Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2018 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

Welcome to this year’s list, which continues a feature introduced in last year’s round-up — the play-instead recommendations. For every entry in this list, I name a superior title. The catch is that a lot of these alternatives don’t approach greatness; they’re just competent enough to further highlight the ineptitude of the following titles.

1. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (PS4)

This RPG might be stripped down (no monsters, no spells) and might aim for a sense of realism (you must eat), but it plays like a college project gone wrong. The PS4 version (which I played at launch) is a technical travesty characterized by unresponsive button input, laughably repetitious townspeople dialogue, inconsistent visuals, bizarre bugs — I will generously stop the list there. Going by the “finished” product, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was made by people who have no respect for themselves, audiences, the notion of realism, or the art of video games.

(See full review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance here.)

Play Instead: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While this sequel frequently scans as the work of depraved Resident Evil 4 and Uncharted fans who like to see dirt and blood on women, and while Lara Croft and her neck-beard-sporting friend Jonah are insufferable dullards, at least the game has the decency to function like it’s supposed to.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

Go ahead, game industry whore. Excuse the lack of combat innovation, the unresponsiveness of basic functions, the numerous glitches, the contradiction between the focus on minute details and the overall lack of realism. Keep kneeling before the Rockstar executives and telling them that their game stuffing is different and competent. But if you’re going to take the extra step and claim that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a meaningful story about a gang of mythological outlaws being left behind by society, get off the game’s fake cinematic camera and sit down and watch the work of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch superbly depicts the gradual destruction of a nomad group of cowboys. In contrast to Red Dead Redemption 2, the film doesn’t pass off its tale as a kind of half-assed morality lesson. Instead, Peckinpah stares into the heart of violence and sees much of humanity. The gaming world’s ignorance of The Wild Bunch (and other great philosophical westerns) allows it to worship developer Rockstar one more time with zero self-reflection.

(See full review of Red Dead Redemption.)

Play Instead: Milanoir

Milanoir has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. It controls like crap, its cover-based gunfights are inferior to those of Gears of War, and it was developed by people who might very well believe a juvenile lens of the world is mature. Yet Milanoir doesn’t have a preposterous and outdated bounty system to bail you out. It actually sends the player to prison at one point, and you can almost taste the potential for a profound statement before Milanoir goes right back to its poorly constructed shooter sequences.

3. Chuchel

It’s clear that developer Jaromír Plachý wants to make a cartoon of sorts with Chuchel, but neither the subject matter (a chase after a cherry) nor the puzzle design is intriguing. Most of the time you just keep clicking on things until something happens, and the allusions to classics like Pac-Man are insultingly dull. Oddly, the protagonist resembles the golliwog racial caricature. If this artistic choice doesn’t point to any ill will, it definitely underlines the lack of intelligence in the overall design of the game.

Play Instead: The Gardens Between

Like Chuchel, The Gardens Between is not a mechanically complex game, but its puzzles, while simple, are much more engaging; the solution involving a suspended water drop ranks among the cleverest ideas in 2018 games. The Gardens Between is also a visual masterwork in how it links two characters’ childhood memories to level design. Every stage is an island that rotates as you move time forward and backward, resembling a hypnotic spell.

4. Donut County

It doesn’t matter that the apparent goal of Donut County is to make you smirk and giggle as you consume animals, bricks, chairs, cars, and more by moving a hole in the ground that grows every time it is fed. The game’s failure lies in its immediate loss of novelty. Developer Ben Esposito’s levels are largely the same exercise, requiring little imagination from the player and confining the action to extremely limited boundaries. Donut County’s redundant, brainless style recalls the numbing idiocy of Chuchel. The best thing you can say about either game is that they have the potential to reduce us to unthinking but amused participants. Just as eating certain foods can make you unhealthier, playing certain games can make you stupider.

Play Instead: Way of the Passive Fist

If you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, the least you can do is have rhythm. Way of the Passive Fist turns the overdone beat-’em-up genre into a defensive exercise where timing is paramount for both survival and high scores. It’s very true this game should have been shorter to stave off a sense of monotony, but given that its challenges require great attention to detail from the player, Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t turn you into an easily amused automaton.

5. Paratopic

This release from the indie trash pile never comes close to matching its obvious ancestors (Silent Hill, Thirty Flights of Loving, Glitchhikers). Not scary, barely coherent, and unimaginatively surreal, Paratopic is all tone and no brain or heart.

