The calendar is, of course, different in Tlön, so in celebration of the impending New Year, here’s my games of the year for 201Xa.
10: LARGE MAMMAL ENCOUNTER (P. Menzies / Nefarious Designs). Technically, this is an open-source AI engine with a series of examples cobbled together into something game-shaped. Menzies, whose day job is zoology postdoc, was tired of the depiction of dangerous animals in videogames, and collaborated with Nefarious Designs to produce a meticulously data-based AI. The game is mostly about short scenes in which you are ignored (and very occasionally savaged) by a variety of well-documented megafauna, under conditions determined by an impressively over-the-top range of sliders and tickyboxes. (This is the first game I’ve played where you can choose whether the PC is menstruating.)
The cool thing about this, for something so heavily-researched, is that it doesn’t pretend authority when it doesn’t have it – where the evidence justifying a behavioural rule is hazy, it pauses the game and offers you options. And you can set how often these interruptions come up, and thus much of a stickler for data you want to be – anywhere from Common Sense Guess to Hard Data Only. Even if you’ve got quibbles with the exact implementation, this is such an accessible demonstration of science’s relationship with probability and induction that all else is forgiven. LME’s original hope was that it’d be taken up by game designers; I don’t see that happening, but I sure as hell hope it finds its way into plenty of classrooms.
9: NEVER THE CITY (Unterhopt): NTC was designed as ‘a wordless, no-protagonist point-and-click adventure where anything you click on advances the story, and nothing is ever the same twice.’ While it doesn’t quite add up to this hype, it’s about as close as is reasonable to expect. The entire game is played within a single screen, a gorgeously-painted surreal city panorama with details you can zoom in on, inhabited by little faceless people. When you tap on things, buildings change, seasons and festivals come and go, people go about their lives. This is all seen from afar: no words, no expressions, as if you’re watching through a telescope, so you have to do a lot of guesswork. Many of the moments are throwaway – a cat runs along a parapet, a trombonist plays in the park – and at first it all seems disconnected, but then certain characters begin to recur – the girl with the hat, the two soldiers, the parkourist, the lost child, the man with the cane – you learn their moods, and you feel on the edge of piecing the vignettes together into a story. And then, if it’s your first time playing, the bigger picture pushes into the foreground – some kind of radical change transforms the city, and the game ends. Usually this takes about 45 minutes, half an hour if you rush it.
Sometimes, if you know what you’re doing and make a concerted push towards it, you can get some sort of resolution to the story of an individual character, but I never felt satisfied by them – they leave questions open, or put the character back where they started, or feel like small solace. I was much more engaged with this than with the vaunted 64 endings of the city’s plot: some of them are visually striking, but it felt a little too much like a time-cave, taking whatever input you happened to be throwing in and turning it into an either-or decision every few moves. For the most part, the changes alter the character stories only subtly (a meeting might take place on a balcony rather than a bridge) though there are a handful of vignettes with stronger dependence (the two soldiers behave quite differently when martial law is declared.)
8: THE EXEMPLARY BOYHOOD (Glory Productions). For the past decade, the best Hensi-language games have been shungfar, ‘superior play’, propaganda biographies of the super-rich, produced as status projects and sold dirt cheap for maximum cultural penetration. Most are untranslated, and they generally come with way too much cultural baggage to make them accessible to Western tastes. A couple of years back I played a fan-translated version of The 1024 Perfections of Minister Thun, and was at once impressed by how much conspicuous craft had gone into it, and almost completely incapable of figuring out anything whatsoever.
The construction magnate Tenhu Ingi commissioned a three-part shungfar about his life, to be titled Through Magnificent Seasons. The Spring portion, chronicling his childhood and adolescence, was nearing release when Ingi was arrested and promptly executed for treason-by-corruption. Amid the liquidation of his assets, Spring was shuffled around between a dozen or more holders, variously repurposed into The Exemplary Boyhood, and, eventually, professionally localised for foreign markets for profit.
The hero has been re-identified with Ifren, an enduringly popular figure created for Hensi children’s textbooks in the 70s; but even without digging very deep, it’s easy to recognise that he was originally Ingi. On top of this, it’s a standard device in shungfar for real figures to embody figures from folklore and popular culture some of the time, as allegory or throwaway rhetorical device, so it’s not as though Ifren really messes with things all that much. The point of the game is to perfect the Youthful Virtues of loyal duty, loyal honour, hygiene, virility, industry and generosity by playing exquisitely polished minigames, while wandering around an idealised version of Shifeni District c.1960. Longer-arc goals vary from the charming (raise a pig to win the District Fair; the entire relationship with your mother) to the nationalistic (expose an spy with your Youth Brigade buddies) to the downright weird (just about everything to do with Ifren/Ingi’s numerous adolescent sweethearts). And there’s the strange foreboding that inevitably hangs over this resolutely cheerful, dutiful youth: the whole story is about growing up to be an upstanding member of society, but you know that he will, in fact, grow up to be killed by that society, for reasons which will probably never become fully clear.
