Open up my eager eyes.
In lieu of a normal top ten list where I try and just sell you on a bunch of games that I think are ok, I wanted to pick five games I played this year that gave me really unique experiences that I think are worth playing. I didn’t want to reckon with telling you why it’s worth maybe playing Dark Souls again or that maybe WWE 2K19 is slightly better than previous years because, let’s face it, they would have made that list. I don’t wanna put you or me through that. Here are my games of this year, in particular.
5. Final Fantasy XV
I played this game shortly after a really long road trip, traveling from Connecticut, to Louisiana, back to Connecticut, and then all over the eastern US to a bunch of different places like Boston and New York and Washington DC, and then landing finally in my new home in Louisiana. So, naturally, the best decision I made was to play a game simulating the road trip experience. This is a joke!
The drive physically was very grueling, even if the moments where I got to meet up with friends and hang out in entirely new places were some of the best experiences of my life. Spending hours on the road and then seeing these four very precious boys do the exact same thing without the endless hours, listening to podcast after podcast, calling friends just to keep myself occupied because today’s eight hour drive has been especially harsh
I would occasionally take a break at rest stops, and it made me think about their geography and the daily lives of people who work at a gas station in Mississippi off a highway little to nobody travels through on a regular basis. Up north, rest stops are usually very scenic, nice hang out spots with campgrounds, and the next stop wouldn’t be far away. Down south, they’re more akin to something like the stops in FFXV, small isolated groups of businesses that exist simply for each other and the scant few consumers that role through.
While FFXV makes them out to be something more like tiny towns, that’s not what these are. This is a McDonald’s and an off brand family owned gas station, maybe a dollar store, with nothing but fields and forests for miles separating the next stops. These people eventually stop working for the night and drive to their homes on distant country roads. The lives of people at stops in FFXV are even more isolated.
I ran into a couple places where it was simply just a Crow’s Nest, FFXV’s diner equivalent of a McDonalds, and a couple of other essential things like gas. The roads between these stops and the biggest towns are swarming with monsters, especially at night where it’s notably very dangerous to drive. There’s no real explanation why a lot of these tiny towns are so sparse, or how they can subsist with so little resources and accomodations, which left me with only to speculate. Do they sleep in their diners? Are they ok financially? The only explanation for any kind of sustainability in these kinds of settlements I found in game is that they’re all well lit so that scares away monsters from attacking at night. It feels like very little thought was put into these places, and yet they reflect the sparseness of real world rest stops.
Other stops are sort of like small settlements, with non-interactive buildings in the area as well, suggesting that the people who work at this stop live here too. It’s a weird concession that makes total sense within the world, but in a broader sense feels like a damning condemnation of capitalism in America, something that FFXV’s fantasy road trip aesthetic attempts to evoke through its stretching miles of open road and franchises. People are so tied to their work-life that they build settlements out of their homes. There’s only one major farm that I found in the world of FFXV, but they exist as a business.
There are no solitary locations that exist outside of businesses. No self-sustaining settlements that don’t exist to make money. You maintain a franchise because you cannot exist without it. I don’t think Square Enix thought this much about what it meant to have people’s lives tied so closely to towns about the size of a stripmall parking lot acting as tourist stops, the worst of these being one of the actual major towns in a game, Galdin Quay.
Galdin Quay is a fully staffed tiny resort with about two hotel rooms and one camper parked outside the resort also acting as a hotel. There are no beachside houses, no “exotic” huts that are actually very nice and high class on the inside. Instead it’s just a pier that the game treats as a major landmark. When the player isn’t here, how do these people live? This is probably a question you’re not meant to ask, but in the few settlements that seem to have apartment buildings just for the NPCs, someone working on the game decided to ask that question. I wish more people did, to make it feel like a more lived in world.
Aesthetically, Eos does feel like driving through America, granted with more giant stone arches overlooking expansive plains. Driving through scenic vistas, stopping at gas stops to pick up some food, gas up your car, maybe sleep for the night. You’re not meant to think about the lives of those who live there, these tiny parts of your road trip experience.
This is the same way we treat gas station workers, fast food workers, people making barely anything to scrape by in a place totally indifferent to their existence. FFXV is a flawed but beautiful game, an imperfect masterpiece. I enjoyed my time with it deeply. I still haven’t played the DLC, but maybe I’ll jump on them when the final one hits next year. I highly recommend it and I hope other people can find some meaning in it as well.
