Here it is. The last of what I loved in 2018. As always, this list is limited to stuff that I played, and I don’t usually jump on games at release unless I have a really good reason. If I overlooked your favorite game, it’s not a snub. I’m just one guy and I have the same number of hours in my day that you do.
Here we go:
I guess if I didn’t call this the Year of Good News I could have called it The Year I Played a Bunch of Driving Games With Neon Lights and Music.
What a fascinating game. I’ve actually been playing this on and off since early 2016. But the game finally exited early access and hit version 1.0 in September of this year.
To be honest, I picked up Antigraviator because I was hoping for the lightning to strike twice. I hoped it was going to be like Distance. It wasn’t, and the two games make for an interesting comparison.
In Distance, the designer creates a sense of speed by having lots of parallax between nearby objects and distant ones. Roads usually have things like street lights and archways attached to them. This provides a contrast with distant scenery and creates a sense of speed.
Imagine driving over an open plain where the only landmarks are on the horizon. Even if you’re going a hundred miles an hour, it will probably feel slow because those distant objects are barely moving. But if you’ve got telephone poles and picket fences beside the road then they’ll rush by in a blur, creating a sense of speed. Distance used this roadside clutter to give the player a feeling of scale and motion. Antigraviator had you driving on extremely wide roads without much in the way of familiar objects, which means that even high speeds would feel slow. The designers compensated by ramping up the speed to ridiculous levels, making it barely playable. This means that Distance felt faster even though your speeds were overall slowerAssuming the vehicles in both titles are roughly car-sized..
In Distance, the traps and hazards stood out against the scenery. The roads might be covered in buzz saws, grinders, and lasers, but those objects popped. They were usually glowing against a dark background. In bases where the road surface itself was glowing, the hazards were given a contrasting color. In Antigraviator, the track is a tangle of pulsing lights and bloom that obscure the hazards until you’re caught in them.
In Distance, you’re usually traveling on a road with a definite endpoint. The road might wind and twist a bit, but you can usually see things coming ahead of time. In Antigraviator, the track constantly loops back on itself so that you lose all sense of place and direction. The whole thing is just a blur of hairpin turns.
I’m sorry to dump on Antigraviator again. My goal here isn’t to heap shame on the hard working indies that made it, but to point out how good Distance is. Distance makes the hard stuff look easy. If I hadn’t played Antigraviator, I wouldn’t have realized just how many tricky problems Distance solved.
Distance is less about running races against AI, and instead is about completing obstacle courses and time trials. You can race against friends or against a ghost of a previous run you’ve completed. Since racing games have generally been garbage about opponent AI, this seems like a better system for pushing the player to improve and refine their performance. The presence of rubber band AI in driving games is usually pretty harmful to the experience for me. If you’re ahead then you know the AI is cheating. This means that when you do eventually win, it feels like the AI let you win. You get the frustration of defeat without the thrill of victory. There’s nothing more fair than racing against an exact re-creation of your own driving. As a bonus, it nicely gives you a challenge perfectly suited to your skill level without the AI needing to fudge things one way or the other.
I realize you can’t do this for real-world settings or simulationist-minded games. I don’t think fans would appreciate a Grand Prix or NASCAR game where you race against the clock without any opponents, but for a fantastical sci-fi setting I think it makes sense and makes for more interesting challenges.
On top of all of this is the editor. The game ships with a full-featured edit mode that gives you all the same features the developers had. You have access to environment building, lighting, track layout, the particle engine, and countless other features. It’s fantastic. I’ve probably spent just as much time building maps as racing them.
For the record, I have no idea how we’re supposed to pronounce this. A typical western anglophone will probably pronounce it to rhyme with “Chris”, but I’ve also heard various people call it “greeze”, “gree”, and “greese”. Since this is a game with no spoken dialog, there’s no way for us to know what the developer intended. Maybe some people will look online and discover that the developer is from Barcelona, and maybe some of those people will know enough about Spanish to intuit the intended pronunciation, but l imagine most people will mangle the name the way they mangled DOOSE ECKS back in 2000To be fair, Deus Ex actually had a pronunciation guide inside the CD case. Having never studied Latin, this is where I learned how to not make a fool of myself when saying “Deus Ex” out loud..
“Gris” is actually Spanish for “gray”, which makes quite a bit of sense since so much of the game is spent returning color to the world.
I can’t stand 2D platformers. I’m not sure why. I just don’t get any pleasure from performing a successful series of hops. At the same time, I get really annoyed when I fumble a jump and fall, losing a bunch of progress along the way. Platformers don’t stimulate the reward center of my brain, but they do activate the annoyance regionTo be fair, that’s a pretty big region in my brain.. So the gameplay is all downside. It’s like eating something with no flavor and tons of calories.
And yet, Gris was able to overcome my overwhelming bias against it.
