‘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.
(Hardtalk Studio, released June 16)
21 Days continues a trajectory launched by Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) and further plotted by Papers, Please (3909, 2013). Cart Life simulated the precarity of subsistence-level retail labor. Papers, Please carried over the stressful focus on day-to-day work, but placed said work into a larger framework of moral culpability within a perilous political situation. 21 Days keeps the labor, the moral quandaries, and the politics, but bests Papers, Please in ambition: Rather than being set in a fictional authoritarian nation that contemporary players can feel far removed from, it is set in Germany during the Syrian refugee crisis—that is to say, right about now. It thereby updates Papers, Please‘s rather unchallenging political stance into an impassioned call to of-the-moment action.
Or, at least, it tries to. 21 Days shows admirable ambition, but it doesn’t quite nail the execution.
One problem is that 21 Days takes a page from Sunset (Tale of Tales, 2015). It is a game about labor that doesn’t attempt to simulate labor. Our player-character, Mohammed, can take a number of odd jobs in 21 Days, from construction to dishwashing, depending on who is hiring refugee workers on a given day. But unlike Cart Life or Papers, Please, 21 Days doesn’t use mini-games to simulate this work. As in Sunset, each task is represented by a simple waiting screen.
During this screen, Mohammed can commit on-the-job mistakes, resulting in his pay being docked. His propensity toward mistakes is affected by a couple of different meters (a visible meter indicating mental health, and an invisible one indicating German fluency), but in the end this is essentially a dice-roll that happens behind the scenes.
The end result feels remarkably hollowed-out, when compared to the precursors in 21 Days‘ lineage. Cart Life and Papers, Please are games of strategy, skill, and luck. You have to be strategic in your management of monetary resources. The simulation of the work itself taxes your fine motor skills. And sometimes you’ll just get unlucky with what the game throws your way.
21 Days pares that tripartite structure down to just luck and strategy. You can still lose precious time to random dice-rolls. And you still have to cautiously plan your expenses. (This is the site of game’s most interesting risk-reward mechanics: for instance, non-Halal meals cheaply sate Mohammed’s hunger but tax his mental health.) But the fact that, when we show up at work, it’s not our own hand unsteadily giving out change or stamping passports, desperately hoping we didn’t make a mistake, really weakens the connection between players and Mohammed. Mohammed’s unseen mistakes at work seem more like “his fault,” and less like ours as players.
I’d be more forgiving of this disruption of the personal connection if the game deemphasized human-level emotional appeals in favor of making larger, structural points. But that isn’t really the case. 21 Days deserves enormous credit for acknowledging the practical difficulty of accommodating refugees. Even the most humanitarian-minded among us have to concede that accommodating a sudden influx of recent immigrants, arriving without language skills or viable career paths, is a difficult social task. Unfortunately, this otherwise commendable nuance results in mealy-mouthed politics. 21 Days offers no insight on policy. Yes, it is an emotional gut-punch to be yelled at by Islamophobic Germans on the streets. But, considered as a message, “don’t shout Islamophobic insults to people on the street” is more a matter of politeness than of politics. (Although, sadly, in this day and age it is indeed something that needs to be said, on a daily basis.) I had my share of gripes about this year’s We Are Chicago (Culture Shock Games, 2017), but I do give it credit for directly raising awareness of (and raising funds for) two Chicago-area nonprofits with clear policy goals.
I definitely wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from playing 21 Days. But we should probably consider it another stepping-stone on this trajectory of political games about labor, economic precarity, and larger political forces, rather than any sort of end point.
Walden, a game
(Tracy Fullerton and the USC Game Innovation Lab Walden Team, released July 4)
I was deeply appreciative of Walden‘s dedication to using honest-to-god game mechanics to try and put players in the contemplative mindset of Henry David Thoreau. So much so that I went ahead and named it as one of the most ambitious games of the past decade. I don’t have much more to say about it here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give it one more mention before the year’s end.
Walden, a game is available for Windows and macOS on itch (DRM-free).
(Aether Interactive, released August 24)
The setup is this: in the future, the drives that house artificial intelligences are locked. In order to format the drive, you need to get the permission of the AI housed within it to unlock the drive. Why such a cumbersome system was introduced, I do no know. But, in practical terms, it means that even an entry-level IT professional needs to sometimes channel Jack Kevorkian, convincing AIs that their usefulness is at an end and really everything would be easier if they just let us wipe their existence. Either that, or lie to them about what’s really being done.
It’s an intriguingly meaty conceit, riffing on the ethics of artificial consciousness in ways that similar science fiction fare such as SOMA (Frictional Games, 2015) never got around to. Unfortunately, the game’s rife with little flaws. For one, the system could use some better flags under the hood. I constantly found that the game was assuming I had previously seen dialogue I actually hadn’t, short-circuiting the storytelling in weird ways.