The semi-procedural events and missions from BATTLETECH’s single player campaign are engrossing and full of really amazing “I can’t believe this happened” stories that I caught myself telling to people. Like, for example, I picked up a couple of ne’er-do-wells named Peanut Butter and Rat Party because their names are, respectively, Peanut Butter and Rat Party, despite warnings that they may not be the most trustworthy folks. Everyone deserves a shot, especially if you have a great name.
Pretty quickly, they were getting into arguments with other staff members. At one point I caught Peanut Butter stripping out the copper wiring from my ship (really) and then he tried to spin it as there just simply not being enough space in the barracks. He was lying to me, obviously, but I let him off the hook as long as he fixed what he broke.
After that, times were tough. A whole squad of our mechs got totalled during a particularly hard mission, so we needed to wait several months in order to repair them. Thankfully, we completed that mission and made enough money to get our mechs repaired with money to sit on for a while. However, this meant we weren’t able to do any jobs until they were fixed. You do a monthly financial report, similar to XCOM, but instead of getting supplies alloted to you based on the quality of work you’ve done, you file an expense report on how much everyone earns. This meant a couple months of no new work and needing to cut people’s pay to make ends meet.
Morale was low. Peanut Butter, already a compulsive liar at this point, got caught in an argument with Glitch, one of the more well respected members of my crew. They were squabbling over who deserved the last cup of coffee. Peanut Butter said he was there first, but Glitch posited that Peanut Butter was lying and that he’d had several cups already. I made them split the cup, which they both seemed irritatedly content with.
Soon after, when our mechs were ready to roll out and our resources were low, we didn’t have the means to make the best moral choices. When we were short on medical supplies, I instructed my commanding officer to try and save some money by looking for black market goods. We got the supplies we needed in full at a lower price than standard, but we learned pretty quickly from a news report that a humanitarian effort had their medical supplies stolen. The crew’s morale was hit hard by this.
We were having trouble finding contracts for missions from any major factions that weren’t asking for more than we could reasonably do, which is why the pirates, possibly due to Peanut Butter and Rat Party’s influence or because they knew we were purchasing stolen goods, offered us a quick job to take one of a major faction’s smaller bases. We took the job. On paper, it looked like a milk run with the quick money we needed to avoid bankruptcy.
Glitch and Peanut Butter both went out on this one, along with another one of my pilots, Behemoth. The mission was simple. Sneak up to a base, take out its turrets, occupy the base. In and out. As mercenaries who fought against several pirate groups before, this was such a flip of the script of what we were used to. Instead of holding out and defending against an enemy fleet or flying in and saving the day after pirates had taken a base, this time we were the ones doing the taking.
After we took the base, predictably, a squadron of mechs was sent to take us out. I couldn’t help but see our own past experiences reflected on this squad of 4, rushing in with fully repaired but lower grade mechs. They, too, were probably mercenaries, on the other side of a job we’d done before. They needed the money as much as we did. They followed a strategy we did several times before. They rushed down Behemoth and took out her health as quickly as they could. Behemoth was in a bad way. Glitch and Peanut Butter, outnumbered and surrounded, got around Behemoth to give her retreat into the mountainous woods behind the base. From there, all three stood their ground. While the enemy squad’s mechs were out in the open, my team had the high ground, had cover, and most importantly, we were tight knit and could focus down a single enemy better than they could.
Their tiny Jenner ran up to try and flank us, Peanut Butter let out a huge punch and was able to kill it in one hit. A mech we had damaged significantly went for an all or nothing melee attack on Behemoth, who somehow managed to take the hit. Behemoth is tough. She’s got a lot of guts. Now the mech was surrounded, and all 3 on my team took their shots, killing the pilot before their mech hit the ground. The odds were now in our favor. Victory was all but assured.
The enemy still plucked away at us, trying to find a way into our position, but they were outgunned. One of them got Behemoth good, running behind her and unleashing a full salvo on her backside. You don’t ever wanna get hit from behind, your armor just isn’t as strong as the front. She was on her last legs, but she was still standing, somehow. Glitch and Rat Party focused down fire on a different enemy mech, barely managing to kill him. Behemoth, however, had different plans.
All her guns were destroyed save for a single short range laser which wasn’t gonna do any good. She had one weapon left, her fist. She got into a fist fight with the mech that was antagonizing her, and was close to being knocked on her ass until Peanut Butter, out of nowhere, jetpacked in over the mountain straight on top of the enemy pilot’s mech, killing him on impact.