(See full review of Paratopic here.)

Play Instead: Return of the Obra Dinn

In Papers, Please, Lucas Pope pretends he has a handle on politics, suffering, and humanity. He drops that act with Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that better communicates Pope’s pure interest in mystery. Unlike the case with Paratopic, superb audiovisuals allow Return of the Obra Dinn to tap deep into our fear of and fascination with the inevitability of disaster.

6. Celeste

Those who think this game has something interesting or important to say about mental illness are sadly mistaken. Celeste is the work of a manipulative artist (Matt Thorson) who thinks it’s insightful to reduce psychological difficulty to, say, an evil apparition that follows you around like Cosmic Mario. Ever notice how the praise directed at Celeste’s trendy narrative rarely mentions the historical accomplishments of other games that deal with similar subject matter? There’s also little novelty in the game’s approach to platforming. Dashing mechanics are a dime a dozen these days, and the reason players die so many times in Celeste is that the platforming is rigid and unimaginative. This title is just another superficial ode to climbing the literal and metaphorical mountain.

(See full review of Celeste here.)

Play Instead: Plug Me

The solutions to Plug Me’s platforming trials are admittedly as set in stone as those in Celeste. But the suggestively titled Plug Me doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game is a race against time, as each level’s primary platform burns out like a fuse. If this disintegrating platform reaches the end of the level before you do, you’re dead — an inventive premise that isn’t weighed down by offensively cliched metaphors about struggle.

7. The Banner Saga 3

Tolkien’s precious hope and George R.R. Martin’s enthusiasm for destruction collide in this slog of a turn-based tactical game. The previous two Banner Saga games were far from intelligent or daring, but developer Stoic reaches a new low with this concluding chapter. Hopefully, we will never see another confused, nihilistic march like this again.

(See full review of The Banner Saga 3 here.)

Play Instead: Octopath Traveler

It’s dull watching your lumbering army break through the defenses of your opponents in The Banner Saga 3. Octopath Traveler, on the other hand, effectively fetishizes the shattering of enemy armor with beyond-crisp audio. For all its flaws, Octopath Traveler knows how to utilize sound to help tell stories and immerse you in a variety of activities and settings.

8. Minit

Minit might be considered an independent title, but it smells like part of a larger marketing scheme to dumb down classic game ideas and package them as loving tributes designed to elate the common person, who would be better off playing Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man. A facile Zelda wannabe that really should have lasted 60 seconds.

(See full review of Minit here.)

Play Instead: The Messenger

The Messenger sure looks like a Ninja Gaiden clone, but the comparison doesn’t hold up as you learn how to sail around like a flying squirrel. This game is not always good (the metatextual humor is beyond irritating), but its unusual kookiness separates it from the crowd of indie darlings that simply bank on tradition and nostalgia.

9. Mario Tennis Aces

A lazy effort from developer Camelot, Mario Tennis Aces can’t even sniff the sweaty shorts of Mario’s Tennis on the Virtual Boy or the 2000 N64 classic, Mario Tennis. Not only does this pathetic sequel lack basic tennis options, but its new mechanics are for people who don’t value skill or perseverance. A grave insult to the sport of tennis.

(See full review of Mario Tennis Aces here.)

Play Instead: Laser League

Although this game isn’t based on a traditional sport, its use of short sets is similar to the truncated experience of Mario Tennis Aces. The notion of only needing a few points to win a set makes sense here, though, as each point of Laser League can go on for a good while as team members revive each other amid an onslaught of moving laser beams. The game betrays its own simplicity by giving certain characters cheap special moves, but I’ll take the negative aspects of this fictional sport over the head-scratching design of a once-entertaining series.

10. Mega Man 11

This latest entry in the decades-old series suggests it might be time for Capcom to give up. Mega Man controls like a gummed-up, outdated piece of junk in this sequel, and all you have to do to survive the levels is save up credits and buy lives and energy tanks. That this embarrassing chapter largely received a pass demonstrates the power of a brand.

(See full review of Mega Man 11 here.)

Play Instead: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

As unnecessary as Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is (it’s like a poor remake of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), it does handle as well as the NES games it emulates. Can’t say the same thing for Mega Man 11, which botches the smoothness of the slide from Mega Man 3.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 Review — Say No to Rockstar

by Jed Pressgrove

Red Dead Redemption 2 is another glorified riff on Grand Theft Auto III, best enjoyed by those looking to control something of a juvenile delinquent in a sandbox. The game tries to gussy itself up as an immersive western in a world full of possibilities, but even a 10-year-old could make a grocery list of everything that developer Rockstar botches along the way.

