Games of the Decade: Delight

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A couple years back, I wrote a dissertation on Heidegger and videogames. This was, from the outset, a contradictory endeavor. Heidegger would not have liked videogames.

Already in his lifetime, Heidegger did not like the cultural changes brought about by newly emerging digital technologies. “Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news,” he wrote in 1972, the very year Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong. “The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.”[i]

Moreover, Heidegger wasn’t big on moving-image culture, in general. He had no particular love for the cinema, which he saw as sapping our sense of the wondrous (das Er-Staunen, Heidegger’s translation of the Greek θαυμαστόν) in lived experience. “We might think in passing of all the extraordinary things the cinema must offer continually,” he writes, “what is new every day and never happened before becomes something habitual and always the same.” The uncommon acquires an “insidious habituality.” Genuine wondrousness is supplanted by manufactured spectacle.[ii]

In titling this category, I fought against a perverse desire for maximal irony: I didn’t call it “wondrousness.” I wanted to, though. Absent the burden of context, “wonder” is precisely the word I would use to describe the feeling these games provoke in me.

I chickened out, though. I went with the word “delight,” instead.

“Delight” is a term plucked from the writings of Raph Koster, who lists it as one of the possible pleasures that games can offer. Delight doesn’t have to do with learning new systems and patterns (which is how Koster defines “fun” in games). Instead, it is pure aesthetic stimulation: that tingling feeling we get from a great painting, or an invigorating landscape, or a satisfying resolution to a story.[iii]

It is true that games offer up the pleasures of reverse-engineering systems, of thinking procedurally, of using rules to our advantage. These pleasures are often positioned as being unique to the medium. But it would be short-sighted to think that they are the only pleasures that games can offer up. The games on this sub-list are not mechanically complex, by any means. But they do offer up rich moments of emotional wonder and aesthetic delight. Medium-specific purists might be offended by their lack of procedural heft. The rest of us can just enjoy the experience.


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Botanicula

Developer: Amanita Design
Released: 2012
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android

I have a confession to make: although I have put Botanicula on two separate syllabi, I have never actually “taught” it.

It’s not like I haven’t tried. I have come up with ideas. In one class, I historically contextualized the visual aesthetics of the game, placing Czech developers Amanita in conversation with Eastern European animators such as Zdeněk Miller and Vatroslav Mimica. In another, I had students read Kristin Thompson’s writings on cinematic excess, as a way of interrogating whether videogame theory placed too much emphasis on the mechanical aspects of games, and too often overlooked the varieties of audiovisual pleasure they offered.

But when it comes time to teach it in class … I just … can’t. Each time I boot it up, I become inarticulate in my enchantment. “Isn’t this just … magical? Isn’t it wondrous? And look here! It’s just, so … great!”

The point-and-click graphic adventure has, historically, had a very particular approach to player activity. Ever-cognizant of the imperative to produce “games,” adventure game designers in the 1990s offered up puzzles of ever-more twisty logic. The goal, basically, was to get players stuck. Confounding the player padded out an adventure game’s running time. In theory, this would reassure players that they had spent their money well, on a proper “game,” rather than just a few digital tableau illustrations. In practice, adventure games became insufferable, filled with arbitrary nonsense logic and increasingly absurd inventory item combinations.

Amanita Design makes modern point-and-click graphic adventures. Though their Machinarium (2009) was boosted by gorgeous art and an infectious score, deep down its puzzles were fairly traditional. Well-designed by the corrupted standards of the genre, yes, and generally fair, but still: when all was said and done, nothing groundbreaking.

Machinarium‘s follow-up Bontanicula, though, genuinely challenges the norms of the genre. Botanicula is an “adventure game” that tosses off the yoke of being a “game,” at all. With it, Amanita realizes that the point-and-click adventure need not be propped up by aspirations to challenge. Botanicula isn’t a “game” so much as it is a digital pop-up book. Or an advent calendar. Or one of those settings on an electronic keyboard where every key plays an unexpected sound effect. It is based around the most primal pleasures of interaction: poking at a thing, and getting a pleasing audio-visual result. Click on a leaf, and an insect might unexpectedly pop out, with funny physiology and a human-voiced sound effect. Click on a few treefrogs in the right order, and they might erupt into song. Click on some caterpillars, and they might launch into a charming Nordic indie pop number, where you can control the instrumentation by individually activating and de-activating their bustling instruments.

