This is the worst thing I can say about the Game Of The Year tradition: the point of it is in the spectacle. It seldom brings anything new to the table on the games it lists, it seldom presents the games in any context other than a rehashing of what was believed by the author months and months ago. The dying year is a handy excuse to categorize, rather than cause to reflect on it as another step in a journey forward. So The Last of Us replaces last year’s summer romp, which replaced Uncharted 3, which replaced Uncharted 2… I wonder if it might be a fun experiment to present GOTY blurbs over the years with names and proper nouns omitted to see how distinguished and memorable these games truly are.
Today, at any rate, I’m going to share with you my favourite games of the year. What I’m hoping will stop me from being a big smelly hypocrite is these games are probably not titles you’ve heard of, unless you’ve kept your ear fairly close to the ground. The best thing about these games is that they’re all free – you can play them in your browser or download them in only a few minutes, so my motivation in speaking of them is partly driven by the knowledge that you could be only a heartbeat away from falling in love with them as I did. I’ve arranged them in order of length – Moirai will only take a few minutes to complete whereas Candy Box 2 might take you some days.
I’ve included each game here in the title to diminish the spectacle. Instead, for each title, I’m going to talk about what each game awakened in me, what it did for me that changed something in the way I look at videogames or think about design, or planted the seeds of ideas that I hope will bud and flourish in the year to come. You might think I’m taking the piss in my choice of titles, that Bubsy couldn’t possibly be better than BioShock Infinite or TLOU. I’m not. This is a list of my favourite games from this past year. The reason those games aren’t here is because I don’t think they are very good.
Please assume spoilers for each game. I’d recommend you play these games before reading my bit about them, but you shouldn’t be terribly inconvenienced by reading on regardless.
Moirai – HyperNexus
Two things I love about Moirai are how it uses its controls to push the player towards empathising, and that it knows empathy comes from experience and social context. I stress the latter because of games like Ico and The Castle Doctrine that measure relations by proximity, utility or monetary value, which is sadly still the consensus among many game designers.
Once you launch into the Moirai there’s this great feeling as you’re getting to grips with the archaic first person perspective controls – it’s a feeling I also enjoy from the old Resident Evils, Project Zero, Clock Tower, etc. Hindering and regulating the way the player navigates virtual space is very important when aiming to disempower. For myself as someone fairly experienced with modern FPSs and their control schemes, becoming refamiliarized with an old style interface hit me with a jarring, confusing sense of sense-awareness. It compliments the old timey setting and aesthetic quite nicely.
So the control scheme is paramount to jolting you to empathize. Though you are given a pathetic-looking dagger with which to protect yourself, you are not given a chance to practise it and accustom yourself towards its use. You’ve no notion how make good with it – it’s at first a safety blanket, then revealed to be a burden by its symbolism. This is how Moirai enacts player empathy, by putting you in a brief spattering of social encounters wherein appearance and context conjure a flurry of fears and anxiety and understandings. The use of freely input text forces the player to self-express, ideally articulating their experiences in the cave in as brief a format as possible in a tone endearing them to their challenger. Through disempowerment you realise the power of other people over you, as opposed to stimulating the imagination on what you can do to other people. Because you’re put on the back foot, your best weapon is your ability to relate to the stranger. The second encounter overlayers this with a deeper kinship with the first farmer, and an odd sense of disembodiment in the mirroring of your earlier self through the second farmer. Everybody seems so fearful and threatening, and you realise, “They’re just like me.” It’s a complex social situation played out eloquently, founded on the blood and sinew of the player’s pre-existing social experiences – how to read body language, perceiving objects and bloodstains as signs of aggression, perhaps a fear of the supernatural.
What I liked most about Imscared was its use of fourth-wall breaking puzzle logic, where the horror exists first within the boundaries of the game before spreading into your harddrive and browser and the game’s description, all the while the game’s fundamental rules keep shifting. I say fundamental but this doesn’t disjoin your ability to play the game: it plays the same from start to finish, but each time you boot up the game, you’re met with a brand new room and a new scenario, which we know is not what games are supposed to do on double-clicking the executable file, and each time the window closes thereafter, you’re never sure if the game is actually, really over.
