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Game Bias’ 50 Best Video Games of the 2010s, Plus 20 Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Many of the entries below use text from other articles. In these cases, the text is set apart by quotation marks, and a reference is provided. All other entries were written specifically for this list. Finally, you may notice contradictions between the order of this list and the order of a previous year-end list at Game Bias. For instance, in this 2015 year-end feature, Cibele placed below a few games that didn’t make the larger list here. To address such inconsistencies, I recall something that Armond White suggested about our evolving views on movies. He said something to the effect of “Movies don’t change, but we do.” The same can be said for video games and their audience. On another day, any of the 20 honorable mentions could make this list.

1. Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History

Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History presents a universe where everything can be predicted and reduced to a formula. But the game is anything but formulaic. As with the rest of his work, developer Jack King-Spooner is as likely to use photographs or sketches as any other graphical element, which results in a kaleidoscopic, hand-crafted, and abrupt aesthetic — it’s hard for the player to know what to expect visually. Other game conventions are subverted without hesitation, as in the hilarious scene where the audio in a particular room keeps repeating the answer to a supposed puzzle, completely spoiling the challenge and the hunt. To drive home the setting’s lack of humanity, character dialogue is delivered via robotic voice-overs; the overall detachment from emotion reaches its hysterical epitome with a surreally monotone rendition of Beyonce’s “Halo.” Later in the story, disorder threatens the systematic status quo in the form of the id, which is illustrated in both disturbing and freeing terms. The id breaking through the machine is most emphasized in an outro music video of sorts in which a choppy montage of highly discolored photographic images of a woman’s face is combined with the feint, distorted utterance of “Fuck me. Fuck my throat … ” until the words, after many repetitions, become abundantly clear in their carnality. The ending implies that reason can’t forever suppress our basest instincts. It’s the most electrifying, defiant conclusion I can identify in video games.

2. Dark Souls

“The ambiguity of your quest and the risk-reward mechanics behind the souls and bonfires are illustrative of a multifaceted existential crisis. Unlike the typical action-oriented RPG that gives players a clearer idea of progression and flatters them with material currencies, Dark Souls functions not unlike a cosmic horror story, demanding that you figure out the meaning of it all for yourself while engaging in questionable rituals centered on exploiting the spiritual essences of ostensibly living things. The idea of respawning enemies has been a common feature of video games for decades, but Dark Souls’s diabolical enemy dynamic—non-boss adversaries stay dead until you rest at a bonfire—raises doubt within the player’s mind about whether it’s even worthwhile to persevere within such a purgatorial framework.”

– “Review: Dark Souls Remastered,” Slant Magazine

3. Off-Peak

“Entering Off-Peak’s station is enlivening because you become surrounded by human expression. Works cover the walls and hang from the ceiling, begging to be consumed. You soon find things you can take: records, sheet music, cookies, and pizzas, the latter of which you devour slice by slice. Even if you resist this compulsion, Cosmo D’s visual arrangements promote fetishization and prolonged curiosity. Nonplayable characters sometimes have one distinctive motion that registers as an attraction, such as the black woman who rocks from heels to tip toes or the white man who drums his fingers on a table. I mention their skin color because everything about them forms part of a tapestried memory. Cosmo D’s multifaceted vision of diversity elates in a manner that character creation options will never achieve.”

– “Peak of the Year,” Unwinnable Weekly (Issue 58)

4. Spelunky HD

“I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6,” Game Bias

5. Assault Android Cactus

“You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update to 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.”

– “Assault Android Cactus Review — Emotional Arenas,” Game Bias

6. Iconoclasts

“In Iconoclasts, an intersection of faith and government keeps a population in check, and it’s up to Robin, a silent Christ-like figure, to upend the system. Featuring the most striking pixel art of the year, this game never lets you forget that its world is full of human beings with competing beliefs and experiences. The narrative, reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s theatrics, emphasizes how perspectives and goals clash to awaken a new world.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018,” Game Bias

7. Cart Life

After seeing the sincere and vulnerable humanity at the center of Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, I find it difficult to stomach the idealized cycles of toil in more digestible games like Stardew Valley and Wilmot’s Warehouse. Beyond its cultural relevance as a statement on the universality of making ends meet while dealing with personal matters, Cart Life has an instantly recognizable style, with its grayscale pixels and frantic typing mechanics, that points to both the harshness of reality and the inner drive required to live. If there’s one simulation to play from the past decade, it’s Cart Life.

8. Nier: Automata

“Eventually, 2B and 9S witness, in a scene both disturbing and fantastic, a horde of machines giving birth to two very human-like characters. After almost killing one of these unusual progeny, 2B and 9S have no idea what has transpired. 9S, unable to focus on his duty, asks 2B why machines would try to look like humans—a delicious irony, given that androids are essentially human-looking beings. But with one of the game’s most politically powerful lines, 2B shuts down the conversation, stating there is no point in considering “unsolvable problems.” Here, Taro illustrates what makes real-world bigotry tick: a cold denial of even exploring the possibility of common ground.”

– “Nier: Automata Review — Near Genocide,” Game Bias

9. Proteus

The spiritual suggestiveness of Proteus, from how you can walk on water to how you ascend to the heavens during the finale, comes from a place of joy, faith, and oneness. So many other first-person games of the 2010s — Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter — peddle deception, fear, and shallow nihilism, and that’s why their more polished environments lack the vivacity of Proteus’ expressionistic polygonal island. As people continue to look back at this decade, Proteus will represent the mature and hopeful side of video games, where themes of beauty and restorative power imply that salvation is within our grasp.

10. Octahedron

“Whereas the overrated Celeste is more interested in death and whining than creative expression, Octahedron can’t get no satisfaction with its basic idea of a hero creating platforms underneath himself to reach new heights. From level to level, developer Demimonde obsessively introduces wrinkles to his game, showcasing a thirst for change that recalls the passion of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.”

– “Octahedron Review — Sexed-Up Mechanics,” Game Bias

11. Jazzpunk

“Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.”

– “Jazzpunk Review — Are You Ready to Laugh?,” Game Bias

12. Actual Sunlight

“As an unsentimental RPG, Actual Sunlight provides a clear answer to a question from The Matt Chat Blog: ‘Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values?’ This question sounds like the beginning of a rant from Actual Sunlight’s protagonist. With its commentary on alienation, exploitation, the opiate, and the perversion of human nature through an economic system, Actual Sunlight substantially diverges from the typical ‘light vs. darkness’ RPG conflict, as well as the genre’s generally unquestioned emphasis on consumerism, materialism, and loot.”

– “Actual Sunlight Review — Actual Marxism,” Game Bias

13. Shenmue 3

“2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

14. 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.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015,” Game Bias

15. The Norwood Suite

“Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

16. Beeswing

“Developer Jack King-Spooner’s games have always shared a provocative, hand-crafted quality that counters the polygon- and pixel-obsessed default of pop video games […] King-Spooner reveals his rural Scottish origin through a journey in which memory and art express the real and the artificial as complementary forces, much like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.”