The game’s “You can be a cowboy” conceit comes from its attention to the details of everyday life. You have to eat, but eat too much and you become overweight, which affects health and stamina. You have to clean your horse, as well as ride it for uneventful distances so as to feel the toil of travel. You have to take baths (or have, predictably, a woman do the scrubbing for you, with her hand seemingly going straight for the protagonist’s crotch when all you told her to do was wash one of your arms — an open world indeed!). One could go on and on. While these rote activities are neither fun, nor inventive, nor representative of everything that would need to be taken care of in a western setting, the intention is for players to lose themselves in some sense of realism.

Rockstar can’t sell realism however, as Red Dead Redemption 2 is the same game where if you’re on the run after committing murder, all you have to do is stay away from the red part of your map and, later, pay a bounty at a post office. Rockstar fanboys might quickly point out that the player could clear bounties in the first Red Dead Redemption, but once you stop pretending that you work for Rockstar PR and consider that this sequel obviously wants its western setting to be more convincing, you might realize that the entire game is not consistent or creative.

It’s also difficult to become immersed when you have to press and hold a button — as opposed to efficiently tapping a button once — to make your character hitch his horse and when your character doesn’t do anything for 5 to 10 seconds before awkwardly getting down and performing the action. (Note: This scenario assumes that when you approach a place to hitch a horse, the on-screen prompt to hitch your horse will appear, which doesn’t always happen.) The lack of basic responsiveness in the controls puts a spotlight on the fact that you are playing a 2018 game that feels clunkier than the average title. This is the same kind of problem that, earlier this year, prevented Kingdom Come: Deliverance from achieving a degree of verisimilitude on the PS4.

Let’s say we want to be 15 years old and think of an open world game as a place to cut up and be a depraved, no-good, piece-of-shit maniac. You can’t do it in this game. You can’t, say, kill your entire camp and forget about all of those generic missions they send you on. You can’t even draw your weapon in the camp. The game actually forces you to move slower in the camp, just to remind you that these people are your friends (even though, after eating some community stew, Arthur Morgan throws the bowl and utensil on the ground like an entitled 2-year-old). Red Dead Redemption 2 is too conservative to offer real freedom and meaningful consequences, unlike 1997’s Fallout.

The silliest thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is how clumsily it strives to be a good western by evoking elements of popular western stories. Dutch, the leader of the gang of which Arthur Morgan is a member, recalls the voices of western actors Richard Boone and Powers Boothe but carries none of their palpable menace. A prominent fistfight in the mud during the game clearly wants to compete with a similar scene in the third season of Deadwood, but it can’t because it barely takes enough time to build dramatic tension before the fight and drags on anti-climatically as you grapple with the delay between when you press buttons and when your avatar moves. Dutch’s gang resembles that group of lawbreakers in The Wild Bunch, and as with that (in)famous squad in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant film, their mythological way of life can’t last in an increasingly modernized world. But even though Peckinpah’s film displays some sentimentality for the loss of myth, The Wild Bunch doesn’t have a musing as corny as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2 that goes, “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them, so it’s ok.” That bit, along with another character’s patronizing white-guilt observation about the plight of American Indians (“Poor bastards … we really screwed them over down here”), epitomizes the phony maturity on display in Rockstar’s latest tired nod to formula.

Guacamelee! 2 Review — A Tremendous Step Forward

by Jed Pressgrove

As entertaining as the original Guacamelee! could be as a brawler-platformer and ode to Mexican culture, its imagination only went so far. You could see that in the patronizing and predictable reference to the falling-bridge dynamic in Super Mario Bros.’s Bowser battles; the very limited abilities of hero Juan’s chicken form (an inferior nod to Metroid’s morph ball); and the inclusion of a basic turbo meter in the Super Turbo Championship Edition of the game, just in case you couldn’t already imagine that the developers loved Street Fighter II.

Guacamelee! 2 doesn’t repeat these mistakes. The homages have become vehicles for increasingly complex mechanics and bizarre parody. Hilariously, the chicken form now comes with an intricate moveset that introduces new ways to extinguish enemies and land on seemingly out-of-reach platforms. And because you must switch dimensions as in the first game, Guacamelee! 2 presents numerous situations where you must decide which form will aid you the most as you try to keep up with the tests of ever-evolving level design. Not since Resident Evil 4 has a game maintained such a ferocious pace.

