Inside Review — Uncreative Nihilism

by Jed Pressgrove

Platforming is dead (that is, boring), or at least it appears that way for the majority of Inside as you guide a mysterious boy in danger. Like developer Playdead’s previous game Limbo, Inside is a side-scroller in which you solve puzzles, often through dying and retrying a section of a chapter. But whereas Limbo maintained interest with ideas like a parasite that forces you to move in a certain direction or a switch that causes the entire level to rotate, Inside too often sticks to tedious chores such as dragging items into position so you can jump to higher platforms and swimming away from an enemy who can kill you instantly. (Inside has nothing on Solomon’s Key, Lost Vikings, or One Fine Day.)

The best parts of Inside are the weirdest, such as when you have to lead about two dozen human-like experiments or when you are absorbed, in the last chapters, into a blob with human appendages. Outside of these experiences, director Arnt Jensen tries to coast on the morbidity he established in Limbo. One should question why, for the second game in a row, Jensen insists on allowing the camera to linger while the child protagonist meets his doom in any of the articulately constructed death sequences. This instance of repetition, as in the more uninspired platforming sections, seems to point to an easy business model rather than any personal or artistic motivation, in contrast to Edmund McMillen’s undeniable, controversial thematic purpose in The Binding of Isaac via Zelda-inspired dungeons. Inside’s child endangerment will equal automatic deep meaning for many critics and audiences.

Both Limbo and Inside emphasize the feeling of being trapped in a dark place, but the latter adds ambiguous science fiction. The game implies the boy you control is science gone wrong, and the aforementioned blob brings to mind the monstrosity in the final third of the anime film Akira. “Look at what humankind has done” is an intended moral reaction in Inside, but that doesn’t mean the story is even halfway done right.

Why let the boy be absorbed by the blob and have the creature die once escaping from “inside”? Jensen and company hammer you over the head with fatalism beforehand, only to offer the disappointment of pathetic death as freedom. Inside’s primary ending doesn’t have the conviction of the conclusion of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which illustrates what its protagonist represents in a culture and time and how his death reveals the misguided philosophy of a machine-like institution. Because you rarely have a sense of what’s going on within the boy, or within any of the human-like experiments, Inside’s primary ending suggests there is no meaning to struggle, that if you want to get out of the system, you might as well die because you are a shell. This inarticulate statement risks being seen as profound to an indie gaming scene prone to self-pitying, half-assed intellectualism.

Vogel’s Lack of Appreciation for Video Games and History

by Jed Pressgrove

For a large part of “No, Video Games Aren’t Art. We’re BETTER,” game designer Jeff Vogel struggles to describe video games in a way that doesn’t sound like a superficial, ahistorical commercial. His confused smugness comes in its purest form when he suggests “we game designers” naturally aim at something higher than art. Like many hype-spinning commentators, Vogel doesn’t appear at first to understand what makes video games different from each other, much less from similar interests.

According to Vogel, video games can achieve “transportation,” which he defines as better than art. He uses the new Doom game to illustrate this concept. In a reference to the comic Penny Arcade (which has some of the worst comedic timing of all time), Vogel is fine with calling Doom something as vacuous as “playable sugar.” Yet he moves away from what that phrase might imply, saying that he was “utterly transported” when he fought three bosses in Doom. He then cites a unique feeling of being “consumed” and “drained” after expending the effort to defeat the bosses.

Vogel’s claim seems to be that art can’t cause any of these feelings, but this notion is easily rejected. A movie can transport you to a different time and place, one might describe a pop song as “playable sugar,” and a rock show can consume and drain concertgoers. Even if we limit the discussion to video games, the first Doom did everything better than the new Doom, excluding weapon design. There is nothing unexpected about doing one arena fight after another in a Mars or Hell setting, but it’s in Vogel’s best interest as a self-important game designer to bullshit readers into thinking the new Doom does something historically significant with a few boss fights. Maybe Doom does accomplish something different, but Vogel can’t explain why with vague terms that are applicable to all types of art.

