Comfort Food Games (and Coffee. And Killing)

In the final months of 2020, I found myself keeping up with new games unlike most other times in my life. While I would love to play all new games as they’re released, I usually can’t for various reasons. One is that I am definitely the type to finish games. I don’t like bouncing between narrative games especially, so if I’m playing some big, story-driven game, I have to finish that one before I move onto the next. Another reason is that I don’t rush through games, particularly when I’m really into them. I wouldn’t call myself a completionist, but when I love a game I will find any and every excuse to extend my time with it (including getting every achievement/trophy). But between quarantine, new consoles, and just a general desire to play more video games, I really burned through some of the big, new games of 2020 these last few months, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Astro’s Playroom, Cyberpunk 2077, Star Wars: Squadrons, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, and Phasmophobia. I liked or loved all of these games, so it’s not that the deluge of glorious gaming was oppressive or taxing, but when it was all said and done, there was a part of me that yearned for the familiar or forgotten. Without realizing it, I found myself playing older games that I had either bought and forgotten, or had already played and loved. This is just a scattershot post to cover my thoughts on these games, but one of them – Resident Evil 7 – will get its own post, because my playing of that is tied into my hype for Resident Evil Village, and I have plenty of thoughts about that game.

Let’s begin with an oldie. Please, take a trip down memory lane with me. The year is 1999. I am sixteen years old and newly into my Star Wars fandom. The Phantom Menace is set to release in May and the hype among myself and others is indescribable. Alongside the movie, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is coming to the N64, and it takes advantage of the new Expansion Pak, which expands the console’s memory and allows for more detailed textures and prettier graphics. I am stoked. I play the demo at a kiosk in some store and the game looks incredible. I am amazed at how fast the pods zip through the courses. I am ready to absolutely wreck Sebulba’s shit. And then I don’t buy it. I was sixteen, after all, and I’m pretty sure I had yet to land my first job. Oh well.

Fast forward to the present, and the retitled Star Wars Racer is on sale in the PlayStation Store for something like $4. I did end up buying a copy of it for the N64 at some point, but I don’t exactly bust that old beauty out very often. So I bought it and figured I would play for a bit, the nostalgia would wane quickly, and I would push it aside and move on. The startup screen and the very hitch-y CG intro movie did little to challenge these expectations. The game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong! It was very impressive… 22 years ago. But time is rarely kind to early 3D games, and the murky and muddy textures were both nostalgically quaint and, well, bleh.

Then, however, I started playing. Immediately I was impressed by how fast and smooth the racing was. Remember when Anakin was testing his podracer and his face was all

Well that’s how I felt playing this game. I was constantly stunned with how fast I felt like I was moving, and I kept wondering if the old game was this fast or if the remastering included a speed boost. I do remember it being pretty fast back in ’99, but this fast? On an N64? After I finished the first circuit and nabbed a comfortable first place, I quit for the night, content with my experience. It was fun! Time to move on. The next night I began looking for my next game but couldn’t put Racer out of my mind. One more circuit, I told myself. As soon as it starts feeling too challenging I’ll be done. Nope. I played the whole. Damn. Game. Did it get challenging? Yes. Did I have to try a few tracks several times? Also yes. Did I want to punch Sebulba in his seballsba? Again, yes. But I did it. The speed, the tracks, the music… it just felt like the right game at the right time. And now I think the prequel trilogy is ripe for a revisit. Meesa gonna watchen it. I’m sorry for that. Why am I like this?

