Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the games we liked.
And as with every year, you’re all invited to write your own mini-retrospectives in the comments. Just follow the rubric we’ve laid out here—set up your rationale in the first sentence, and go from there. (It’s fine if your picks overlap with ours, because you’ll probably have a different reason for digging a game.) We’ll collect some of our favorite responses in a special Games You Liked edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 30.
In part two, we’ll hear from Patrick Lee, Alex McCown-Levy, Samantha Nelson, Clayton Purdom, Derrick Sanskrit, Drew Toal, and Nick Wanserski. You can find part one right here.
I liked Ladykiller In A Bind because it was only mostly about sex. Writer-developer Christine Love has not been coy about the reasoning behind most of Ladykiller’s design and narrative choices: She wanted to make you horny. And even if that was her only ambition, surely this would be considered a success. But amid all the smut and flirting is a character-driven story of ambition, deceit, and the performance of identity. In Ladykiller, when you’re not having martinis forcibly poured into your mouth by a hot photographer, you’re infiltrating a precarious social web with little information, struggling to win a high-stakes popularity contest, and being introduced to a radically anti-capitalist, pro-fiction philosophy.
All of this is communicated through one of the most unique dialogue systems I’ve ever used in a game. Ladykiller is a visual novel, and dialogue options occur frequently. They can be ignored if you prefer to remain silent or would rather wait for more options, and they can steer the course of conversations and entire relationships in wild directions. Add to this the fact that your player character is herself playing a different character, and the possibilities for role-playing become incredibly deep. Avoiding suspicion by staying in character is a big part of the challenge, and sometimes this means telling a man to his face that you’re going to bang his fiancée. If none of that interests you, the game is also really, really funny. And if that still doesn’t do it for you, there’s also plenty of fucking.
I liked I Am Setsuna because it was a big game in a small package. Square’s golden-age role-playing games were enormous adventures taking place across entire worlds that generally took around 60 hours to complete. At the time, that seemed massive, an entire summer vacation’s worth of questing and defeating evil. But compared to today’s 200-hour open-world behemoths, it’s downright quaint. Struggling to keep up with the times, the latest entry in Square Enix’s flagship Final Fantasy series adopted an open world, sort of, with mixed results.
But Square also recently established a studio called Tokyo RPG Factory to retain the spirit and style of the games from its glory days. Its first project, I Am Setsuna, is a golden-age RPG in miniature. The ingredients are all the same and have been kept in the same proportions, but the serving size has been cut in half. Rather than adventuring across a whole planet over 60 hours, Setsuna tasks players with exploring just one country with a single snowy biome on a journey lasting about 30 hours. The telltale signs of a classic Square title are all present—a large and lovable cast, a deep combat system, a melodramatic plot—but it’s all bite-size and far more accessible. Even the soundtrack has been pared down to just a single instrument: a lone piano. Setsuna still feels like an epic journey. It just doesn’t require that you book time off work to play it.
I liked Telltale’s Batman because it treats Bruce Wayne’s life with as much importance as Batman’s. Too often, the real-life persona of Gotham’s vigilante hero is treated as nothing but a mask, the daylight-hours puppet identity that Batman needs in order to continue functioning. What’s great about Telltale’s take is how it mines the comic source material for the pathos of the Wayne family and comes away with a complicated new take. I still haven’t finished playing it, but thus far, what’s there is a lush examination of the Wayne legacy.
It’s no spoiler to say that in the first installment, Bruce Wayne’s impeccable WASP upper-crust image is thrown into question. It always seemed more than a little sketchy that the Wayne family were the first rich people in history to come by their fortune without doing business with shady characters, and the game’s story argues that Wayne Industries’ benevolent goodness is just as invented as the Batman persona. Bruce’s father was mixed up with the worst of the worst, and watching the hero grapple with the demons of his past (while making tough decisions about how to handle it) is just as compelling as pulling off a stealth assault on a group of underworld minions. For once, the question “Do you want to handle this as Batman or as Bruce Wayne?” has no easy answer.