– “The 25 Best Games of 2015,” Slant Magazine

17. VVVVVV

“With the press of a button, the protagonist of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV quickly floats to either the ceiling or the floor via gravity. Although VVVVVV wasn’t the first game to feature this concept (see the Mega Man series or, for a less well-known example, 1986’s Terminus), it commits to the idea like no other title. The best segment of the game highlights the excitement of moving from one screen to the next: to nab one item, you must twice guide the hero through a treacherous series of tunnels with spikes as he’s pulled in midair for several successive screens. Later in the game, Cavanagh takes away platforms altogether for a few challenges to achieve an even stronger sense of nerve-wracking vulnerability and physics-defying adventure. VVVVVV looks and sounds retro, but Cavanagh’s willingness to take a premise to the extreme underscores the relentless drive of a modern artist rather any cliched attachment to nostalgic pleasure.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #15-11,” Game Bias

18. Severed

“Through Severed’s touchscreen/motion controls, developer DrinkBox Studios has reimagined the first-person dungeon crawler as a bizarre action game that requires both turn-based logic and frantic but precise timing. When you’re not interrupting enemy tactics or dicing up the bodies of foes into parts needed for upgrades, Severed mesmerizes with dream-like cuts as you move from one part of the map to the next and unsettles you with its ominous tone, which is sometimes punctuated by maddening melodies that evoke Philip Glass. The search for the protagonist’s family members is an emotional roller coaster that few games this year can match, with the denial of catharsis trumped by the rush of continuing a strange adventure.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2016,” Game Bias

19. Choice: Texas

“More universal than a political manifesto, the game is a reminder that humans are defined by their response to struggle. Choice: Texas emphasizes that a pregnant woman’s decision — as well as the responses of family and friends — is guided by conflicting emotions, practical concerns, and spiritual questioning, not by the philosophical ramblings of loudmouths in the U.S. abortion debate.”

– “Choice: Texas Review (PC),” Paste

20. Titanfall 2

“Everything in the campaign is designed to give you a rush, from laughably over-the-top villains to the remarkably fast burrowing through tight places to platforming sections that will make you think you’re seeing sideways.”

– “The 25 Best Video Games of 2016,” Slant Magazine

21. Topsoil

“In Nico Prins’ Topsoil, you play as a farmer with only 16 tiles of soil at your disposal. Each tile can accommodate one type of plant, and for the best score, you must keep the same kind of plants next to each other. As in so many puzzlers (from Tetris to Dr. Mario), the goal is to avoid disorganization, which inevitably leads to a cluttered screen and failure. What separates Topsoil from its predecessors is an underlying sense of peace that typifies the pleasure of interacting with the natural world. This serenity flows through the entire game despite being juxtaposed against the randomness of nature that spoils one’s best-laid plans.”

– “Topsoil Review — The Order of Disorder,” Game Bias

22. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

“As much of a horror game as it is a shooter, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the definitive edition of designer Edmund McMillen’s Freudian nightmare of a maniacal mother, excrement-filled rooms, and an uncaring God. McMillen evokes The Legend of Zelda in his presentation of a seemingly neverending dungeon full of random power-ups that deform as much as empower the tearful boy protagonist. The various elements that could offend, particularly the levels that put you inside a womb, reflect an abusive history where fear and hatred, not comfort and love, are compellingly tied to every aspect of the woman — an unflinching view of hell from the eyes of a child.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #15-11,” Game Bias

23. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

“One of the most impressive uses of blood and gore comes in 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons when the protagonists have to navigate through a path blocked by dead giants. Director Josef Fares uses blood in this instance to elicit a complex reaction of wonder, fear, disgust and sadness: The scene is majestic, tragic and grotesque. Even more unusual, you have to butcher some of the giants’ limbs in order to clear the way. This inspired combination of storytelling and puzzle shows that videogames have a long way to go before exhausting our dark curiosities.”

– “Bloodporne: Why Bloodletting Ought to Mean More in Pop Videogames,” Paste

24. Legendary Gary

“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.”

– “Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece,” Game Bias

25. Subnautica

“Subnautica is everything the overrated Abzû should have been and more. Its alien ocean suggests a paradoxical masterpiece: few settings in video games are as inviting, yet no other open world is as frightening. As a result, crafting has rarely seemed as essential in a game, as new technology gives you the privilege to survive the depths of the sea. And 3D game creators, take note: there’s no excuse for clunky underwater mechanics when developer Unknown Worlds nails them so well here.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018,” Game Bias

26. Splasher

“This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that ‘more’ does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

27. Dirt Rally 2.0

“Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

28. The Stillness of the Wind

“In a possible nod to Barry Lyndon, Cardenas utilizes a slow zooming technique to imbue the proceedings with an added layer of gravitas. It’s as if the game’s camera is a godly presence, patiently and quizzically regarding Talma’s modest life on the farm and understanding her toil to have a spiritual purpose.”

– “Review: The Stillness of the Wind Is a Poignant Elegy for a Life of Purpose,” Slant Magazine

29. Guacamelee 2

“Not since Resident Evil 4 has a game maintained such a ferocious pace.”

– “Guacamelee 2 Review — A Tremendous Step Forward,” Game Bias

30. Hyper Light Drifter

“The anthropomorphic characters speak in images, with many of them depicting violent ethnic discrimination in a nod to Art Spiegelman’s comic-book masterpiece Maus. These pictures stick in the back of your mind as you traverse brightly colored environments full of nonlinear and hidden paths, the pixelations of the graphics encouraging a conflicted perception of beauty and fragility.”

– “25 Best Video Games of 2016,” Slant Magazine

31. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

32. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

“The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.”

– “Gamebias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

33. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt got more acclaim and was more strikingly humanistic with its depiction of everyday people in its world, but The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is the leaner and more morally profound game. In a powerful but risky bit of writing, a single decision at the end of the first act forever changes what we can see politically from the eyes of Geralt Rivia. And because The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings avoids the open-world bloat of its sequel, things like monster nests seem like notable and natural occurrences as opposed to just more content. The persistent intrigue of the game is palpable even in the introductory cutscene, an electrifying display of highly refined animation that shows a trained killer methodically assassinating every person on a ship.

34. Will You Ever Return 2?

The second trip to hell from developer Jack King-Spooner, this sequel involves a fairly unlikable protagonist who dies after he murders a stranger. The setting is among the most unpleasant in video game history, reflecting the negative characteristics of the recently deceased man back at him (the demons toy with his homophobia). There is a creative chaos to this game — deathly serious subject matter, such as confronting one’s unborn child (a fascinating provocation in a modern world acquainted with abortion), is sometimes accompanied by over-the-top satire, as when King-Spooner lampoons how turn-based RPGs announce level-up bonuses no matter the emotional context. In a twist of fate, the scene depicting the deadly sin of Greed utilizes images and quotes of Donald Trump, including some disparaging remarks from the current U.S. president about the work of Barack Obama, who sat in the Oval Office when this game was released in 2012. Will You Ever Return? 2 is as culturally prescient as it is idiosyncratic in its design.