A lot of platformers are built on some kind of discernable grid. In your typical Mario-style platformer the grid is designed to be obvious. Other games hide the grid in artistic sense by blending tiles together and visually rounding them off, but the player can still tell that underneath the textures is a play area that can be depicted on graph paper. Gris is different in the sense that the environments feel incredibly organic. This can make the game more interesting to look at, but there’s a risk of losing perceivable consequence. The player can find themselves looking at a large-ish gap and asking themselves, “Can I make that jump? I can’t tell. Is this where I’m supposed to be going?” That’s fine if you’re trying to make a punishing gauntlet where a player needs to fail a jump 5 times before they’ve proven to themselves that this gap is 4 pixels too wide and they need to look elsewhere for progress. But if you’re trying to make a low-stress experience then it’s easier and safer to go for the clarity of a grid.
Yet somehow Gris gets away with this. You’re often platforming on curved surfaces or irregular shapes, and yet I was rarely confused about where I was supposed to be going and what the game expected of me. I suppose it helps that this game is more about solving puzzles than completing jumps.
The central appeal of this game is in the art: the scenery, the music, and most of all the animation. This game is a sensory feast. Dan of New Frame+ gave the game a mention in his end-of-year video, but I’m hoping he’ll turn his animator’s eye to Gris in 2019 and talk about how this game looks in motion. There are dozens of little details in how your character moves, how her dress flows, and how her body language is used to tell us about her without the game ever needing to have a single spoken or written word. This game communicates entirely though its visuals, and yet I was never frustrated or confused about what I was doing, what the game expected of me, or why I should care.
This game is a masterwork. It does so much with so little. In the first ten minutes it got me to care about the protagonist and her struggle. Shadow of the Tomb Raider didn’t manage to accomplish that in the hours of mo-capped, voiced acted exposition and dialog it had me sit through. Gris demonstrates that if you want to make a compelling and emotionally impactful game, then you don’t need millions of dollars of equipment. You need to understand your tools and the medium you’re working in.
2. Prey Mooncrash
At the risk of repeating what I said at the Escapist, I loved Mooncrash, the DLC expansion for 2017’s Prey. I’ve wanted this game for ages. Over a decade ago, I toyed with the idea of trying to make something like this. I’d played System Shock 2 to the point where I had the world memorized, and all I wanted was a way to crawl through the starship Von Braun with the contents re-arranged. I wanted to make the experience more random and varied so I could keep playing.
Prey was my top game last year, and I wasn’t expecting to see anything else from this genre for a long time. But here we are. Mooncrash tells a story largely disconnected from the core game. The designers took the same mechanics and art assets and used them to make something really different and surprising.
The immersive sim has always been a challenging kind of game to develop and it’s never sold particularly well. And now we have a AAA studio making a roguelike based on an immersive sim. That’s a niche genre inside a niche genre.
In Mooncrash, your task is to take control of five different people on the moonbase to help them complete their individual story missions and escape. Each character has their own agenda and their own skills. One is good at fixing things. Another can hack computer systems. Another excels at combat. When one character dies or escapes, you pick another one. The trick is that the world is persistent from one character to the next. You can have one character stash supplies for another to find, or open doors so that later characters can pass. Once everyone is accounted for – once everyone is dead or successfully escapes – the world resets and you can have another go.
Your characters retain their skill points between runs and you’ll gradually unlock more powerful gear for them to start with, but each iteration of the world is a little different. Sometimes a facility will be on fire. Sometimes you’ll have to face radiation hazards. Or electrical hazards. Power outages. Broken and locked doors. Different monsters. Different loot. The world keeps changing.
I’d love to see an idea like Mooncrash spun off into a stand-alone title. I know it takes a lot of money to create all those cutscenes and the huge cast of characters we saw in Prey. I don’t know anything about the financials of the developer, but I have to assume that an experience like Mooncrash is a lot cheaper to develop. Even if it was scaled up to the scope of the core game, the smaller cast, the lack of cutscenes and the lack of a strong overarching narrative means it ought to be quite a bit cheaper to develop. I’d be more than happy to settle for a less ambitious story if it meant we could get some more immersive sim in our gaming diet. I appreciate the narrative stuff Prey did, but I’m really here for the mechanics.
You saw this coming. I know. Insomniac made a game with my favorite superhero and my favorite traversal system paired with a rough knockoff of my favorite brawling system. It’s not exactly shocking that it wound up being my game of the year.
I’m already in the middle of a long form retrospective on the game, so there’s not much I can say here without repeating myself or spoiling future entries. It’s gorgeous. It’s fun. It respects the source material. It doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The only major gripe I have with the game is that it really needed to come out on other systems. It’s a tragedy that something this good is exclusive to a single platform.
So that’s it for 2018. Onward!
 Assuming the vehicles in both titles are roughly car-sized.
 To be fair, Deus Ex actually had a pronunciation guide inside the CD case. Having never studied Latin, this is where I learned how to not make a fool of myself when saying “Deus Ex” out loud.
 To be fair, that’s a pretty big region in my brain.
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