Ironically, in stating it’s “dumb” to feel proud after beating a boss, Vogel dismisses one of the more distinct things a video game like Doom might have going for it, at least in comparison to movies, songs, books, paintings, and other things that are often labeled art. The easiest way to understand popular appeal of video games is to think in terms of art, puzzles, and sports, with the third term leaving plenty of room for pride after defeating an opponent. But Vogel has already made up his mind that video games represent some kind of magic that has little relationship to anything before it. (One wonders if he would be able to consider that Michael Jordan is an artist who beat people on the basketball court.)

In arguing that the new Doom sets itself apart without showing how it’s different than previous first-person shooters, Vogel fails to acknowledge the history of the very form he praises as singular. Vogel’s flippancy toward serious evaluation of video games pops up several times after his non-analysis of Doom. He says “We offer Experience,” apparently trying his hand at mindless marketing talk. He also says if you are looking for “artistic accomplishment” and “creativity,” you should look at any “Best Games list from 2014 or 2015.” First of all, why should any reader automatically assume a list from a random game critic will identify artistic accomplishment or creativity? Second, why only from 2014 or 2015? The suggestion leaves room for the common misconception that games from previous decades don’t have aesthetics, expression, and messages–that they cannot be appreciated as art, that they are different from art. Later, Vogel says he likes games such as Gone Home, Her Story, and The Beginner’s Guide that borrow “storytelling techniques from obsolete art forms.” Nevermind what these techniques or art forms are. Nevermind whether Gone Home and company actually introduced these borrowed techniques to the video-game form. Vogel again prefers to condescend, not articulate.

Vogel’s take on The Last of Us, which appears in the middle of his post, fares better than what precedes it, if only because he becomes more specific. His main point follows: the “actual game part of” The Last of Us (the action, not the cutscenes) is what makes the game special, as it causes us to be momentarily tricked “into thinking we’re struggling for survival.” This theory aligns with Defender creator Eugene Jarvis’ idea that tapping into players’ “inner Neanderthal” keeps them coming back for more. Vogel excitedly talks about the power of the developer to create “addiction machines” and “compulsions.” It’s even hard to tell whether he is joking when he says, “I want to absorb you to the point where it threatens your marriage and your livelihood.” Vogel’s ideal game is one that transports you, i.e., makes you forget the real world and enter a new world, and turns you into an addict (an effect, I would point out, that many television shows and pop songs have on their audiences).

With this ideal, we see the true colors of Vogel’s misleading post. He claims he is arguing in favor of video games as a whole and as a unique form, when in fact he places more value on “gamey games” and scrambles to articulate how these types of games have no historical precedent. In doing so, Vogel denies the history of art, games, and sports. If you want to appreciate video games, it should go without saying that you have to honestly compare them to each other, whether they came out in 2015 or 1975, and to other things that compel, transport, consume, and addict audiences.

Kirby: Planet Robobot Review — Kirby’s Power Fantasy

by Jed Pressgrove

The power fantasy is often associated with dominance, especially the masculine sort. As such, people don’t tend to connect the puffy and pink Kirby to such a fantasy. But this year’s platformer Kirby: Planet Robobot has a suggestive, over-the-top reversal: the protagonist, while operating a mecha suit, literally screws into the final boss, eventually penetrating the enemy and passing all the way through.

This display of brute, phallic force from the cute hero rejects the misconception that the mecha-suit action in Planet Robobot is a gimmick. While it’s true many Kirby games have been easy and thus could be said to make one feel dominant, Planet Robobot has a graver tone, thanks to its two-legged machines that recall similar but briefer moments in Mega Man X and the urgency of the “Heart of Steel” theme (Hirokazu Ando’s soundtrack is one of the best of the year). Kirby’s Dream Land 2 already played with the notion of the hero becoming more powerful by attaching himself to different animals, but these occurrences, such as when Kirby rides inside a fish out of water, were sometimes more awkward than empowering.

