it's objectively true that here in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting longer and the nights are getting shorter, and it probably behooves us to spend some time in the sun (albeit covered in sunscreen). So, here's a short list of short games that you can play during the increasingly-short nights.


IF YOU'RE ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND ALSO READING: BUTTERFLY SOUP

Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup

Butterfly Soup was the darling of itch.io for more than a hot minute, and it's not hard to see why. it's an aggressively thoughtful and gentle game, exploring the inner lives of four young queer Asian-American women. Though the characters' identities are central to the story, in no way are they made "other." Their queerness isn't a source of agony, but is easily accepted by their friends. They attend an Asian-majority school, and reminisce about their confusion seeing so many white people on TV when there are so few in their hometown. (When one character says that the national Asian population is about 6% of the whole, one character replies, "That can't be right. Don't you mean 60%?")

The game is aggressively intimate. Butterfly Soup captures what I felt in high school, when my friends were my whole world and all of our idiosyncrasies became our personal inscrutable language. The fact that Butterfly Soup replicates the feeling of decades-long inside jokes and deep empathic understanding is a testament to developer Brianna Lei.

Butterfly Soup is a visual novel, meaning that the majority of playing the game is reading. There are a couple of opportunities to respond to other characters, but the choices you make are all pretty surface-level in that they don't affect the endgame. But who cares? You don't read a novel thinking that how you read it is going to affect what happens to the characters; you do it to sink into something new.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour and a half, depending on your preferred reading speed


IF YOU WANNA GET WEIRD WITH YOUR FRIENDS: MONSTER PROM

Monster Prom    

Monster Prom

 

Ah yes. Finally. An answer to that age-old question: what if high school, but monsters? Monster Prom is a single- and/or multi-player dating sim, wherein your character tries to woo one of six highly-sought-after monster classmates at (you guessed it) Monster High. 

Monster Prom takes a page from one of my go-to wintertime short games, The Yawhg (which features art and writing by one of my favorite visual novelists, Emily Carroll). Each turn, the player decides where in the high school their character should go, with their choice affecting one of 6 character statistics: they can get brainer in class, get bolder by playing hooky in the bathroom, up their charm on the dodgeball court, etc. Each turn also features a brief scene with one or more of your monster classmates, culminating in a skill-check question that will either improve your chances of getting a prom date, or move you further away.

The writing is light and funny, diving into both dating simulator and high-school-coming-of-age tropes. Playing in multi-player mode with friends is dumb fun: there's nothing like when you both decide to try and woo the super-haughty rich-girl gorgon only to find out that, despite turning on each other at every turn, she rejects BOTH of you on prom night and OHOHOs off into the night. Ouch, Vera.

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To really drive the point home, the ending credits are accompanied by Mike Krol's Fifteen Minutes, a song that feels like it was made of pure, unfiltered teenage angst. 

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: 30 - 90 minutes per round, depending on if you're playing a short or long game


IF YOU'RE SPENDING YOUR SUMMER ON PUBLIC TRANSIT: FLORENCE

Florence

Florence

Florence isn't breaking any new ground when it comes to storytelling. It's a pretty basic girl-meets-boy story, going from the very first moments of a relationship to the very last. But, despite this familiar territory, every moment playing Florence felt special and new.

As a mobile game, playing it on a phone with headphones lends a certain special intimacy to the story that would be difficult to replicate on a traditional desktop. This knack for knowing the ups and downs of its medium applies to the many mini-games that are interspersed through the story. For instance, I was particularly fond of how conversation on a first date was framed as a puzzle mechanic, which became simpler as the night progressed, replicating the joy when everything just clicks.  

Curled up on a late-night subway ride home, it was difficult not to feel deeply involved with the characters. Florence recognizes how much we use our phones for emotional attachment, and plays off that technological relationship in crafting a story about connection.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour


IF YOU WROTE "HAGS" IN THE YEARBOOK OF ALL YOUR HIGH SCHOOL CRUSHES: EMILY IS AWAY

Emily is Away

Emily is Away

There are certain sounds that are forever burned into a deep part of my brain, and AOL instant messager chat sounds make up about 90% of my hippocampus' golden record. They are the sounds of high school longing, carefully crafted away messages, and indentities constantly in flux.

Playing Emily is Away is a flashback to all of these tender feelings. The game exists in AIM-style chats between the player's character and the titular Emily, their high school best friend. Each chat session takes place one year later, advancing from the last year of high school through the end of college. The player chooses how to respond to Emily's questions through a multiple-choice prompt. To make the words appear on the screen, the player has to type on their own computer keyboard (any random assortment of keys will do), which creates an interesting somatic effect: you know you're not choosing what words are appearing in-game, but the motion of typing makes you feel as if you are.  

