Interesting Games of 2019: The Year So Far

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The scope of new releases I have been playing has narrowed, as of late. I’ve been focusing in on a few choice genres and subject matters, as I round up my final list of case studies for my book project (as well as any upcoming video essay series connected with it). Practically, this means I’m spending a lot more mediocre games I hope I’ll have something interesting to say about, and a lot fewer games I’ve genuinely heard good things about, had fun with, and would in turn recommend. (It’s downright incomprehensible to me now that the first time I did one of these round-ups, in July 2017, I had actually played both Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 already, and was ready to write some words about them.)

So this post will be a bit more slight than some past mid-year wrap-ups have been. Below the fold, I offer thoughts on six little highlights released since January.


Bury Me, My Love

(Dear Villagers, released January 11)

Doing these write-ups has given me a front row seat to little micro-trends in indie gaming. One has been has been the development, since 2016, of games that play out entirely on a simulated phone interface, with Accidental Queens’ A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone, both from 2017, being the standouts. Another has been the rise in serious games about Syrian refugees, a group which includes 21 Days and Path Out, again both from 2017. The two genres come together in Bury Me, My Love, a phone-interface game about Syrian refugees.

Unlike the Lost Phone games, Bury Me, My Love isn’t a puzzle game, where you’re poking around in someone’s apps for clues to their whereabouts. Instead, it takes place almost entirely within a phone’s texting app, and ends up feeling much more like an extension of the emily is away series. You’re not deciphering someone’s digital life; instead, you’re role-playing it. Bury Me, My Love places you in the role of Majd, the worried husband of Nour, who is braving one of multiple possible routes from Syria into Europe, in an attempt to get asylum and establish a foothold from which the couple would be able to start a new life.

Since it doesn’t take advantage of the full suite of apps one might have on a phone, Bury Me, My Love‘s vocabulary is limited: it’s a straightforward piece of text-heavy interactive fiction, where a dialogue choice will occasionally result in a different outcome. But the BMML makes the most of its limited scale. In particular, it has an excellent command of pacing. This is very much the story of Nour’s journey, and as Majd, you’re very much an observer, completely reliant on her written descriptions of her situation. Watching the minutes tick by as she attempts to canoe across a border river, or find a trustworthy smuggler, hoping you gave her good advice (and wondering if she’ll take your advice at all, as she sometimes declines to) can be a genuinely nerve-wracking experience. This particular form of storytelling basically boils down to “time-based text,” and the developers make the most of it, crafting an experience in which waiting to read some words on a screen is a source of rich suspense.

Bury Me, My Love is available DRM-free at itch.io. (Though I must admit I had trouble launching the .exe of the DRM-free version. Thankfully a complementary Steam key was provided, and the Steam version worked fine.)


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Rainswept

(Frostwood Interactive, released February 1)

Rainswept has a lot in common with Virginia. At first glance, both appear to be adventure games revolving around criminal investigations. Upon playing them for a bit, however, it becomes clear that neither game has much investment in the nuts-and-bolts puzzling of the traditional adventure game. Rainswept, like Virginia before it, has little interest in modeling forensic detective work through point-and-click problem-solving. Instead, it is a character study, delving into themes of trauma, social isolation, and the panoply of ways in which poor communication can sour human relationships over time.

Virginia was a character-driven tone poem, using music and hallucinatory imagery to guide us through its protagonist’s moral quandary, and forgoing the use of dialogue. Rainswept, by contrast, goes all-in on dialogue, much of it superbly written. Much like Derek Cianfrance’s film Blue Valentine, Rainswept uses flashbacks to guide us through the ups and downs of an ultimately doomed relationship, along the way absolutely nailing the tone and cadence of the pointless and increasingly resentful arguments couples get into.

Since we know the outcome of the couple in question—their entire story is framed by the investigation of the deaths of Chris Green and Diane Miller—a sense of fatalism hangs over every playable flashback in which we step into their shoes. Our dialogue choices determine whether this particular argument will end in all-out hostility or a delicate truce, but ultimately these people are always going to end up dead, and ill-remembered by a town that never welcomed them. So … what’s the point?

Indeed, that question is posed more or less explicitly by Rainswept, by the central figure of Detective Michael Stone, depressed and valiantly searching for meaning the face of death. It’s heady stuff, and admittedly potentially pretentious. I’m not going to make the claim that Rainswept belongs in the canon of great existentialist fiction. But I admire the way in which Rainswept, like Porpentine’s Skulljhabit (which I’ve written about admiringly before), uses videogame choice-making to explore the moral seriousness of choices that don’t, in the grand scale of things, actually matter. The obvious conclusion that the other officers jump to about the case might ultimately be the correct one. But Detective Stone pursues other leads regardless, because his professionalism demands it, and to stick by one’s professionalism is a moral act. We know that Chris and Diane are inevitably going to end up dead. But we nevertheless might use dialogue choices to de-escalate this particular argument, because life is short and they deserve some respite from animosity before their tragic, pre-destined end.