With the mecha suit in Planet Robobot, you can destroy things that seem immovable, like the automobiles in the game’s second world, Resolution Road. Even though you can feel the weight of the suit, your mecha movement is quicker and more precise than the case of the power armor in Fallout 4. There is also a version of Kirby’s suit that allows you to cruise as an automobile and jump from plane to plane, supercharging the foreground-background dynamic that felt tacked on in Kirby Triple Deluxe.

In the concluding series of bosses of Planet Robobot, the power fantasy is subverted before the wild climax. The boss stage of the sixth world leans as you walk, producing disorientation that clashes with the killer efficiency you felt in previous levels. With Kirby looking up as you ride an elevator, the loss of his dominance is apparent (appropriately you can’t move Kirby during this sequence), as is his sense of awe at what he is about to face. You end up fighting a more intimidating version of the classic Kirby villain Meta Knight. (I destroyed him as cheaply and desperately as possible with the poison ability, staying high in the air and flinging life-draining chemicals to the floor.)

The next boss flips the power dynamic further. As $10,000 bills rain down, the battle evokes white-collar menace on par with the cigar-smoking Fat Cat, the great final enemy in Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In a dialogue sequence, this Planet Robobot boss confirms his view of your subordination with racist language (“wild natives”). The very final boss form can actually swallow and spit you out; the camera follows you as you are swallowed to emphasize powerlessness and humiliation. All of this helps emphasize the game’s ultimate catharsis of screwing your foe to death, making Planet Robobot both an essential take on Kirby and a shining example of creativity in 2016’s big-budget game malaise.

A Note on the Lack of Game Bias Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

You might have noticed that after my review of Doom at the beginning of June, Game Bias has been dead. This was not my intention. In the early summer, I tweeted that I would be working on reviews of Kirby: Planet Robobot and a couple of other games for Game Bias. The delay on these reviews has a very simple explanation: I lack both time and resources in 2016.

My divorce is the major reason. Economically, I’m not where I was the last couple of years when I was able to write articles for Game Bias regularly. I no longer have my own PC, and that has made writing difficult, as you can imagine. Although I plan on getting a PC as soon as I take care of other concerns, I can’t say when that will be. Until then, when I do get to a PC I can use, I’m usually writing reviews for Slant, not Game Bias. Slant provides me review copies of games, so that’s where my priority has to be. On top of that, there was also a significant death in my family recently, as well as signs of another divorce, and my day job has become much more demanding. All of these things have cut away at my opportunity and, hell, some of my motivation to write.

I debated on whether to write this entry at all. The reason I ended up doing it is that I appreciate everyone who reads my work a great deal, and I feel you deserve an explanation, even if you were never wondering.

I’ll end on some good news: my review of Kirby: Planet Robobot will be coming to Game Bias soon. I hope I can say the same for other pieces. As always, thank you for reading.

Doom (2016) Review — Fear No Evil

by Jed Pressgrove

The firefights in the new Doom have something to share: Hell has little suspense. Thanks to music cues, checkpoints, “Gore Nests,” and more, you almost always know when you’ll be fighting waves of demons, who continue to appear out of nowhere, but in an orderly fashion, as you kill off their kin. Doom, like the 1993 original, is faster than the overwhelming majority of first-person shooters, but the pace elicits superficial excitement rather than tension because you’re rarely caught off-guard and because ammo and health are plentiful.

Although this entry features expendable characters, irritating voice-overs, and too-easy satire about corporate marketing (“Weaponizing demons for a brighter tomorrow.”), the point hasn’t changed since the original Doom: kill demons on Mars and in Hell. With scenes dedicated to the silent protagonist’s brutish approach (such as when he forces a drone to give him a weapon upgrade), Doom is unapologetic and witty about its brawniness, making it more fun than the pretentious Dark Souls III. The shooter’s cause is also helped by developer id Software’s superior weapon design that includes two modifications that can be leveled up for almost every gun. Since you can switch between a gun’s normal and modified fire during battle, the strategic and kinetic possibilities are immense, surpassing the amount of styles enabled by power-up selection in the 1989 vertical shooter Blazing Lazers. The gun offerings in Doom also confirm the embarrassing lack of imagination in Wolfenstein: The New Order, another Bethesda-published title.

