Congratulations! Your time machine works. It is January 2020. If you’re hoping to stop the COVID-19 pandemic or at least prevent the catastrophe that has been America’s handling of the outbreak, you will need to travel back farther. Much farther. But while you’re here, you can read this timely blog post about the video games I played last year.
If you’re not a righteous time traveler and are instead checking my blog for the first time in
a year a while, you might read the headline and think “2019? That was a hundred years ago.” Or you might look to the right and think “That scroll bar is really small.”
For the second point: Don’t worry, friends. I don’t expect you to read all 12,000 words of this in one sitting. That is why I have constructed a Table of Contents for you. Yes, this blog post has a table of contents. You’re welcome. I’m sorry.
For the first: Using the Table of Contents, you can — if you must — skip to my Closing Thoughts, which go into why you’re only now reading this scattered collection of reflections.
There are short entries. There are longer entries. There are entries long enough that they could have been their own blog post. I hope you enjoy reading however much you choose to read.
Now then, off you go.
Table of Contents
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
- Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- Final Fantasy IX
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Apex Legends
- Tetris 99
- Baba Is You
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Outer Wilds
- Hollow Knight
- Night in the Woods
- Super Metroid
- Untitled goose game
- Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
- Death Stranding
- Shovel Knight
- Closing Thoughts
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Developed by: Sora, Ltd., Nintendo, Bandai Namco
Released: December 7, 2018
The first game I played in 2019 is the last game I was playing in 2018. In several ways, Ultimate mirrored the experience I had with Brawl. Both games were reason enough to pick up a new Nintendo console. Both brought characters together that I never expected to see fighting each other. And I stopped playing both as soon as everyone I knew lost interest in playing via Nintendo’s sub-standard online service.
The difference with Ultimate is that I don’t have the same feelings of disappointment that Brawl gave me. It would be nice to have people around to play the game with more often, but I don’t regret the time I put into the game. That’s partly because Brawl killed a part of me that expected too much from games. Or maybe it’s just that it’s been 10 years since then, so I have a better understanding of what goes into making games. And following this game, through its various announcements and video updates from its director, Masahiro Sakurai, it’s clear just how much work went into making this Smash Bros. worthy of being called Ultimate.
Is it the final Smash? I doubt it, but I tend to agree with others who think that the next Smash will need to have some kind of paradigm shift. Instead, Ultimate is the most Smash. It is a toy box filled with some of the best action figures games have to offer. The focus is Nintendo, but there are some wild appearances in this game. Mega Man is in the box. Cloud Strife is here. Banjo and Kazooie are in there. And there’s an unfathomable number of stages and soundtracks to dress the set of your dream showdown. It is a treasure trove of gaming memorabilia, assembled by masterful hands, and it’s always fun to open up and learn something. As games go, Smash is a cultural touchstone with an enormous surface area, and that is to be commended.
Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
Developed by: Konami
Released: October 29, 1993
I missed playing a lot of games from this era. My family had an NES and SNES, but I didn’t start playing games until after we got an N64. We would still go back and hook up the older consoles every now and then, playing through stuff like Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country, but my experience with more difficult side-scrolling platformers was limited.
Rondo of Blood was re-released in a bundle with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which I’ve always notched as one of those games that I really ought to have played. That game is the direct sequel to Rondo, so I found myself in a position where I would need to beat it before moving onto the main course.
Turns out I was up for it. Did the level that had a long bridge swarming with randomly spawning bats take me a few hours to beat? Yes, yes it did. But by comparison, I got through the notoriously difficult fight with Death aboard the ghost ship in only a few tries. The game also has some hilarious anime-esque cutscenes, and it gave me an easy reason to pick Richter whenever I play as a Belmont in Smash. I’m glad I decided to play it.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Developed by: Konami
Released: March 20, 1997
The reason I wanted to play Symphony of the Night is because I know its fingerprints are all over other games that I love. It helped originate what people refer to as the MetroidVania subgenre of game (alongside Nintendo’s Metroid series), where a labyrinthine map is gated by an elaborate series of doors, obstacles, and enemies, each of which can only be overcome by the items and abilities you acquire. The more powerful you become, the more of the map you gain access to. Maps in this type of game also tend to be filled out as you enter and explore rooms, and you might even finish the game without completing the map.
As one of the earliest MetroidVania’s, Symphony has some rough edges. It isn’t always clear where to go, the inventory system is unintuitive, and half of the game is hidden behind secrets you might not find. The combat is pretty fun, though, and the level design and music are sublime. It winds up being a good game to have played just to see where it’s legacy lands and how far its shadow extends.
Final Fantasy IX
Developed by: Square
Released: July 7, 2000
When I was in elementary school, I watched my friend Graham play what I thought was a lot of this game, but I’d actually never seen beyond the first of four discs. The game has been collecting dust on the shelf in my Steam library ever since its PC port went on sale, but watching part of a (9-hour) speedrun inspired me to pick it up on a whim.
It’s a good Final Fantasy game, paying homage to plenty of ideas from the early days of the series. Its translation is also leaps and bounds better than the rushed localization suffered by the more popular Final Fantasy VII. Other parts of the game also feel like a step forward, though the systems feel rough. For example, there’s an early-game exploit where you can sell an easily crafted item for a massive profit and never have to worry about having enough money thereafter. Characters’ abilities are also tied to the gear that is currently equipped to them. That might put you in the position of finding a better sword than your knight, Steiner, is currently using, but you would need to make him keep using the inferior weapon until he learns the skill you want him to have.
The worst of these systems is showcased during battles and is called Trance. As characters take damage, their Trance meter builds up. When it’s full, they automatically become supercharged. Who wants to have Limit Breaks that you have no control over? Nothing like wasting your strongest character’s coup de grâce on a rank and file enemy right before you fight a boss. It’s confusing enough to have made me think I missed a tutorial about how to avoid preemptively tapping into these powers, but I couldn’t find any evidence that I’d done so.
I got through most of this game before getting distracted by something else close to the end. I could probably wrap it up if I spent just a few more hours with it, so I should try and make time to do that one weekend soon.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Developed by: Nintendo
Released: March 3, 2017
Here is a list of things I did in one day, early on in my playthrough of Breath of the Wild:
I tamed two horses (the second one after I got the first one stuck).
I found and completed five shrines.
I got ambushed by assassins from the Yiga clan.
I recovered two of Link’s repressed memories.
I returned a few dozen Korok seeds in exchange for more space in my weapon inventory.
I met Kass, the bird bard.
I met the devil.
I learned how to shield surf.
And I fought my way up a heavily fortified mountain to claim Lanayru Tower, uncovering a new region on my map.
Though, when I think back to that day, what I really remember is the thunderstorm.