I liked Uncharted 4 because it’s the greatest link between the past and future of video games. Like Indiana Jones, the film series to which it owes the most obvious debt, Naughty Dog’s series of games about Nathan Drake has its roots in the old action-adventure serials of the mid-20th century. Much as Lucas and Spielberg’s films applied all the polish and spectacle of contemporary technology and special effects to a downright quaint form of storytelling, the Uncharted outings have done the same in game form. Its swashbuckling leaps, dodges, and swings hearken back to the fundamental pleasures of Pitfall!, one of the oldest and best of the Atari 2600-era of games. The simple joy of making a guy navigate treacherous terrain has been retained but is now adorned with the most expansive and lush potential of contemporary games. It’s got a cracking-good story, gunfights, and some eye-popping set pieces, but at its heart, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is still based in the same simple mechanics of Pitfall!—making it representative of the best of both gaming’s history and future.
I liked Darkest Dungeon because it made me doubt my Dungeons & Dragons characters’ sanity. I’ve played a lot of role-playing games where my characters have been faced with tough choices, terrible odds, and horrific monsters. I try to play out some of that stress through role-playing and the occasional game-master-imposed penalty to show that things were really bad, but I never considered the level of trauma that could be inflicted on a character just by walking around a dark catacomb or triggering a spike trap.
The opening cinematic of Darkest Dungeon lays out the game’s fundamental message: “There can be no bravery without madness.” Your characters are constantly straddling the line between heroes and nervous wrecks, especially since the same stressors can either push them to new heights of power that make them a huge asset to your four-person party or cause them to break down, begging to return to town so they can get a brief respite through gambling or self-flagellation.
Here, sanity is as much a resource as your characters’ hit points, and neglecting it will give your party a spectacularly diverse range of derangements. In Darkest Dungeon, you either die a hero or live to become a kleptomaniac who’s obsessed with corpses. That’s not the sort of character development that makes for a particularly stable role-playing game, but since there are always new heroes looking to prove their mettle, watching your party members’ rapid degeneration provides a fascinating look into the psyche of those who would take up the call.
I liked Pokémon Sun and Moon because it got me back into the series just as my interest in Pokémon Go was waning. I hadn’t actually played a Pokémon game since Red And Blue, but the series always held a special nostalgic place in my heart. Then Pokémon Go became the game of the summer, and I remembered why I loved catching, collecting, and battling monsters so much. Unfortunately, a lack of end-game content and a series of safety-focused updates that made it increasingly difficult to play without spending money meant most of my friends were done with the game by August. Pokémon Go loses a lot of its appeal without the social aspect, but I wasn’t the only one who largely ditched the app in favor of playing Pokémon Sun and Moon. Social media feeds that were full of pictures of what my friends caught and where are now showcases for their goofily named battle teams.
It also helps that the game has enough content that I don’t need the encouragement of others to stay engaged. Having been out of the series for so long, I’ve been delighted with many of the new features, like grooming my pets to make them feel better after a taxing battle. The bright, tropical setting is especially appealing, now that the bitter cold of winter has gripped Chicago, and the relentlessly happy Hawaiian-shirt-wearing characters and relative ease makes it a perfect way to relieve some stress. I’m not sure I’ve become a new series loyalist, but I certainly plan on spending a lot more time island hopping.
I liked Thumper because it didn’t like me. It’s a cliché to compare a difficult game to Dark Souls, the notoriously uncompromising 2011 fantasy RPG. Merely requiring laser-precision through a gauntlet of increasingly unlikely challenges isn’t enough. Dark Souls, after all, was equally a triumph of art direction—of sustained, black-as-hell nightmare, decrepit underworlds, and gilded cathedrals.
