Games of 2021


Games of 2020: Night in the woods

Another game that did not come out in 2020 that I played during the pandemic is Night in the Woods. The most obvious strength of the game is the immediate vibe that is set up during the opening with your character Mae alighting a cross-country bus in her hometown in the middle of the night. The thin undercurrent of threat and the eerie is immediately present when there is no family there to pick her up, leaving Mae to walk home through the woods.

When me and my partner played it, we got sucked in to it in that teen-obsessive way that we had with things like twin peaks and buffy in the past. It’s hard to tell if this was deliberate on the part of the developers of if it was just a shared kind of bullshit. Neither of us were around for twin peaks the first time around and we were too young for buffy until it’s last seasons but we’ve bought into a kind of aspirational nostalgia for this kind of small-town horror and teen melodrama, like a lot of people our age. There’s something comfortingly self-indulgent about these stories where teens know the real shit that’s going on and have so many feelings, but boring adults just want them to grow up and follow the rules. Mae really embodies this archetype from the get-go, being entirely in her own feelings, looking cynically askance at the fading home town that is accepting her back and crucially, insisting that there’s some grand sinister plot behind the weird goings on. She’s basically a defensively sarcastic young person going through a mental health crisis and I think we both related strongly to that.

NITW is a narrative game mainly and uses dialogue choices to allow player expression but Mae is a character herself and asserts her personality by limiting your options. The game doesn’t allow you to move through every situation perfectly or sit on the fence or game your way through to better outcomes. It’s clear that you are playing a particular character rather than a player stand-in and that made the game so compelling. When my anxiety is bad I get really overly concerned about messing up situations in games, it’s what led me to play all of fallout 3 with a wiki open (that and I needed to know where the zombies were so I could mentally prepare). Mae’s personality shaping the events felt very freeing after this and the general discussions of mental health hit hard as I was several months into my first-ever prescription of anti-depressants and fresh off of several months therapy.

The writing and the presentation of mental health issues and shared trauma is actually really strong and healthy which is relief. A large part of the game is Mae learning that everyone around her, even her town itself has trauma too. People are always calling Mae out on her shit and it can be cringily close to home but you’re rooting for her all the same. She has the charm and wit of a lot of for want of a better word, outsider teen characters but with that Millennial twist of it extending into her twenties.

One of my favourite parts of the game is Mae’s sketchbook which is about as close to a traditional quest reward that you get in this game. When you advance a plotline or complete certain interactions, Mae records it in her sketchbook with cool doodles and funny notes. This really struck a chord with us as art school kids and I found it to be such a good motivator for exploration and following plot threads. Obviously you’re also in a cool band which is just the right amount of crappy to really hit home, the songs are depressed juvenile anthems that I fucking wish any band I was in as a teen were good enough to come up with. Mae plays bass too which is a great choice for a non-committal depressed character (can relate).

I don’t know how to end this now because I’m not used to writing things that aren’t reviews. There’s a lot more to get into about this game and its inter-related depictions of folk horror and failing late-capitalist economics, the fact that the floor could fall away at any minute, the relationship between Mae and her Mum. I’d like to revisit some of this stuff when I’ve got my writing hand back in and done some homework. Feel free to comment if you’ve read this and had thoughts.

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Games of 2020: Outer Wilds

I asked a friend if they had played outer wilds and they responded they tried it and weren’t too fussed about it – but they said, ‘I know it’s the game all the intellectuals like’. I was kind of surprised by this. I thought the game was clever but to me, it was just a really good version of the things that you do in lots of video games, exploring a world, finding hidden locations, trying to solve puzzles. Outer Wilds does so many things that are just extremely my shit and from talking to people who didn’t like it, some of these are the things that caused people to fall off of the game. Chiefly, these are the lack of clearly defined goals at the start and the difficulty curve of piloting your ship.

Personally, I found myself carried into the narrative by the sense of mystery and awe of lifting off your quaint home planet for the first time and the nuggets of info parcelled out by the game’s intro – plus the mystery of what the hell is up with that creepy statue – then I found some mysterious ruins on the moon, heard some cool music and translated some alien text and I was hooked. But I know some people felt disoriented or not motivated by the lack of a clearer sequence of events to follow or the general lack of capital-A action in the game.

Piloting the ship was extremely awkward and perilous at first but after a few expeditions I came to enjoy the feeling of gradual mastery that emerged. By the time I reached the game’s final objective I no longer had to think about how to get where I wanted and there was a real sense that I had been trained for this moment by the game and I felt really ready for the challenge. The experience was hard won after all the many times I forgot to slow down and smashed my ship to bits, or left it parked on a piece of planet that was a lot less stable than I thought.

Sorry old girl

The sense of peril never really goes away as your little ship comes face to face with massive forces like planet-wide hurricanes and a hollow world whose crust gradually peels away into a black hole at its centre. Not to mention all the terrible ways you can personally die, crushed in a rising tide of sand, thrown into the sun, punctured and suffocated by cacti or sapped of your life by “ghost matter”. This is to say nothing of the inhabitants of Dark Bramble. If you know, you know.