I was on the shore of a lake, waiting for the rain to stop so I could make my way over to a shrine, when I heard the thunder. It was off in the distance, in the direction of Death Mountain. The clouds were an impenetrable iron, their flanking lines lit by sequential lightning. I stood there admiring the sky for a moment.
But then the sword on my back started sparking. It happened again and I quickly switched to my only non-metallic weapon, a Korok leaf.
With the storm coming closer, I ran over to seek shelter, but the nearby ruin was already occupied by a bokoblin camp. One of them heard me and came over to investigate, so I tried to hide behind a tree.
Lightning struck the tree.
Somehow I was unharmed, but my cover was blown and the whole mob came after me. I used the leaf to waft one of them into the river, then threw a bomb at the rest to try and throw them off balance. One of them was using a metal shield, and I watched him start sparking just as I had a few seconds earlier. A billion volts surged through him in the next instant, turning him to ash. The scuffle continued and my leaf broke, but I snatched one of their spears and managed to finish off the rest.
The clouds broke as the last enemy fell.
When I talk to people about Breath of the Wild, I put emphasis on the amount of time I spent with it. It’s not just that I spent almost 200 hours playing through the game — and I did — but I also played it over a remarkable stretch of time. It came bundled with my Switch, which I got in July of 2018, and I didn’t roll credits on the game until last month (Ed. note: January 2020). That was enough time for me to accomplish most of the feats the game has to offer. I completed every main quest, side quest, and shrine quest in my log. I acquired and fully upgraded most of the game’s armor sets. I solved all of the game’s 120 shrines (plus the 16 shrines added in the DLC). There’s a lot to do, and I did a lot of it.
But I remember moments like that first frantic battle in the thunderstorm in more vivid detail than I do solving my fiftieth or hundredth shrine. I think about all the times I would crest a hill and stand there taking in the next league of terrain I would be exploring. Breath of the Wild has the most captivating sightlines and vistas of any game I’ve ever played. It gives the player a real sense of place. The world is crafted with such care and consideration that there can be moments like that thunderstorm over any horizon.
My progression was never marked by urgency. There was no rush to finish, only the desire to reach the next pin on my map. That let me put the game down when something else came along that I wanted to play and then easily pick it back up again. It’s been a rare joy knowing that I had more Zelda to come back to.
Last summer, about a year after I started playing, Nintendo announced that they’re making a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild. That softened the prospect of finishing the game, knowing there would be more in the future. Still, having reached the end, I continue to think about that world and the time I spent there.
Developed by: System Era Softworks
Released: February 6, 2019
I waited to play Astroneer until it was out of early access. I saw some early footage of it a few years back and had a hunch I would be into it. Maybe I’m a sucker for low-poly stuff or diegetic UI or just the idea of a cute space exploration and survival game, but I was excited when it finally got a full release.
As of now, it’s near the top of a list of “games I need to go back to.” I put a few nights into it, but wound up drawn away by other things. What time I did spend exploring the starting planet and expanding my base keyed me into the game’s real strength, which is an idea I think of as player footprint.
The loop of Astroneer is mirrored by plenty of other games in the genre. You start with a tiny camp near where you crashed on a planet and gradually use the tools you are given to claim more and more territory. The primary tool System Era gives the player is the deforming tool, a kind of leaf-blower/vacuum backpack combo that lets you suck in and spit out terrain. It lets you hoover up dirt and rock, collecting minerals and organic material, then change modes in an instant and replace all that dirt in a different shape. So you could dig a hole and then fill it back in, but the game lets you go further. The deform tool can be used to bridge crevasses. It can flatten out terrain to make a landing pad or a highway. If you’re caught in a storm, you can quickly craft a shelter. All of these actions let you reshape the planet to your will.
In my session, there’s an entire hillside next to my landing zone, covered in trees and flowers. I carved it all out and repaved it using my deforming tool. When you suck up resources, you store soil in a canister on your backpack. The regolith of the starting planet is multicolored — pastel blues, greens, and purples. But when I reverse it and use the flattening extension to replace soil, it comes out in a starchy grey. There’s no undo button in this game. As my base expands, this parking lot of platforms, centrifuges, and other machinery will continue to grow. The evidence of my disturbance will continue to spread.
I wonder if I could flatten the entire planet. If I could riddle it with holes you could see from space. And what would be the consequences of such an undertaking?
Developed by: Respawn Entertainment
Released: February 4, 2019
From the back half of 2017 through a good portion of 2018, battle royale games dominated the gaming zeitgeist. It started with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and continued through that game’s rivalry with the copycat behemoth, Fortnite. The latter has gone on to become one of the biggest video games ever, and the former is still played by some people, believe it or not.
I skipped both of them. PUBG is derived from the kind of military sim I could never see myself playing, and Fortnite has this style that is… uniquely unappealing. I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s its own subculture at this point. The biggest reason I never played them is because I didn’t need them. I was always playing something else throughout that whole span of time.
Enter Apex: Legends. News that Respawn was surprise releasing a “free-to-play hero shooter battle royale” leaked a few days before it happened, and none of those words I put in quotes gave me any indication I was going to be interested. Free-to-play? It’ll be choked with microtransactions and monetization schemes. Hero shooter? I already play Overwatch, that’s all I need. Battle royale? Another attempt to cash in on Fortnite hype, published by EA no less.
So anyway, I spent a solid month playing Apex pretty much every night. It was free, so it wasn’t like I had a hard time getting friends to try it out. And it turns out good characters go a long way to getting me into a game (I don’t care if he’s useless, I would die for Mirage). Most of all, though, it’s a good video game, and it helped me get the appeal of battle royale as a format. A lack of downtime between losing one round and getting into the next one is a big plus, and the “one more run” mindset is powerful.
Also, while it might not be a big draw for some, I love the quiet periods of tension in between firefights. Moments where you’re gathering as much equipment as you can while keeping a weather eye on the treeline at the edge of the outpost add color to each match, as well as when you see a supply drop descending and you and your team conceive the perfect ambush.
Games are tactile things, and part of what makes the looting in Apex so satisfying is that it feels very good to touch. The noises when you’re rummaging through another player’s deathbox combined with how your character adjusts their weapons when they add a hop-up or stock do so much work to draw the player in. It all works in motion, too — running, jumping, climbing, and sliding in this game have an effortless quality to them.
In the end, new releases and updates to other games drew me away, but part of me wishes that Apex had stayed in my rotation. It made me feel like I made the right choice in waiting for my first battle royale. The game just had a big update for its anniversary (Ed. note: February 2020), and I’m inching toward the bay doors of the dropship, waiting for a good spot to drop in.