Doom’s tactical variety and breakneck pacing don’t make shooting the star of the game, though. The irony here is explained by a standardization of danger. As far as combat is concerned, you’re usually only threatened when you enter one of the game’s many arena fights, which are imposed by mission objectives and suddenly locked doors. In these arenas, there is often an object, such as a Gore Nest, that you have to interact with before a variety of demons pop out of thin air, so in these cases, you have the luxury of scanning the area for hideaways, power-ups, ammunition, and so on before the battle starts. After you initiate the fight, it’s best to attack the enemies as they enter the arena; their starting positions are projected by red energy patterns. Because enemies can materialize all around you, the “keep moving” principle largely guides success, as does performing melee finishers (“Glory Kills”) on stunned enemies for health pickups and using your chainsaw on enemies to replenish ammo. With some practice (and you’ll get plenty of it), you can see the odds are stacked in your favor, and if you die, checkpoints ensure you won’t be far from the arena.

As such, this is the first time in the Doom series where you can operate with negligible fear. The less respected Doom 3 had fewer enemies on the screen at a time, but it produced more suspense because demons could come out of a hiding spot in any hall or any room. You could justify the new Doom’s arena repetition by saying it’s adopting a different paradigm, but the result is not as exciting as Masanobu Endō’s 1982 classic Xevious, which combined predictable enemy entrances with some random variations in enemy type and attack style.

The inclusion of Glory Kills in Doom says a lot about id Software’s decreased emphasis on unpredictable horror. When you perform a Glory Kill, the game temporarily takes control away from you so that you can watch the protagonist’s armored hands and feet rip and pulverize different parts of enemies. Even though these finishing moves vary according to enemy type and player position (e.g., you get a different finish if you’re behind an enemy), you see them so many times that they become like ordering a Classic Single vs. a Classic Double at Wendy’s. From a practical standpoint, the Glory Kills can give you much needed health in a pinch. At the same time, the imagery of Glory Kills — hell, the very name — evokes this illusion of masculine invincibility that is in line with many pop action games and is another reminder that some developers can’t leave the blood pornography of the 1990s behind. The violence in the original Doom was more about complementing atmosphere, tone, and theme rather than showmanship (as in the gore of Mortal Kombat). The new Doom rejects this significant historical distinction.

The best part of this Doom has nothing to do with violence. As critic Patrick Lindsey once said about the original Doom, “The secret is that Doom is not actually about the shooting.” Here, Lindsey pointed to the lack of precision aiming and emphasized the importance of movement. I want to borrow this point about movement but flip it away from the idea of putting oneself in the best position for killing enemies. The most interesting parts in the new Doom involve exploring every corner of a level for tucked-away items without falling to your death. When you fall, there is no Glory Kill or chainsaw kill or “Berserk” power-up to bail yourself out. When you fall far enough, you’re dead. That’s the tension that a title like “Doom” entails.

Uncharted 4 Review — Thief’s Glorification

by Jed Pressgrove

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is by far the best Uncharted game. That’s not a surprise since the series is largely mediocre, but this fact doesn’t take away from Uncharted 4’s almost-perfect opening chapters that change protagonist Nathan Drake from an opportunistic douchebag “related” to Sir Francis Drake to an individual beset by familial, spiritual, and instinctual pressures. This conflict, which appropriately references the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves, loses its potency and its point when directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann seem to go out of their way to recycle action concepts and arrive at a non-messy, amoral ending.