7: DISURBAN (Vitoria Salerni / Teo Poliakov / Seeded House). A construct-and-expand game, except that here the pristine wilderness you’re building on is the half-flooded ruins of a major city, which your clan of neo-primitives must re-green into something habitable. While external threats exist, they’re less troublesome than internal conflict (except for kudzu, which is basically Satan). This is basically a story about giving up power and trying to do so gracefully. As you gain more resources, your direct control inevitably recedes; without careful pacing this can be catastrophic. Ultimately, the only way to retain micromanagement-level power is to keep your people poor, undeveloped, homogenous and vulnerable. It’s a pretty uneven piece: the game’s authors don’t seem able to agree about whether the tone should be painfully earnest or gently snarky (and it should be no great shock that I infinitely prefer it in the latter mode). Regardless, it is very soothing to turn a world of grody, straight-edged concrete boxes into an unruly green.
While most city-builders are great sprawling things that take a goodly time to finish and reward replay, Disurban can be played to completion in about four hours, and doesn’t offer much variation on replay. The authors have made firm statements that they see no way to expand it without ruining the whole thing, so there it stands.
6: SEPARATE POWERS (Breeder Reactor). Everybody characterises this as ‘American Gods with the serial numbers filed off’, which will do until I can come up with something less lazy. You’re an Elector, a sort of second-tier demigod representing a particular district; your ultimate goal is to foil the schemes of the One Nation Undergod, a chthonic assimilationist, but to do this you have to wander the nation, forging back-room deals, gathering unruly and demanding allies, manipulating Cosmic Forces, and occasionally throwing down.
The immediate gameplay is OK, but thing that made me really impressed was the culture part of character-creation: rather than a simple race field, you get a whole set of sliders determining how closely you identify with/are connected to different US culture groups – some involve ancestry, some are regional, and there’s a grab-bag of persistent subcultures. These affect almost everything in the game – feats, relationships, spheres of influence – but most importantly, it affects your Attunement to various deities and pantheons, which in turn unlocks questlines. (This is a big deal because Separate Powers doesn’t have a main questline, really, until the very end.) The imbalance of this last has been extensively documented, and while DLC is slowly patching up some of the holes, the awesome promise of those sliders is still a long way off being fulfilled.
5: COUTURE (Heavy Petal). You know the thing in Like Water for Chocolate where – no, scratch that, let’s go with Chocolat – or, better yet, the hat shop in Howl’s Moving Castle. The deal is, you run a magical boutique in a close-knit neighbourhood where everyone has modest but intense problems, which you attempt to solve by designing magical clothes for them. The problems get solved, but until you’ve leveled up sufficiently in the relevant skills, they usually get solved way too hard, creating ever-escalating levels of chaos until you learn how to be more precise about it. The outfit-choice mechanics can produce some… odd combinations, so it’s probably safest to think of it as representing the cultural rules of a wholly foreign culture that just happens to resemble Europe entre-deux-guerres in some respects.
It’s oddly light-hearted for a game that’s fundamentally about tampering with people’s personalities with decidedly ambiguous consent, but I was pleased about how it portrays the PC’s romance subplots as being enabled by becoming less of an immature asshole, rather than earned by great deeds or something the player is inherently entitled to.
4: 19TH CENTURY LITERARY JOURNAL TYCOON (Mira Sistani / Ghosted Past). Hire an editor, solicit contributors, discover and cultivate authors, and juggle Posterity and Fashion while trying not to go too broke. There’s a randomised Alternate Mode for hardcore spreadsheet-strategy fans, but I got the most value out of the meticulously-researched History Mode, which is way gentler (at least, if you already have some name-recognition ability when it comes to period authors, or are willing to look everything up on Orbis) and utterly fascinating as a non-fiction overview of English literature 1798-1914. The things that interested me most: watching the cachet of authors rise and fall, and its frank attention to how money affects art. (I tried to force H.G. Wells to insert a superfluous American character into War of the Worlds to boost US sales. He told me to go screw, but I’m pretty sure I could have managed it if I’d just built up more relationship. And hopefully you all saw some of that Twitch Ruins The Classics LP, or at least read the writeups.)
It’s a bit, well, dry – that said, I played this immediately after Couture, where scandalous affairs and outré passions are commonplace, so that may be an unfair comparison. As a starting-point for further reading, though – which is, after all, what it’s designed as, since Sistani originally wrote Tycoon as a teaching aid for her introductory-level literature class – it’s magnificent.
3: FIRE NEXT TIME (Seachange). The weird thing about it is that it’s a game about dragon-riding where you don’t get a dragon until about a third of the way in, and don’t get to ride it until the final scenes. The protagonist, a fourteen-year-old kid from somewhere in the Appalachians, finds herself in possession of a dragon egg stolen from the Confederates: a well-managed dragon is about as powerful as an ironclad warship, so everybody wants their hands on it, and most of the game is about eluding capture and making it to Union lines in a region of very dappled loyalties.