Developed by: Arika, Nintendo
Released: February 13, 2019
The second battle royale game I ever played came out a week later. In this one, you play Tetris at the same time as 98 other people. It’s great, and this was a good reminder of how timeless and versatile the game is. I like Tetris, but I’m not usually good enough at it to beat another person, especially when the tempo kicks up for the final 10 players. 2018’s Tetris Effect is much more my speed.
Baba Is You
Developed by: MP2 Games
Released: March 13, 2019
This is another one on my list of games to return to. There are people who swear by this adorable puzzle game where the rules change as fast as you can push them around the board. It’s also one of those games that supposedly turns everything you know on its head once you get far enough. I didn’t get far enough, so I owe it to myself to pick it up again. I have it on Switch, too, so I don’t have much of an excuse.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Developed by: FromSoftware, Inc.
Released: March 22, 2019
It’s tempting to take the Emanuel Maiberg route and just let a bunch of sick gifs do the work of talking about this game, but Sekiro deserves more than that.
Since they released Demon’s Souls back in 2009, FromSoftware has been making games that require you to learn. The faster you come to know your enemy, the faster you progress. In the Dark Souls games, it’s often better to wait and react to what an enemy does before countering with your own attack. You wait for the giant suit of armor in your way to leave themselves open after a tremendous cleave, and then strike. You also have to keep your stamina meter in mind, though, so if you run out of stamina before you kill the enemy, you have to retreat and wait for another opening.
Bloodborne turns this around somewhat, giving the player better options for aggression and allowing them to overwhelm the beasts of Yharnam with raw power. But the beasts can be every bit as vicious, rushing the player with combo attacks that seem to have no end. The most devastating option for the player is to wait and bait the enemy into a flurry, interrupt them with your firearm, and then rip out their heart with a visceral strike.
Sekiro rejects combat as waiting. The stamina bar is gone, as are enemies that leave themselves open to attacks. Many players struggled with the game at first because they were caught flat-footed, waiting for openings that would never come. In Sekiro, hesitation is defeat. Instead, you must create your own openings.
With the gameplay centered on clashing swords, FromSoft introduces the posture meter. The goal of each encounter is to break the enemy’s posture. You can do this by landing hits, but you can also achieve the same result by deflecting the enemy’s attacks. When you fill up the meter, their posture is broken, leaving them open to a deathblow. You have a posture meter, too, so your enemies have the same recourse for defeating you.
Sekiro (the game is titled after the player character) can break the posture of a low-level grunt with a single parry, but enemies of greater stature require a grueling back and forth. You have to be conscious of every action you take, using both offense and defense to win your battles. Learn the rhythm and pace of your opponent’s aggression so that you can deflect each of their moves, then respond with your own series of slices before the enemy recovers and seizes control of the tempo once more. This is Sekiro at its most basic. Layered on top of that is a kind of rock-paper-scissors involving perilous attacks, battles that require you to mind your surroundings, and belligerents who don’t play fair. All of this combines for the coolest sword-fighting in any game I’ve ever played, and I only talked about stuff that your character can do with his right arm.
If FromSoftware games punish the player for failing to learn, then it must also be true that they reward you once you’ve internalized their lessons on a reflexive level. It takes patience and a willingness to fail. I recognize that every time the words “YOU DIED” appear on screen, I’ve learned something new. It’s a credit to the curriculum laid out by every battle that preceded it that I was able to sight-read Sekiro’s final boss, defeating him in one attempt. That’s the kind of thing I couldn’t have done before I played my first Souls game. In a lot of ways, I think From’s games have made me better at every new game I pick up.
Y’all, I haven’t even mentioned the atmosphere and setting of this game. Sekiro made me think back to a class I took in college about the material culture of Japan during the Sengoku period. We studied ceremonial tea sets, woodblock prints, and Japanese swords as an avenue into society at the time, and it was like an entirely different way of thinking about history. Anyone who has played a FromSoftware game knows that the story of each game is told almost entirely through flavor text and descriptions attached to the items you pick up. Sounds like material culture to me.
This feels like a whole thing and I need to let it marinate more before I go any further, so I’m gonna leave off with some of those gifs.
Game of the year, by the way.
Developed by: Mobius Digital
Released: May 29, 2019
Playing Outer Wilds reminds me of those moments in stories where a character’s eyes go wide and they suddenly recall something vital from their past. It is a game that reminds me why I am so enamored with this medium in the first place.
The developers liked to joke that it’s “the game you’re not supposed to make.” That humor is grounded in some of the technical aspects of game design. “The way you do nice lighting in games is by using static objects … Everything in Outer Wilds is always moving. The way you make games is on a grid … Everything in Outer Wilds is on a sphere.” But it sheds other givens, too. There’s no combat. There’s no way to upgrade your character in this game. There’s no collectibles, no loot, no new abilities to acquire. You don’t level up or augment your stats in any way. You don’t gain experience. You do, however, gain experiences.
You awaken on the day you’re set to blast off from your home planet. Part park ranger, part space archeologist, you are given mostly free reign to explore your star system. Armed with a telescopic radio receiver, a handheld camera probe, and a translator, you set about investigating ruins left behind by the previous inhabitants of your little cosm. Those ruins give you scraps of mysteries that you will want to track down, but it might be the planets themselves that draw you in deep. Each of the six planets (and their associated celestial bodies) possess a unique ecology, and understanding those ecologies is the key to traversing the known space.
But that’s all it takes: understanding. The only power that can move you forward and through obstacles is your own curiosity. In Outer Wilds, you are only ever gated by knowledge.
Well, knowledge and time.
You awaken on the first day of your expedition, but it’s also the last day. No matter where your space hike takes you, after 22 minutes you’ll hear a haunting refrain and turn to watch the sun collapse on itself. The resulting supernova will reach you, no matter where you are. You could be wandering the caves of the Ember Twin, deep beneath the waves of Giant’s Deep, or drifting out past the heliopause in an alien shuttle. The blue-white wall of starfire will consume you.
And then you will awaken again on the first day of your expedition, wondering if there is anything you can do about it.
So much of the conventional wisdom of creating a game had to be jettisoned into space for this game to happen. And yet, not only has it happened, but it stands apart as the best game I played last year and an all-time favorite. I would recommend it to anyone, without pause.
Developed by: Team Cherry
Released: February 24, 2017
There are many tall trees in my neighborhood with branches that loom over the power lines. I dread even mild storms or particularly windy days because of how fragile the grid is. Last summer, I had one night where I was without power from 5:30 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. In the past, I might have spent that time wallowing in the dark before going to bed early. Now, I at least have the battery life of my Switch with which to while the quiet hours. That’s when I found myself playing Hollow Knight again.