So when I call Thumper the (ugh) Dark Souls of rhythm games, I do so, at least, ripe with self-loathing. Both games would want it this way. They crush you underfoot, but they share more than difficulty. They share an air: massive, unyielding, disdainful, and monolithically rad. Thumper is content to show you how to proceed, to let you know that things will be difficult and then to simply send you off, barreling through some nightmare phantasmagoria to the sound of martial drums and regal sci-fi brass. The game has only a handful of mechanics but takes an entire half of its length to introduce them; thereafter, it is quite simply fucking impossible.
You proceed—you do the impossible—because of the promised horizon. Occasionally, as an interlude to the violence, the track stretches to the vanishing point and a great pyramid emerges from the abyss. These moments become sacrosanct. Again and again, barreling through the magenta and mauve and midnight nowhere, the player breaks down, quits, decides that a stretch is not doable. And then, for some reason, you try again. You do the impossible—you beat the stretch, you nail that one turn—and rediscover some new state of total zen synchronicity with the game. The rhythm beats in your bones, and the pyramid rises from the mist, undisturbed and unconvinced.
I liked The Witcher III’s expansion Blood And Wine because it was, well, more Witcher III. But that’s saying something. Few video game open worlds have matched The Witcher’s remarkable sense of purpose, both in its weathered, organic topography and in the almost astonishing quantity of life and narrative held within. The time I spent in thrall to The Witcher III—some 100 hours before this year’s DLC—was like stumbling across an all-time great TV show and binging a half dozen seasons. The story meanders, finds moments of quiet irony and nightmarish darkness; it falls in love with bit players and watches plotlines rise and fall gracefully; it builds, finally, to a narrative climax that’s at once satisfying and idiosyncratic. But mostly, the game was willing to linger in darkness—not the grim-dark antipathy of many games, but in real loss, human sadness, and sympathetically rendered evil. No choice is easy, and no death is light.
In its final piece of DLC, Blood And Wine, the writers and artists at CD Projekt Red hit an unlikely peak. Other all-time great DLCs, like those from BioShock 2 or Mass Effect 2, could be taken as self-contained experiences. But Blood And Wine is best after dozens of hours spent in the corpse-strewn desolation of Novigrad and the vast iciness of Skellige. Whereas those regions were based on Slavic and Norse culture, respectively, Blood And Wine is set in Toussaint, which pulls instead from the cultures of southern Europe. It’s warm and life is sweeter—a country of leisurely gardens, gasp-inducing night skies, and Disney-esque castles peopled with vintners, painters, lovers, vampires, and princesses. It stands in stark contrast to The Witcher III while also underlining its rich storytelling and generous scale. After hundreds of hours across three games, it is a fairy-tale ending. Few stories have done more to earn one.
I liked Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE because its cast demonstrated the benefits of collaborating with and complementing your peers. Frequently throughout the game, each of the aspiring pop stars are put in positions where they have to learn from one another. One dancer will help another build onstage confidence. One actor aids another in developing subtle nuance for their latest role. Two singers with different fan bases collaborate for a crossover hit. In all of these cases, both of the characters involved come away from the collaboration better, learning new skills, improving their own abilities, and increasing their popularity. Not only do these feats improve their careers, but they also form stronger bonds between the performers, giving them special skills they can use in combat that are both immensely powerful and very silly to watch (reenacting scenes from music videos, cooking programs, and Power Rangers-styled costumed superhero shows while healing their allies and knocking out monsters, for example). Each of these young pop stars is impressive in their own right, but their greatest power—as is so often the case in Japanese RPGs—is friendship.
