A truly Epic Enterprise.
Merritt Kopas runs Forest Ambassador, a site full of personal and resonant games. You can follow Merritt on Twitter here.
i don’t believe in award lists because they’re silly and reductive and problematic but mike asked me to do one. i run this site called forest ambassador that curates small, weird games, which means i play a lot of small games that don’t get nearly enough attention elsewhere, so i figured i’d use this mostly as an excuse to talk about some games that a lot of people probably didn’t play this year. advance warning: not all of these are going to be videogames, or even games at all. anarchy.
10. hurt me plenty
robert is doing some of the most exciting work around sex, bodies, and intimacy in games of anyone i know. hurt me plenty was made for the leapmotion and the appropriation of a motion-sensitive device to convey the infliction of violence within a consensual setting — as well as the framing of the narrative, with negotiation, boundaries, and aftercare all forming part of the interaction, is totally genius. i don’t have a leapmotion but playing hurt me plenty with a mouse was still a touching (sorry) experience. how many games depict anyone receiving care, much less require the player to care for someone? robert rules.
okay full disclosure i have not played consentacle yet but it is up here just because it exists. naomi and i talked a lot about the game prior to its release this year, and i immediately fell in love with the concept of retaking the notion of human-alien sex from the ‘tentacle rape’ trope, a trope that’s also become a racialized joke at the expense of japanese culture. maybe there are kind of obvious reasons that i’m into the idea of a game about curious — maybe even fetishizing — humans reaching out to the unknown possibilities of new sexual bodies. but to see consentacle in action, to watch two people play a cooperative card game about meeting each other’s needs, is a pretty special thing.
naomi herself admits that the game isn’t perfect — there’s still an economy of tokens, numbers, cards that players exchange during play, bringing the cold rationality of exchange logic into the bedroom as so many games about sex do. but it’s an imaginative, powerful step in the direction of cooperative, exploratory, playful experiences, a game about sex that actually asks you to exchange with another human being to figure out how you’re gonna do this thing in a mutually satisfying way. which is rad.
8. realistic kissing simulator
part of me hopes the ‘wacky simulator’ craze dies with 2014 but another part of me loves the notion of producing something akin to what an alien disgusted with the human body might when asked to describe the act like kissing and then labeling it a ‘realistic simulator.’ i guess i think of loren schmidt as a kind of beautiful alien in the best possible way, so maybe that makes sense. but realistic kissing simulator’s goal isn’t to gross you out, at least not in the way that a lot of games about bodies or sex seem to want to. it’s a two-player game that invites you to consider the absurd strangeness of bodies in a playful way, with a partner. and like in hurt me plenty, negotiation and consent are part of the interaction — they’re not bracketed as cutscenes. it’s totally possible for two players’ involvement with the game to end when one says that they don’t want to kiss the other — just like in real life!
7. twine 2.0
we love to celebrate people who make things. and there are a lot of problems with that, but let’s start with the fact that we don’t pay nearly as much attention to the people that make it possible for others to make those things we love. i’m editing an anthology of twine games right now and none of the works in that book would exist without chris klimas having built twine in the first place and having decided to make it open-source and free, or without leon arnott’s tireless, unobtrusive but omnipresent efforts to expand the tool and make it better and more responsive to its users. twine 2.0 just came out and it represents the cumulative work of tons of people who will never be lauded for their labour, because their work exists in the main to enable other people to do theirs.
but if we are serious about building better, more caring, more hospitable spaces for games, then we need to deconstruct not just the obvious problems with games culture. we need to seriously examine the less-obvious problems with media cultures more generally: cults of personality, the elevation of the ‘artist’, and the disappearing of support work. leon arnott is the goddamn fairy godmother of twine, chris klimas is santa claus, and every coder whose work has gone into making my games, several of the games on this list, and the hundreds of games that have been made with twine possible are all gorgeous, incredible people and i can’t wait to see what people do with the new tools they’ve put out into the world.
you can instigate a sexpocalypse. i shouldn’t have to say much more than that.
but i will: benji bright is one of the only people i know doing explicitly gay work in games right now. his games are about male bodies colliding in a variety of ways, and it’s saying something that his writing does something for me as a lesbian. god(s) plays like american gods read back when i was actually into neil gaiman, but better — it’s coy, silly, adventurous.
and again: sexpocalypse.
5. dream askew
let’s pretend for the sake of propriety that dream askew didn’t come out in late 2013 but in early 2014. i didn’t play it until 2014, anyway, when i sat in a friend’s brooklyn apartment and a group of us, a group of women, played it together. avery mcdaldno’s modification of apocalypse world — itself a strong game — strips away most of the mechanical bits like stats, equipment, and even the game master role until you’re just left with a group of people working together to tell a story. i have a hard time getting into these kinds of games sometimes — they intimidate me, put me on the spot. but dream askew is generous in its approach, giving each player multiple ways to participate in the collaborative work of narrative-building. and as a game about an uneven experience of apocalypse, about how marginalized people build alternatives to the towering palaces of power, it’s extremely compelling.
4. fantasy life
i think fantasy life was one of two AAA games released this year that i played, and there are a lot of reasons to dislike it: it participates in the same uncritical transposition of idyllic exchange capitalism onto a fantasy world as animal crossing does, it can be kind of grindy, and there is probably too much packed into it. it’s too big, like most big-budget games are, to justify their cost (which is so high because of how big they are, etc etc).
but there’s a lot to like too! the writing is surprisingly good for a role-playing game — the game skews silly rather than serious and as a result it gets away from most of the cliches of the genre and just pulls you along from encounter to encounter, each of which is pretty funny in its own right. the narrative does things like setting up a ‘vaguely middle eastern evil faction’ then totally subverting it. and you don’t actually really have to fight anything much at all, if you don’t want to! if you’d like you can totally just be a tailor and get really good at making clothes, or be an angler and catch weird rare fish all day.
women resisting white supremacy. women building alternatives together. women living in the face of omnipresent, cissupremacist harassment. women who didn’t make it to the end of the year, whose deaths were described as suicides but who were, in reality, murdered by the collective toll of every hostile word and gesture. women laughing in the face of organized hate campaigns. women working to undermine and resist those campaigns so that others are never put in the position they were. women working to deal with not just the surface, obvious sexism within games but the deeper, more systemic problems of the industry, of capitalism. women writing about and for other women. women speaking to each other, in public, as human beings. women making games. women not making games. women living with disabilities and dealing with the double marginalization of having to speak up about their exclusion. women supporting, nurturing, and loving other women.
2. the floor is jelly
i was sick and thought i was dying when i played this. i’m pretty sure i played it all the way through in a single night. i didn’t die. thanks, ian.
1. secrets agent
i think a lot about how messed up it is that so few games legitimately touch me. even though more and more games deal with personal topics and issues that are actually relevant to my life, games more than music or books or poems still occupy this weird space in my life where i’m kind of surprised when they actually feel like, meaningful? and secrets agent really surprised me.
it’s touching and tender in a way that i feel like games are still scared to be, for fear of being labeled overly earnest or sappy, maybe? but we seem to have this problem, here in videogames, of valuing shock and discomfort over care. we don’t want to ‘care’ for our players, not really. we cater to them, maybe, enable them, but we so rarely seem to be interested in caring for them. and secrets agent surprised me because it did exactly that. it felt warm and inviting and made me laugh and smile and feel close to a real human being and it’s sad that games don’t do that more often but when it does happen, like it does here, it’s something truly special.