Something about holding this game in my hands feels right. I first played it the year it came out on PC, but the game didn’t really blow up until the next year — a lot of people had chosen to wait for the Switch release. Sitting on my couch while navigating the ruins of Hallownest, I couldn’t help but think that decision had paid off for them.
Hollow Knight traces its DNA back to Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid. It is an apotheosis of MetroidVania-style games. And while it excels in all the defining characteristics of those games, I would point to one thing it does better than any of them: Mood.
The game begins on the surface, in Dirtmouth, a town hiding the entrance to a vast kingdom of insects. There, you encounter a solitary old bug who speaks of days when all kinds of travelers passed through the town on the way down into Hallownest.
A derelict well in Dirtmouth bottoms out into the Forgotten Crossroads, an abandoned thoroughfare littered with broken carts and the remnants of commerce, inhabited by mindless husks whose unspoken thoughts point to a poisonous light. There are some sane bugs who keep to themselves and one on the brink that you can stir from his haze, pointing him back to his shop on the surface. At the center of the crossroads lies the Temple of the Black Egg, an ominous onyx vault sealed by the visages of three great beings.
The road takes you through many biomes, all of which might have been civilized in the past, none of which retain the traces of active civilization. The Greenpath leads through a lush space patrolled by moss-covered warriors and terminates with a proving duel near an acidic lake. The Fog Canyon is covered in foam and bubbles, populated by explosive jellyfish. The Fungal Wastes are overrun by mushroom men and sentient growths.
Eventually you arrive at the capital of Hallownest, the City of Tears.
It is a vacant metropolis situated in a cave so tall you cannot see the ceiling. It rains without end, a steady downpour that sends water running down window panes and streaming from the eyes of watchful statues. In some parts of the city, you can hear a lone woman singing. It will be some time before you arrive in the City of Tears, and from there the game’s mysteries only deepen.
Christopher Larkin’s score plays a key role in setting the ambience of these areas, but there are also places where the music drops out and all you can hear are the sounds of everything around you. The waterways beneath the city are home to ruptured pipes and mutated maggots with sharp teeth that bellow and caterwaul as they chase you through the sewers. The darkest realm in the game is rendered unnavigable without a lantern, leaving you cloaked in black. You hear the rustling and chittering noises around you closing in, as though they’re crawling over your carapace. Deeper still, you might strain your ears to hear anything at all beyond your own footsteps, until the darkness itself finds a voice.
My power came back on eventually, but I found plenty of other rainy evenings to enjoy my favorite game from 2017 all over again. For some games, the second playthrough is even better than the first — I spent more time with Hollow Knight the second time around, thanks in part to content that was added later on. Team Cherry is working on a sequel right now, and I’ll be dropping everything the moment it comes out.
Night in the Woods
Developed by: Infinite Fall
Released: January 10, 2017
[Content Warning: Abuse, Suicide]
I don’t feel like I got to enjoy Night in the Woods the way a lot of people did. I’d always heard good things about it, but it took me until last year to actually play. The story in the game unfolds over the course of a dozen days or so interspersed throughout a weird autumn in western Pennsylvania, and so I found it natural to play through a day at a time. As Mae Borowski, a college dropout and former juvenile delinquent, you return home to a dying mining town and spend the days hanging out with old friends and looking for purpose.
For a game populated by funny animals, I appreciate how human the story is. At first, I didn’t know if I identified that closely with Mae. Her depression felt a lot more dissociative than mine ever has. Instead I gravitated toward her friends, Gregg and Angus because I wanted to see what version of the “queer folk trying to escape an insufferable birthplace” tale they were part of. In the end, I found some common ground with Mae after all. Her frustrations with everyone around her growing up faster and working toward concrete goals spoke to me, though the game is not necessarily forthcoming on answers to the conundrums of fleeting youth.
I finished the game, and was content to let the ending sit so I could decide how I felt about it. And then about a week later, allegations of abuse came out about one of the developers, Alec Holowka.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. It was part of a larger moment in the games industry with women coming forward to speak out about their experiences. That same week, allegations of abuse were made against Jeremy Soule, the composer for Skyrim. Alexis Kennedy, a designer for the Fallen London series, was also accused of being a serial abuser. The first 27 minutes of this podcast and this article from Vice offer a more thorough discussion of the reporting from that week.
In the wake of Soule’s victim coming forward, independent developer Zoe Quinn decided to speak up about her emotional abuse at the hands of Holowka. Within a day, Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, the other principal developers of Night in the Woods, posted a statement severing ties with Holowka. Later that week, after more accounts of his behavior came to light, Holowka took his own life.
I’ve learned over the years that when something like this happens it’s better not to say much. It’s more important to elevate the voices of those who have been marginalized than to wade frivolously into the discourse with my own take.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt as a fan, though. I felt hurt having just recently come away from this game feeling touched. What Benson said in his statement after the fact is true — my experiences with the game are my own, and those can’t be taken from me. I liked the music, though, and Holowka was behind that. The music is central to the game’s ethos. The wistful soundtrack to the sleepy town. The trashy punk songs that Mae’s band practices. It’s hard to separate that out. So the game feels forever compromised.
The situation reminds me of when I finished watching Car Boys, a YouTube series by Polygon, created by Griffin McElroy and Nick Robinson. Pretty soon after that, it was revealed that Robinson was a serial womanizer, abusing his power dynamic to slide into DMs all over Twitter. It was a similar pain, and my initial response was to rush to the defense of the work. I was hasty to mourn what could have been, if only Robinson wasn’t scum, what he and McElroy might have gone on to create together.
And that’s the trap. That’s the hole that fans fall into when the pedestal crumbles. Because when you focus on the work and what you as a consumer have lost, you ignore and diminish the real pain felt by victims of the abuser. It’s a kind of faux Trolley Problem. On one track is the abuser and their game. On the other track there are 10 victims of abuse and the games they might have made if they weren’t chased out of the industry because they didn’t feel safe or supported. But the dilemma is false — you have to pull the lever every time. Victims of abuse must be believed in order to normalize the practice of exposing their abusers.
Nick Robinson lost his job at Polygon. After the fallout had blown over, he went back to creating content. I believe he’s crowdfunded via Patreon now, and he goes to E3 and GDC and other industry events. He tweets. I don’t follow him anymore. I don’t know what he’s done to change, or if he is someone that people should be comfortable working with. I know there are plenty of people who are not happy that he’s stuck around.
Alec Holowka couldn’t see a road back. His sister, who shared the news of his death, said as much. It sounds like he himself was not healthy, and I wager that’s probably true of most abusers.
Around the time this happened, I remember having seen a video that talks about hyperproblems, where a bunch of seemingly disparate issues are actually interrelated in numerous complex ways. I can’t help but feel like the barriers to accessing mental healthcare in this country loom large over this whole series of events.