I liked Pokémon Go because it inspired total strangers to talk to and learn from one another. It was easy to recognize a fellow Pokémon Go player, sauntering down the sidewalk or through a park, intermittently looking at their phone and their surroundings, turning around and around to locate the nearest virtual check-in point, occasionally stopping in their tracks to tap and swipe at invisible creatures. By recognizing a shared hobby with complete strangers on the street, a whole community of people excited to share their experiences and help one another was born. People in the park would announce “I just put a lure down!” to inform others nearby to hang out and keep catching monsters. Upon seeing another player looking around aimlessly on the sidewalk, people would approach them and point out which nearby stores had Cubones and Doduos outside. Kids showed their parents how to put the proper spin on their throw to gain more experience points. Crowds of fans gathered in Rockefeller Plaza to enjoy the cross-section of PokéStops and swap stories of what creatures were common to which neighborhoods. Interest may have tapered off, but for those first couple of months, New York City was a noticeably friendlier and more encouraging place for locals and tourists alike. All because so many of us were playing Pokémon and decided to play it together.
I liked Dishonored 2 because it illustrates the pitfalls of non-democratic governments. This was the first game I played after the presidential election, so autocracy and the beginnings of what I assume will turn into a four- to eight-year-long hangover were both very much on my mind. The young girl your character rescues at the end of the first game, Emily Kaldwin, is now Empress Of Dunwall. I think she means well and tries, in her fashion, to be a just ruler, but all is not perfect in her squalid Victorian kingdom. And really, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that “my dad rules at stealthily impaling my political opponents” isn’t the best basis for a system of government.
Even so, she’s not helping her own cause. In the years since she took power, it seems she hasn’t done much to lift up the most vulnerable among her subjects. For instance, there still seems to be a pretty large bloodfly problem in the southern kingdom of Serkonos, and gang-related crime is rampant. Sensing unrest, some rivals use a combination of new military technology, black magic, and a questionable interpretation of imperial succession lines to claim the throne and send Emily into exile. You spend Dishonored 2 trying to reclaim your “birthright” and exact bloody revenge, but the game implicitly questions whether or not this conclusion would necessarily be a good thing. It dares to ask, are we the baddies?
I liked XCOM 2 because it made me realize I didn’t hate video games nearly enough after the first XCOM. I have a serious love-hate thing with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In a year of great games, it was probably my favorite, and I’ve played it through to completion at least a half dozen times. The learning curve is steep but fair; it gives you just enough alien-killing accouterments to get by, if you know how to allocate them properly. But this fluency was hard-won, and there were many moments when I could’ve punched a hole through the TV in frustration.
I figured I could apply most of my previous lessons to XCOM 2, and I’d be king of the human resistance in no time. It took about 30 minutes of playing the sequel for me to realize that, although it looks and plays like the first game, XCOM 2 is an order of magnitude more grueling. Where there was once a little wiggle room allowing for minor mistakes, there is now no room for error, either in the missions or developing your guerrilla force’s resources. The aliens are of a more nasty variety, the time constraints more insane. I had to restart completely at least three times before I made enough headway to have a decent shot at surviving, and even then I was taking the coward’s way out and saving during missions to ensure my squad wasn’t unceremoniously exterminated because my dimwitted sniper Lionel Trilling decided to kick in the wrong door. At the end of this one, you actually feel like you’ve been through a war. It’s a great game that I will not be playing again.
I liked Abzû because it didn’t explain a damn thing to me, and the experience was better for it. In Mesopotamian myth, the Abzu is the primordial waters of creation that exists under the earth, and is at times also a god. When you first begin Abzû the game, you’re bobbing gently on a clear plane of water: flat, barren, and endless. But the moment you slip below the surface, life surrounds you—great, moving swells of it. Like the myth, Abzû the game understands what it is for something to exist simultaneously as a place and a living thing.
Abzû is a gentle experience, which is really something that can’t be undervalued right now. There are a few token stabs at conventional puzzle-solving, but the game’s heart is simply in immersing you in a series of color-saturated underwater tableaus and letting you hang out with the residents. Abzû’s story—told in the same spirit of lucid dreaminess that infuses the rest of the game—trusts the player to define their own experience. Enough context is provided through a few major set pieces that you form a loose idea of what’s happening in the world you inhabit, but it leaves a lot open to interpretation. Like the medium in which you spend the duration of the play-through, the game’s story is fluid, capable of shaping itself to whatever container you choose to place it in.
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