This sequel also sets a higher bar for video-game comedy. Although the game stumbles when it mocks turn-based combat (Jack King-Spooner’s Will You Ever Return? 2 features a more emotionally charged, not to mention more concise, takedown of such conventions), its humor is otherwise sharp and welcome, as when the entitled gamer mentality is satirized (“Is there a mod for removing the rubbish memes?”). In a send-up of pop gaming’s lack of proper suspense, at one point you come across at least five signs warning you of danger ahead on a path. And while Guacamelee! 2 centers itself on the idea of gaining new abilities, it also invites one to laugh at the overplayed obsession with becoming more powerful in games with nonsensical allusions to the protagonist’s newly gained “Fresh Breath,” “Papercut Immunity,” and “Stain Resistance.”

Since Guacamelee! 2 demands the player to integrate a wider variety of techniques, it can be a trial at times to play, as when you find yourself on a treadmill where you must strategically transform between human and cock to avoid being incinerated by moving walls of lava that speak to the game’s interdimensional madness. But there is not a more strangely cathartic moment in 2018 than when the game predestines the player to achieve a 600-hit combo as an overgrown chicken. If Guacamelee! shows that DrinkBox Studios merely adores the art form of video games, then Guacamelee! 2, like 2016’s spectacular dungeon-crawler Severed, proves that the developer is one of the most brilliant artists working in the medium.

Dead Cells Review — Moderation Is Boring

by Jed Pressgrove

I’ve seen more than one person say that Dead Cells is for people who dislike that type of game in which players must replay stages every time they die. But in pandering to such a close-minded audience, Dead Cells shows little conviction. When you die in this game, you do have to replay certain levels, but others may be skipped once you gain fundamental abilities. This arbitrary contradiction in design leaves me not wanting to play any of the game; Dead Cells’ lukewarm approach to levels reminds me of that silly moderate who condemns the atrocities of Hitler but always points out that the thin-mustached villain did some good things. It doesn’t help that its action is shallow and predictable compared to that of Guacamelee! 2, Spider-Man, and God of War; that its humor is as forced as Axiom Verge’s; and that its random item drops and occasional souped-up enemies suggest that developer Motion Twin has a superficial understanding of what made the first two Diablo games memorable.

Game Criticism Is Not Labor Rights Advocacy

by Jed Pressgrove

The role of a critic is to examine, interpret, and evaluate works of art after experiencing them. This purpose might lead a critic to champion an album for its exquisite instrumentation; reject a film for its shallow moral message; compare a painting and a sculpture that depict the same subject; or point out that a video game is politically irresponsible, for whatever reason, in addition to being a clunky, trite experience. The possibilities are innumerable, and the critic’s passion for art can sometimes lead to challenging ideas that stick in your memory like a pest. Criticism might even enlighten or elate us. Whatever the case may be, a critic talks about finished works of art and, in the process, should attempt to not sound like a commercial, a marketer, or any other horrible thing that attempts to exploit our impulses to buy or complacently enjoy what is peddled to us.

In contrast, a labor rights advocate looks for cases of exploitation in the workplace and puts a spotlight on terrible practices with the hope that workers’ situations will change for the better.

As someone with a functioning brain and a sense of decency, I don’t have a problem with criticism or labor rights advocacy. I do have a problem with statements that suggest that these things are somehow the same.

Recent stories about the production, not the finished artistry, of Red Dead Redemption 2 have led some to raise questions about whether poor labor conditions should factor into critics’ assessments of the game itself. Jessica Condit posits that labor conditions are directly tied to quality of the art: “However, talking about crunch can change how games like this are made. In fact, they can help make these games even better.” But where is the evidence for this well-meaning statement? How can one imply that better working conditions would produce better art when the examination, interpretation, and evaluation of art is in the eye of the beholder?

Earlier this year in reviews of Detroit: Become Human, some critics mentioned the sexism and homophobia that allegedly went on during the production of the game. It’s almost as if some critics would sometimes rather review labor environments than the games themselves. What’s particularly puzzling about this trend is that only certain games receive this level of scrutiny. It’s not like these same critics are performing active investigations of the production environments of every game they analyze. Indeed, that would be too much work for those looking to be conveniently self-righteous and progressive.