Without question, more needs to be done to support and protect victims of abuse. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to say that some thought should also be given to what becomes of people who perpetrate that abuse, though. What does rehabilitation look like for them? They can’t make things right, so what do they do instead? How do you convince someone who has just had all their professional and creative ties severed — deservedly so — that they have a future?
Whatever the solution, it definitely doesn’t involve victim shaming or victim blaming. Eileen Holowka, after saying she was walking away from everything in her statement, had to immediately post a followup statement urging people not to harass Zoe Quinn. If you know who Zoe Quinn is, you probably know her because of Gamergate (If you don’t know what Gamergate is, everything is Gamergate now). That’s one hell of an asterisk to have attached to your name, a name that a lot of easily frenzied young men know. And now this.
In the wake of it all, I’ve found myself asking to what extent is the space around games healthy? In moments like this one, it’s really hard to say. Would that it were just a hobby without all the qualifications, but it’s worth having hard conversations to work toward a better culture.
Developed by: Blizzard Entertainment
Released: May 24, 2016
Overwatch is a couple of different games to me.
It is a game that scratches the same itch as Smash — a colorful clash of characters in a competitive environment, one where I can practice a role or playstyle and see measurable improvement. It’s also a game where I can just spend a night hanging out with friends. It can be fun on my own, but I know I’ll enjoy myself more if I’m teaming up with other people. And it’s a game where I get to play as one of my favorite characters, Zarya, a hero who becomes stronger by protecting others. Also she carries a giant laser beam.
Beyond any of those, Overwatch is the game that taught me to press the Share button.
It wasn’t always easy to preserve memories of playing games. I’ve never been anywhere where someone took a picture of me while I was playing something. There have been moments when I had to pull out my phone and take a picture of my TV screen, like the times in Destiny when I got my Gjallarhorn or the first time two friends and I made it to the Lighthouse on Mercury. And while PC gaming has had this capability for a lot longer, it wasn’t until this generation of consoles that you could press a button and take a picture of what you were seeing in game or capture video of the last 30 minutes of play.
For me, it’s like a new genre of home movies. I have a good round and get Play of the Game. Share button. My friends and I have some funny banter through the course of a match. Share button. I want to save a game to review later, looking for ways I can get better like in a film session. Share button.
There are more than 400 uploads on my YouTube channel now, and that started with Overwatch. The length of each match is well suited for capturing and watching back, and I get some satisfaction out of using the basic editing suite on my PS4 to clip and trim the footage. There’s no larger aim to it, either. I put the videos up mostly for myself and my friends to enjoy. To reflect on. That’s enough.
Developed by: Remedy Entertainment
Released: August 27, 2019
During his playthrough at AGDQ 2020, speedrunner Bryonato gave the best summary of what Control is: “Ok, I just touched a floppy disk and now I can throw things with my mind.”
It was the first game I played from Remedy, and it’s sufficient motivation to move Alan Wake up a few spots in my backlog. However, the story didn’t leave off in a place that felt complete, and there are more chapters in development (Ed. note: They’ve since been released). For that reason, this section is a punt until I’ve played the rest of the game. Besides, some of these sections need to be shorter.
Developed by: Nintendo
Released: March 19, 1994
In late August, I finally got around to the other half of the MetroidVania equation. Something else the Switch is good for is passing time while sitting in the queue for an Overwatch match, and with the addition of Super Nintendo titles to the online service, I was able to check out Samus’ most famous adventure.
My thoughts on Super Metroid closely mirror the ones I had for Symphony of the Night. There were multiple times in my playthrough that I thought back to Metroid Fusion for the Gameboy Advance and how much better that game felt to play. Here, Samus feels sluggish, especially early in the game, and that kind of works for a bounty hunter wearing space armor, but it took some getting used to. Despite watching multiple speedruns of this game over the years at Games Done Quick events, I also got turned around in the submerged wastes of Meridia.
All in all, it’s a game I’m glad to have played, and it’s short enough that revisiting it in the future might let me appreciate it more. Like Symphony, I’m mostly grateful for all the games that have inherited its DNA.
Untitled goose game
Developed by: House House
Released: September 20, 2019
Not every game has to be a long one. Sometimes, a game only needs to hold your attention for a matter of hours. So it was with the untitled goose game, a game I spent no more than 5 hours on.
I crossed off every task on the goose’s to-do list. I put the rake in the lake. I had a picnic. I bullied a young bespectacled boy. I flapped my wings and nicked some slippers and swam in the canal. I honked. I honked at everyone and everything in the quaint little village.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes to delight. Just let me be a goose for a few hours. Give me that and a Saturday afternoon and I’ll be happy.
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Developed by: Bungie
Released: October 1, 2019
Looking at the larger constellation of games I’ve played this year, you might have noticed a gravity well at the center. There’s an unseen force that pulls me away from games before I’m done with them or that shifts my focus from games I’ve otherwise been enjoying.
Destiny 2 is that lurking mass that keeps me in its orbit. While I might briefly discover the lagrange point between Destiny and another game, I always wind up drifting back.
We have entered year 6 of a franchise I’ve been playing from the start. I’ve played Destiny when it’s been good. I’ve played when it’s been bad. In 2019, Destiny was fine. It’s fine. This is fine.
Destiny should be better than fine by now, but that’s the refrain of an ongoing conversation between the players and the developers. Here, I would rather explore what keeps me playing 6 years later, through the ups and downs.
I’ve written about Destiny a couple of times now, and I’ve always acknowledged that it’s a game designed to keep you playing it. Pejoratively, you could call it a Skinner box, but the games industry prefers to call this model a live service game. You pay an upfront fee for a game that will be updated and built upon over time. There’s usually some incentive to repeat the activities within the game until whenever the next big content drop is. If that incentive isn’t good enough or if it is exhausted, then a player will step off the treadmill and go do something else, and that’s totally fine — if you’re the player.
The developer or publisher of the game wants to keep you plugged in as long as possible. Maintaining a high player population means that match-made activities will have an easier time putting balanced teams together. It also means that more players are exposed to and tempted by in-game revenue streams.
There is a perception that these service games compete against each other. Whenever a new one comes out, you can predict reddit threads talking about how “The Division is being positioned as a Destiny-killer” or “Anthem is BioWare’s Destiny.” In reality, these games cater to different audiences and only a small percentage are ever going to be on the fence between one or more of them.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t need or want another Destiny. It’s the only service game I need, at least as far as investment-heavy, time-consuming shooters go. Most games have service aspects these days. Overwatch is updated with new maps and heroes. Hollow Knight received several free updates after it launched. Sekiro is even getting an update that adds a boss-rush mode a full year and a half after its release.