Botanicula is a vast toy box of surface-level pleasures. And I don’t mean this as a slight! The point-and-click adventure is a genre that is uniquely well-suited to offer up this sort of spontaneous joy, fleeting moments of wonderment that leave you with a smile on your face and a song in your ears. I am supremely glad that Amanita unlocked the genre’s potential to pursue this unusually pure delight, undiluted by the tired puzzle logics of yesteryear.


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Proteus

Developer: Ed Key and David Kanaga
Released: 2013
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita

My parents often remark that it’s strange that I drifted into media studies, and digital media in particular. Not only did I grow up without cable, but for a large chunk of my childhood, we didn’t have a television in our household that properly received over-the-air signals (although we did have a VCR). With the exception of my sister’s Game Boy Color, there were never any game consoles in the house. And our household didn’t even have a computer in it until I was in junior high. Not exactly the upbringing one would expect for a media studies scholar.

During this time, a large portion of my exposure to moving-image entertainment came in the form of secondhand reports from family and friends. I still remember a conversation from this era, with my aunt, around 1993–1994. “Ian, I know you don’t play videogames, but have you played Myst?” she asked. I replied that we didn’t have a computer to play it on, and inquired as to what it was like. “Well, I haven’t played it, personally,” she replied. “But my understanding is that you’re on an island. It’s shrouded in mist. And, as you wander around, things come out of the mist.”

This, to me, sounded like the best thing ever. It stuck in my head, as my example of the videogame I wanted to play some day. I had taken peaks at DOOM and Super Mario World at friends’ houses, and they never did much for me. But a game where you just wander, and where you discover things (or they discover you)? A game where the landscape was shrouded in mystery, where your goals and rules were unclear, and where you never knew what was going to emerge in front of you?

You can imagine my disappointment when, in 2009, I finally borrowed a friend’s copy of Myst (the 10th Anniversary Collection, by this point), and discovered that it was just a game about poorly designed puzzles. Let’s all pour out some champaign for fanciful childhood imaginings.

Since then, I feel like I’ve been searching for the videogame my aunt described so long ago: a game about getting to know a place through goal-less exploration, prodded forward by a sense of mystery and wonder. And some games of the past decade have come close. The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009), was an almost literal instantiation of my aunt’s fanciful description. I loved, it, even as I recognized its faults.

Proteus, though … I’d be hard-pressed to name any faults in ProteusProteus just may just be my perfect game. It is a game in which you wander around on an island, and things … well, they don’t exactly come out of the mist, but they do eventually find ways to present themselves, if you are diligent in your dedication to discovery.

Other games offer the same pleasures of discovery and toy-like play as Proteus. I have enjoyed similarly slack-jawed moments of joy exploring the mysteries of Slave of God (Increpare, 2012), and mapping the geography of Bernband (Tom van der Boogaart, 2014). What really sets Proteus apart, though, is its ending. Unlike Bernband, it actually has an ending, which is important in and of itself. As I have written before, it makes a big difference when a “secret box game” like Proteus has a designated “click into place” moment, putting a satisfying cap on the emotional arc of the experience. It helps, too, that Proteus‘s ending is uncommonly good: mysterious, serene, and soulful.

I don’t want to say too much, for fear of spoiling the experience. (If you want to read more extended thoughts on the game, check out that link above.) I will simply say that Proteus offers a suite of immediately-accessible pleasures, while also rewarding players who demonstrate ample patience and curiosity in its apparently goal-free environs.


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What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer: Giant Sparrow
Released: 2017
Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 4

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game about death. It is a family history of the fictional Finch clan, a clan uniquely predisposed to dying at young ages in unusual and often ironic circumstances. The game itself takes the form of a series of vignettes, nearly every one of which ends in the death of the character you are temporarily playing as.