Aside from revisiting such an old gem, I was also in the mood to tie up loose ends, so I finished my playthrough of The Last of Us Part II, finally. [Some light spoilers ahead, particularly in images] While I could certainly spend an entire post breaking the game down, as many have, I’ll just focus on a few things that stood out to me. Overall, I really liked the game. I didn’t love the ending and I think they were a little heavy-handed with some elements of the story, but there is so much that works well in this game. I think it’s easy to zoom out and critique the broad strokes of the narrative, but this game’s greatest strengths are revealed when you zoom in, literally and figuratively. I was in constant awe of some of the smallest of details. In most games, when you pick up an item there is a generic swiping or grabbing animation. In this game, there are specific animations for every item. The upgrade currency in this game comes in the form of pills, and sometimes you will find both a pill bottle and individual, loose pills. If you mash the action button to grab all of them quickly, the items don’t just disappear from the world and appear in your inventory with a cursory swipe. Your character will wrap one hand around the bottle, and as they reach back to slip it into their pack, their other hand will be pinching one individual pill with their fingers. They’ll then drop that into a pocket while the other hand, now free, pinches the last pill and does the same. And you can either stand still and do this, which is one animation, or begin to walk away, and your character will look natural as they tuck the items into their pack and trot away. This is just one very specific example, but the game is filled with little details like this. Every melee weapon slots onto your pack in a different way. Every firearm has unique, detailed reload and upgrade animations. The game was so thorough in its attention to detail that I found myself shocked when I’d catch some missed little thing that I would never have questioned with another game. The best example of this is when you upgrade a firearm. You clear the weapon before working on it, which means you eject the round that’s in the chamber, which pops out and flies off screen. Where does it go? Your character never grabs it and loads it back in the magazine or weapon, and with ammo so incredibly scarce in the game I found myself flinching every time a precious piece of ammo popped out of my gun.

The small interactions between characters and moment-to-moment story beats were some of the best I’ve seen in games. Naughty Dog is known for these kinds of interactions, but this game really outdid their previous work, in my opinion. The banter between characters sounds natural and not forced, yet it always reveals something new about the story or the characters. Writing casual dialog that somehow seems unnecessary but is secretly vital to character and plot development is rare and impressive. Among my favorite of these sequences is Ellie and Dina’s trip to the synagogue, Abby and Owen’s first trip to the aquarium, and Ellie and Joel’s trip to the museum. The last one is easily at the top of my list, and not just because of the overt references to Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies of all time. Thematically, the idea of visiting a natural history museum in a post-apocalypse is always fun and thought-provoking. We take museums for granted today, because we have years of compulsory school and the internet that readily remind of us where we and other creatures have been in the long history of our world. When that goes away, however, what do we have? Word-of-mouth stories about dinosaurs and trips to the moon? Rumors about seals that have spots? Beyond themes, there were just so many small moments that were cute on their own, but also complicated the relationship between Joel and Ellie. This scene more than any other breaks my heart when I think about where it fits in the dynamic between these two characters. I would 100% take an entire game filled with scenes like this.

As I said, I spent a lot of time with this game and the narrative is very rich, but those are some of my impressions. I do think they missed an opportunity for a more satisfying resolution, and I agree with the sentiment that, despite the subtlety of the interpersonal interactions, they were decidedly less subtle with some of the major themes involving violence and revenge, but overall I found a lot to like and appreciate about this game.

Speaking of interpersonal interactions (Segue King 2021 babayyyy), I also played through the charming Coffee Talk recently. I remember hearing about this retro-looking indie game a year ago, when it was released, but I quickly forgot about it. The curse of the quaint indie game, sadly. I just happened to see it while scrolling through sale titles on the PlayStation Store, though, and it seemed like such a perfect game for this wintry time of year. Serving coffee and other hot drinks and listening to strangers share the details of their lives? Yes, please.

While I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of dialog choices and inability to form relationships with the characters that come into your shop, I did find the game relaxing and engaging. The drink making mechanics are simple, the stakes are rarely ever high, and I enjoyed the slight challenge of figuring out what kind of drink my patrons were asking for. The Seattle setting seems like a no-brainer for a game about a coffee shop, but I also think the choice to have the shop only be open at night and the constant rainy weather were perfect. They created a mood and ambiance that truly made me want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee and just chat or read a book. Like a tasty, warm beverage, this game was a comfort and joy to play.

But, as I said, I did go into the game thinking the social mechanics would be a bit more… well, existent. As much as I like visual novels/narrative experiences, I always find myself wanting to be a part of the story that’s unfolding. I was hoping to form my own relationships with these characters, and when I saw how colorful and varied the cast was, I immediately thought there would be dating sim aspects to the story. Sadly, there are not, which is a real bummer because the game seems so perfect for it. When the latte art mechanic was introduced, I thought (not knowing there were no romance elements yet) it would be so fun if one of the ways you could flirt or reveal your feelings for a crush was by making a heart in the foam (if the game set it up as not unsolicited and creepy, of course). I am always curious about who people would romance in games, so if that also sounds like you, I think I probably would have gone for Aqua. Lua would probably also be a contender, but I feel comfortable saying Aqua is my… cup of tea. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night. Anyway, while I did find the game a fun, soothing distraction for what continues to be a historically messed up timeline, I do have my fingers crossed for a sequel with more options for interactivity and immersive storytelling. And smooches.