35. Rock Bottom

“Amy Dentata’s Rock Bottom is a fantasy in which levels that represent a state of depression can be completed by counterintuitive means. The goal of Rock Bottom is to jump to higher platforms, but the only way to increase the power of your jump is to fall to your death. To further strengthen your legs, you must extend your fatal plunge by avoiding platforms as you fall from greater heights. If viewed cynically, Rock Bottom’s concept could be linked to suicide ideation, but I interpret its madness as wry hope for convenient change. Ultimately, the game is an affirmation of life after struggle, as suggested by the ending that celebrates the fact that the protagonist can finally jump without having to worry about escaping a hole.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions,” Game Bias

36. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

“The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

37. Kirby’s Epic Yarn

In a vacuum, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is not highly challenging, but as a Kirby title, it presents a deviation from formula to the extent where I was unlearning how I used to play as Kirby as much as anything while navigating the drastically varied levels. In a franchise with its fair share of solid games, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the most daring of the bunch. It deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, as these games all reinterpret foundational elements of their respective series in an unusual, arresting way. Let it be known, too, that Tomoya Tomito’s piano-driven compositions carry a level of sophistication and personal touch that is unmatched in the music of most pop games.

38. The Talos Principle

“It’s a miracle when a videogame dares to address the voice of God. The largely secular, apathetic and bitter videogame industry too often ignores what providence can mean to human experience and thought. Going well beyond the spiritual tokenism of Always Sometimes Monsters, The Talos Principle stands among the brave, contemplative few (Earthbound, The Shivah, Proteus) that seriously consider a greater power and the realizations that consideration can bring.”

– “The Talos Principle Review: I Think, Therefore I Solve,” Paste

39. Overwatch

I reviewed Overwatch, but I haven’t played it the last couple of years. I understand the game has undergone changes. No matter. I won’t forget what Overwatch represented. It was an imperfect channeling of Street Fighter II, which had more evocative levels, a more outstanding sense of geography, and an aesthetic of violence that really no game can match. But Overwatch intended to be a people’s shooter, just like Street Fighter II intended to be a people’s fighting game. It successfully redefined genre for the masses through simple, straightforward craft.

40. XCOM 2

2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is more influential, but the battles in XCOM 2 have their own danger and suspense to them. XCOM 2 operates like a vice grip, calling for methodical precision. I can’t think of another 2010s game that better illustrates the idea of shit hitting the fan and all the feelings that come with that.

41. Crime Is Sexy

“There’s not a more vicious mockery of computer game politics than Crime Is Sexy. The sarcastic title has a double meaning, with the more obvious one being the jab at glorified crime series like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Developer Jallooligans puts force into this punch by making the 1980s-inspired David Hasselhoff song ‘True Survivor’ the score to its satire. In this context, Hasselhoff’s trivial 2015 Internet hit evokes the same type of retro sentimentality that the game industry churns out to make its celebrations of illegal activity seem like a part of every happy childhood. The self-aware yet unthinking heroism in ‘True Survivor’ has a parallel in today’s smart-assed consumers who get hoodwinked by industry.”

– “Crime Is Sexy Review: Punching Up, Down, or Across,” Game Bias

42. Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders

“Developer Taito borrows more from Arkanoid for the premise: at the bottom of the screen, you control a paddle-shaped ship that can reflect bullets from enemies. With a slide of your finger, you can move the ship anywhere on roughly the bottom third of the screen — a departure from Arkanoid’s single-plane, left-right restriction. This new level of spatial freedom, combined with the ease of the finger-slide controls, gives Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders a distinctive frenetic feel.”

– “Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders Review — A Breakout Success,” Game Bias

43. The Duck Game

“This quirky title from James Earl Cox III, one of the most fascinating and prolific developers of the decade, might not fit the traditional definition of a 2D platformer, but it effectively utilizes platforms in its depiction of a downward spiral of addiction and obsession. Absurdly, the protagonist is preoccupied with the idea of holding the legs of a duck as the bird flies. Unless you elect to hit ‘Escape’ on your keyboard, you get to see what happens when the hero indulges in this practice. In addition to the trippy premise, visuals, and audio, the amusing part of The Duck Game is that the platforms don’t matter. When you’re flying high with the duck, the platforms are unnecessary for vertical advancement, and when flying with the duck becomes a problem (the protagonist stops caring about hygiene and everyday chores as the duck’s strength wanes), you can’t leap well enough to reach your previous high. The implication is that if the duck weren’t in the picture, you could go from platform to platform like a normal video-game character.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions,” Game Bias

44. Problem Attic

Although there is a logic to advancing through this bizarre platformer from Liz Ryerson, the overwhelming transitory vibe of the visuals and audio can have one feel as if one is glitching through the proceedings by the skin of one’s teeth. This quality makes Problem Attic unsettling and even irritating, as the awkward level design compellingly evokes a sense of unfair imprisonment. There is an unwavering conviction to Ryerson’s creation that asks for a similar type of commitment from the audience. An unforgettable, thorny, and inimitable rejection of gaming conventions.

45. 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 eponymous 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.'”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015,” Game Bias

46. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

“It’s a testament to director David Soliani and producer Xavier Manzanares that Mario + Rabbids never scans as a lazy attempt to make money off of the biggest mascot in video-game history.”

– “Review: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle,” Slant Magazine

47. Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

“Developer Zach Sanford doesn’t merely sell Millennial angst; he suggests there’s an overlooked spiritual connection between the generations of America’s past and present in a believable family context.”

– “Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition Review — Home Work,” Game Bias

48. Pyre

“Countless sports video games have come and gone, but none have touched on the political, spiritual, and emotional impact of sports like the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Pyre.”

– “The 25 Best Video Games of 2017,” Slant Magazine

49. With Those We Love Alive

This 2014 Twine adventure from Porpentine transports the player to a kingdom of sexually charged imagery. In a unique turn, the game orders you to draw on yourself to personalize the significance of the experience. Regardless of whether you do, With Those We Love Alive is hypnotic and exhausting in equal measure. As the artisan protagonist, you might travel in circles and wind up crashing in a bed repeatedly. When the events of the story become more lurid, it’s jarringly pleasurable to be swept out of the mundane into the grossly fantastic. The purple, pink, and blue colors, as well as the nightmarish textures of the soundtrack, are seductive and energetic. The narrative of With Those We Love Alive might be flexible enough to inspire individual interpretation, but its personality, equal parts alluring, oppressive, and vulnerable, is unmistakably consistent.

50. Steamworld Dig 2

In a break from the approach of its predecessor and that of many popular independent platformers, Steamworld Dig 2 doesn’t rely on procedurally generated stages, instead offering a superbly crafted and vast underground world for the player to dig their way through. Unearthing items has rarely been as exciting as it is in this sequel, which includes an ingenious hookshot mechanic that can be spammed to produce some breathtaking acrobatic feats in the precarious depths of the cave. In one respect, Steamworld Dig 2 is like going to a gritty job that you love; in another, it’s a worthy and epic update of Dig Dug, Mr. Do!, and Boulder Dash.

