Last year was not a particularly fun year. For the most part, I did not have a good time. A lot of the games I wanted to play were either disappointments, or delayed to the next year.
But I can’t claim it was all bad. I did manage to find a few titles that amused me. So here is the list of titles that kept me going…
7. Graveyard Keeper
Why did I like this game? I have no idea. I have nothing but gripes about it, but for whatever reason I couldn’t stop playing it.
Do we have a name for the genre that Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley occupy? I want to say “Farming Sim”, but we already have Farming Simulator and it’s nothing like these games. Wikipedia claims this genre is called “Simulation Role-Playing”, thus making a compound genre name from two different confusing and overly-broad terms. Both “simulation” and “role-playing” are largely useless descriptors at this point. I mean, both Diablo and Cyberpunk are considered “role playing” games.
In any case, we really need a handy name to sum up this genre: “A town improvement game with strong social elements where you improve your own property while also building relationships and helping your neighbors and gameplay involves a lot of time and energy management as you need to keep an eye on the in-game clock.” And no, we can’t just call them “Harvest Moon Clones”. That would be silly.
Anyway, Graveyard Keeper is a Harvest Moon Clone where you take care of a graveyard instead of growing crops. You embalm corpses, bury them, decorate the graves, improve the grounds, and become the local religious vicar.
I’m not sure what it was about the game that appealed to me. I did like the moments where I was elbow-deep in a corpse preparation and I suddenly realized it was Sunday morning. I’d stagger upstairs to the chapel, give the weekly message to the faithful, collect the donations, and then dive back into the basement to work on my backlog of cadavers.
There’s no wash basin between the morgue and the chapel, so I have to imagine the appearance / smell of my character was enough to wake up the faithful on Sunday morning.
It’s a weird game, but it has a dark sense of humor and some goofy charm.
6. Flight Simulator 2020
I wondered when Asobo would show up again. You might remember that I was a fan of FUEL back in 2009. I even made that one video about the game that got a couple of million views but then YouTube silently made it almost unwatchable by reducing it to 240p qualityThese days I’m keeping the originals, but my approach to content back then was very slapdash..
Anyway. Like I said in that 11-year-old video: FUEL was an amazing game for the way it took a limited dataset and used procgen techniques on it to create a massive world that wouldn’t otherwise fit on a standard DVD.
The game wasn’t particularly successful. I thought the technology would benefit something open-world like Fallout or Skyrim, but instead it was used to make… a racing game?
The AI suffered from flagrant rubber banding. The procgen world was an interesting technology, but it ultimately didn’t add anything to the game. You could drive cross-country if you wanted, but there wasn’t really any in-game reason to do so. The endless landscape wound up being treated like a really expensive skybox around the handmade racing circuits.
FUEL used amazing technology to make a mediocre game. The public sort of forgot about it, but I was always curious about what the team might make next.
It took a decade, but Asobo is finally back. Once again, they’ve made an amazing technological foundation to support something that barely qualifies as a game.
The trick this time is that the game uses real-world satellite imagery to create the environment. This means the topography, roads, and buildings are all based on reality. Consumer-level satellite images don’t have the resolution to make a nice crisp world that can be viewed up close, so Asobo used neural networks to fill in the blanks. The AI will take a big blurry satellite image of farmland, recognize it as farmland, and generate high-resolution texture maps to match. It will see a dark rectangle of pixels on the landscape and recognize it as a building, and then generate a 3D model of the appropriate size and type.
If you view a familiar location from street level, it winds up feeling like something from a parallel dimension. The buildings are the right size and sitting in the right place, but the buildings themselves are different. It feels familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
It does this for most of planet Earth. That much data wouldn’t fit on your poor harddrive. In fact, it wouldn’t fit on a dozen harddrives. The data set for this game is many terabytes in size. So like Google Earth, the data streams to you in realtime as you move around.
I wouldn’t call it “fun”, but it’s an amazing technological achievement.
Back in 2018 I gave the game Gris the #3 spot on my end-of-year list. At the time I said:
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 through 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.
I feel like we need a name for this sort of thing: A game where the central appeal is the art instead of the mechanics. I think of this kind of experience as an “Art Feast”. Maybe the gameplay is really easy, or perhaps it’s incredibly derivative, but you keep playing because the sensory experience of playing the game is so rewarding.
Gorogoa is very much this sort of Art Feast. The puzzles were fairly gentle and I wasn’t particularly invested in the story. In fact, I played the game back in March and right now I can’t even remember what it was about. But I couldn’t stop playing because the hand-drawn scenery and animations were so captivating.
The Steam description calls this one a “reverse horror game”. You play as a science experiment gone wrong, a blob of genetic material that escapes containment and runs rampant through the facility, hunting and devouring the staff. As you explore and conquer the facility you’ll grow and unlock new abilities. You’ll gain body mass and your many tentacle arms will be able to reach further, making it easier to ambush security guards and tear them apart from the shadows.
The animation work is really impressive. You pretty much press the direction you want to go and the game figures out how to animate all the tentacles to keep you moving. The game does a great job of intuiting what you’re trying to do without turning the gameplay into some sort of chaotic Octodad-style nightmare where you’re barely in control.
My one gripe is that the game really needed some way to help guide the player through the environment. The science facility is roughly Metroidvania, so new areas open up as you unlock new abilities. Unfortunately there’s no map and nothing to help you know where you should go next. If the game was divided into distinct levels that branched out from a common hub, then you could just return to the main area after every conquest and open the next door. But instead the sprawling game map is made from many interlocking loops. It’s impossible to know which direction you need to go, and you’re probably going to waste a lot of time traversing now-empty rooms in search of your next objective.
I’m not much into side-scrolling platformers, but I really got a lot out of this one. The hook is that the world is one enormous physics simulation. Wood burns, liquid flows, and sand seeks its angle of repose. These systems interact, so you can break a basin that spills oil that catches fire and flows down into the lower levels, setting off explosions and blowing holes in the terrain, which will then release (say) a bunch of water to douse the flames. Or maybe it will spill some lava. Or light a huge mound of gunpowder. Or alcohol. You get the idea.
That’s just the physics. On top of that is a system of customizable magic wands that allow you to create fire, boulders, beams of energy, bouncing projectiles, etc. You can make a wand that will shoot multiple projectiles, and those projectiles can optionally bounce, or explode, or spawn more projectiles. You do this by arranging symbols to define the wand’s behavior. It’s sort of like a primitive little scripting language based on symbols.
This puts a lot of power in the player’s hands. While it’s possible to make something that creates a lot of projectiles or can shoot around corners, it’s also very easy to create a wand that can kill you with surprise reflections and splash damage. The game allows you to make something overpowered, but it also allows you to make a weapon that’s a complete liability. It’s up to you to figure out what sorts of wands work for you.
The game was in early access when I played it back in May. Even incomplete, I still felt good about giving it a solid recommendation. It’s since reached full release, so I imagine it’s even better now. The game is violent, chaotic, and frequently hilarious. A real gem.
Next week we’ll look at my final two picks for the year, and then we’ll say goodbye to 2020 for good.
 These days I’m keeping the originals, but my approach to content back then was very slapdash.
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