Lastly, my friends and I have gotten back into Minecraft in the last week or so, and in a big way. We are obsessed. Just today I tweeted that I have been having creeper-related dreams almost every night this past week. On the one hand, it’s annoying and frustrating, but I can definitely see the humor in it. And it makes sense. Creepers are the perfect embodiment of anxiety. You work so hard to build something and spend time thinking carefully about how to execute your plans. You spend hours mining, collecting the necessary materials, laying block by block, tweaking the details as needed. Then, out of nowhere, boom. Your blocky dreams are shattered. After the first time, you can never rest easy. Every time you let your guard down, there he is. His little green face tilted toward you, wanting with every ounce of his hissy being to explode and take your beautiful creations with him to what I imagine is a very pixelated hell. Fucking assholes.

Those dipshits aside, we’ve been having a blast (why did I do that to myself? I could have used any other word to describe our shared experience, but no. I went with blast. *shivers in creeper-related stress disorder). Other than the semester I played the game with my students, I’ve never played with this many people before (there are six of us so far), so it’s very rewarding knowing that I can at one moment contribute something to the collective group, and at another go off and work on something on my own that someone else might run across and think is neat. Just yesterday I crossed over Russell’s impressive bridge that connects our mainland with the lands to the East, Amy recently showed me her massive hole (yes, I think she knew what she was doing when she referred to it as such), Tab and Tirzah have cultivated an expansive farm, and I have been sailing to distant lands to both leave markers for exploration and, as a bonus, import wolves (which our lands are sadly lacking). We’ve been very chill and loose about it, and there are no expectations or ultimatums. We help out, we do our own thing, we are basically just having fun. It’s such a welcome change of pace in light of the big, AAA gauntlet I put myself through (willingly and with much fun to be had, of course) in the fall and early winter.

It’s also been so long since I last played that I am frequently both delighted and horrified at some of the changes they’ve made in the many updates to the game. Llamas? Cute! There are water zombies now? Ugh. Cats!? Dolphins!? Yessss. Aggressive merpeople and deadly undercurrents? Get out of my face. But I will take all of the bats and pandas and polar bears, thanks. We may get tired of the game eventually, but I love what we’re doing in the world so far. Check out Amy and Russell’s giant in-home aquarium:

And Tab and Tirzah’s elaborate farmhouse:

For my house, I was somewhat inspired by the massive mansion/castle in the Resident Evil: Maiden demo, and also by the many iterations of Dracula’s castle in the Castlevania games. I’m not exactly the most creative and skilled designer, but I like how my house has turned out so far. The façade is a little bland:

But I’m very happy with the interior. I built my house into the side of the mountain in our town, so I keep digging further into the mountain to create secret rooms and a full-sized Satanic house of worship, including a pastor’s office with a hidden door that leads to a portal to Hell.

I also have a dungeon where I keep zombies, skeletons, spiders, and creepers, a forbidden cauldron room, a dedicated Nether portal chamber, and a couple of other secrets.

I don’t imagine these pictures are all that riveting to most, but there is something I really love about sharing Minecraft creations. Maybe it has something to do with the impermanent nature of games like this. When the servers are shut down, these worlds will go away forever. But in my small way, I can document the exploits of my friends and me. Maybe, if we continue to play for a long time, I’ll do so again in the future. For now, though, I have some diamonds to mine. If you’ll excuse me.

2020

I have to be honest: I kept putting off writing my 2020 wrap-up post. As early as late November I thought about collecting my thoughts on last year’s games. It’s not that I didn’t want to write about all of the wonderful games I played in 2020. I love writing about video games more than almost anything. But 2020 was a weird year, as unsurprising as that may be for me to say. Though the year was filled with excellent and exciting games and gaming moments, the many global and national challenges facing most of us affected me, too, and impacted my gaming experiences and work more than I ever wanted to admit.