20 Honorable Mentions in No Particular Order

Shutshimi, Neon Deity Games
Dandara, Long Hat House
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Zeboyd Games
Platformance: Castle Pain, Magiko Gaming
Into the Breach, Subset Games
Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo
Little Red Lie, Will O’Neill
Nier, Cavia (Yoko Taro)
The World the Children Made, James Earl Cox III
Snot City, James Earl Cox III
Talks with My Mom, Vaida
Replay Racer, Chris Johnson
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo
That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games
Wasteland 2, inXile Entertainment (Brian Fargo)
Conversations We Have in My Head, Squinky
Westerado: Double Barreled, Ostrich Banditos
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Techland
Layers of Fear, Bloober Team
Dead Pixels, CSR-Studios

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019

by Jed Pressgrove

In my list of the 10 worst games of this year, I revealed my distaste for 2019 from a historical standpoint. But even during a year that caused me to question why I continue to spend so much time on gaming, my love for the art form remains strong. The following 10 titles spoke to me in very different ways. Several of them are tied to genres that typically fail to spark my imagination or maintain my interest. No matter the year, there are always miracles, there is always magic. Don’t give up.

1. Shenmue 3

Every aspect of Shenmue 3 is personal and relevant to the philosophical values that power the creative mind and, I believe, the heart of Yu Suzuki. Shenmue 3 shows us by example what pop gaming has gotten wrong. In Suzuki’s world, there are no false promises of freedom, there are no lazily crafted NPCs, and there are no systems that seem tacked on in order to cash in on the capricious desires of a restless audience. Instead, there is a morality at play in Shenmue 3. Suzuki reminds us, whether through mechanics or dialogue, that dignity, patience, and interpersonal interaction give life richer meaning. 2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.

(See full review of Shenmue 3 here.)

2. Dirt Rally 2.0

Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.

(See full review of Dirt Rally 2.0 here.)

3. The Stillness of the Wind

The Stillness of the Wind continues to whisper to you long after its emotionally complex ending. A spiritual experience, this effort from Coyan Cardenas avoids a pandering, sentimental approach as it depicts the rural existence of its elderly female protagonist. Equal parts haunting and inspiring, The Stillness of the Wind counters the immature fantasy of Stardew Valley and asks us to consider the paradox of living a convicted life of labor.

(See full review of The Stillness of the Wind here.)

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.

(See more thoughts on Lonely Mountains: Downhill here.)

5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Figures that the most morally complicated Fire Emblem of the decade gets overlooked by many end-of-year award panels. Admittedly, Three Houses is almost epic to a fault, but its larger sociological point — that social institutions and movements drive individuals to violence against each other — carries undeniable weight. With the video game soundtrack of the year and passionate voice acting, Three Houses effortlessly conveys the gravity of its characters’ tragic hopes and dreams.

(See full review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses here.)

6. Islanders

The stripped-down city building of Islanders registers less as easy escapism and more as a logical exercise in efficiency. Like any good builder, this game is full of decisions and long-term consequences; the whole affair is simply presented with a coherence and simplicity that should make any developer jealous of GrizzlyGames. The intense focus of Islanders is like that of an arcade game, but somehow this simulation also manages to be relaxing.

7. Pathologic 2

One could argue that the nightmare logic of Pathologic 2 should be interpreted as misery porn. But hidden in the oblique dialogue and bleak imagery of this game is a lesson about the folly of pride and assumption. As one grapples with the intended difficulty setting of Pathologic 2, the harsh proceedings should raise questions about the intentions of the protagonist and the player. What are we trying to prove when we step in to save the world, especially when we take too long to take on the responsibility?

8. Baba Is You

Not since Scribblenauts have I found that a failed attempt at solving a puzzle can be just as enlivening as arriving at the solution. Unlike Scribblenauts, Baba Is You doesn’t allow one to fudge their way through anything. To advance in Baba Is You is to have a deep appreciation for logic, language, and patience.

(See more thoughts on Baba Is You here.)

9. Ape Out

Its hero is both violent and sympathetic. Its music is both entrancing and distracting. Its visuals are both minimalistic and over the top. Ape Out operates like an accident, yet it demands precision. A shell shock of a game.

(See full review of Ape Out here.)

10. Battle Planet: Judgement Day

Battle Planet: Judgement Day more than lives up to its ridiculous title. This deceptively simple shooter literalizes the concept of a lone force that can take out every threat in the world. An amusing mixture of twin-stick shooting and Super Mario Galaxy, Battle Planet: Judgement Day is far smarter than it appears in how it requires the player to think about when to use power-ups, which can be saved for later waves of enemies, and to maintain the stability of the planet by defusing bombs. Act without a multi-layered strategy, and your silly goal of being a one-person wrecking machine will swiftly end. For sheer kinetic thrills, Battle Planet: Judgement Day has few peers in 2019.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2019 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

2019 was the most regrettable year for pop games, at least based on my experiences with the world’s biggest hits throughout my life. Other years have perhaps featured more bottom-of-the-barrel releases, but 2019 defeats all when it comes to setting a low standard for overall quality and artistic expression. During the majority of 2019, no matter what kind of game it was, from Dead or Alive 6 to Wilmot’s Warehouse to Death Stranding, I felt as if I wanted to spit the lukewarm out of my mouth.

Two years ago, I started the Play Instead part of this annual year-end list. The idea is simple: for every bad game, I suggest one you should play instead for whatever reason. The catch is “play instead” choices don’t have to be great or even good games. While this list follows that same logic, keep in mind that we really shouldn’t, outside of comparisons for argument’s sake, settle for less than good. Video games can be, and have largely been, better than the offerings of 2019.

1. Resident Evil 2

If the 2010s proved anything, it’s that Capcom has embraced the absolute worst version of itself. The original Resident Evil 2 is an imperfect but fascinating and discomforting game. Here it is transformed into the most agreeable ride imaginable. Gamers, you’ve nothing to worry about. Papa Capcom’s gonna take care of you — and take your money while he burps you.

(See full review of Resident Evil 2 here.)

Play Instead: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain

Developer Yuke’s does the opposite of Capcom. It makes Earth Defense Force even tougher and more thematically incisive than usual … until Iron Rain seems to give up on level design and satire more than halfway through.

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Yet another independent title that presents tedious desk work as insightful entertainment. I’d rather peruse MySpace than spend another minute with Hypnospace Outlaw.

(See full review of Hypnospace Outlaw here.)

Play Instead: Nauticrawl

From developer Andrea Interguglielmi, Nauticrawl is like going to work but having no idea what you’re supposed to do to finish the job. Tinkering with switches, buttons, and levers in a mysterious machine makes for a solid puzzle. Bonus: No smug indie pretension to be found.

3. The Outer Worlds

The brighter colors, the humorous descriptions, the almost identical perks, the inelegant slow-motion action. All of it points toward a development team whose only goal was to produce a neutered version of Fallout 3, which was a neutered version of its predecessors. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone remakes The Outer Worlds with a different name.

Play Instead: Outer Wilds

If The Outer Worlds is a lesser version of Fallout 3, Outer Wilds is a better version of No Man’s Sky.  Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but we’re reaching the outer limits of good taste.

4. Control

As Matt Paprocki suggests, Control wants to be a left-wing statement of resistance in a most irresponsible, dimwitted way, but players don’t mind or notice because they’re conditioned to enjoy guns (even if they don’t own or use any). Control is Doom 2016 all over again: shoot fast and keep moving. Who knew political critique could be so formulaic?