Based on this description, What Remains of Edith Finch might then seem like an odd choice for inclusion on this list. Macabre? Yes. Morbid? Certainly. Chock full of black humor? One might suspect that to be the case. But “delightful“? “Delightful” seems like an odd adjective to attach to such a game.

And yet I found What Remains of Edith Finch to be a complete and utter delight to play. In a brief capsule review I wrote of the game back in July, I contended that the game’s sense of joy stemmed from it being “a celebration of life’s possibilities.” And that’s true, I suppose. But, honestly that’s not precisely why I found Edith Finch to be a delight to play. I found it to be a delight because of its ceaseless, freewheeling experimentation. Look beyond Edith Finch‘s subject matter, and you will find something humming with potent, avant-garde playfulness. Edith Finch is a love letter to the audiovisual possibilities of interactive entertainment, a smorgasbord of ideas that tickle and beguile. It is also a love letter to the possibilities of dual analog stick control. (Edith Finch is one of the few first-person games I’d actually recommend playing with a controller.) It represents one of the few titles in the wake of the magisterial Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004) to explore just how much fun it can be to have two analog sticks under your thumbs, once you jettison the boring interface conventions we’ve been saddled with.

Smorgasbords don’t always go down smoothly. Giant Sparrow’s debut effort, The Unfinished Swan (2012), contained some jaw-dropping innovations in visual design, but stumbled a bit with pacing, and could be clumsy in its attempts to paper over the mechanical gulfs between its various (individually very good) ideas. And while I can’t say that Edith Finch perfectly solves all of the problems that Giant Sparrow are prone to (it is only their sophomore effort, after all), I can happily report that it coheres better as a whole, even as it gets even more mechanically far-flung in its innovations.

There is, of course, no small amount of taste involved in this recommendation. I find this game’s catalogue of all the strange circumstances that can end our time here on this earth to be exhilarating, a joyful ode to dramatic irony and to the possibilities of the medium. You might find them heartbreaking. Some of them might hit too close to home. It is impossible to calibrate such things. But I do have a feeling that, even if “delight” is not a word you would use to describe your time with Edith Finch, you will still get something worthwhile out of it.


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Johann Sebastian Joust

Developer: Douglas Wilson / Die Gute Fabrik
Released: Premiered by Wilson at the Nordic Game Jam in 2011, but not commercially released until its inclusion in Die Gute Fabrik’s Sportsfriends compilation in 2014
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Mac, Linux. (Requires at least two PlayStation Move controllers.)

Above, I mentioned that the “game” frame can be limiting when it comes to designing point-and-click adventures. You know what else can be limiting? The “video” part of “videogame.”

We call them “videogames” because one of the first examples of the form, Steve Russell’s Spacewar! (1962), used the cathode ray tube display of the DEC PDP-1 computer. We call them “videogames” because they differed from the mechanical and electro-mechanical games that had dominated arcades before Pong hit in 1972.

But, strictly speaking, we don’t need to call them “videogames.” The defining feature of the medium is the way in which it uses digital computing to adjust game states in reaction to player input, not the display it is attached to. Some games used cathode ray tube displays. Others used vector displays. These days, we have moved on to LCDs, OLEDs, and VR headsets.

And, every now and then, a game comes around that doesn’t require a visual display, at all. Johann Sebastian Joust is one of those games.

Johann Sebastian Joust is different from the previous games in this category, in that it does not rest on audiovisual delights. Its delights are those of movement, of gracefulness, of a delicate blend of social and spatial awareness. Much like a fighting game, it is all about spacing, but of the spacing of one’s own body, rather than the spacing of digital bodies onscreen. Johann Sebastian Joust is a slow-motion dance battle. Competitive t’ai-chi. A Feldenkrais Method battle royale.

Johann Sebastian Joust is the most essential motion-controlled multiplayer game of the past decade, and it just happened to use the controller that people were the least excited about. It wasn’t designed for the epoch-defining Wii Remote. It wasn’t designed for the hacker-darling Kinect. It was designed for the PlayStation Move, Sony’s much-derided attempt to play catch-up to Nintendo, the butt of endless jokes. And yet, here we are: for anyone interested in the possibility of motion control in games, I would have to say that, thanks to the efforts of Douglas Wilson, it has become the most essential controller.