If I think about 2020 purely in gaming terms, what an amazing year. Although critical reception for it was tepid, I loved the Resident Evil 3 remake. It wasn’t quite as expansive as the remake for the second game, but I think both remakes were excellent renditions of their parent games. Capcom’s RE Engine produced beautiful graphics, I loved navigating the broken streets of Raccoon City once again, and I was ecstatic to get more time with Jill Valentine, my favorite Resident Evil character.

A new Animal Crossing game is always a welcome addition to any year, and New Horizons was released at perhaps the most welcoming time in history for any game. Everyone seemed to be playing it – Animal Crossing fans, celebrities, politicians, people who have never played a single AC game, and seemingly everyone on every social media platform. It made me happy to see the series get such love, especially since this was easily the entry with the most significant changes in both gameplay and presentation. With every single new AC game, I lamented the lack of new, exciting features. With older titles, Nintendo would add maybe one major new gimmick and a handful of minor tweaks, but I was always left wondering when a true, full sequel would come out. While New Horizons does retain some of the series’ core mechanics, it adds and expands on so many cool features, like crafting, travel, and multiplayer (even if it’s still imperfect). I had so much fun with New Horizons, and even when I sometimes feel sad for “abandoning” it, I still ended up putting over 300 hours into it. A point that I’ve heard repeatedly debated in conversations about the best games of the year is whether or not New Horizons would have been so popular or well-received if it weren’t for the global pandemic. I suppose the degree to which it would have been popular is debatable, but every mainline AC game has been popular without a mandatory quarantine to boost their prestige. Plus, I think people entertaining that idea are conveniently forgetting both the fact that a great many of us AC fans have been waiting years for this game and the persistent popularity of the Nintendo Switch means that the potential audience for this game was huge, regardless. The fact that many people were looking for a distraction from the pandemic may have notably nudged up hype for this game, but it’s a great game in its own right and surely would have found more success than its already-successful predecessors.

One of the things that made 2017 such a magical year in gaming for me was Persona 5, my long-anticipated introduction to the Persona series, which made 2020’s Persona 5 Royal an absolute day one purchase for me. I really wanted the Phantom Thieves special edition, and after finding it was sold out everywhere I was overjoyed to snag a pre-order from Best Buy. The problem? The release date was right when many non-essential stores went into lockdown from the pandemic. Not the most serious problem anyone’s had in these times, but I was worried the in-store pickup (the only option for pre-order) would be delayed or even canceled. Luckily it was not, and it was my first experience with a staple of pandemic consumer life: curbside pickup. Best Buy sent me an email instructing me to park in front of the store and call the customer service desk (later to become an automated process), and once they verified my order number, someone came outside and dropped the game in my backseat. It seemed like such a novel and bizarre process at that point in time, but I was excited to get home and unbox my new treasure. As with the base game, I absolutely loved my time with Royal, and got the platinum trophy for this entry, too.

Speaking of platinum trophies, I’ve been considering replaying Final Fantasy VII Remake to get the platinum trophy for that game, too, because I was so enamored with it but I feel like I could have spent more time with those characters. I was worried that it would slip from many critics’ minds when it came time for end-of-year award consideration, but it seems to have won a fair number of awards from various outlets. The game is beautiful, the music is so nostalgic and magical, and I really can’t wait to see what they do with the next installment, especially after that provocative ending.

I wasn’t quite as smitten with The Last of Us Part II, but part of that might have been the deafening discourse surrounding the game and its release. It seemed simultaneously the best game ever released and the most offensive artifact to soil consoles, and this was before it was even in most people’s hands. People seemed desperate to share their takes on social media, falling over themselves to take sides or point out some new observation. I specifically avoid hype for most games I play because I don’t want my experiences to be tainted by expectations shaded by the opinion of others, but in this case the hype was virtually unavoidable. I had a pre-order and had, once upon a time, been excited for the game, but I couldn’t get the ongoing conversations about the game out of my head as I played it. I got about fifteen hours in and just didn’t feel like finishing, so I quit. I’ve recently had the itch to go back to it, though, in part because I hate leaving games unfinished, so I installed it on my PS5 and will be starting it back up soon.