Outer wilds is one of those rare games that does not talk down to the player, it puts you in this weird, compelling situation, trusts you to figure it out yourself piece by piece and to scurry all over the place, nibbling on tidbits of knowledge, a structure that is perfect for someone like myself who cannot focus on one thing for long. This knowledge is key as there are no mechanical upgrades to pursue to get you through the game, just a greater understanding of how this world works, who lived here and what they created. Everything you need to finish the game is there the very first time you play it, you are just blissfully ignorant. Then 20 mins or so into your maiden voyage you hear the urgent music fade in and you are bathed in blue light as your solar system perishes for the first of many times.

Music plays a big role in this game. The central theme of the titular space program the Outer Wilds Ventures still echoes in my head and my shower and the sad, pulsing synths of the “times up” music never failed to strike fear into my heart about my inescapable fate. You are not the first explorer to leave your home planet and your predecessors are scattered all around the solar system, each taking some time out to play a little banjo or bongos or whistle a melody. If you scan the solar system with your extremely cool gadget called a signal scope, you will catch snippets of their music as astral bodies drift by, and occasionally the signals overlap, creating an ensemble. I honestly found it moving that these disparate travellers carried this piece of home with them and kept a tune for each other despite their various degrees of peril and distance.

This is a good example of one of the big things I love about outer wilds’ design. The UI and navigation tools are entirely (apart from optional button prompts) diegetic. There is no mini map of the area you are exploring, you have to follow landmarks and directions written in ancient alien language, or scan for a signal to follow, or light up a dark cave by cleverly placing your little camera drone. You don’t even have a HUD on screen to tell you your health or oxygen unless you put on your space suit which has a gauge built in.

There’s something really pleasingly concrete and common sense-y about the way things are put together, it’s not realistic but it has a physical logic. If you’re low on oxygen, you occasionally can refill from a tank another traveller has but if not, go stand near a tree and you’ll fill right up! Your space ship seems to be mainly made of wood and held together with rope and once you learn more about the nature of this solar system, the mechanism by which it flies will become apparent to you even if this is never directly explained.

(It’s a weird inversion of the diegesis that the solar system map you have access to is in fact a real-time zoomed-out rendering of the planets you can see in the distance ((you can even watch the supernova on it)) but it’s uncertain whether your character is meant to be seeing this or if it is an abstraction for the player’s point of view. One which just happens to be generated internally within the ‘physical’ world of the game, if not it’s fiction.)

I think this design choice subtly really helps underpin the central goal that an understanding of your situation can be achieved by getting to grips with the materiality of this solar system. There’s a great character in the game who understands some of the quantum nonsense that goes on in this world and uses it to make a kind of cool poetic art that reminds me so much of myself at uni that I felt jealous on behalf of my 23 year old self for not coming up with it. (This also puts Outer Wilds in the sub-category of indie games that feature art, something I need to remember to get in to at some point).

Blah. This game kind of fucked me up because I want every game to do what this game did but I know that they can’t, and this experience can in some ways never be repeated because it was the first thing like this that I have ever played. I honestly enjoyed everything about it, even if I think it’s not perfect, I just love everything that it does and everything that it is trying to do. Also, the ending was super memorable and satisfying and felt like a really worthy pay-off for the work it took to get there – as well as being the kind of bitter-sweet bullshit that I enjoy. Some of the more interesting themes come to a head in the end section of the game so there’s a lot to talk about. I might do a spoiler post discussing the ending at some point but I’m currently flattering myself that someone might read this and want to go play the game so I won’t get in to it here.

Hey, if you’ve read all this and you’re an intellectual like me and the people that like this game, thank you for your time and maybe go and play Outer Wilds.

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Games of 2020

Now that we are a quarter of a way through 2021 I thought it would be a good time to talk about some of the games that I played in 2020. 2020 was a weird year for games, in a way it was the year that games really came into their own as an escape and a social tool during the lockdowns and rough spots during the covid pandemic. It was also the year that my partner started playing games of her own accord and we joined a video game reading group with some cool people in our area. Suddenly interesting conversations about games seemed to be going on all the time and I started making notes on games I played again.

I was going to do a round-up of all the games together but I don’t want it to be like a buyer’s guide or game-of-the-year list and it turned out I have a lot to say about some of these so I’m going to split them up into a series of long form posts. Honestly, a lot of these games didn’t even come out in 2020, really they’re just the things that I played and talked about with people at the time.

brb with the real shit.

It’s been 75 years but it’s come around again

Welcome to this new blog I’ve started. I wanted a space to save more long-form explorations of ideas about media I am consuming or ideas that I’m preoccupied with. I’m not aiming to break into the criticism space or write reviews, just occasionally analyse things too much or not enough and record how I feel about games, tv, movies, books, art, crit etc. and keep my hand in with writing. These kinds of things feel a bit inert in the vacuum of a notebook or phone/tablet scrawling so hoping there is potential for discussion and referencing etc by putting it all online.

Also, I’m terribly lazy and having people see what I’m doing is one of the only things that gets me to do any work.

Let’s see how this goes!