The previous Uncharted game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, attempted to draw the series closer to the mythology of the Indiana Jones films with its flashback of a young Nathan Drake getting a lesson in thievery from veteran Victor Sullivan (adult Nathan’s partner). This flashback resembles what a young Indiana Jones experienced in The Last Crusade when he got his fedora from an older, better man, but Uncharted 3’s secular lightheartedness and lack of family ties spoil the Indiana Jones comparison and show a specious understanding of juvenile development. Uncharted 4 corrects this mistake with flashbacks depicting young Nathan’s rejection of religion — the game’s best visual is when Nathan sits on a bed as a nun remonstrates him, the lighting on the boy bringing out the preciousness of his soul — and the influence of his big brother Sam.

The present-day journey in Uncharted 4 takes off when Nathan learns Sam, thought to be deceased for years, is alive and needs help finding treasure to pay off a crime lord. Due to guilt over the fact that he once left his brother for dead on an ill-advised quest for fortune, Nathan lies to and leaves his wife Elena to accompany his long-lost mentor sibling, but the script also implies Nathan is starved for violence. This yearning shows up in an earlier segment when Nathan, retired from adventuring, rolls around in his man cave and shoots targets with a toy gun, as if to combat withdrawal. When Nathan later lies to Elena again in order to buy more time to assist Sam, the shot of the wife on the phone dissolves into a shot of the Madagascar wilderness (where the brothers think they’re hot on the trail of treasure). This cinematic technique powerfully communicates screwed-up priorities: the thrill of danger first, family second. Sullivan, often a comic-relief character, even highlights Nathan’s dubious motivation: “I thought this was about saving Sam.”

The deeper you get into Uncharted 4, the less concerned it is about morality and the more determined it is to run the player through a gauntlet of unexciting or overused ideas. Ledges breaking. Tediously easy puzzles. Characters boosting each other up to places where ladders should be. Pushing boxes against walls so that you can reach a higher platform. Triggering mummy bombs. Uncharted 4 is another case where good editing seems off the table in the AAA business meeting that says quantity equals quality. The more responsive melee combat, greater emphasis on stealth, and addition of climbing tools are fine, but the more suspenseful and dynamic sequences, such as the clock-tower climb and the elevator gunfight, should have made up the majority of the game, as they could have given the action a consistently engaging identity.

Even the once-complex cast peters out. Elena does show up a couple of times to make Nathan question his intentions, but soon all the characters agree the suicidal mission should be completed. The earlier allusions to the penitent thief, who confessed his sin to a dying Christ, are forgotten. By the end, the greed and irresponsibility of Sam and Nathan result in everyone’s dreams coming true. The sentimentality is at its grossest in the epilogue, which showcases Nathan and Elena’s privileged daughter edging toward the same path of materialism disguised as adventurism. This unironic ending proves the subtitle “A Thief’s End” is bullshit.

Dark Souls III Review — See Monster, Kill Monster

by Jed Pressgrove

Dark Souls is a great horror game for injecting new drama into the traditional video-game challenge of methodically dispatching enemies and traversing dangerous places. In Dark Souls, the bonfire’s dubious salvation — restoration and growth in exchange for the regeneration of all vanquished foes — might inspire a game critic to write an analysis on death, learning, and repetition, but more inspiring than that is the undulation of suspense and relief (unique from the game’s ancestors, Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda). With Dark Souls III, discovering or using a bonfire means much less. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and other leads at FromSoftware have allowed the standards of many other (more banal) games to invade: convenient hubs, easy-to-find merchants, more safe spots, fast travel, explicit warnings about danger, more linear level design, enemies that are easier to sneak up on or avoid altogether, and so on. Dark Souls III is about as mysterious as a McDonald’s on a street corner.

The title screen music, composed by Yuka Kitamura, suggests an epic spiritual crisis, but neither the introductory cutscene nor the ensuing journey earn the various emotions of the song. In the intro, a voice-over tries to put a different spin on the Dark Souls tradition of struggle with “And so it is, that ash seeketh embers,” yet the game actually amounts to “Hey, you need to kick these guys’ asses; use an ember to boost your health beforehand.” The brawniness of Dark Souls III would be better without the existential posturing.