Unexpected, to be sure. But also delightful. And a good sign that what might at first seem to be a flash-in-the-pan fad can continue evolving in new and interesting directions.


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Everything

Developer: David OReilly
Released: 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac, Linux

I singled out Walden, a game for being a uniquely successful videogame adaptation, but that’s not entirely fair. What Walden does with the prose of Thoreau’s titular essay, Everything does with six lectures of the British philosopher Alan Watts. (Those would be “What Is Reality?,” “We as Organism,” “Way Beyond Seeking,” “World as Self,” “Birth Death & the Unborn,” and “Inevitable Ecstasy,” all 1965–1973.)

Watts’ philosophy—a zen-infused animism that lands halfway between consciousness studies and proto-object oriented ontology—isn’t really my thing. Still, though, Everything remains a striking accomplishment. On the one hand, it is enormously successful illustration of Watts’ ideas, lavishly bringing key themes and images into audiovisual and mechanical life. One could ask for no better introduction to a set of ideas for visual thinkers. But, on the other hand, even if Watts’ ideas leave you completely cold, Everything still stands as a wondrous experience in its own right. It adopts the breathtaking visual scale of Charles and Ray Eame’s film Powers of Ten (1977) into videogame form. It effortlessly smudges together the categories of digital toy, CGI animation, and new media art. It’s something that could have easily been insufferably pretentious, but is saved from this fate by being just so goddamned weird and funny and flat-out fun.

Everything is a successful adaptation of a series of philosophical lectures that is also a “gotta-catch-’em-all” style collecting game. It is an existential, animist Katamari. It is a game where you can be a Higgs-Boson particle one minute, and then transform into a pack of flying bowler hats straight out of Hans Richter’s landmark dadaist film Vormittagsspuk (1928) the next. It allows you to listen to lectures contemplating death while taking the form of a bug-eyed reindeer doing physiologically-improbably cartwheels. It is one of the silliest and most pointless bits of interactive animation ever created, and it is simultaneously a landmark in 21st century new media art.

As the game itself so frequently proclaims in its ubiquitous thought bubbles, Everything is everything.


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Child of Eden

Developer: Q Entertainment
Released: 2011
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

It was July 2011. My friend Chris Carloy had recently acquired an Xbox 360 and attendant Kinect. We were cinema and media studies graduate students, bored during summer break, with a newly-formed recognized student organization devoted to videogames under our belt. What else where we going to do but commandeer the department’s primary screening room, set up the Kinect sensor in front of an auditorium, hook up the 360 to the projection system, and invite as many friends as could come to play Child of Eden on a 20-foot screen?

The first generation Kinect hardware was plagued with issues, but Child of Eden was simple enough that we didn’t encounter any major problems. Standing there, in front of the enormous screen, tensing my body, waving my arm to target the glowing objects onscreen, I felt what seemed like literal magic sparking through the air. I was overwhelmed with a sort of giddiness that I thought no one over the age of 12 was allowed to feel. My every synapse was dazzled. I felt like I was experiencing, right then and there, the exact technologically-enabled Gesamtkunstwerk spectacle that the entire 20th century had merely been a build-up to. It was Mary Ellen Bute’s visual music, collided with Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, collided with Myron Kruger’s VIDEOPLACE, collided with a Japanese rave.

“Kinect probably isn’t going to be the future of videogames,” I remember thinking to myself. “This thing is probably going to die out in just a few years. But as long as it exists, I am glad that I was able to experience this moment. For one moment, this doomed technology has given me bliss.”

The years went by, and Kinect predictably fell into oblivion. The release slate for the platform became clogged with cash-grabs so lazily manufactured that they were literally about grabbing cash. It was inevitable, I knew, so I watched it all without a tinge of sadness. But I remained grateful for that one perfect moment that Child of Eden had given me.