It was quickly apparent that my tender memories of high school friendship weren't as deeply buried (or healed) as I thought they were. Now, like then, I found myself searching friends' away messages, looking to solve the puzzle of who we were to each other, and for how long we would be who we needed each other to be.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about an hour


IF SCIENCE FICTION MAKES UP A LARGE PORTION OF YOUR SUMMER READING: THE RED STRINGS CLUB

The Red Strings Club

The Red Strings Club

There really hasn't been a shortage of stellar games about artificial intelligence and it's relationship with humanity. (I'd bet that  video games being a medium that takes place mostly on computers has something to do with this.) 

You have Subsurface Circular's robotic detective, examining what it means to have a role in a system. You have the player character in LOCALHOST, trying to convince old AI systems to allow themselves to be shut down peacefully. Both are wonderful games, but only one game left me questioning all of my choices I'd made in the game prior, and also feeling deeply human (whatever that means) by its end: The Red Strings Club.

Combining noir storytelling, a cyberpunk setting, point-and-click puzzle solving, bartender games, and ceramics (???), The Red Strings Club puts the player in the middle of a conspiracy thriller about the ethics of forcing humans to obey their better selves. I don't want to spoil it, but halfway through the game, I was sitting pretty tall on my high horse of theoretical morality, when a series of questions made me turn my back on everything I had established up to that point. The game pointed out my hypocrisy, before moving on and asking me to make a drink for the next customer at the bar.

I found it beautiful, affecting, and the slowest of slow burns. It was a genuine surprise when I wiped away some tears at the end of the game, looked at the time, and realize that I had only played a few hours in total. It's a perfect game for a contimplative and quiet rainy summer night.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about three hours


IF YOU THINK YOU'RE ALL ABOUT DATING THOSE HOT AVAILABLE DADS, BUT ACTUALLY ARE LOOKING FOR A HEARTWARMING STORY ABOUT FAMILY: DREAM DADDY

Dream Daddy

Dream Daddy

Did I expect to like a Game Grumps game? No. Am I still surprised that a game that marketed itself as the goofiest of goofs "hey don't you want to just date a dad?" tongue-firmly-in-cheek dating sims ended up being a rumination on friendship, family, and taking care of those around you? Yes, I am still very much surprised.

Dream Daddy (like Monster Prom) is plays a lot within the tropes of dating simulators: as the player, you know that your goal is to say exactly the right combination of things to get into your chosen paramour's pants. And Dream Daddy allows for a lot of that! You make a dad character for yourself, who then attempts to go on dates with one of the many eligible dad bachelors (dadchelors?) to try to convince them to date you.

But about half the game also involves your character building a relationship with your teenaged daughter who, along with you, is still mourning the passing of their other parent. The game quickly makes it clear that there's a hierarchy of relationships, and that for the player character, a new romantic partnership is below that of building new friendships. More than either of those, though, the player's character is determined to be a good parent.

Dream Daddy also tries its darndest to be inclusive. Though it's not perfect (Kotaku's Gita Jackson and Riley MacLeod talk through some of those points here), it does feature a diverse cast of cis and trans dads of varying body types and sexualities. No part of their identity is played for laughs besides, of course, the requisite dad jokes that pepper their dialogue.

I didn't expect to like this. Turns out: it's sometimes just nice to play a charming game with a kind heart.

PLAY-THROUGH TIME: about two to four hours, depending on how many dads you try to date


Want to grab one of these games? It's rumored that the Steam 2018 Summer Sale (when many games are up to 50% off) will start around June 21. So, I'd recommend that you put them on your wishlist and wait to see what Gabe Newell and the Steam team has in store later this month.

Non-holiday games to play during the holidays

Ah, the holidays: that time of year when end-of-year lists are compiled, bank accounts are checked for available funds, TSA lines are waited in, and New Years Eve plans are hastily thrown together.

If you're like me during this month (i.e. conked out in a sugar-cookie daze on your parents' sofa while trying to readjust your made-soft-by-California-seasons body to the East Coast winter), you could use an opportunity to do something completely non-holiday-related and low stress.

No surprise here: there are plenty of small games out there that will serve this exact purpose. These are games that are perfect for the holiday season while having absolutely 0 to do with the holidays themselves. Boot them up, take some time, and maybe even use them as a replacement for your family's annual tradition of getting into Very Heated disagreements during Scrabble. (Sorry, Mom. Love you.)

PET THE PUP AT THE PARTY

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Pet the Pup at the Party is a game made for holiday decompression (or, really, any situation where social anxiety might come into play). The aim is simple: you're a person at a party, and you've heard there is a pup there that is waiting to be pet. The goal: navigate the party while avoiding the hipster patrons while following the sounds of a friendly dog barking from another room. If you find the dog within the allotted time limit and give it a pet, its image is added to your log of dogs, and you get another chance to find a new pup.

It's not a hard game by any means. When I played, I mostly just yelled, "GET OUT OF MY WAAAAY" with a huge grin on my face. It's a game that rejoices in the heights of internal drama and the joys of comically elevated stakes. Also: gotta pet those pups.