But of the games that will always get bigger, Destiny is the only one I need. It has the right texture for me, which is to say I like the setting, the art style, and the tone of the game. It also happens to be made by a pretty decent company, at least compared to others in the industry. Bungie does a commendable job of communicating and setting expectations for the game. They deliver on their promises. And they don’t seem to work their employees to the bone in the course of doing so.
I will not ramble on about how good it feels to play Destiny, but it continues to feel very good. The weight of weapons and powers, the degree of control over your movement, and the range of expression in play remain enthralling. For a game that asks you to repeat tasks on a cyclical cadence, you never have to do anything the same way twice if you don’t want to.
Destiny is a game that offers opportunities at mastery. Whether that mastery entails throwing lightning at aliens, outmaneuvering an opponent, developing strategies for difficult encounters, or being good at jumping across narrow platforms is up to the individual. My ambitions tend to be character focused, ensuring that each one wears a fitting title and wields an arsenal that suits them.
Take my Warlock. He is a Chronicler, which just means that I’ve completed a selection of lore books in the game by finding collectibles in the world or running through certain activities. For me, Chronicler means more than that, though. I want to discover all of the lore, to know everything about these worlds so I can understand them and my place within them.
Chronicler is also a cheeky way of enforcing one of my rules for playing the game, which is that I experience lore at the same pace as my character. Even though there are sites and forums that extract lore entries directly from the game files as soon as new books are added, to the best of my ability I don’t read new lore until I’m looking at it in the game.
To complement his bookishness, my Warlock tends to use weapons that seem like they would require a decent amount of study. A rocket launcher built from the skull of an alien witch? Probably want to read a book about that before using it. A bow that fires arrows that split into lightning rods and chain electricity? Might want to read a few papers on how that works. The eye of a wish-granting space dragon mounted in a chassis of bones (from the same dragon) that fires gouts of superheated plasma that explode after impact? Who knows if there’s anything written about that, but I want to see it.
In short, he’s a total nerd, and he’s likely to blow himself up or otherwise make a fool of himself regardless of how much insight he’s gained. Relatable.
Feeling in control of a personal narrative makes the game alluring, but more than any other reason I play, Destiny feels like a place. I wouldn’t spend so much time playing it without that all important feeling of inhabitation. It shares the characteristics of a school full of peers. It’s too big to know everyone, but you still pass them each day, walking across campus toward your own pursuits. It reminds me of an active forum with each message board lighting up with thousands of separate conversations. It’s a common room that you can visit whenever you want to hang out with friends. It’s somewhere to belong.
Destiny is a game that feels like home. And it’s comforting to have somewhere to return to.
I am left with a lingering doubt, though. A sense of disquiet.
Even at its peaks, the game has never quite reached its potential. There’s always something to knock, some reason to deduct points. A popular system gets changed for opaque reasons. A satisfying weapon archetype has its performance toned down. The story halts just when it feels like it’s ramping up. A familiar mechanic returns with a new coat of paint. The game fails to recognize our actions or accomplishments. The world does not respond in as many ways as it could. The caveats pile up.
Does adding to a game inherently make it better? Or does new growth just cover up old rot, leaving it to fester?
Destiny 2 was fine this year. How long can “fine” continue to pull me back, away from other games?
Developed by: FromSoftware, Inc.
Released: March 24, 2015
One of my favorite things about Souls-like games is that they don’t give you a map. You roam foreign lands with only your sense of direction and your ability to recall landmarks to guide you. It reinforces the sense of place you get while playing. If you want a map, you have to draw one in your head. If you want a guide, you need to become one.
Part of why I like learning my way around places is because it reminds me of jigsaw puzzles. My mom can tell you stories about how I could be pacified for hours with a good jigsaw. She would sit me down in front of one or put one in front of me, and I’d enter the puzzle zone. It wasn’t just that I was drawn in by the shapes and colors. I made progress, too. It felt natural.
That piece goes there.
This one goes here.
These pieces connect.
I went through a Puzz 3D phase where my room ran out of space for jigsaw architecture. My favorite was the Titanic, but the most challenging I owned was a model of the Golden Hall atop Edoras.
Senior year of high school, I spent a significant portion of a spring break beach trip parked at the kitchen table working on this gaudy fairy puzzle while eating freeze pops. I know the puzzle was in the house when we got there, but I don’t remember who brought it out. I just remember it was tough.
What makes a good puzzle?
You can’t take an illustration at random and chop it up into puzzle pieces (though I’m sure some makers do). The best puzzles are intentional. They feature a diversity of color and scenery. Each piece must be unique so that it only fits in one spot, but it must also be similar to the rest so it isn’t obvious where it should go.
Bad puzzles exist, too, like this one.
The pieces themselves are probably fine, but more than half the puzzle is a solid color. You could solve it, but it wouldn’t feel good to do so, which hits on a larger point.
What makes puzzles good?
They have one solution that can be understood in multiple ways.
You can solve by focusing on color, sorting similar pieces into piles. Good puzzles also feature a wide gradient within each color. A scene with water doesn’t just have a bunch of blue pieces. Some patches of that ocean are more aqua, others a briny green. Look closer and you’ll see eddies and whitecaps drawing patterns across the surface, which leads to the next way of understanding a puzzle.
You can also solve by focusing on the texture, or scenery, itself. If you look at the front of the box, you’ll see the boat is in the bottom right corner, so you can sort pieces that look like the boat over there. Next to the boat there’s one of the dolphins, so you can drop dolphin pieces there. Once you have enough pieces sorted, you can start piecing each one together. You can criss-cross the frame this way, making progress all the while. And the more progress you make, the more the last method of solving comes into play.
The defining feature of any jigsaw is the shape of the pieces. Color and texture are known knowns because they’re on the box. Like algebra, you can see the answer before you solve the equation, but the x factor is how the pieces fit together.
If you pile enough of the same color together or enough pieces of the same object, you can brute force some connections, but for me the greatest satisfaction comes from looking at two pieces and instantly knowing they fit. I can see positive space, where the junctions match up and align, and I can also see negative space, where there’s a hole in the puzzle that can only be filled by one piece.
When you shift between these modalities at will, using color, texture, and shape all at once, that’s when you enter a kind of puzzle nirvana. If the puzzle is The Matrix, you just became The One. You can look at that puzzle, sitting unsolved on the table, and calmly say “No.”
The activities that are labeled puzzles in most video games aren’t like jigsaw puzzles. They don’t provoke that feeling of seeing all the pieces and how they fit together.