Play Instead: Void Bastards

The title and gameplay loop of this brilliantly animated game appear to satirize people who find meaning and purpose in terrible things. Void Bastards is smarter about its lack of seriousness than Control is.

5. Devil May Cry 5

After one hour of playing the original Devil May Cry, I was intrigued by its counterintuitive adoption of Resident Evil’s changing camera angles and by the kinetic potential of its marriage of melee techniques and frantic gunplay. After one hour of playing Devil May Cry 5, I was tired of douchebag characters trying to look and act cool, as every time the fighting was about to take center stage, another cutscene would interrupt the action. Capcom sucks now.

Play Instead: Katana Zero

Like Devil May Cry 5, Katana Zero has its share of played-out ideas. Despite its limitations, Katana Zero reveals the fundamental loneliness of its protagonist in quiet scenes that recall the contemplative minimalism of the 1967 film Le Samourai.

6. Blair Witch

The real title of this game is Blair Glitch.

(See full review of Blair Witch here.)

Play Instead: Devotion

Just kidding. You can’t play it. But I managed to. It’s better than Blair Glitch. Its jump scares and hackneyed first-person haunted-house style also teach us a valuable lesson: banned art isn’t always good art.

7. Contra: Rogue Corps

Konami turns Contra into an arena shooter for modern audiences. Would probably be more popular with critics if it took shots at Donald Trump.

(See full review of Contra: Rogue Corps here.)

Play Instead: Sunless Skies

Unlike Contra: Rogue Corps, Sunless Skies is a sequel that understands where it comes from and where it should go. Although it ditches the lovable pirate-like dialect that energized the text of Sunless Sea, its more understated use of language is still a hoot: “He’ll receive the care of Magdalene’s finest. At least, Magdalene’s finest with a sense of charity, given that he has nothing on him to pay for their ministrations.”

8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The subtitle for Sekiro should have been “Shadows Die Countless Times,” as there’s nothing new about dodging and parrying boss attacks a la Dark Souls, and stealth tactics make most of the proceedings a cakewalk. Notwithstanding the incoherent claims of brainwashed From Software diehards, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now more predictable than they are difficult.

(See full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice here.)

Play Instead: Vane

Though it lacks combat, Vane is closer in spirit to Dark Souls than anything Miyazaki has produced after 2011. Both puzzling and ambiguous, Vane technically collapses before it ends, but what a memorable failure it is.

9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Earlier this year, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. It’s a great example of kinetic art that not only takes inspiration from but also builds on the work of a source (namely, the original Doom). Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s more plagiaristic approach is unimpressive, if not unacceptable.

(See more thoughts on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order here.)

Play Instead: Slay the Spire

Plenty of games copy and paste the turn-based combat systems of the past. But Slay the Spire’s card-deck-building premise, which will punish those who don’t pay attention to mathematical detail, brings a reasonable amount of creative forethought to a well-worn idea.

10. Neo Cab

Neo Cab often preaches about the inhuman qualities of corporations and technology, but so many of its features seem robotic rather than authentic, whether it’s the ever-shifting eyes of its protagonist, the out-of-place soundtrack, or the silly mood bracelet that restricts dialogue options. Humorless and dull, this game lacks the humanity that Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai captured in 2015’s Conversations We Have in My Head.

Play Instead: Disco Elysium

The dialogue of Disco Elysium can feel contrived from time to time, but its illustration of psychological struggle is more convincing and dynamic than Neo Cab’s forced stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Death Stranding Review — More Stupid Than Weird

by Jed Pressgrove

The landscape of pop games is in dubious shape. There are many reasons to reach this conclusion, from the prevalence of open world ideology to the way developers flatter audiences with made-to-order remakes. At first, Death Stranding appears to avoid the cliches we’re all used to seeing, as it involves a protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, whose main skill is carrying cargo on his back, arms, and legs. At one point, Sam bluntly explains, “Killing monsters and terrorists, that’s not what I do.” The line almost sounds sanctimonious when one considers how often “ambitious” games boil down to boneheaded violence. And yet, Sam shares this observation about himself not too long after he obliterates a phantom squid with grenades made from his own piss, and moments after uttering this dialogue, Sam can barrel through bandit-filled territory and punch the lights out of every last person who tries to steal the packages off his body. Director Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear Solid series and often pitied for his messy separation from Konami, has all the creative freedom in the world, but he can’t stop sabotaging an interesting premise with banal and laughably contradictory moments.

With Death Stranding, Kojima takes a page from modern independent first-person adventures like Proteus in which walking, as opposed to puzzle solving or combat, is the main type of action. But in a stroke of genuine design genius, Sam has it much harder than his counterparts in other traversal-focused releases. He must organize packages on his body in a manner that reduces the likelihood of him stumbling and falling as he treks across treacherous territory. If he starts to sway to the left or right, the player must shift Sam’s weight in the opposite direction to achieve balance. There’s also a stamina gauge to worry about, a meter that depletes rapidly when Sam trudges through a deeper part of a river. If you lose your footing in that situation, Sam will have to paddle himself to his feet and frantically attempt to recover goods the river has claimed. The potential for embarrassing ambulatory disaster is almost endless. With each step comes an appreciation for Sam’s immediate surroundings, whether they’re as intimidating as a steep mountainside or as seemingly innocuous as a jagged medium-sized rock on the ground.

In theory, Death Stranding is the most original and uncompromising big-budget game in a long time. This notion doesn’t hold, though, when you tally the common pop game problems that show up yet again in Death Stranding. The first and most obvious issue is unnecessary length and bloat due to a tremendous lack of editing, which has plagued games as different as Persona 5 and The Witcher 3. Kojima includes a number of missions that do nothing more than serve as contrived tutorials. Why does the simple idea of 3-D printing a bridge, for instance, have to come with its own mission that the player must find by holding down (rather than just pressing) a button near a terminal in order to open a hard-to-read menu from which you can initiate said mission? Kojima also peppers the game with cinematics that have no kinetic or thematic purpose. Why do you have to skip — which can be done by pressing the start button, then selecting “Skip” — three or four cutscenes just to accelerate the process of taking a shower? Why does an activity as boring as a shower even need a single cutscene?

Any sense of basic, decent storytelling is annihilated by Kojima’s idiotic commitment to video game norms. The main theme of Death Stranding is reconnecting a post-apocalyptic United States. To do this, Sam must visit an array of marked locations on a map and talk to holographic images of people. These individuals, with few exceptions, say pretty much the same thing — wow, I haven’t seen items like this in a long time, Sam, you’re a true legend, nothing here looks damaged, blah, blah, blah, blah. The experience is a lot like finding Toad at the end of every stage in Super Mario Bros. and being told the princess is in another castle. The main difference is Super Mario Bros. never claimed to be cinematic or a commentary on the state of a nation. What’s more, Super Mario Bros. didn’t include repetitive messages to massage your ego but to challenge you to keep going farther. In contrast, Kojima doles out titles like “Elite Handler” after a successful mission. One’s sense of self-worth would have to be beyond low to stomach such nonsense.