LOST CONSTELLATION

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Lost Constellation was one of the first games I wrote about on Gentle Gamers for a very simple reason: it's one of my favorite games. 

It was put out by the team that made Night in the Woods as a preamble/apology for the increasingly delayed NitW, and (dollars to donuts), I think Lost Constellation is the stronger game, and one that is a joy to replay in the middle of winter.

It's a game that quiet and thoughtful, about love and loss. It's short, but that makes it a well-contained story. It's tongue-in-cheek, and that keeps it from being too dour. To use what I said in my original review when I played through on the first day of winter, "It's a beautiful little present: a modern ancient story that asks you, 'What's waiting for you in the woods, and what are you willing to do to get it?' "

SONIC MANIA

PREVIEW_SCREENSHOT1_150832.jpg

If you're spending the holidays in your childhood home (metaphorically or literally), you might as well spend some time reliving a part of your childhood. Regression is a thing, and you might as well embrace it.

For me, that part of my childhood is classic Sonic. For once, Team Sonic did something kind of right and put a new release into the hands of fans. With Sonic Mania, the love for the game shows. Each stage features a classic level, plus an additional stage that plays upon and updates the classic. It's a game that recognizes the joy in the original, and trades upon the very real pleasure of feeling In On the Joke.

Also, it's fun to go fast.

PANORAMICAL

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Sometimes, you just need something pretty. And Panoramical is just that. There's no plot to speak of (that I know of, at least). The game simply gives you some scenes and some sliders. Manipulating the sliders changes the scene (perhaps tall trees grow out of the ground, perhaps orbs appear in the sky, perhaps everything tilts, just a little bit to the right). Each change in the visuals is accompanied by a change in the soundtrack, creating an auditory landscape that rivals the one you see.

And that's it. Turn off the lights. Turn on the game. Give yourself a few minutes to be the God of a small beautiful world of your whims.

Another game along these lines (that I have yet to play but have heard wonderful things about) is Proteus, which bills itself as an "an ambient musical exploration game where your exploration of a changing island creates an abstract-immersive soundtrack to your wandering." I'm not 100% sure that that means, but it sounds right up my alley.

HERDING CATS

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Listen: if I'm going to start with Pet the Pup at the Party, this seems like the logical bookend. Leave it to anna anthropy to make a perfect little puzzle game about trying to pet all the cats. 

Herding Cats is a short puzzle game, wherein your character has to be able to collect all the cats on the screen at once in order to progress to the next level. The design and mechanics are simple, and petting all the cats is a cause I can get behind. It honestly doesn't have to be more complex than that.

 

The Mary Sue & Gentle Gamers

Things have been a little quiet around here recently. Like: tumbleweed blowing across the landscape quiet.

One of the main reasons for that was because I was working to adapt my piece about Portal on Gentle Gamers for The Mary Sue! It's now live on their website, and it concentrates a little more on the false image of AI as inherently unbiased, using GLaDOS from Portal as an example of "AI'd" internalized misogyny.

Glados.jpg

A quick blurb:

As we surround ourselves with increasingly automated systems, we’d do well to examine how our decades of human biases are programmed into the devices that populate our homes, offices, and pockets. Without this examination, we’ll find that the worst of the voices in our heads—voices that, granted, were “programmed” into us by society at large—will find their way into what we create.

Read "Portal, GLaDOS, and the myth of the objective robot" in its entirety here.


A quick post-script: it seems that there's something in the air/some sort of fantastic hive-mind going on, since the podcast 99% Invisible just yesterday released an episode about the biases in analytics. It's a fantastic addition to the argument I'm making above. You can listen to it here.

Ah, yes. I remember you.

My pediatric dentist was a man named Dr. Wolfman. (That was his actual god-given name. Some people have all the luck.)

When my mom and I first walked into his office, I was shaking with fear. As far as I was concerned, there was a high likelihood that Dr. Wolfman he was the Wolfman, having gone straight and gone for his DDS. 

However, I was immediately won over when I saw, in the corner of the office, an arcade-style SEGA system that featured Ecco the Dolphin, the X-Men game, and (most importantly) Sonic.

sonic-game.jpg

I like the little bits of sound design that wheedle their way into your ear: the coin collection sound from Mario, the battle theme from Pokemon, the theme for Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.

But picking up Sonic Mania this week, I didn't realize how much one sound in particular stuck in my head: the sound of Sonic doing a skid stop from the original SEGA Genesis game.

It's amazing how a one-second-long sound can instantly make me smell the antibacterial cleaner used in Dr. Wolfman's office, can make me remember the glow of the screen against the fluorescent lights, can make me feel like I'm three-and-a-half feet tall and willing to overlook the fact that my dentist might just be an actual man-turned-into-a-wolf, so long as I could have a few more moments going so fast.