The best thing that can be said about Dark Souls III is it doesn’t look as bad as Miyazaki’s recent hit Bloodborne. The player avatar and various physical structures in Dark Souls III do not blend together as they did in Bloodborne, which stupidly wasted its Gothic architecture by ignoring the importance of an illusion of depth. But like Bloodborne, Dark Souls III can’t buy scares with its cheap Resident Evil 4 homages, such as the Undead Settlement and enemies who get taken over by what looks like a demonic virus. Dark Souls III also makes ideas from Dark Souls less captivating from a visual/spatial perspective; Dark Souls III’s perching dragon, for example, doesn’t cause as much anxiety as its Dark Souls counterpart that stared players down from the opposite side of a long bridge. Similarly, the Anor Londo location returns from Dark Souls but with little of the awe.

Considering that so many ideas return from previous entries, the more straightforward pathfinding in Dark Souls III doesn’t serve it well, as dying again and again allows more opportunities to confirm the general lack of startling or curious concepts. Being able to veer more often from the standard path would have at least delayed this realization. FromSoftware attempts to spice up the proceedings with weapon skills, yet all you really need to do is dodge and attack without overextending, and unlike the case in the more fascinating Golden Axe: Beast Rider, there’s little work in countering besides memorizing enemy patterns and locking on to targets.

It can’t be denied that some of the adversaries in Dark Souls III are hard to forget, from the spastic bird people to the tubby undead evangelist women to the Abyss Watchers that hilariously kill each other as you fight them. Since these quirky creations are the main reason to play, one could view Dark Souls III as a streamlined monster mash, yet it still has tons of useless items and pointless texts (juxtapose this flirty storytelling with Planescape: Torment’s clear commentary on the human condition with its descriptions). People often describe Dark Souls games as vague and open to interpretation. That’s Miyazaki and company’s greatest swindle: convincing people that “see monster, try to kill monster” sequelitis is profound. Take the unfamiliar monsters away, and you have one boring-ass game in Dark Souls III.

Dark Souls, Difficulty, and Accessibility

by Jed Pressgrove

Ignore the Souls fanboy hype: Dark Souls is not uniquely difficult. The discussion on whether Dark Souls should have an easy mode might make you believe otherwise. Both sides of the debate seem to suggest that difficulty and accessibility have an inverse relationship: the easier a game is, the more accessible it is, and the harder a game is, the less accessible it is.

Video game history does not confirm this suggestion. Tetris and Pac-Man are two of the most accessible games ever; neither is easy. Last Action Hero on the Nintendo Entertainment System is not hard to complete, but its miserable combat is not very appealing to a general audience.

A certain type of difficulty could affect accessibility. That Dark Souls has a more uniform hardness (rather than the gradual difficulty of Tetris) could mean fewer people will enjoy it. But being consistently and mercilessly difficult didn’t hurt Flappy Bird’s wide appeal.

This fact leads me to think that some do not want to judge Dark Souls based on its design. Every element of Dark Souls that could be called inaccessible — including the laughably ambiguous and drearily metatexual storytelling that some would like to subject themselves to in an easy mode — follows the intention of the developers, who are very much aware of the vague and unforgiving nature of a sizable chunk of games for the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and other consoles. (One of modern game criticism’s biggest shortcomings is the frequent lack of comparison between Dark Souls and Castlevania. Most commentators haven’t noted Dark Souls resembles Castlevania II in 3-D form in some ways.)

The Dark Souls easy mode debate often overlooks two other things: (1) it’s perfectly fine to hate a game’s design, and (2) Dark Souls 3 represents an easy mode. The second point is very important, as the developers have made an effort to make Dark Souls more accessible via reduced damage, fast travel, a hub — they’ve even thrown in messages that tell you to turn back from particularly dangerous paths. But is Dark Souls 3 all that interesting? And is this effort to please the audience enough?