It was November 2012. My friend Clint Froehlich had recently updated his HDTV to a 3D-capable model. He’s always been a techno-fetishist, even (especially?) when it comes to doomed technologies, and he insisted on borrowing each and every PS3 game I had that was 3D compatible. Once, during these heady 3D-binging days, Chris and I visited his apartment, PlayStation Move in hand, to play some Child of Eden.

I didn’t have an Xbox 360, and I always considered the Move-based PS3 port of Child of Eden to be a poor consolation prize. I finished the game on that platform, but I found that, although I respected the artistry of Mizoguchi Tetsuya’s team, nothing could really compare to the joy the game brought me playing with Kinect in that theater.

Chris and I donned the requisite glasses, and I booted up my favorite level, “Evolution.” My overpriced glow stick bobbed in the air as we played. And, gradually, as the level progressed, and the giant whale and eagle forms that the level ends with began to form out of the ether, our jaws dropped. This was more stunningly gorgeous than either of us had anticipated. And I remember thinking:

“3D televisions probably aren’t going to be the future. This fad is already in the midst of dying out. But as long as it exists, I am glad that I was able to experience this moment. For one moment, this doomed technology has given me bliss.”

Fast-forward to 2017. Sony and LG finally abandoned their inane quest, and ceased all support for 3D TVs. Microsoft, meanwhile, announced that the Xbox One X wouldn’t ship with the proprietary port needed to plug in the second-generation Kinect, again giving up a fight that was long-since lost.

All of this is to say that Child of Eden is an artifact of the early 2010s. It leveraged of-the-moment technologies to create of-the-moment pleasures. These two experiences playing Child of Eden will go down as the two most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had playing a videogame. Child of Eden promised a front-row seat to the future of digital mass art. All it really delivered was an intense distillation of a short-lived present. But oh, for a few moments, what a present it was. If anyone, a decade from now, scratches their head and asks what all the fuss was about, I imagine my response will be identical to any boomer talking about the Summer of Love: “You just had to be there, man.”


Honorable Mentions

Between Child of Eden and Johann Sebastian Joust, the possibility arises that this “delight” category is really a stealth “music/rhythm” category. My honorable mentions don’t do that much to disrupt this notion.

Just about every game in Nintendo’s Rhythm Heaven series includes some sort of greatest-hits remix of the standout tracks from its prior entries. Because of this refine-to-perfection ethos, I suppose a case could be made that Rhythm Heaven Megamix, released in 2015 for the 3DS, is the franchise’s best game. My vote, though, goes to Rhythm Heaven Fever (Nintendo SPD Group No. 1 / TNX, 2011). Released for the Wii, Fever remains the only game in the Rhythm Heaven series available on a home console, rather than a handheld. And there’s really something to be said for experiencing Rhythm Heaven Fever as a party game, passing a Wii remote around, watching your friends succeed and fail, laughing, smiling, staring at the game’s increasingly wacky scenarios with mouth agape. It’s not the epoch-defining local multiplayer behemoth that Rock Band was. But, judged on room-clutter-to-dizzy-joy ratio, I think it wins out.

Few things released over the past decade invited as much over-the-top giddiness as Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE (Atlus, 2015). Atlus’ output offers multiple entry points: Some may prefer the well-balanced turn-based combat of it Shin Megami Tensei series. Others might prefer the superbly silly melodrama of medical simulation game Trauma Team (2010). ♯FE, more than any other game in Atlus’s prodigious output, finds a way to combine these threads. It offers crisp, mechanically tight turn-based boss battles in which characters break into J-pop duets to stun enemies. One character will jump into battle and smack enemies with a giant battleaxe while dressed as a fluffy kawaii cartoon dog. Another will whittle down an enemy’s health bar through his sheer love for delicious steamed buns. At 60-ish hours in length, ♯FE doesn’t quite provide the concentrated dose of delight that the games that made it onto the list proper do. But during its ample running time, it offers some mighty impressive sugar highs.

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

[i]. Heidegger, Martin. On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Pg 58.

[ii]. Heidegger, Martin. Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected ‘Problems’ of ‘Logic.’ Trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. 1984. Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Pg 137.

[iii]. Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, 2005. Pg 94.

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