At first I thought White Face was going to be just another horror baddie that chases you and catches you and it’s scary but unoriginal. Instead this is a thing that wants to communicate, who wants to play with you rather than simply get you. I felt a complex relationship form out of that: although it had vast power over me, I knew my own sense of power by the exercising of consent into its games and participation with it out of desire to complete the game and free myself from his control. It’s all the more tangible when you consider how you need to re-enter the game each time you’re kicked out, to re-initiate your participation with White Face. Because White Face wasn’t just malevolent, because it behaved in sometimes odd ways – teasing me, watching me, goading me or encouraging me, always with that goofy smile on its face – I suppose I gained a weirdly appreciative inclination towards it, when for example it wouldn’t chase me though it very easily could have. By the end, I don’t know what I felt, but it could have been a bond. Which is a ton more memorable and insidious than your generic ‘ultimate evil’ horror ghoul. I would like to see more games that befriend you with the token of your horror.
Imscared was actually released around October 2012, but I’m putting it here because it received a bit of resurgence this year while still getting less attention than it deserves. Also I only realised as much while writing this up and sure it’s done now. Breaking all the rules.
Bubsy embraces its stupidity, it thrives in the pretension of the museum setting, spouting wanky observations about wanky art in a perfect mockery of self-acclaimed art games. Its disdain for the struggle of Being Art shows quite well through just how dreadful everything is, even the web design with its multicoloured comic sans and disorientating background. Bubsy’s constipated face pierces my soul, the anguish of a revived corpse of an icon who was never popular. I think if this were anyone other than Bubsy it wouldn’t be nearly as pompous.
I love how Bubsy’s pupils hover a foot outside his head when you glide. I love how the frogs say nothing of meaning, how the collectibles are pointless and frustrating to reach. I love how the utterly shite descent into Hell is presented as part of the installation, how heavy-handed a commentary it is on the practise of games as art. Most of all, I love how meaningless the entire thing is, how it gestures towards some feint idea of a message that could be read into (Bubsy rides a bobsled and he is a bobcat, this is a Metaphor), when really it’s all just a load of nonsense. You can read into it any way you want and no matter what you’re left the fool because it doesn’t deserve the consideration and it doesn’t substantiate a thing you’ve said. We’ve a term in Ireland for this kind of irreverent mischief, for something playful and troublesome and valuable to our lives and entirely unworthy of reflection – “a bit of craic.” I think Bubsy is a good leg beyond any other game at being good craic. Another term which I think Bubsy shows art games to be: gobshites.
I haven’t played a game in a long time that relates mechanics to narrative as solidly as this. The curt, broken language used to describe the world is the same that empowers you to act within it, to build and stoke and craft. As the narrative unfurls, more buttons are made available: behind each button is a mystery to the purpose of that action, to its placement within your economy and the wasteland around you. Immediately upon starting the game you conceive the narrative possibilities with mechanical possibilities and recognize how the empty visual space around your mechanics relates to depths of the world yet explored.
A Dark Room was the game that finally helped me realise that exploration is predicated on mystery and discovery, that without a drive to learn something about myself or the gameworld or the game’s systems, I was just plodding around collecting trinkets so I could say I did it.
This one is much like A Dark Room, but whereas ADR teases you to scrape through the rot of a dead world, Candy Box 2 lifts you up and out and unlids your imagination. I’m not sure if that makes sense. I played A Dark Room with a furrowed brow, creeping and guarding against horrors unknown. Candy Box 2 is like flying above the clouds and looking down at a brand new world through the joyous eyes of a child. It feels boundless and senseless, and there’s such freedom in that that’s inaccessible to games made of polygons and budgets far too high.
The most curious thing in Candy Box 2 is the magic system and how you have to brew up your own potions. It’s like there’s an entire realm out of your cauldron and the spellbook, there’s so much that can be done with even only a few options involved in potion-making. That the world allows for seemingly anything enhances this sensation. It makes me desperately want to see a game where I play a witch whose supernatural reputation manifests through knowledge of herbs and the preparation of poultices and expertise in their use, as opposed to the usual business where you buy spells or find them lying around and you just shoot them like a gun.