The mission was completed, and Behemoth would be out for several weeks having her injuries tended to. After that, however, I didn’t hear Peanut Butter getting into any petty arguments or telling any ridiculous lies. He was in it with us shoulder to shoulder, struggling to get by just as badly as we were. We’ve got a big score coming up. If all goes well, I’m giving my crew a bonus.
This game is a joy. Through all the weird memes and toxic fandom that disintegrated the collective consciousness of Undertale over the last few years, it’s nice to be reminded of everything I loved about it. Deltarune cleverly toys with the RPG genre, expanding on concepts originally explored by Undertale in new and exciting ways.
Pacifism is not only a viable way to play through these games, but the recommended way to play. Having multiple characters pop in and out of your party to mix up the formula of the game on fundamental levels is exciting. For example, Susie, the party’s big axe lady, will never not attack, so in order to prevent people from dying, you have to figure out how to work with your opponents to avoid them being killed. It’s delightful.
What Deltarune and Undertale both similarly understand is how a good sense of humor can endear players to characters and worlds. While games have shifted from a striving-to-be Monty Python style of observational humor to more of the snappier style of writing inspired by modern prestige TV and movies, designed very homogeneously to let the best focus tested punchline land at the exact correct time, Deltarune chooses to walk a different path.
It’s an onslaught of jokes, both subtle and overstated, all delivered with an escalating cleverness and no bit overstaying its welcome. Very few series are so sublimely aware of every aspect of their medium as to set up and pay off in every single thinkable comedic scenario. As one critic pointed out in an essay on Undertale, there’s really nothing quite like the comedic timing of “Just a regular old bucket
What makes Deltarune so uniquely capable of being on this list, however, is it’s desire to not simply be Undertale 2. With a massive fanbase that all have their own fancanon, alternative universes, original characters and the sheer amount lore speculation happening, leaving the world behind was just not in the cards for Toby Fox. However, it also chooses not to be a part of the established world of Undertale. Described by Fox as an “alternate universe prequel” which in itself, to any other audience, would sound like a massive slap in the face, Deltarune chooses to be a best of both worlds of fanservice and unique storytelling.
It gives players who loved Undertale a chance to be with those characters again, while also not inherently invalidating anyone’s experience with Undertale. As such, there is no canon route in Undertale, paradoxically invalidating and justifying however you chose to play the game. Deltarune allows you to play lethally, but does not have alternate paths for a lethal or non-lethal playthrough, as it’s one singular contained story. Also as part of it’s cursory nature in relation to Undertale, it thus justifies all other instances of separate universes in Undertale. It’s the ultimate in validation. Everyone’s fan universe is VALID.
Kickstarter? Not canon. Tweets? Not canon.
Weird bootleg nursery rhyme video with my characters?
I haven't decided yet. pic.twitter.com/SwIWzKHlKm
— tobyfox (@tobyfox) November 25, 2016
Deltarune, essentially, creates its own world while also remixing the aspects of the Undertale world people are familiar with, which is so unique when compared to a lot of other series’ of games. The many entries in the Soulsborne series in it’s various iterations make direct reference to each other while keeping their worlds unique to one another, but Deltarune feels like that isn’t enough. It knows it isn’t enough for players just to have a character that has Jimmy’s sword. Maybe you liked Jimmy when you played the last game. Maybe you’re just excited to see him again. Deltarune lets you do that while still maintaining its own identity. It must simultaneously live up to and has no interest in being Undertale 2. It’s not Undertale 2. It’s the perfect Undertale 2.
2. The MISSING: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
The MISSING is excellent. The MISSING is a meditation on bodies and self, the story of a person who doesn’t yet understand who she is deconstructing and rebuilding herself over and over until she finds what makes her whole. J.J. Macfield is an incredible character, and while I love this game to death, I’d prefer to stay more in my own lane and not be too long winded about it. Instead, if you’re interested in learning more about the game, I’d highly recommend the review from our very own contributor Rose as well Nadia M’s reflections on the game. If you only play one thing from this year for some reason, I’d highly recommend giving The MISSING a shot.
1. Shadow of the Colossus
The malaise and excited trepidation I experienced playing the stunningly beautiful remake of Shadow of the Colossus this year was partially due to anticipating that huge road trip, completely uprooting my entire life and traveling cross-country for a totally fresh start. There was certainly a sense of comfort in experiencing SotC again, but its themes of uncertainty, anxiety, and being dead set on your beliefs while knowing they can have disastrous consequences, resonated deeply with me at such a vulnerable point in my life. Traveling through the world, touring the lonely countrysides and deviating from my path, feeling like I was seeing a world nobody else had ever seen, left me as lonely as I felt on the several eight hour car rides on my own. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to share my anxieties with.