Rainswept‘s story isn’t flawless, by any means. (I found the ultimate conclusion to the case to be rushed and a bit tossed-off, highlighting the game’s weaknesses as a nominal detective story.) But its bold choices in story presentation make it absolutely worth playing.

Rainswept is available DRM-free at GOG.com and itch.io.


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The Occupation

(White Paper Games, released March 5)

I had been looking forward to this game for awhile, patiently waiting as its release date kept slipping back from the original window of 2017. White Paper Games’ first game, Ether One (2014), was a perfectly fine puzzl-y adventure game, marred only by some overblown storytelling ambitions that clogged its final moments with contradictory and hard-to-follow revelations. The Occupation, though, promised to be something else entirely: an investigative immersive sim, bound within a tight time frame, wherein a real-time clock would tick down while you played, slowly closing the window in which you could collect evidence against a corrupt and oppressive government.

The game starts off well. Its tutorial acclimates players to the game’s finicky controls, in an area safe from time pressure. Then we’re off to the races, placed in the role of investigative journalist Harvey Miller, who has arrived to an interview an hour early—all the better to sneak around the offices of the figure he’s interviewing, trying to dig up dirt while staying out of the prying eyes of the security guard.

I found the first level as Miller to be absolutely fantastic. I liked the feeling of the ticking clock being more of my enemy than the security guard presence (there is, after all, only one), of strategic triage as I decided which leads I could actually successfully pursue in time. I successfully dug up two substantial pieces of dirt, while leaving two more uncompleted. At the conclusion at the level, I confronted Miller’s interviewee with some irrefutable evidence when challenging her on some points, but had to pull my punches and keep my mouth shut in other moments. The whole endeavor felt satisfyingly challenging, with the level’s deadline expertly balancing stress and gratification.

Then came the second level playing as Miller and, sadly, the whole thing fell apart. The level design became punishingly restrictive, with far too many locked doors and other nasty tricks. (It was fine level design by the usual standards of the immersive sim genre, but far too unintuitive when accounting for the ticking clock.) And, beyond this, I began to encounter a cornucopia of bugs. The security guard must have been exposed to superpower-granting radioactive material between levels, because he showed off a newfound ability to spot me through multiple layers of concrete. Doors I unlocked visibly opened, but then still refused to grant me passage, stopping me like a helpless mime on their thresholds. Floppy discs I was holding vaporized out of existence when I absentmindedly picked up other items in the environment. The game was already two patches in when I played it (version 1.2.0, from April 5), but I still encountered a substantial number of game-breaking bugs. To make matters worse, the game only saves once every hour, after each real-time level has been completed.

I stuck with it, with stiff determination. But my experience of the game transformed enormously. Forced to re-start the level multiple times because of bugs, I leaned in to the experience. I became a dour perfectionist. That unique feeling of investigative triage that had colored the first Miller level evaporated. Instead, I started playing The Occupation as I had played the Mooncrash DLC for Prey. I mastered each space through repetition, over time learning the most efficient routes through the convoluted level layout. I developed new suites of tactics to avoid bugs that never should have been there in the first place. I adjusted to the game’s unfairness and made my own fun. This change in mindset got me through the game. But was a distinctly different experience from the one the first Miller level offered, and probably not what White Paper Games had intended.

My official recommendation would be to hold off on playing The Occupation until it’s seen a few more patches. Even with fixed AI and doors, I suspect that it will still be the case that the second Miller level is too convoluted to replicate the successes of the first. At the very least, though, once the game achieves a baseline functionality, it will be a fascinating study in how time limits affect the firsthand experience of level design.

The Occupation is available DRM-free at GOG.com.


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Vignettes

(Skeleton Business, released March 5)

I got a chance to play a bit of this when it was demoed at Bit Bash 2016, and was happy to see it get a proper release. The conceit of Vignettes is simple, and satisfying: You have before you a colorful object. Using a mouse or touch interface, you rotate said object, until the view you have of it is maximally ambiguous. (So, for instance, if a bowl is onscreen, you rotate it so that you’re viewing it from the bottom up, and it’s just a circle of solid color.) A chime plays, and when you rotate the object again, you suddenly discover it has transformed into a different object. The whole thing is a bit of phenomenological play on the notion of perceptual aspects and the horizon of experience. It’s delightful enough to charm infants and Husserlian scholars alike.

