Interesting Games of 2017: Games Telling Stories

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I’m facing a quickly-approaching deadline for some genuine academic writing, so I’ve got to put a cap on my efforts to play every game that came out in 2017. This is the final post of this series I have planned, and it’s admittedly a bit slapdash. The theme is basically just “remaining games that did interesting things with storytelling,” which is admittedly pretty broad. Still, good games in here.

Ground rules: Unlike in previous entries, I’m not going to include any games that got a mention in my mid-2017 round-up. My time is too tight to indulge in such redundancies.

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Interesting Games of 2017: GUIness

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I first broached the topic of GUIness in the context of talking about cinema and television. In recent years, everyday, quotidian technology has thrown visual storytellers for a loop. Telephone conversations are well-built into the foundations of cinematic storytelling. Even the most mediocre director can successfully weave a phone conversation into a variety of scenarios, from suspense to romance.

Texting presents far more of a challenge. It’s sort of ironic, really: Even working within the medium of silent film, D. W. Griffith realized how powerfully cinematic a telephone conversation could be, as illustrated in his 1909 film The Lonely Villa. Today, though, texting makes some directors pine for the intertitle, that vestigal bit of cinematic vocabulary that lost most of its relevance with the coming of sound. The most advanced forms of experimentation along these lines have thrown out the traditional language of moving image storytelling altogether, instead telling stories by directly throwing GUIs on the screen.

Google’s 53-second “Parisian Love” ad for the 2010 Superbowl marked an early instance of this trend, but the style soon leaked out of advertising and into commercial narrative filmmaking. The experimental student film Noah (Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, 2013) seems to have been a bellwether here. In its wake, both The Den (Zachary Donahue, 2013) and Unfriended (Leo Gambriadze, 2014) used the technique as a twist on the “found-footage” horror trope. The Modern Family episode “Connection Lost” (2015) brought the GUI style to mainstream television.

When I first considered this trend, I connected it to videogames in only the most slantwise manner. 2017 made me reconsider this, though. We are very clearly in the middle of a GUIness trend in gaming.

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Interesting Games of 2017: The Personal Is (Still) The Political

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Back in November, I questioned rather “personal games” (or “zinester games,” or what have you) were still a thing. My provisional answer was that they weren’t, at least not in the well-defined “scene” sense that seemed to be the case around 2013–2013. There are simply far too many things being released these days. I can’t even keep up with everything itch.io recommends for me, let alone everything that’s actually put out there.

Still, though, if there’s less of a distinct personal game “scene” these days, no one would deny that there are still small, personal, semi-autobiographical games dealing with delicate subjects out there. There’s just too many of them. But that’s one of the things that criticism is for: to curate. I’ve decided to do my part. The most interesting (which is not necessarily to say successful) personal games I’ve encountered in 2017 are below the fold.

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Interesting Games of 2017: The Dream of the ’90s is Alive in Portland in 2017

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In the past 12 months, three full-motion video adventure games were released. The big tech companies are in the midst of a full-on push to get us to strap VR headsets to our face. And Hidden Agenda (Supermassive Games, 2017), specially crafted to highlight Sony’s brand new PlayLink system, looks for all the world like an evolutionary outgrowth of I’m Your Man (Bob Bejan, 1992), Loews’ experiment in audience-polling interactive cinema.

To quote a 1990s-era television series that itself returned in 2017: What year is it? Because it certainly seems that the game industry is partying like it’s 1993. At this rate, it’s astonishing that we haven’t seen the release of a “3DO Classic” console to accompany the SNES Classic Edition.

I have been observing this trend more than I have been directly participating in it.(Despite positioning myself as a scholar specializing on the intersection of cinema and videogames, I haven’t yet gotten a group together to play Hidden Agenda, and I’ve fallen behind on the stead stream of FMV games.) Still, though, the trend has been noteworthy enough to comment upon as the year wraps up. Below the fold you’ll find two capsule reviews of things that piqued my interest.

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Interesting Games of 2017: Six Worthy Follow-ups

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Among the inordinate number of truly superb games released in 2017 were some hotly-anticipated (by me, anyway) follow-ups to indie games of past years. Some were sequels. Others were sophomore efforts. Whichever the case, 2017 was a very good year for promising indie developers releasing something new after a couple years of silence (or, heck, three or four or five years of silence), and having that new release not disappoint. Below the fold are my six favorite releases that followed up on the promise of something a developer made before.

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Interesting Games of 2017: Labor Party

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‘Tis that time again: the waning days of December, when the unwrapping of gifts is accompanied by the wrapping-up of a year. I have been trying to keep up with interesting releases this year, and over the next several days I will be attempting a final run-down.

(Just to be clear: “Interesting” is my way of circumventing the “best” trap. There are hundreds of voices you could find promising to reveal the “best” games of the year. These, by contrast, are games that made me think—about the subject matter presented, and/or the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Some of them are noble failures. All of them deserved to be remembered in some way, as a game that contributed to the medium in 2017.)

These little retrospectives will undoubtedly stretch into January, as there have been exciting releases stretching all the way into December (Finding Paradise!) that I will need to catch up on. 2017 has been, overall, exceptionally chock-full of exciting indie releases. Back when I was doing my “Games of the Decade” retrospective, I wrote that, following tremendous excitement about the indie scene in 2012–2013, the diabolical duo of Gamergate and the Trump election put a damper on my naïve enthusiasm for this budding art form. And yet, while the current moment certainly finds me hardened, pessimistic, and politically preoccupied, I also can’t deny that 2016 and 2017 have witnessed the release of an inordinate number of truly superb games. It really does seem that the medium is rediscovering its creative mojo, a few years after everyone had to go into hiding from being harassed by ‘gaters. Best of times, worst of times, and all that.

Anyway, I have a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve chosen to split my retrospective into themed posts. Up today: games about labor, a topic I have developed something of an interest in over the course of 2017.

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Let’s Study Tacoma

Hello, dear readers. It’s been a while since my last post, and to make up for the gap, I have come bearing a video. Specifically, another video in my “Let’s Study” series. This one is fairly short, zooming in on the technique of “scrubbable narrative” in Tacoma (The Fullbright Company, 2017).

Special thanks to Amy Stebbins on this one, who directed me Alan Alston’s 2013 article “Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre,” which ended up forming the backbone of most of the observations in this one.

As always, transcript below the jump.

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