SotC came at a weird time, just after I had replayed Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild on master mode. The two felt diametrically opposed and yet inextricably linked. While BotW emphasizes exploration and creativity, SotC could not encourage you less to explore. You, as a player, can only explore when you break down the mental barrier that encourages you to head towards your next objective. The world is massive and full of possibility, which seemingly countless multiple paths leading in and out of each other to newer and more beautiful places. However it knowingly doesn’t capitalize on it’s exploration as BotW does. In BotW, you can crest over a hill in order to discover a new secret, a new weapon to add to your inventory or another shrine to do some more puzzles. In SotC, you’re greeted with a few grip or stamina upgrades or a collectible or two, sure, but what’s more rewarding are the scenic vistas, the impossibly massive and yet lonely landscapes, the broken ruins of an empty land.
SotC would not only not exist without the Legend Of Zelda series, but is also deeply critical of it in many ways. It frames its narrative as a typical hero’s journey, a young boy sets off to save a princess. In this instance, he toys with dark forces he doesn’t yet understand in order to bring her back to life. Many Legend of Zelda games are about traveling the world and discovering greater truths, learning how to defeat the evil force to save the world, and while you would certainly expect SotC to follow that same formula from it’s initial framing at the start of the game, it becomes clear how little it cares for heroes and the paths they have to walk down.
Legend of Zelda usually has a running theme of the player getting stronger to overcome adversity. Here, in SotC, it twists that fantasy. Yes, there is some mechanical progression in collecting fruits and lizard tails for stat upgrades, but Wander arrives in the Forbidden Land with every tool he needs. He already has his blade, he has his bow, he has his horse. He is already complete. He is already equipped to handle any adversity he might run up against. It’s safe to assume that he is a character who knows what he wants. This right here is the key criticism SotC makes of fantasy games, or any kind of game that encourages an empowerment fantasy. It gives Wander agency.
In Legend of Zelda, you, the player, and Link, the character, each share a singular objective: defeat the evil forces of the world to bring peace to the land, often saving a princess in the meanwhile. SotC understands this framing and utilizes it to lull the player into a sense of false security. While it makes it pretty clear the Dormin is a dark force not to be taken lightly, it also sets the rules pretty plainly. You defeat these colossi, I bring the girl back to life. What it obfuscates until the game is willing to show it’s hand a little more is that the deal Wander and Dormin have made comes at a much greater peril than any darkness that might threaten the world in the Forbidden Land of the colossi.
Wander enters this pact willingly, and while it’s implied that Dormin has tricked Wander into it against his will, Wander has already gone against the will of his people. Dormin explicitly states that the price of this resurrection would be heavy, but it does not deter him. Wander has already sought out this fate knowing that it could possibly have a dark end. His will is to bring back Mono, the woman he is trying to resurrect, through any means necessary. While the implication is one of romance, of a young man who doesn’t know better acting out of love, we don’t hear Mono’s side. We don’t know her will. All we know is that she was sacrificed due to a “cursed fate” which can have many interpretations.
What’s important is that it is not Mono’s will to be resurrected. Wander made this choice implicitly, against the will of those around him, damning the consequences. It was his will that set the story in motion, and by his hand were Dormin’s machinations made manifest. There’s a reason why, at the very end of the game, you become the large monster, almost a colossi yourself, attacking your kin. A hulking, monstrous, muscular form. A hyper idealized embodiment of masculine form shrouded in total darkness. Wander achieves his goal, he brings Mono back to life. In order to do it, he has gone from stomping on the will of others to pursue his goals and irrationally endangering all of those around him. He goes from metaphorically stepping on others to quite literally stepping on others.
Shadow of the Colossus is a cautionary tale of unchecked toxic masculinity. This revelation didn’t come to a lot of people in 2005 when analytical critique of games wasn’t nearly as prevalent, or at least as mainstream as it is now. But I stand by this reading of it. The game all but confirms it by having Dormin, a character portrayed as dual-gender played by both a masculine and feminine voice actor in tandem, dropping their feminine voice and simply using the masculine one when all of the Colossi are defeated and Dormin is finally unbound to the Forbidden Land, free to run rampant on the world again. People who strive for every single thing to make mechanical and canonical sense craft weird theories like how the feminine side of Dormin went into Mono’s body so she can be resurrected as dark queen. But in a game about a man going against the will of those around him and conspiring with dark forces to serve selfish needs, doesn’t that make more sense?