Based on the easy mode debate, the answers to both questions are “No!” This realization comes back to the Souls fanboy’s insistence that Dark Souls is uniquely difficult, a claim that anyone who knows their history knows is false at worst and dubious at best. We should refute claims that ignore history and question the instant-gratification fairy tale of an easy mode making a game better and more accessible.

Until Dawn Review — Trite Choices

by Jed Pressgrove

Critic Cameron Kunzelman called Until Dawn “genre-changing.” I think “genre-degrading” is a more suitable phrase. Until Dawn reflects the mentality that horror movie should mean terrible movie, as opposed to bringing to mind work like Kuroneko, White Dog, and Pan’s Labyrinth. One more time, we’re supposed to be amused by jump scares, false signals, middle-class assholism, and irritating women (sexism, not homage). Until Dawn apes cabin movies, Saw, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and The Descent with no point other than allowing the player a say in character deaths. The Butterfly Effect is cited to suggest unpredictable consequences, but only Rumpelstiltskin wouldn’t be able to figure out that director Will Byles and writers Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden are doing the approved Telltale Games player-choice dance. Peter Stormare, the best actor in Until Dawn, offers camp that is meme-worthy, not praiseworthy (the latter adjective describes Vincent Price’s superior role in House on Haunted Hill). Impressive animation and sharp integration of quick-time button presses allow Until Dawn to rise above Telltale and its imitators, but let’s face it: a good arcade game has more interesting on-the-fly choices to make than this latest narrative-driven product.

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015

2015 had a significant share of bad games, so the following works, particularly the top two, deserve much credit for carrying the torch of superior design and execution. You will also notice that a few of these selections are updated editions, which shouldn’t be excluded if they substantially improve on good work. (For more reading, check out the top 10 best games of 2014 here.)

1. Off-Peak

Off-Peak doesn’t amount to “environmental storytelling” hype and displays a conflicted perspective about creation that should inspire a rejection of Davey Wreden’s tabloid-like excrement in The Beginner’s Guide. Developer Cosmo D avoids both sentimentality and trendy Marxism by showing how people take pride in their work despite their economic exploitation. With subtlety that still carries a punch, Cosmo D utilizes artificiality to communicate his more critical observations. Seemingly like many video-game sights, the animation of the dancing man in the suit cuts corners to make a world quasi-alive, but its purpose is to express, entertainingly, the preposterous relationship between art and commerce. With this scene and more, Cosmo D translates his personal reaction to art under capitalism into a simple and powerful technical achievement.

(See full review of Off-Peak in issue 58 of Unwinnable.)

2. Downwell

The relentless kinetic art of Downwell has no peer in 2015. Ojiro Fumoto creates tension between the goals of survival and high combos with one simple rule: as you plunge into the well, you can’t stomp red enemies without taking damage. When trying combos, at first you might find that the randomly generated levels place more importance on luck, but the deeper you drop, the more you realize this isn’t true, as Fumoto includes destructible items that keep you bouncing, a wall jump, and methodically placed time suspensions. Your choices in Downwell — regarding weapons, health, ammo, and various types of upgrades and styles — must reconcile  different advantages in timing and endurance. The final group of levels brilliantly marries surviving to the combo before you face one of the best designed bosses in the 21st century.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

The 3D doesn’t matter, but this redone version of the second Nintendo 64 Zelda game does show that the polygons of some classics could stand to be updated. More importantly, Majora’s Mask reflects a recognizable world-weariness that makes hope all the more necessary — and localized, as implied by the protagonist’s transformations into different community heroes. Although certain things like the mini-games and fairy companion are uninspired and tedious, the game’s three-day cycle speaks to the human conditions of anxiety and perseverance, allowing you to uncover the habits of the townspeople and manipulate the world in ways that surpass the ho-hum possibilities in the limited Chrono Trigger.

(See full review of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D here.)

4. Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

The definitive edition of Three Fourths Home. Zach Sanford’s family drama requires the mother-and-daughter epilogue, which nails the conflict between baby-boomer and millennial mindsets while detailing the almost universal anxiety of making it in U.S. society.