In almost an exact opposite situation, I had very little hype for Ghost of Tsushima and it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year, easily. The E3 2018 trailer looked beautiful, but the combat appeared to be in the vein of the Souls games, which didn’t seem up my alley. Tsushima was always on the fringes of my radar, and with little else to play mid-summer, I decided I’d give it a shot. If I didn’t like the combat, at least it had what looked like a beautiful open world I could explore. As it turns out, I really loved the combat. It allows for so many different approaches to battles, and I appreciated that switching stances wasn’t an absolute must to defeat most enemies. I also loved the beautiful open world. And the characters. And the acting and exploration and foxes and… well, you get the point.

I also had a great time with Star Wars Squadrons, which was a simple yet thrilling flight sim, and despite being a sloppy, buggy mess, I also had fun with Cyberpunk 2077.  I very recently wrote about my love of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Phasmophobia, as well as my mostly-positive adventures in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and I also had a warm and tingly stroll down memory lane with Astro’s Playroom. Paper Mario: The Origami King was a humorous, adorable trip, and The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope was sufficiently spooky. I also used my quarantine months to catch up on some non-2020 games like Days Gone, Gris, I am Setsuna, Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Yakuza 0, and of course I wrote maybe too much about my giddiness over the new consoles. While I wrote specifically about the PlayStation 5, I did also manage to get an Xbox Series X for myself for Xmas. I set it up and… well… that’s about it for now, but I was excited to unbox it and I can’t wait for games like the next Perfect Dark and that Indiana Jones games that was announced today.

So, well, I guess I did end up revisiting games I’ve played this year. But before I started actually writing, the only thing I could think about was the general, difficult-to-describe affect the pandemic has had on me. The few years leading up to 2019 were incredibly hard for me, in terms of my mental health. I had gotten to some very dark places. In early 2019, I took steps to navigate myself out of those dark places, and by the end of the year I began to feel like I had regained control of my life. Then, well, you know. 2020. Many people have had a much worse 2020 than I have, no doubt. But it was something of a precarious year for me. I remained determined to maintain my mental health. I got into a solid workout routine, I walked my cat every day when it was warm, I kept a daily journal, and I did a fair job of transitioning to online teaching, if I do say so myself. The problem was that I felt like my mental and emotional energy had a limit. I could dedicate only so much to staying healthy, and teaching, and participating in hobbies, and parsing all of the negativity that came with the pandemic and the historically toxic presidential election, that anything above and beyond that felt… impossible? Maybe that seems dramatic, but I don’t feel like I had much time post-recovery to enjoy decent mental health before I was expected to write my dissertation, maintain a healthy routine, become an online teacher, and just deal with the overwhelming, flaming flood that was 2020.

So my dissertation went by the wayside. And it felt okay at first. The general consensus about the pandemic’s effect on workflow seemed to be that it was normal and that everyone should give themselves a break. And I did. For a while. I still am, I suppose. But now that it’s been a year and I’ve made almost no progress, the self-doubt and reality of having to secure more funding or work to hopefully try and finish this thing in 2021 is inescapable. Institutions and professionals urged us to be kind and give ourselves more time, but in reality the expectations and deadlines never really changed. And because my dissertation is on games, looking back and thinking of my experience with gaming in 2020 was… complicated. I’ve played so many great games, and I’m excited for the future of gaming, but my place as a gaming scholar always feels like it’s on tremulous ground. I have moments where the field of games studies feels exclusive and some of the most notable names seem out of touch or, frankly, full of shit. Dr. Emma Vossen, a gaming scholar I admire, recently tweeted that she was publishing her final games studies article in academia, and was leaving ten years of work in the field behind her. Why? Because the field is so filled with scholars who don’t seem to understand games and gaming culture. They are academics first, and many of them seem to have gotten into the field because they saw an emergent trend that held lots of publishing potential. Dr. Vossen and others have expressed the notion that some of the best work on games and gaming culture has been done outside of academia, and I agree. But where does that leave me? I have no idea, to be honest. Confused? Angry? Do I push on, hoping to carve a niche for myself and change the culture? Or do I get out and try and get into a seemingly equally exclusive game coverage industry?