Criticism is a challenging activity because it requires one to ignore, look well beyond, or be wary of factors — whether advertisements, artist interviews, production stories (good or bad), and so on — that threaten to undermine one’s pure reaction to a given work of art. I reject the philosophy of critics who say otherwise and who rarely, if ever, seem to care about the labor conditions involved in all works of art, as opposed to a few that make the news here and there.

The Red Strings Club Review — Left-Wing Puppetry

by Jed Pressgrove

Don’t listen to the cries of narrow-minded fans: it’s fine for politics to be in games. But political expression should not be divorced from intelligence and context. With The Red Strings Club, developer Deconstructeam often presents a leftist viewpoint that is critical of corporations and patriarchal power, yet the game is content to fall back on wise-ass, pandering dialogue to share its perspective, as opposed to building a convincing narrative that compels the player to consider the validity of its biases.

The Red Strings Club takes place in a future where citizens can receive cybernetic implants that can do everything from increase their charisma to reduce their stress. Most of the story is set in the game’s titular bar, where you play as Donovan, a bartender who can mix drinks so as to manipulate people’s emotions and gain whatever information he wants. Along the way, you’ll also assume the role of Brandeis, Donovan’s hacker boyfriend, and Akara-184, an android that manufactures implants for a corporation called Supercontinent. The overall goal of the game is to stop Supercontinent’s plan to take control of people’s minds through a new program called Social Psyche Welfare.

Curiously, Jordi de Paco’s script reveals very little about the culture that is being threatened with Supercontinent’s scheme. With the exception of suggesting that people can better realize their dreams through technological modifications to their bodies, the story doesn’t highlight how the game’s fictional society is different than ours. Even stranger, despite The Red String Club’s preaching about the dubious intentions of corporations, the concept of class — the linchpin that connects leftists, and people generally, of all backgrounds — isn’t specifically addressed in the plot.

This oversight about class is particularly puzzling given that the principal characters seem to champion revolutionary behavior. In one scene, Donovan says, “Revolutionaries don’t live long,” and Brandeis replies, “But we do live intense.” But what have these people been fighting for? The impoverished? Oppressed groups? The script never says, even though the answer could obviously be tied to the malevolent actions of a corporate enemy.

At a pivotal juncture in the story, Akara-184 lays out several things that could be eliminated through Social Psyche Welfare: rape, suicide, xenophobia, homophobia. But when Akara-184 insists women are oppressed in the game’s fictional setting, something doesn’t line up, given that women don’t appear to be in bad shape within the game (Supercontinent’s CEO is even a 15-year-old girl!). If you, as Donovan, disagree with Akara’s assertion based on the game’s lack of attention to women’s plight, she will call you stupid, never offering any explanation of her righteous position. With this idiotic scene, Deconstructeam unintentionally parodies left-wing commentators who refuse to make a clear argument despite having a wealth of information at their fingertips. In resembling such insufferable, arrogant leftists, The Red Strings Club puts the “punk” in cyberpunk.

Loaded Questions Vol. 12

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Mingying Wang: As a big fan of film (you are as well, I assume?), I had a thought about video games that fall into the romance or romantic-comedy categories. Both genres have been popular in film, but why haven’t there been any in video games? I searched for examples through Google and found disastrous non-answers. Do you think romance or romantic comedy could work in video games? Or are there examples out there already?

Jed Pressgrove: First, I love film and the many genres within it. To answer your questions, romance or romantic comedy can work in games if the writing, presentation, and design are strong. As you’ve found, though, the mainstream often doesn’t have much to offer outside of relationships or moments between certain characters. One example that comes to mind is the great cutscene in Final Fantasy X where Yuna dances on water and Tidus is spellbound by her image and movement. You can see how romance blossoms on sight in that segment. For a more recent game, check out Florence. Unlike most pop games, Florence revolves around a romantic relationship in terms of both storytelling and mechanics. You might also be interested in Cibele, which has a lot to say about how online relationships can create unique challenges for people.

Of course, there are a number of well-known games that feature dating systems. There’s Stardew Valley (or, as I call it, Harvest Moon Wannabe). There’s Persona 5. And so on. But to be frank, I find that, more often than not, these games are superficial and contrived in how they explore romance dynamics. Boiling down potential romance to whether you give someone the right gift or whether you choose a particular dialogue option is asinine.

If you look outside of the mainstream, you might have more luck finding romance and romantic comedy in games. Visual novels seem to be a breeding ground for this sort of thing, but unfortunately I’m not as familiar with that sphere.