I also was a bit miffed about the endings. Successfully formatting all four drives without damaging any of them is legitimately difficult, requiring ruthlessness and guile. And yet, no matter what you do, you’re fired at the end of your workday. LOCALHOST is not the sort of game that would benefit from a “good” ending when you do everything right. But I did wish that the game’s end better reflected the intricacies of how you could spend your first day on the job. Still, though, worth the meager time and money that it asks, especially if you want to support speculative interactive fiction.
LOCALHOST is available for Windows, macOS and Linux on itch (DRM-free).
(Loitse Interactive, released episodically, with the final episode dropping on September 27)
INFRA casts its player as Mark, a structural analyst tasked with surveilling the crumbling infrastructure of the fictional Scandinavian city of Stalberg. Released episodically beginning in January 2016, it reached its conclusion this past September.
Astonishingly for a game release in 2017, INFRA is built on Valve’s Source engine. Normally, this isn’t something I’d note, but it had a surprisingly tangible effect on the time I spent with the game … beyond that old familiar annoyance of ladder-climbing mishaps. Despite being about the minutia of a job, INFRA forgoes the “daily cycle” aspects of other games I’ve placed in the process genre. It is strikingly linear: one long trip through dilapidated subway tunnels and hydroelectric waterways, taking place over a single (suspiciously long and eventful) work day. This means that INFRA‘s indebtedness to Half-Life 2 goes beyond its graphics (all bruised cement and rusty metal, rendered in loving detail that shows that Source can still offer up some stunning prettiness in 2017). It also borrows a lot from Half-Life 2‘s structure and gameplay. Again, we’re plotting a twisted linear path, ducking into sewers and canals, stopping for the occasional physics-based puzzle. This time around, though, we are doing so without shooting anybody.
Does it work? Not entirely. When all three episodes are played in sequence, INFRA reveals itself to be far too long. I felt legitimately tired and frustrated as Mark’s endless work day dragged on, punctuated by ever-escalating (and increasingly belief-beggaring) disasters. Somehow, Stalberg’s entire infrastructure—disastrously ill-maintained for decades—finds a way to utterly collapse in a single day, with only a single engineer is around to notice and fix everything. (The story gestures toward labor strife, public official corruption, and high-level conspiracy to paper over the conspicuous lack of other workers. Unfortunately, it is too-obviously a symptom of Loitse not having the animation resources to populate this city, beyond a handful of characters that mostly exist in voice only.)
INFRA also takes some weird detours by its end, lopsidedly padding an already-generous running time. Mark spends a significant portion of its third chapter trapped in a wacky dystopian apartment block community, with an economy built on turnips, bottle recycling, and company-scrip-currency. It’s delightfully weird and immersive sim-y, and provides some strange new pleasures. But it utterly destroys the game’s pacing, making Mark wander around collecting bottles when he should be rushing to prevent an imminent meltdown at a nearby nuclear power plant.
Still, though, INFRA is not without merit, especially in the way it suffuses its spaces with methodical, combat-free pleasures. The game’s achievements track your percentage progress through a level in terms of how many structural deficiencies you have successfully taken note of. Every steam-spewing pipe, rickety bridge, and crumbling bit of concrete is an invitation to whip out your digital camera and snap a photo, upping your count. It is a delightfully obsessive mechanic, one that takes some basic mainstays of past Source engine titles (what’s a Half-Life game without a pipe spewing steam?) and adds its own mechanical twist. INFRA rewards careful attention to the minute details of your environment in a way that far too few games do. It encouraged a very particular way of seeing the world, one that stuck with me as I moved onto other games. (I found myself gratuitously frustrated when Get Even—a game that will feature in a future post—failed to acknowledge how dutifully I photographed every dent and rust patch in its beat-up environs with my in-game camera.)
INFRA is available for Windows on Steam.
A Mortician’s Tale
(Laundry Bear, released October 18)
This game got a fair amount of buzz since its release, probably more so than anything else in this entry. Basically, it’s Trama Center, except you don’t have to worry about killing your patient, because they’re already dead. Without the ticking clock and serious taxation of your fine motor skills, the game is a muted and methodical affair, with a lot of emphasis placed on how death-work is emotional labor as much as it is medical or cosmetic.
It’s a slight little thing, coming in in at under an hour—and that includes a full-on character arc, in which our titular mortician grows tired of the money-grubbing ways of her corporate employers and decides to start her own business. (So, basically … it’s Diner Dash? With cadavers?) It’s the perfect length for what it is, though, keeping its sights on the basic emotional contours of the business of death without extending itself into either rote busywork or artificially-manufactured challenge. It was an interesting design decision to keep displaying step-by-step instructions during each and every body-preparation, even after you had familiarized yourself with the basic types. It runs the risk of making the entire game feel like an extended tutorial, yes. But in purposefully removing any hint of challenge—the only thing that could be remotely “hard” about the game is having to remember the sequence of steps, and there’s no need to do that with the instructions there—A Mortician’s Tale makes sure that we’re in a more meditative state, thinking about what it means to present the dead for the living one last time.