The nauseating ego-stroking element of Death Stranding is not an accident but a sincere part of its design. The game features a social media component wherein players can help each other by leaving behind ladders, lockers, and other tools in the wild, rugged world. From a mechanical standpoint, Kojima is clearly building on Dark Souls’ weakest concept, but he also nods to both Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as gamers can “like” conveniently dropped items from other gamers. In addition, Death Stranding’s fictional characters will give you “likes” for accomplishing missions. In the right hands, Death Stranding could somehow work as a satire of how neurotically obsessed our culture is with fleeting external validation, even as civilized culture crumbles around us, but Kojima plays it like a nincompoop would.

Kojima’s childish sense of reality is confirmed by how he frames the Kumbaya politics of Death Stranding. Throughout the game, Sam (whose last name is Bridges) works for a company called Bridges to connect the disconnected citizens of the former United States of America with digital and literal bridges. Yes, Kojima’s having fun with the dumbest wordplay in video game history, but there’s also no indication that he questions the simplicity of Death Stranding’s proposed political philosophy. Kojima’s outlook on existence itself, as expressed in Death Stranding, suggests that he does want us to grasp for any positive feeling, however silly. “Once there was an explosion,” the game states, referring to the Big Bang, and later on, another line declares the world could experience an explosion “that would be our last.” When presented with this godless and shallowly nihilistic viewpoint, it becomes harder to blame Kojima for encouraging players to cling to Zuckerberg- and Dorsey-endorsed methods of interaction. But to praise this grade-school level of thinking is far more troubling than gazing at the scorched imagery of this turgid stupid game in art-school clothing.

Disco Elysium Review — A Confounding Effort

by Jed Pressgrove

The most distinctive aspect of Disco Elysium is how it focuses on the mental. Although this odd RPG follows Planescape: Torment’s lead (see: the hero with amnesia, the heavy dialogue, the uneven point-and-click-based character movement), it emphasizes psychology over morality as it unveils a tale about a loser cop trying to solve a case after a nasty binge with alcohol. In some respects, Disco Elysium pulls off its intent quite well and in comical fashion, but the more one pays close attention to the script, the more one might tire of multiple limitations in the writing.

The protagonist of the story is an irresponsible, questionable, and sloppy gumshoe. Movie fans may recognize the character type as an extension of what Robert Altman and the Coen brothers respectively explored in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Disco Elysium’s novel idea is to muddy up the text-based dialogue with voices from within the detective’s head. These voices show up more or less based on how the player distributes skill points. For instance, if you put a lot of points into “rhetoric,” the Rhetoric Voice promises to interject in more discussions to clue you in on what characters are actually saying with their words. The catch is if too many points are put into any single category, the related voice can become a hindrance to the officer’s investigation of murder and other crime, as it will always be battling for space, creating psychological noise.

Initially, this concept of competing voices impacting the flow of the game seems like nothing but a good thing because of its dynamism. It’s fascinating to see how specific attributes will result in chaos or, often unexpectedly, insight. Disco Elysium also offers specific thoughts, most of which are high concept or convoluted, that the cop can dwell on for skill increases or decreases (sometimes it’s preferable to have less of a skill, as previously suggested).

Disco Elysium couples all of this with the hero’s memory loss in order to produce as many hilarious moments as possible. To lead designer and writer’s Robert Kurvitz’s credit, Disco Elysium has its fair share of remarkable dialogue. The detective’s baffling responses are often comedy gold, such as the instantly memorable “What is money,” a phrase that parodies the conceit of a story featuring an amnesiac lead. The humor can go from absurd to vicious, as when the Conceptualization Voice says of Cuno, the profane child who throws rocks at a dead body: “If there ever was such a thing as an ugly kid, then this is it. He’s almost exquisite in his ugliness.”

The more I was exposed to this style, however, the more the act grew a bit thin. At times, these voices simply make a scene longer, and this is precisely when the premise of the game appears more contrived than inspired. In this way, the game’s greatest strength, randomness, becomes its most annoying feature. For instance, at one point the slimy union leader Evrart Claire says, “I’m just kidding, of course.” It’s immediately obvious Claire isn’t joking based on everything that can be observed about him. Unfortunately, the script, in its overanxious attempt to be clever, will rub this fact in one’s face based on a particular skill point distribution. After Claire’s lie, Authority Voice can chime in with “Is he [just kidding]?,” and then Rhetoric Voice can reply, “He’s not.” With two short lines, Disco Elysium calls more attention than necessary to Claire’s fundamental dishonesty, which had already been beaten like a dead horse.

This sort of repetitive writing raises the question of whether Disco Elysium represents a conscious attempt to create maximum potential for internet memes. (God knows that independent releases need all the references they can get. “Indie,” after a few years of receiving considerable attention from a curious public, has not been a fresh or even strong marketing label for some time, as big-name games like sequels, franchise spinoffs, and “new IPs” — that loaded bullshit term — from beloved companies continue to dominate the pop landscape.) Even though the psychology-based premise is innovative, comedic timing still trumps all. If the audience begins to predict the approach, the laughter won’t be there. This is the downside of tying the protagonist’s inner voices to the mechanics of the game. The dialogue should be unexpected when it is, in many cases, expected. This contradiction results in a significant number of weak punchlines.

More troubling is how the writing spoils its overall illustration of humanity’s struggle by drawing attention to Kurvitz’s confusing political perspective. Disco Elysium’s setting is a dangerous section of a city. The infrastructure is a joke, the population suffers from poverty, and the powers that be are corrupt. Not many trust or respect the cops, and the union is more of a criminal organization. The implication is this place suffers primarily because of structural, not individual, factors. Not only does this allow us to have sympathy for the characters, even if they’re destructive or unlikable, but we may also presume Kurvitz leans left.

This assumption is confirmed by an act of self-censorship. When Cuno, the aforementioned hellish brat, uses a slur against gay people, only the first letter is spelled out. This example by itself might beg for a tangential debate about what an artist should do or whether it even matters since we all know what is being said. But the incomplete word essentially repeats to us that, yes, the designer leans left. And yet, later on, Cuno hurls an uncensored racial slur at Kim Kitsuragi, the detective’s fellow officer. On the surface, it’s a technical inconsistency in the writing. In reality, it’s an oversight that underlines how hypocritical and pandering a progressive can be. The suggestion that certain slurs should be censored over others is one of the most idiotically distracting things I’ve seen in any work of art, and so, in line with the rambling style of this game, I’ll end on that red herring.

Ape Out Review — Hotline Miami Revised

by Jed Pressgrove

Early on, Ape Out seems to sell itself as Hotline Miami “if you were an ape,” mainly setting itself apart with a percussion-driven soundtrack that responds to what the protagonist does, such as barging into a room and smashing three or four gun-wielding humans into bloody flesh. A beat accompanies one’s successful kills. The way the audio punctuates the violence is at first attention-getting, even disorienting. The drumming in question is taut and crisp, superbly executed.

After some time the interplay between the music and the action doesn’t matter. Figuring out how to advance through the increasingly difficult stages becomes the point. The drums serve as redundant distractions from the split-second reactions that will keep the ape alive. This is not to say the music is an absolute gimmick; it’s just not as essential as the evolving score of Octahedron, a game where the marriage of sound and imagery is sexier, less contrived, and more fluid.

