And now for my top 3. Disappointingly, everyone guessed these in yesterday’s post. I think they even got the ordering right. But maybe it’s for the best. The downside of having surprises in your list is that it means people expected something else. Which leads to arguments. Which leads to anger. Which leads to the Dark Side. Or something like that.
Anyway. Here they are:
It wasn’t the fright-fest I was hoping for, but it was a really solid chunk of sci-fi. Even better, SOMA isn’t one of those games that confuses being “about” something with “mentioning” something. The sci-fi ideas it plays around with fit naturally into a videogame, and give us a story that doesn’t just “work” as a videogame, but needed to be a videogame.
It’s about a world where you can copy the mind of a human into a computer. At one point you need to copy your mind into a newer robo-body. After the copy, you hear your character’s voice coming from the old body, because this is a COMPUTER and making copies is kind of What Computers Do. You suddenly realize you’re no longer alone, but the old “you” is basically screwed. Would you like to euthanize your former self?
That’s a fun setup in a book, but a book can’t let you make the choice and a book doesn’t make you push the kill button to make it happen. This isn’t a Mass Effect style game where “choices matter” in the sense of working towards some ending. Instead the choices are more immediate and philosophical: What do you think, player? How would you handle this situation?
It’s a fun ride once it gets going, and the strange biomechanical undersea base is wonderfully realized.
I have two main complaints: The main character needed to be a bit of a rube so that he would need other characters to explain things to him, but I think maybe he was a bit too much of a rube. In the end, Simon’s bafflement stops serving the needs of the story (because we have all the exposition we need) and simply becomes an ongoing source of annoyance. Also, the monster encounters don’t usually work and end up wasting the player’s time.
2. Cities: Skylines
Or as I like to call it, “Suck it SimCity” aka “Schadenfreude: The Game”.
It was amazing to see Electronic Arts once again turn gold into lead with the 2013 SimCity reboot. SimCity is the great-grandfather of all Sim games. It was a perfect blend of expressiveness and experimentation, a delightful exploration of the systems that create and shape a city. Like The Sims, it had an almost universal appeal that allowed the game to transcend the normal demographic and genre boundaries.
All people wanted was to see another incremental step in the evolution of the series. Make the maps a little bigger. Make the buildings a little more varied. Maybe give us a new system to play with.
Instead, the game was ruined by attempting to turn it into some sort of horrific always-online… thing. It was shallow and dumb, the servers were broken, most of the features were stripped out, and the remaining features didn’t really work as a simulation of anything. What remained was a husk of a game, stuffed with product placement and DRM. It wasn’t just bad. It was contemptible. Errant Signal has a great two part retrospective on the various failures of the game.
And so it was delicious to watch a plucky indie team put together a city simulator that not only succeeded where SimCity failed, but actually triumphed at the very things SimCity refused to do. I don’t like this game because it punished EA for their hubris and incompetence, I like this game because it’s the best city simulator I’ve ever played. The hubris-punishing is just gravy. Skylines wasn’t just better than SimCity, it was better than SimCity had ever aspired to be. It was a smarter design that understood and leveraged the core mechanics of the genre.
The traffic in Skylines is wonderful. It’s a simulation that creates emergent three-dimensional puzzles for you to solve. You can’t get that sort of thing anywhere else.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Well, this was a surprise.
I hated the first Witcher game. I thought the gameplay was tedious, the mechanics were obtuse, the world was dreary to the point of nihilism, and the engine was clunky and ugly. Also, I hated Geralt and wanted nothing to do with him or his stupid adventures. The game had nothing to offer me.
The second game fared slightly better. I made it a few hours into the game before I got bored and frustrated enough to quit.
But here we are with the third game, and suddenly it rockets to the top of my end-of-year list? How did this happen?
It’s easy, really. All developers had to do was come up with a fun action combat system that features magic, swordplay, and even non-lethal combat, design a massive world where choices actually matter and propagate through the story, a cast of dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of individually written and voice acted characters with accents that reflect their origin and social status, several massive open-world zones to explore and discover at your own pace, massively ambitious worldbuilding, and a main story that carries you though side-stories about war, love, revenge, organized crime, political intrigue, cloak and dagger adventure, crime solving, a grown-up love triangle where there are interpersonal consequences for every choice, monster hunting, and good old fashioned shitty puns.
Oh, also cutting-edge graphics, detailed costume design, varied environments, a wonderful musical score,
See developers? That’s all you need to do to win me over. Just do all that and you too have the honor of being featured on my blog. Honestly, I don’t know what’s holding you back.
Developer CD Project Red has done what I’ve always said was impossible. They made a gigantic game packed with characters and worldbuilding, and then they voice acted the whole thing.
For years I’ve complained that moving to voice acting has shrunk our games, because you couldn’t do something Planescape: Torment-sized if every line needed to be voice acted. But now CDPR has done that. I don’t know what magic has enabled them to do this, and it’s probably not reasonable to expect other developers to try the same thing, but… I want them to anyway.
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