The dragon battles are appropriately chaotic adrenaline fun once you get to them, the richly detailed setting provides plenty of interest for the otherwise mediocre run-and-sneak sections, and the soundtrack is the best of the year (even if much of it is about a century too modern). But the best part of is – well, it’s been thoroughly spoiled by this point, so there’s no harm in spoiling it again: you start out by crafting your character, picking out clothes and hairstyles and jawlines, doing the usual thing of crafting someone awesome. And then the game breaks the bargain and applies that appearance to your best friend, Callie/Cal from the next farm over. You’re Midge, whether you like it or not. Midge is gangly, slouches a little, has unmanageable hair, and is not doing a great job of passing off the black part of her ancestry as Cherokee. Your first feeling about her is a reflex shit, this isn’t what I asked for, which is pretty much what Midge feels about herself. Whenever Cal shows up in the story again, it prompts this involuntary twinge of… something, I don’t know if envy is the right word. I found this element a lot more convincing than the girl-and-her-pony relationship with Smoke, which totally soft-pedals everything else we know about dragons in this world.
2: THE DEVOURING (Scuttlebutt). Miklasar is yer basic swords-and-sorcery port-city, a seething, villainous melting-pot. It therefore has the best restaurants. To this gilded cesspit rides Skrang the Devourer, barbarian restaurant critic. The player plays a series of chefs – or the same chef hopping jobs? this aspect is kind of weird – competing for star ratings from Skrang’s exacting palate. Seated at table, Skrang chows down with one hand while using the other to absent-mindedly slay wave after wave of off-screen foes, seen only as their loot (and body-parts) splatter onto your prep table. Your job is buffing through speed-crafting, basically: you have to combine looted ingredients into dishes and dispatch them to be eaten before Skrang gets overwhelmed.
There’s a lot to keep track of, here: Skrang needs carbs to keep smiting, protein to convert experience into skill-tree upgrades, and a whole array of buffs to overcome the most fearsome foes. A wider range of dishes increases your star rating, but you also want to prioritise more elaborate dishes for better cash. This is absolutely the kind of game that only works on a good-sized tablet: you’ll be using both hands most of the time, feverishly hurling low-grade Orc Briskets and Devil Tripe into the swill-bucket as you try to avoid ruining yet another bechamel. (Some people have reviewed this as a clumsy-interface-comedy piece; I can see why; even if I don’t agree that this is the soul of the game, you generally leave the kitchen in one hell of a mess). Thankfully, Devouring doesn’t force you to memorise recipes, and later on you can delegate a lot of the more repetitive sub-tasks to loyal Sous-Chefs.
Mostly I liked the implied metropolis of Miklasar, where Bavarians, Thais and Mexicans don’t just rub elbows with goblins and demonspawn: they open outlandishly-decorated fusion restaurants together. Dragons come in many breeds, from the unpalatable Zebu to the fearsome Wagyu. Goblin cuisine mostly rotates around cannibalism, each elf culture has more improbable dietary restrictions than the last, and every cuisine is shaped by a heavy reliance on monster products. Also pretty cool is its handling of Skrang’s gender in chargen: rather than tick a box, torso, arms and face are selected separately, with options ranging from hyper-gendered beards and hourglasses to androgyny of various stripes. The grammar of barbarian-speak (the end-of-level summaries are delivered as Skrang’s arch reviews) lacks pronouns.
1: HOUSE OF SMOKE AND ASHES (Nutshell): NK has been making second-tier social horror games (Time and Tide, Loa) for years; this year they stepped up into the big leagues, competing directly against Irredeemer and Anita Vs. Buffy III. It still bears the marks of its indie roots: Hosaa’s action is confined to a single lavishly-appointed building, in which a dissolute and fractured vampire clan are throwing a dissolute and fractured party for selected bigwigs and hotties of the paranormal community. You are a double (or triple, etc.) agent, trying to… well, the most obvious objective is to get the clan to implode, neutralising it politically. Given that their present cares rotate around drugs, sex and assorted merriment, those are your tools.
It’s possible to play Hosaa as a straight-up H dating-sim, starting a new game to target each character (probably using a strategy guide), finding their sex scenes and giving up afterwards. Indeed, evidence suggests that this how a substantial number of players approach it, which is hilarious, because this is a game where sex always means something, often many things. There are a lot of messy emotional needs underneath that carousing. Unlike most of its relatives, Hosaa doesn’t model emotional resilience mechanically – I contend that it really doesn’t need to if you’re properly engaged with it.
I’ve never played a game where your gender and appearance choices matter so regularly. I’ve also never played one where social interactions carried so much threat. You’re surrounded by volatile, needy people who are strong enough to pick up small cars and are constrained only by their equally-volatile peers. You need allies, however uncertain, and every new-made enemy evokes a lurch of dread. It is not, despite reports to the contrary, a no-combat game: by my count, you can kick the ass of a little over a fifth of the NPCs, given the right circumstances. But it’s fairly marginal, and it’s never the romancey sword-duel-that-ends-in-a-kiss genre standard. Similarly, love does feature, but it’s rarely good news: when I eventually happened across a plot arc that was actually kind of sweet (I am not spoiling which) much of its effectiveness was about how unexpected that was.
Previous Tlönology: GOTY 2014.