There are puzzle games, yes, but they’re based on learning set rules and how to apply those rules in a variable order. There are also puzzles in games like The Legend of Zelda, but those kinds of puzzles are about understanding how different objects in the environment react to one another and engineering the correct reaction.
Instead, it’s the silent cartography needed to navigate a FromSoftware game that most reminds me of solving a jigsaw.
Bloodborne is set in a city called Yharnam, notable for its narrow streets, towering gothic architecture, and cursed citizenry. It’s the townsfolk that pose the greatest challenge to the player, but the city itself shouldn’t be underestimated. Players have to traverse dark alleyways, mirky forests, innumerable cathedrals, and nightmare planescapes to reach their ultimate goal.
The game can be a cooperative experience, and one of my most recent playthroughs was alongside someone who had never played the game before. Although it had been a few years since the last time I played, I found the city’s layout was still familiar, and I was a decent guide. I tried not to lead the way, as it’s important for someone playing the game fresh to discover things on their own, but I was still able to give hints. The way forward might be clear to my friend, but I could make sure they didn’t miss secrets or shortcuts tucked away on side paths.
A moment that stuck out to me was a night when we were in separate areas of Yharnam (progress is not shared between players, so if I clear an area with my friend, I still have to clear it for myself, too). He was talking about collecting a certain set of items when I realized he might need a nudge in the right direction.
I asked “Oh, have you found the secret path out of the Forbidden Woods yet?”
He said he hadn’t, so I told him to head over there.
“Ok, so from the first lantern follow the path over the bridge and down into the gulley with the dudes who are trying to set you on fire. Take a left over the hill covered in yellow weeds and head toward the village. Before you actually get to it, you should see a low stone wall (make sure you dodge the swinging log trap). Follow that wall up the hill going left until you get to the dog cages. Keep left and you should find a path leading down to a foggy cave. Go that way. Bring antidotes.”
I could see it all so clearly without even being there. When he missed one of the turns, I was still able to get him back on track to find the right place because I knew what the entire area looked like. There was a flawless map in my head.
Now, I play games a lot, and when I get into a game it can be the only thing I think about for weeks on end, but this map wasn’t drawn by my obsession. Instead, it was designed, just like a jigsaw.
There’s the shape of the environment that allows me to give directions: straight, right, straight, sharp left, left again, another left, down.
There are colors that stand out and draw your attention in the otherwise dark forest: the bright yellow and orange fires, the musty yellow flowers that signal a break in the border of the area, the grey blue clearing that the village sits in, and the white fog spilling out of the cave.
And finally the objects in the environment give the space texture: the different trees, the log trap, the stone wall, the dog cages.
All the pieces are there, ready to come together as soon as you pick up on them.
I’ve had a similar experience in Destiny 2. The game’s first raid takes place on board the Leviathan, a world-eating ship belonging to the Emperor of one of the enemy factions.
While the meat of the raid takes place in a gilt palace on top of the ship, the most expedient route from encounter to encounter requires you to traverse the ship’s underbelly. This labyrinthine series of maintenance corridors and mechanisms can only be accessed if you know where to find the secret levers and pressure plates in the rooms above, and once you’re down there you still have to know where to go. Once again, the developers don’t give you a map.
That isn’t to say maps can’t be created. The community that plays Destiny will have solutions to these sorts of problems crowdsourced within days of release, but there’s a limit to how useful a map is. A map will show you the shape of a location, and it will let you come up with directions, but if you don’t know how to read the map while you’re in the space, it doesn’t do you any good.
The Leviathan underbelly is still easy to get turned around in, and the environment artists at Bungie deserve a lot of credit for crafting this puzzle. In his (scathing) review of the game, critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw still found a moment to praise the people who put so much time and effort into making the game’s hallways look good.
Except they do a lot more than look good. There are similar assets used to make each hallway in the underbelly, but no two hallways are the same. There are floors made up of metal gratings, walls covered in insulation (or not), steam vents and pipes, and crates full of different materials depending on whether you’re near the armory, the engine room, irrigation, and so on. Each room and hallway also has unique lighting elements, which means color also comes into play.
To the uninitiated, you could find yourself in any of these hallways and have no idea how to get to the next encounter. But if you’re good at puzzles and you can recognize color, texture, and shapes, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding your way around.
Now the devs have included more overt hints to help people. Under your radar, you can see which region of the underbelly you’re in. Transfer. Aqueduct. Conduit. Ventilator. And so on. There are also literal road signs at certain forks. If you see a Warbeast symbol, you know you’re heading toward the Pleasure Gardens. If there’s a Sun emblem, you’re heading to the Royal Pools. The kicker is these overt hints are not present on the Prestige (hard mode) version of the raid, so if you don’t remember the subtle signposts, you’ll have to look up one of those maps.
And it is much more satisfying when you don’t need a map. It is satisfying to know the shape of a thing. Comforting, even. A comfort borne of recognition.
When I’m lost, I feel anxious, and when I’m anxious, I seek that comfort. I look for familiar shapes, whether that is a bend in the road or a familiar face. I want to find the missing piece. I want to recognize, to soothe.
And if I can go beyond comfort and satisfaction, if I can lead others to a solution and demonstrate mastery of a physical space, then maybe I can even overcome the anxiety of feeling lost altogether.
FromSoftware’s Souls-like games are perhaps the most significant new kind of game I’ve gained an interest in this past decade. I liked shooty games in space before. I liked Zelda games before. I liked Smash before. These Souls games have been novel and exciting, and I can only wonder what new experiences I’ll enjoy in the 2020s.
Developed by: Kojima Productions
Released: November 8, 2019
Months after playing Death Stranding, I am struck by how seldom I think about it. With so many big names attached to it and so many cryptic trailers and the promise of a new genre, the game had limitless buzz prior to release. The experience we ended up with was simpler and probably shallower than what a lot of people were hoping for.
Strip away everything else, you’re left with a simple goal: Deliver boxes from point A to point B while crossing a deserted continent. While delivering those boxes, you encounter various obstacles ranging from a particularly steep cliff to a haunted rainstorm. Soggy ghosts might sound like the bigger threat there, and they are startling the first couple of times you encounter them, but you’re given ample tools to deal with them as you progress through the game. By comparison, nothing is more hazardous to you and your mission than losing balance on an incline.
Terrain is the foe I most enjoyed going toe-to-toe with. Geography is the central puzzle to solve, and repeated traversal of various delivery routes gives you the experience you need to complete orders with a high rating. At any point, you can scan the environment and measure how difficult a slope is to climb or how deep a river is. Blue is easy, yellow taxes your stamina, red is impassable. When I began playing, I would use the scanner every few meters. By the end, I could sight-read the lay of the land. And similar to dealing with the ghosts, you are also given tools to make your deliveries easier.