Once survival instincts and ideas dominate the thoughts of the player, Ape Out reveals itself as easily superior to its main influence Hotline Miami. Despite Ape Out’s graphic violence, it’s easier to sympathize with an escaped ape than with any character in Hotline Miami. That sympathy proves indispensable, as it makes the stakes appear larger and more dramatic. Ape Out’s man vs. nature theatrics are far preferable to Hotline Miami’s self-aware, unflinching cynicism, which is a repetitive nod to the rebellious knucklehead politics of 1990s fare like Mortal Kombat and Loaded.

Even though Ape Out has far fewer methods than Hotline Miami for inflicting lethal harm on opponents, the game demands one to do more with what’s there. During the beginning of the game, progress can often be made by simply punching threats as they appear and running for another room when it looks like the ape might get shot. A little later, such an elementary approach will get exploited by a growing number of gunmen, explosives, and dead ends. The ape has to start picking up enemies, throwing them, and using them as shields to account for the extra firepower of the men and the more maze-like structure of later levels.

The player learns quickly that the basic key to having a chance is keeping the mouse cursor near the protagonist. This positioning allows for quicker changes in direction, enabling the possibility of consecutive individual kills when one is surrounded. The throwing mechanic, however, works best when you move the cursor to the target to achieve maximum accuracy with the throw. Deeper into the proceedings, as the game calls more and more attention to the position of the mouse, as well as to the offensive and defensive opportunities presented by the whole bodies of still-shooting assassins and the scattered body parts of fallen foes, Ape Out achieves a blunt combination of brawn and brains that cannot be matched by many efforts this year.

Hypnospace Outlaw Review — Defunct Satire

by Jed Pressgrove

In Hypnospace Outlaw, the object is to scour and flag fictional web pages for violations such as content infringement, harassment, and obscenity. The game’s puzzles, if one can call them that, recall the desk work of a technical editor, and the audiovisuals evoke social networks of the 1990s and early 2000s. Think of this title, then, as Papers, Please meets Myspace — a combination that, on a basic conceptual level, reeks of tedium.

As an enforcer of Internet law in 1999, the player must grapple with an outdated interface, very noticeable loading times, less-than-ideal navigation, and the garish, cheapo imagery of web pages created by precocious children, jealous teenagers, overbearing Christians, douchebag rock musicians, clueless businesses, phony spiritual advisers, and other groups you’ve probably already laughed at while online.

In other words, Hypnospace Outlaw’s satirical vision would’ve seemed daring if it had been released about 20 years ago. Today, this game registers more as a mildly amusing representation of the early days of user-generated profiles on major platforms. Now that we are all used to slicker-looking and more intuitive social media, Hypnospace Outlaw encourages a type of nostalgic, smug laughter. We can cherish how lame we were a couple of decades ago and how much better we look now.

It wouldn’t have been impossible for developer Tendershoot, through reference to history, to say something relevant or, more wishfully, incisive about who we are as a modern online people. But Hypnospace Outlaw mocks the utter naivety of yesteryear too much to function as a commentary on our current struggle — namely, the modern Internet user’s willingness to knowingly reject their own interests in order to have convenient access to products. That we can play Hypnospace Outlaw on Steam, a platform that exploits our culture’s apathy and consumerism (as suggested by the 2015 satire Crime Is Sexy), tells us that the comedy has no fangs.

The Dreariness of Zelda

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman. All responses are welcome. 

Dear Chris,

It’s been more than two years since I wrote my review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, more than a year since you concluded a six-part series of articles called Zelda Facets (partly in response to my review), and a few months since I last told you that I would respond to your series. I can’t help but reflect on the time that has passed. You might be surprised to hear that I have not played Breath of the Wild to any meaningful degree during this period. I am not interested in playing it anymore, this game I wrote multiple articles about in 2017.

The truth, for me, remains the same. Breath of the Wild is too much of a buffet-style meal to be groundbreaking. As I argued in an essay on open world ideology, Breath of the Wild is not unique but rather part of a movement that prizes quantity (and our consumption of quantity) over all else.

Having said that, I respect your six-part series and am honored and flattered that my review helped inspire it. Your series focuses on fascinating topics, such as the definition of “avatar” and the evolution of horses in Breath of the Wild, that I haven’t addressed and couldn’t address as well as you. Because I like Zelda Facets a great deal, I have no interest in rejecting it on the whole or responding to all of its well-stated points, but I do want to share a few thoughts that you have sparked.

First, during the part of the series titled “Introduction,” you imply that Breath of the Wild uses an open world in “near complete ignorance” of Grand Theft Auto III’s legacy of play. We must agree to disagree. The fact that Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma claims to play few games is not enough for me to change my mind (on a side note, I do not rely on creators’ words because they, in many cases, either contradict what’s in the games or slyly discredit the notion of a player having their own interpretation of a given game). And while I concede to you that the Zelda series doesn’t have to follow trends in order to survive, I can’t ignore the isomorphic towers, animals, items, shrines, and so on in Breath of the Wild. In other words, theoretically you have a case, but the evidence I observed in the game doesn’t allow me to accept the claim that Breath of the Wild is not influenced by trends and that overarching force of open world ideology. (Your remark about Breath of the Wild’s in-game camera is fair. Wind Waker indeed featured such a camera first. Yet despite this chronological fact, it seems Nintendo leans hard into the precious trends of modern gaming with Breath of the Wild’s camera, with the possibility of multiple posed selfies from Link, for example. I don’t recall this form of nauseating patronization, which was not invented or popularized by the Zelda series, in Twilight Princess at the very least.)

My second observation ties into the line of thought above: I don’t believe the stamina variable in Breath of the Wild would have been included if not for the variable’s recent appearances in pop games. One reason I can’t see it another way is Nintendo’s blatantly unoriginal usage of stamina. It would be different if Breath of the Wild, like Nioh, had reimagined what stamina means in an action context. But it doesn’t. It’s there to annoy the player, and part of the reason it’s annoying is that it appears tossed in. Even if you are right, that Breath of the Wild was not significantly shaped by market influences, I expect more than a mechanic that seems utterly devoid of creative thought and purpose. I have always felt this way about stamina-related rules that add nothing to a game. In Spirit Tracks, I remember Link would get dizzy after performing multiple spin attacks. That was silly, too. Far less notable than how Dark Souls’ stamina variable would logically deplete after almost any action you perform—as opposed to the case in these unfortunate Zelda games—so as to heighten the sense of toil that typifies a world of ruin and exhaustion. Stamina in Dark Souls keeps you on your toes and reminds you of where you are. Stamina in Breath of the Wild merely irritates you within a world that is constructed for mass consumption. Aonuma can’t have it both ways. He can’t suggest to us that he is oblivious to the larger gaming market while clumsily juggling popular ideas. (Or maybe his juggling of these popular ideas is clumsy because of his overall obliviousness? I’m afraid this could become a dreadful rabbit hole.)

Third, the segment of your series titled “Hyrule” is exceptional. My only complaint is that the first two Fallout titles deserved more attention. I think those games were more “unlike anything we’ve seen before”—or seen since. Their structures were ridiculously open, exposing the Great Plateau as an inferior, less concise invitation to the wild.