Sorry for the rant. For how terrible 2020 was in almost every other regard, it was a great year for gaming. My future in my field of choice may be murky, but I am still in love with video games, and there are some exciting titles coming out this year and in the near-ish future. Persona 5 Strikers, Resident Evil Village, Gotham Knights, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Breath of the Wild 2, Horizon Forbidden West, and who knows what else is to come. What will the Switch Pro be like? When is the PS5’s next-gen virtual reality headset coming? Wherever life takes me this year, at least I’ll have some amazing games to play along the way.

End of Summer Snippets

Well, the nights are getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and I can already smell the scent of pumpkin spice on the veritable breeze that is social media bandwagoning. I love summer and will be sad to see it go, but I am trying to look forward to the nice things about fall. The beautiful autumnal leaves, the opportunity to make various chilies and stews, and I will, of course, once again embrace the spooky majesty that is Halloween by attempting to watch a horror movie every day in October and playing various scary games (I just picked up the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on PS4, as a matter of fact). I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as this blog is a look back, not forward. I’ve spent a ton of time with some big games this year, like Yakuza 0, Persona 5 Royal, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, so with this last month I’ve mostly been poking around and dabbling with shorter games. As has become habit, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I’ve been playing before the list grows longer than I can manage. Some [SPOILERS] throughout, if you care.

Secret Little Haven

I’ve professed my love for the Emily is Away games, and apparently I have a thing for throwback Internet/instant messenger games because I found this game to scratch that same nostalgic itch. The narrative unfolds through instant messenger chats, like the Emily games, but unlike those games Secret Little Haven is more firmly rooted in what seems to me to be the memoir genre. Both games’ developers would, I imagine, point to real life experiences from their past as influences for their games, but while the Emily games center on a more ‘universal’ experience of online flirting/romance, Haven is more narrow, centered on a young trans girl exploring identity through pop culture and finding community in online spaces. So, while I enjoyed the game on a subjective level, I also think it’s an important and interesting game to look at when considering games as a unique medium for memoir or just a rare example of a trans narrative in games. Also, the protagonist finds personal inspiration in a character from what appears to be a fictional version of Sailor Moon, which made me want to see/hear/read/play more stories of people discovering important aspects of their personalities through pop culture characters. I feel like that’s something that’s downplayed or thought of as ‘childish,’ but I have to imagine it’s more common than people let on.

Hatoful Boyfriend

This game started out as a joke Flash game, and it doesn’t seem to have evolved much beyond that. That’s not really a harsh criticism, because I don’t think the game was ever meant to be some deep, highly polished masterpiece, but it’s hard to avoid commentary on its bare-bones presentation. It was very weird and did show some cleverness in its awareness of the tropes in the visual novel genre, though. I only played through one ending and chose to pursue Nageki, the melancholy mourning dove.

Arcade Spirits

This game tapped directly into a very nerdy vein for me. I mean, it’s a dating sim about gaming. Uh, yes, please. The writing and characters were very charming and the story was far more involved and lengthy than I’d expected. I did wish there were more in the way of illustrations/animations (particularly in terms of player character design), but as an indie game I don’t exactly hold it against the devs. The writing was the highlight, anyway. Still, I loved these characters and this world so I would kill for Dream Daddy levels of art production. It was hard to ultimately determine how much impact on the story my choices had, but I was so invested in the world that I found naming our big public event (Funplex Alpha 3) and eventual independent arcade (Quarter Up Arcade) so much fun. I chose to date Naomi and she was a no-brainer for me. A smart, capable, nerdy girl in glasses who is passionate about video games? *swoon* It says on the official site that they’re working on a sequel, called Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and though I don’t expect it’ll be out anytime soon, I am already hyped for it.

NBA 2K20

As was the case with NBA 2K16, I got this game free through PSN, but this time around the story mode didn’t hook me as deep. I played through a few games, cutscenes, and minigames, but ultimately I didn’t love the feel of the gameplay. I’m happy to have it and might return to it to mess around with some friends eventually, but I wasn’t altogether too impressed with this entry in the series.