(See full review of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition here.)

5. Crime Is Sexy

Crime Is Sexy adopts David Hasselholf’s “True Survivor” as its score to lampoon gung-ho consumerism that celebrates getting ripped off by the gatekeepers of digital games. Developer Jallooligans mocks signing agreements, sharing personal information, and creating profiles with Steam et al. as an absurd commitment to playing games. The biggest laughs, however, come when you scroll through 1,000 games, including Existential Futility Statement, Middle-Class Inferiority Crisis, Minority Inadequacy World, and, in reference to one of the worst games of 2014, Fantasy Life: The RPG. Such a collection paints a future where we celebrate our disconnection from hope and the idea of owning nothing, making Crime Is Sexy the most provocative 2015 statement on game politics (i.e., more valuable than Undertale’s fatuous meta-morality).

(See full review of Crime Is Sexy here.)

6. Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut

While Bethesda had a tough time figuring out which video-game trend it wanted to copy the most in Fallout 4, the director’s cut of Wasteland 2 mixed good-guy camaraderie with pulpy humor for a three-dimensional commentary on the intentions of armed forces looking to keep order. The combat, based on taking cover for bonuses, is electric, but even better is the suspenseful lead-up to combat, when you manipulate the camera to look out for ambushes. Most importantly, Wasteland 2 doesn’t trivialize moral/political conflicts with abstractions like reputation points or tutorial-like announcements about consequences.

(See full review of Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut here.)

7. Conversations We Have in My Head

Whether Conversations We Have in My Head is autobiographical is immaterial. Developer Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s imaginary convo has more believable rhythm and pathos than stilted Telltale and BioWare dialogue, which serve a player-choice ideology rather than a story. Conversations We Have in My Head tackles queer themes in down-to-earth terms and wittily conveys how humans deal with change and attempt to relate to each other, with each replay strengthening one’s understanding of the two characters.

(See full review of Conversations We Have in My Head here.)

8. Westerado: Double Barreled

Along with Shutshimi, Downwell, and Gaurodan, here’s more evidence that the most interesting shooters as of late have been non-3D. When it comes to pacing, this extended version of Westerado makes most open-world games look amateurish. Although the story fails in its lazy final attempt to be moral, the draw-cock-fire-reload system and murder mystery are as engaging as the lack of inventory junk is refreshing.

9. Cibele

Cibele’s non-vindictive message on romantic confusion trumps the cliched she-villains in Her Story. Some argue Nina Freeman’s game could have been an ego trip, as she plays herself both in voice-overs and on video. Yet Freeman possesses an attractive, humble warmth on camera when you’re not searching through computer files or playing an online RPG as her titular counterpart. Even though clicking enemies to advance the story can be dull, the depicted online relationship carries a believable self-awareness about the blurring between virtual and actual worlds. Blake, the immature boyfriend, sums up a theme that is contemporary in one way but timeless in another: “I don’t know about real life.”

10. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

You have to forgive The Witcher 3’s miserably uninspired combat and all of the banalities within its overlarge world (bombing monster nests should be prescribed to people with insomnia). But as critic Ian Williams suggested in Paste, the game’s immense dedication to the human condition in what would normally be considered superfluous side quests is nearly unparalleled. Only Planescape: Torment does as well in this regard, but the visuals of The Witcher 3 go further to capture the vulnerabilities and inner strength in human faces against the backdrop of a precarious wilderness.

A Parting Note on Rocket League

It is more exciting than sports games that try and pretty much always fail to be realistic. I’d even say that the accessibility and subtleties of the contests in Rocket League remind me of Street Fighter II. Having said that, I wouldn’t feel right praising it too much because I’ve yet to play, from the same developer (Psyonix), Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. While the title itself may not suggest greatness, it appears to be the first game to combine racing and soccer. The praise surrounding Rocket League hasn’t touched on this very much, so I would like to investigate before evaluating Rocket League’s significance.