Question 2

Andrew Smith: I was wondering what role a game should play in explaining its mechanics. The example I’m thinking about is Kingdom Hearts II. I beat it on its normal difficulty setting and thought it was a fun game, but it also had a lot of button mashing and seemed to lack depth. I then watched some videos of higher-level players and realized that I either missed or didn’t use half of the game’s mechanics. I immediately played the game again on a higher difficulty, learned more mechanics, and had much more fun and appreciation for the game the second time around. For the first time ever, I’m playing a game for the third time right after my first and second playthroughs and having even more fun.

The thing is, while I greatly appreciate all the hidden mechanics and depth, I realize a lot of them are poorly explained, and I feel most people would never know about some of them without learning about them online. Then again, most people wouldn’t need to know these mechanics unless they played on higher difficulty settings.

Do you have any thoughts on this? You frequently say most people don’t need to be great at video games but just need a level of understanding. Thoughts on this situation?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t think a game must always explain its mechanics (in fact, I often criticize overtutorialization), but the experience will usually be more interesting if the developer gives players the opportunity to explore mechanics in an intuitive or experimental fashion. Take Octahedron. It doesn’t spend much time telling the player what to do, but it consistently puts you in situations where you must play around with new things in order to advance through each stage. I typically prefer it when games tell you less or just enough to play.

On the other hand, Guacamelee! 2 always points out what you can do in it, and I have found it to be a blast so far. You can make so many different choices during combat in Guacamelee! 2, so even though the game spells everything out, the player still has a great degree of kinetic freedom.

I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s typically annoying to me when a game is boring or doesn’t show its true colors, so to speak, during its first playthrough or on its normal difficulty setting. I can’t say too much about your situation, as I can’t judge the game without playing it, but my gut reaction to your account is that Kingdom Hearts II missed a lot of opportunities to be interesting within a shorter timeframe.

Questions 3-5

Carlo: Has reading a piece of game criticism ever drastically changed your evaluation of a game?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t remember a case where a piece transformed my opinion in such a way, but sometimes an article will challenge my view of a game and force me to think again about my stance. Jess Joho’s review of Octopath Traveler made me reconsider how I viewed some of the female characters in that game. Another interesting piece was Ed Smith’s take on Nier: Automata. Smith’s essay didn’t call into question my interpretation of the game, but it did make me muse about Toko Taro’s overall maturity. Reviews should get us to think more, not necessarily change our minds.

Carlo: You named your website Game Bias. Is this a declaration that you embrace your biases, a joke (on commenters who type “You’re biased!” if they don’t like a review), or something else altogether? What does bias mean to you?

Jed Pressgrove: I can see how the blog name can make people think it was a response to a certain type of commenter, but it wasn’t. A few years ago I said something on Twitter about needing a name for a new blog, and Farida Yusuf, who has a sharp and provocative critical mind, half-jokingly (I think) suggested “Game Bias.” The term immediately struck me, so I went with it and never looked back.

I get a kick out of the phrase. I like that you can take it either as a serious statement or as humor. I embrace my biases in any case. To deny them would be to deny my heart, mind, and soul. In general, I believe everyone should let their feelings flow.

Having said that, I don’t think we should be biased against games before we play them. There are too many critics nowadays who dismiss work before they even honestly try it.

Biases, in their most honest form, are not merely angles or slants. They stem from convictions, personal experiences, and moral codes. Criticism, as a form of expression, can’t ignore such things.

Carlo: I really liked your podcasts with Tevis Thompson and Keith Andrew Hathaway. Do you have any plans to do more?

Jed Pressgrove: Glad you liked those. I have no plans now for a podcast with anyone, but you never know when another project will pop up. It’s a format that I remain interested in, and I always enjoy talking to people.

Beckett Review — New Look, Old Habits

by Jed Pressgrove

Few things have escaped the cynical crosshairs of the noir genre. So when you come across the line in the detective game Beckett that reads, “Beckett stopped believing in any notion of God the day his baby sister died,” the prose fits the noir profile, regardless of whether you have faith of any sort. Developer Simon Meek, like many crime fiction writers before him, always stays on script; his protagonist’s observations about life are dark and to the point. But Meek’s way of executing the formula — his unusual mixture of text, full-motion video, photographs, and strange audio within a point-and-click adventure format — makes it more difficult to reject Beckett as another case of fatalistic mimicry.