It’s a simple pleasure, and one that is uniquely resistant to analysis. So I’m not going to belabor my write-up of it. What I will say though is that I was stunned at how well Skeleton Business combined the pleasures of a freeform toy with the pleasures of a puzzle with distinct end states. If you want to just rotate objects in Vignettes in a state of unstructured delight, you can do that. The game will keep throwing visual pleasure at you, and you can stop whenever you’re bored. If, however, you prefer to have some objectives, you can always click at a little icon at the bottom of the screen, where you’ll be taken to a map of possible transformations. Here, you can determine which transformations you have and haven’t yet seen, and plot your next move. You can be a completionist, if you like. The game gives you all the tools you need to pursue that play style, if you like. But it never forces it upon you.

David Kanaga wrote some musical cues for Vignettes—a detail I enjoy not just because I enjoy Kanaga’s music, but also because it means he has now had a hand in two games that I think perfectly thread the needle between structured and unstructured fun, between raw discovery and pre-planned arc.

Vignettes is available DRM-free at itch.io.


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file://maniac

(BornFrustrated Studio, released April 26)

In 2009, conceptual artist and indie game designer Zach Gage released lose/lose, a Space Invaders-style shoot-em-up in which shooting an onscreen alien would delete a file on your computer’s hard drive. The game art world chuckled at this devilish proof of concept. A few words were written about it. Then, folks moved on. Gage himself moved on to creating less avant-garde indie fare, including 2013’s acclaimed mobile game Ridiculous Fishing.

Then, in 2016, OneShot released on Steam. Here, suddenly, was another game that forthrightly acknowledged its status as software, as a program that could affect—and be affected by—various files stored on your computer’s hard drive. Unlike lose/lose, it was a game that people would actually want to play: a clever and (dare I say) heartwarming story of a little character living inside your computer, rather than a destructive piece of aggressively punk conceptual art.

Between lose/lose in 2009 and OneShot in 2016, there weren’t many other examples of games that pulled back the curtain and invited players into awareness of how a game interacts with the data on their computer. (I’d be happy to learn about any that have slipped under my radar.) I’m really, really hoping that the release of file://maniac is a sign that, post-OneShot, the dam has burst, and ambitious indie developers are going to experiment with these possibilities more regularly.

file://maniac is a short game about delving into a serial killer’s lair by means of manipulating files on your hard drive. At this point, it is a short proof-of-concept, released on itch as a way of testing the waters and building an audience for a larger project. As such, it only includes a handful of puzzles. But they’re solid puzzles, and speak well of the team’s ability to continue things from here. There’s something indescribably satisfying about dragging a copied file over to a particular folder, and then be greeted by a chime in the game window you have up, acknowledging that you’ve just done something the game approves of. I can’t wait to poke around with a more fully-featured version of this game.

The short proof-of-concept version of file://maniac is available DRM-free at itch.io.


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Draugen

(Red Thread Games, released May 29)

First things first: there have been some necessary and thoughtful critiques of how this game treats mental illness. I do not, myself, have anything intelligent to add to this conversation, so I have opted to stay out of it. It is, however, an important conversation to have, so I would encourage you to read criticism that fully addresses it, such as this piece by Katherine Cross.)

With that out of the way, I mainly appreciated Draugen for where it fits into the evolution of genre. Ever since Dreamfall: The Longest Journey in 2006, Ragnar Tørnquist has been gradually stripping away traditional puzzles from his adventure games. (Perhaps he is doing some sort of long-term penance for the rubber duck puzzle in The Longest Journey, long considered among the most absurd and unfair puzzles of the point-and-click era.) There is not a single puzzle to be found in Draugen. It has the usual hallmarks of a Ragnar Tørnquist game: chatty characters, a plucky young woman who provides frequent editorializing, wonderfully-realized world-building. But Tørnquist’s roots in the traditional point-and-click adventure space have faded completely from view. Draugen is, for all intents and purposes, what many would call a “walking simulator,” bearing striking similarities to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (The Chinese Room, 2015) and Kona (Parabole, 2017). (There’s also a dash of Firewatch in the characters’ repartee.)

It is fascinating to watch this evolutionary convergence happen in real time. On the one side, you have forthrightly experimental indie developers such as The Chinese Room, on the other you have a veteran developer of traditional adventure games like Tørnquist, and here they are meeting in the middle, gradually defining this new microgenre of game where you arrive in a deserted town and investigate where its inhabitants went. I was happy to add the town of Graavik to the list of deserted towns I’ve now poked around in looking for clues, and I’m curious to see where Tørnquist and Red Thread Games visit next.

Draugen is available DRM-free at GOG.com.

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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