Rage 2

Speaking of not being too impressed, I also started Rage 2 recently and, well, you’ll be surprised to read that I was… not too impressed. Granted, I’m not terribly far in the game, but so far the only thing bringing me back is that sweet, sweet id gunplay. I have such fond memories of some of the older Quake games that this old-school-esque gameplay feels comfortable and cozy. Unfortunately, many of the other gameplay elements, like level design and animations, also feel dated, but in a negative way. When they showed the trailer at E3 a couple/few years back, some people complained that it looked too similar to Borderlands. At the time, I thought it was premature to make that claim and figured there is room for various takes on a neon-tinged post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style open world. And maybe there is, but Rage 2 ended up being way too similar to Borderlands for my liking, and it makes any weaknesses that much more glaring because there is a critically acclaimed series to make direct comparisons with. I’ll keep playing because the gameplay is fun, but I’ll probably move on before finishing the story.

GRIS

I beat GRIS in a single sitting and it is just such a simple and beautiful game. It would make an excellent game to play with a class and discuss game design. It takes advantage of universal platforming knowledge and only complicates it beyond that in the slightest. The mechanics are minimal, which frees the player to just take in the gorgeous art that makes up the world. One of things that impressed me the most was how singular the world seemed to be. It didn’t seem like a series of screens with individual elements that had been placed here and there to make environments. It seemed like one gigantic canvas, each element drawn as a part of the whole, and you are a small blip that is just moving along as the camera sometimes slowly zooms in or out to reveal just how interconnected everything is. It’s hard to explain. I guess I might say that most platformers (because the individual platforms/assets are obviously separated from the background) seem like a series of ‘screens’ or small paintings, whereas this game seems like one gargantuan painting that you are navigating slowly but surely. Either way, what a moving story told almost exclusively with visuals. I think the only word in the entire game is “HOLD.”

The Last of Us Part II

I swear I usually finish games. Like, it’s a thing. I don’t like starting something if I have no intention of finishing it. I have finished some games that I really, really did not like. And yet this is the third game thus far that I have given up on. I do plan on going back to it, eventually, but I just didn’t feel like I was in the right emotional space for it at the time. I played for maybe 6-8 hours, and I liked what I played enough. It is, as you have probably heard/seen, a beautiful game. The subtleties and nuance in the acting performances were most impressive to me, and I look forward to seeing how the story plays out, but some of the implications about where the characters are going to be led were a bit heavy for me at this time. So maybe I’ll write a separate blog sometime down the line, when I finish it.

Ghost of Tsushima

I saved this one for last because, well, like literally every other person who’s played this game, I have a bunch of pictures that I am going to force upon you. I was so pleasantly surprised by Ghost of Tsushima. I thought the E3 trailer from last year looked pretty cool but it didn’t seem like my kind of game. I suppose because everyone seemed to assume it would play like a Souls game. I preordered it after a more recent gameplay trailer, because the open world looked beautiful and fun to navigate. It was, but the combat honestly ended up being my favorite thing about this game and kept me coming back. I wandered deep into a harder section of the map almost immediately, so I had virtually no skills to survive one particularly neverending group of enemies that kept killing me over and over again. Out of sheer stubbornness, I kept trying to best them, though, convinced I could pull it off. I could not, it turns out, but that practice against so many difficult foes made me very good at dodging and parrying early on, so once I started gaining abilities and stances, I felt unstoppable.

Before playing I was convinced I would choose the stealthy approach. Years of Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid games have prepared me for the art of the sneaky sneak. But, no. I enjoyed combat so much in Ghost that I would actively seek out large groups of enemies at every turn, to engage in the fast dance that was slicing my way through their ranks one parry at a time. Did I get myself into trouble and die? Sure, a few times. But more often I would stroll up to a camp of two or three dozen Mongols, as brazen as can be, and walk away soaked in the blood of my enemies mere minutes later. It was such a visceral thrill. Aside from that, yes, the game was gorgeous and I loved taking a million pictures in photo mode. I also liked the story and characters quite a bit and, as a fan of Ubisoft’s open-world games, I loved traveling around the world and writing haiku, chopping bamboo, collecting sword kits, and more. In a year with Persona 5 Royal and Final Fantasy VII Remake I don’t think this is my game of the year thus far, but it’s close.