As the titular private investigator, you are trying to find Peregrine, the adult son of a woman named Daisy, who spends most of her time watching television. Peregrine is an awkward young man who can’t take female rejection and has essentially ran away from home. Beckett himself has his own psychological issues, which stem from his childhood, a general sort of world-weariness, and the loss of his wife.

This game constantly undercuts the predictable framework of the 2D point-and-click adventure as the story advances. You never know what kind of storytelling device or audiovisual cue will be triggered by your clicks. When you click a person, sometimes a text conversation starts immediately, but you won’t hear voice acting. Instead, every character has a repetitive sound associated with their dialogue. For Beckett, it’s coughing, most certainly a result of his smoking habit and age. For others, it might be the sound of lips aggressively eating and kissing (Daisy), the din of a typewriter (a receptionist), or a jackhammer (a construction worker).

Other times the game will perform visual gymnastics when you click something. After you initiate contact with a city representative, the camera zooms in on the character’s avatars, and the background becomes blurry and starts to rotate, eventually resembling a spinning vinyl record. During another pivotal conversation, the typical text-based exchanges evaporate as you begin to hear one of the character’s voices, and humongous words start to fill up the screen. From there, the game shifts to a display of prose with full-motion-video worms writhing in the background. Meek’s off-the-wall style, somewhat reminiscent of Jack King-Spooner’s use of kaleidoscopic audiovisual elements in RPGs, is always intriguing and defies the tried-and-true structure we’ve come to expect from adventure games.

The game’s script, while concise and engaging, isn’t as exceptional as its balls-out presentation. The resigned atheism of the protagonist makes sense initially, as you gather that Beckett’s mother had faith and probably pressured her son to follow in her footsteps. You also learn that religion-inspired guilt plagues the investigator: “Beckett seeks forgiveness. From whom he doesn’t know.” The storytelling falls apart, though, when Beckett sees a crying baby in the alley and muses, “Leave it be.” Why would a guilt-stricken man, whose baby sister died, be this apathetic about a helpless child? Meek never provides an answer. It’s as if the player is supposed to assume the worst just because the game is within the noir genre.

The protagonist’s puzzling lack of compassion is perhaps explained by one interpretation of the story’s ending. There is reason to believe after the conclusion that Beckett is not a real person but rather a projection of an aspect of another character’s psychology. While this reading can leave room for weird inconsistencies, it doesn’t help the game step out of the large shadow of numerous crime and psychological thriller stories that use a similar type of plot twist.

One of the game’s most memorable final lines is “There is no meaning to this world beyond which we give it.” At best, the absurdist philosophy of this quote doesn’t ring true in the context of the story’s relentless negativity. At worst, the thought registers as an excuse for Meek’s game-ending obfuscation. Beckett is compelling for how it says what it says through provocative images and sounds, but its overall message is confined by the typical nihilism of a genre that, for years, has had nothing new to point out.

Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.

As Gary, you always wind up playing an RPG called Legend of the Spear. This game allows Gary to forget the commentary of his mother and girlfriend and to exist in a world that, while challenging to survive in, lacks the more serious problems of real life. But responsibility soon demands Gary to get a job to support his mother, and as he navigates the very dubious politics at his grocery-store gig, he starts to notice that the events and people in Legend of the Spear mirror those of his everyday life.

Every day after work, you move Gary into his room to resume gaming. The sense of isolation is initially freeing, but when Gary’s worlds start to clash or reflect each other, wake-up calls abound for the protagonist. During one session with Legend of the Spear, Gary abruptly quits the game when he learns his friend has had an overdose. And when Gary begins to see similarities between his boss’ questionable orders and the quests given to him by a reptile queen in Legend of the Spear, his sense of integrity is doubly called into question. Through such occurrences, Gary learns how to care about people other than himself.

This story of coincidental redemption might sound sappy, but Rogers infuses wit throughout Legendary Gary to underscore the silliness of the game’s premise and the hilarity of human behavior and thought. At one point, Gary, tired of his mother’s constant references to her faith, declares that God doesn’t make video games. His mother’s response is sharp, believable, and ridiculous: “How do you know what God makes? Are you his accountant?” In a later scene, Gary’s boss has been fired for her unprofessional approach to management, and Gary is interrogated about his dealings with her by two corporate stooges labeled Serious Man and Other Serious Man. The sliminess of the situation is beyond palpable when one of the men advises Gary, “Just remember to keep it profesh’ from here on out.”