I knew Death Stranding had me after one night where I spent an hour battling a mountainside, searching for the perfect spot to anchor a zipline pylon. You can build out highways to drive big delivery trucks on, and I spent hours sourcing shipments of metals and ceramics for auto-paving devices, all so I could turn 10-minute hikes into 2-minute drives. And while building out infrastructure was satisfying, the best feeling of all came from entering a new region and watching grass, skree, and snow give way to well-worn footpaths.
Over the course of 100 hours and 250 deliveries, the landscape logged the story of my playthrough. Meanwhile, I was more or less indifferent to the actual narrative.
Death Stranding attempts to describe America after an apocalypse forces humanity to live in isolation from one another. Large gatherings pose the risk of a second apocalypse. Couriers, like the one you play as, are essential to keeping society on life support as they deliver essentials from one small collective to another.
Over the course of a trip across the country, you meet many characters, some more compelling than others. A coroner who is more comfortable in the company of the dead than the living. A scientist who goes into cardiac arrest every 22 minutes so he can search the afterlife for his family. A fellow courier who is trying to repair her reputation within the community she serves.
Also, you are pursued by the specter haunting the United States, Mads Mikkelson.
Everyone has their own tale of what it’s like living in perpetual quarantine, and you can learn about all of them, provided you check your email. Beyond the main cast, all the people you meet have your character’s email address, and all of them bombard you with emails to talk about how their views and situations change over the course of the game. They can’t go outside, so it isn’t as though you would be able to encounter them and hear their stories firsthand. You certainly do not play a part in those stories, despite what some of the characters say. You are just the delivery guy. The motivation for one of the game’s antagonists is only revealed to you in a series of emails, and to even receive them you have to make sure you have carried out a specific set of deliveries.
When the plot shows up in game, the storytelling is no less laborious. Characters appear so they can recite the themes of the game to you throughout a cascade of cutscenes. “Humans have to stick together, or else there’s no hope.” “The bonds that connect us are stronger than anything.” “We have to make America whole again.”
It’s a lot, and sometimes it even works. But by the end of the game, I was struck by the feeling that none of the Americas depicted in Death Stranding actually exist.
The hype for this game had some believing it was going to be this revolutionary experience that would change games forever. I don’t think that’s this game’s legacy, though it was fun. I hope that other developers look at how thoughtful you need to be just to get around in the world of Death Stranding and do something with that.
On Christmas night, I loaded up the game and was quickly drawn into a dream sequence, a regular occurrence. Mads was there, with a cake. He wished me a happy birthday. If nothing else, I can say that’s something that Death Stranding gave me that I don’t think another game could.
Developed by: Yacht Club Games
Released: June 26, 2014
Shovel Knight is a perfect game.
You play as a blue knight wielding a shovel on a quest to free the land from the clutches of the Order of No Quarter. You can smack enemies with your shovel, dig treasure out of piles of rocks, and bounce on foes using your shovel like a pogo stick. Throughout your journey, you see visions of your fallen comrade, Shield Knight, and are left to wonder what became of them.
This game feels perfect to play. It has perfect art and style. It has perfect music. It has a perfect little story. It is perfect.
It was perfect when it was released in 2014. I first started playing it the next year, but never finished it. That wound up being fine because by 2019, the developers had added three more campaigns and bundled them all up in the Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove collection, which features fun extras and updates. There’s even a gender-swap feature that lets you choose what gender the principle characters are.
Playing it last year also means I got to play it on the Switch, and similar to Hollow Knight (no relation), this game is perfect for the Switch. It’s great to pick it up, play through a level, and then put it back down. I spent the last week of 2019 finding 20 minutes here and there to squeeze in some shovelry. It feels right on a handheld, too.
After a month of trudging through the wastes of Death Stranding, it felt good to have a lighter jaunt in Shovel Knight. Times past, I would play one game at a time, start to finish. More recently, I’ve grown to appreciate playing complimentary games. If I’m not in the mood for a mainstay or a dozens-of-hours-long quest, I can branch off into a shorter, breezier experience. A game like Shovel Knight can recharge me when I need a boost, and it’s nice to recognize that while examining how I play.
What precedes this section is my breathtaking failure to write a quick year-in-review blog post about the games I played last year.
I knew it was something I wanted to do and had kept a running list on my phone, yet in the end I only gave myself the last week of December to write. I thought I would do quick hits, a gut reaction to each game. For most of the games on my list, that didn’t happen. I had enough distance from some titles that it was hard to summon those feelings. Remembering meant dwelling, and dwelling takes time. I have long been a leisurely thought gatherer, and this time proved no different.
My approach was flawed in other ways. For a while, I forced myself to write in order, which meant I would get stuck trying to write about one game even though I might have had a clearer idea of what I’d write about another. I also wouldn’t let myself publish a partial article. It was all of it or none of it, so when I reached May having made it through three quarters of the list, I held all of that hostage until now, when I have finished what I started. I didn’t want to narrow the list at all, either. The prompt was “Every Game I Played in 2019,” not “My Top However Many Games of 2019.” Outsized ambitions may have led me to that prompt, though. 21 games didn’t seem like that many.
A hurdle I couldn’t have anticipated was everything about 2020. I’m not sure it’s worth talking about all the ways this year has been hostile to creative endeavors and motivation. Writing may not require close collaboration with others, but feeling alive does. And it’s difficult to write when you reach the end of a day wondering if we’re going to make it through all of this.
Ultimately, it comes down to poor discipline, as it always does with me. It is easier to not write than it is to write. And it is easier to write something long than it is to write something brief.
I still sit down to write acting like I have to have a thesis. Like I need to be saying something. This is just my blog, though, and I’d like to do more blogging.
An old message board I used to post on remains accessible, and a handful of people still post there and check in every few days. We generally share updates on games we’ve played and stuff we’ve watched. I have a topic that is basically a video game diary, and the friends who read that topic also read this blog. If I’m writing down thoughts for two or three people on a semi-regular basis, I might as well put those thoughts up somewhere that a dozen more could read them, too. It’s not what everyone is here for, so I’ll include some sort of tag in the title that will allow any email followers who don’t want to read about video games to filter those posts out of their inbox. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I do enjoy this sort of reflection. It was worth seeing this through for me to recognize some common threads and the core components that I look for when I’m playing games. Navigation. Atmosphere. Sense of place. Player footprint. Curiosity. Mastery. These are at the heart of what this hobby is to me, and having samples of the connective tissue helps me decide which game to play next, and the one after that, and so on.
Having said that, I hope that lowering my own expectations for my writing will allow me to put up thoughts like these, as they probably should have been, as individual pieces. At the very least, don’t expect to read about all the games I played in 2020 next September.