The audiovisual approach of Legendary Gary is a perfect fit for Rogers’ blend of humor and drama. The hand-drawn art of Legendary Gary is cartoony but exquisitely detailed, highlighting both the absurdity and complexity of Gary’s life. The soundtrack is an unusual mix. When Gary engages in turn-based combat in Legend of the Spear, you hear songs that seem like they were composed by a Talking Heads cover band. At first, it feels as if you’re listening to the most unorthodox score for RPG battling ever, but the music complements the dance-like movement of the characters when they all take their turns simultaneously — half spectacle and half nonsense.

Legendary Gary’s conclusion implies that life and video games are better when they have cathartic value, as opposed to when they only seem to suck away our spirit and our time, reducing us to human shells. The final scene is in a graveyard where Gary’s father was buried. Both Gary and his mother come to grips with the massive hole in their family unit, and the newfound bond between them suggests a sense of hope for the future. At the very end, the game visually confirms that every character in Legend of the Spear is an analogue for someone in Gary’s life. Legendary Gary is as meta as they come, but more importantly, it’s far wiser than the norm for imagining a more positive relationship between art and humanity.

All Our Asias Review — The Risk of Being Didactic

by Jed Pressgrove

All Our Asias is admirably upfront about its purpose. The game’s introductory message relays developer Sean Han Tani’s intention to untangle the complicated meaning of being Asian in the United States. From there, All Our Asias becomes less straightforward as Japanese protagonist Yuito, with the help of futuristic technology, enters the mind of his dying father to learn as much as he can from the fading memories of his old man. But in the second half of the story, Han Tani’s contrived lecturing about the dubiousness of U.S. Asian identity unravels the surreal tone that serves the game’s theme so well in its first hour.

Despite the concern of his mother, Yuito, curious about the life of his aloof and neglectful father, decides to take advantage of an opportunity to dive into the brain of his soon-to-be-dead dad. When he travels through his father’s memories, he is but a floating pod, just like the people he encounters on his journey. Yuito is pushy when he speaks to the denizens of the strange world, demanding to know if they might know anything about his dad. Later he meets a character named The General, who sends Yuito on a political mission to level the playing field for Asian restaurant owners in a memory-based Chinatown of Chicago.

All Our Asias is almost nothing to look at in the beginning. That almost everyone appears to be a robotic pod during Yuito’s quest creates a uniquely vacant feeling as your own pod hums its way through the game. The lack of meticulous detail for the characters and environments, along with the jagged look of the polygons, evokes the messiness of human memory. And Yuito’s bullheaded determination to uncover truth is disturbing in this ethereal setting; his aggressive interrogation of individuals essentially kills them, turning them into forgotten things.

Yuito’s obsession eventually takes him to areas that have more visual punch, including a nightclub rendered with wireframe graphics, a hazy forest, and a cold-looking train station. The soundtrack of All Our Asias is as ephemeral as the memories that Yuito pushes around. The score, most of which was composed by Han Tani, goes in numerous different directions in terms of emotional effect, rivaling the quality of Earthbound’s various mood-setting tunes. During one of All Our Asias’ most memorable tracks, it’s hard to tell whether you’re hearing static or rain, and that lack of clarity complements Han Tani’s conflicted perspective on Asian identity.

The philosophical thrust of Han Tani’s message is at first cleverly conveyed. At one point, Yuito hears Japanese but can’t understand any of the language. Despite his removal from the culture of his parents, Yuito is inundated with racial slurs in another scene by people who don’t recognize him as an American. When he later finds himself on a train drifting in outer space, you can imagine how alien he must feel on his search for clarification.

The game loses its footing when Yuito begins doing work for The General, a memory that claims it knew his father well. This is when Han Tani’s storytelling suffers from its contrivances. Not only is labeling a bossy character “The General” too on the nose, but The General’s sermons about the diversity of Asian experiences in the United States come across as overly presumptuous.

Although it’s clear Yuito needs a lesson (his great line “Mom, maybe you were right” shows that), The General goes into left field when informing Yuito that Asians “don’t all look the same” after Yuito expresses sympathy for a struggling Korean restaurant owner based on his perception of shared identity. Yuito’s ignorance never reaches a level where he’s literally unable to recognize any physical differences. Han Tani’s point (via The General) about the cultural and social separation of Asians of different classes and backgrounds is needed in a kneejerk U.S. culture that lacks nuanced understanding. Yet All Our Asias’ preaching seems like a clumsy slap on the wrist in its final act, losing the unorthodox power of its challenging, suggestive first half.