My final point relates to Fallout 1 and 2 again. The last part of your series, titled “Zelda,” is an arresting analysis of how the princess character is utilized throughout the Zelda games. But even if I completely accept your interpretation of the story, I’m still left wondering how Breath of the Wild amounts to innovative storytelling in the grand scheme of things. You mention storytelling differences between Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild, but in either game, no matter how I play, I feel like I’m part of a preset story in one way or another. In Fallout 1 and 2, the storytelling possibilities are more provocative, unpredictable, and unstable. It’s because those games are more artistically committed to the idea of the open world, whereas Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild are too busy peddling criminality and good over evil, respectively.

As far as Zelda games go, I see Majora’s Mask as a more innovative and sophisticated story than Breath of the Wild. Has any other Zelda game so daringly asked us to understand the humanity of our enemy like Majora’s Mask? Has any other Zelda game captured a sense of world-weariness like Majora’s Mask? As I played Majora’s Mask, I could not forget about that moon and the dread it represented. As I played Breath of the Wild, I rarely thought about Zelda (outside of the times the game rammed her name down my throat) and what she represents. I thought more about the smorgasbord of content before me and the growing ineptitude of big-name games.

Sincerely,

Jed Pressgrove

 

Cuphead Review — Broken Homage

by Jed Pressgrove

As head-turning as its hand-drawn animation can be, Cuphead is one of the dullest pop shooters of the 21st century. Cuphead’s visuals clinically mirror the form of Fleischer cartoons in an apparent attempt to distract audiences from a lack of artistic conviction in the game’s overall design.

Cuphead is often said to focus on boss battles. The pitch is that Cuphead is an uncompromising experience. What fans don’t often say is that, in Cuphead, you must walk through an overworld and trigger boss fights by standing close to a particular spot and pressing a button. As the manual to Contra 4 might suggest, this overworld is the sort of cutesy nod to RPGs that has no place in a cutthroat action game. Cuphead also seems afraid or incapable of featuring an actual level. When you’re not killing bosses or traversing the contrived map, you’re trying your hand at Cuphead’s “run and gun” challenges, which amount to small and superfluous fragments of a level that register as a half-assed way to pay tribute to Contra, or you’re completing other one-off tests that revolve around a trendy parrying mechanic that has little bearing on a lot of the action in the game.

In Cuphead, imitation is the sincerest form of hackery. So many of the bosses are uninspired riffs on popular shooter trials (despite being packaged as sensational characters that evoke a bygone era). Take the horizontal shooter fights. These make for tedious encounters, with little danger, speed, or original attack patterns involved in the proceedings. The game’s lack of a dynamic power-up system raises the question of whether the developer even understands the appeal of a subgenre it supposedly admires. Indeed, the horizontally scrolling stages resemble mundane fare like Ordyne as opposed to superior classics such as Gradius and Lords of Thunder.

During the majority of Cuphead, I was unimpressed by its villains’ tactics and could envision how to dismantle the bosses based on my experiences with pests in the Contra series and Mega Man games. Cuphead’s lack of unique action becomes downright laughable when you lock horns with King Dice. One of Dice’s forms is a pathetic, nonthreatening clone of the Yellow Devil from Mega Man. As I watched this sub-boss ineptly and obviously mimic an old threat, I realized I was experiencing the work of cowards hiding behind an animation style.

Why Hours Played Is Virtually Meaningless

by Jed Pressgrove

A prevalent ideology in gaming suggests that everyone — whether you’re a drooling gamer like my friend down the road or a fart-sniffing critic like myself — should keep up with how many hours they spend playing a game. Similar to open-world ideology and consumer-review ideology, this perspective is deceptive and should be ignored. There are several reasons why.

1. Hours played has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

Theoretically, you can enjoy playing a mediocre game for more than 100 hours. I did this with Street Fighter V, the weakest game in that series since the arcade original. The reason I spent so much time with Street Fighter V is that I am a very competitive person who has played every Street Fighter sequel. Similarly, most gamers can name an average or below-average game that they have played with friends for numerous hours. From such observations, we can arrive at another critical truth: enjoyment alone has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

2. Hours played often has little to do with whether we love or hate a game in general.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: in many cases, you must spend at least several hours with a game to give it a fair shot. This reminds me of my experience with Arkham Asylum more than a decade ago. I remember playing the first hour of Arkham Asylum at a friend’s, and I could not help but wonder why my friend thought the game was special. The opening was a bit tedious, and the mechanics seemed superficial when I was finally able to engage with them. A year or so later after this first impression, I ended up buying Arkham Asylum. After putting just a little more time into the game, I was able to understand my friend’s adoration (not that understanding someone else’s adoration is the point).

Once you grasp what a game is going for, though, you’re not going to change your mind about it with more hours played. To give a different example, I was annoyed by Persona 5’s approach to tutorialization and storytelling for the first 12 hours that I played it. After 70 hours, my opinions only became more crystallized. Why? Games are like pop song choruses. They tend to repeat themselves. As such, just as you won’t come to praise what you find to be a crappy pop song after hearing it 100 times, you’re not going to magically fall in love with a game after playing it for 100 hours. You might become more skilled after 100 hours, but you can be good at a game that you think is substantially flawed. It happens all the time.

3. Hours played often has little to do with finishing a game.

First we have to know what we mean with “finishing a game.” If we define it in the simplest way (i.e., if “finishing a game” means to view some version of closing credits), hours played before we finish a game can vary for multiple reasons. Existing skill and the time it takes to improve skill are obvious factors and can lead to fewer or more hours. Another variable is whether the gamer in question is a curious cat. Does this person like to meander about in virtual environments? Does this person, before finishing a story, like to screw around and find different tricks or glitches to “break” the game? Does this person always press any button they can to skip story-focused segments? Does this person get distracted by sidequests? We could ask such questions for a long time.

Others might define “finishing a game” as beating a final boss AND uncovering what they consider significant secrets or parts of a game. My personal interpretation of “finishing a game” is more straightforward: to me, you’re finished when you’re ready to move on from the game for whatever reason. Perhaps you’re not good at the game and wish to quit, perhaps you’re good at the game but find it uninspired and stupid, perhaps you’d like to keep playing the game but don’t have the time, or perhaps you’ve beaten the game 10 times in a row and want to experience something else. In any case, hours played doesn’t tell us why or if someone is finished with a game in the overwhelming majority of cases (exceptions include so-called narrative-focused games that require little, if any, skill to see the finale of the story).

4. Assuming that “finishing a game” means to see closing credits, this also frequently says nothing about whether or why we like the game in question.

The first time I played Castlevania was before the age of 10. Even though I found the game very interesting and was able to view the closing credits of other infamously difficult NES games of the era (such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden), I thought I would never get past the Grim Reaper boss on the fifth stage. It basically took me more than a decade of trying (with extremely long breaks, of course) to kill the cheap bastard and go on to conquer the rest of the game with no trouble.

I couldn’t begin to determine the number of hours I put into Castlevania before I “finished it” (I still play it to this day). Like I said in the title, hours played is virtually meaningless. Meaning is found in feelings: I thought Castlevania was a good game the entire time, and “finishing” it didn’t make it lesser or greater. It was always fucking Castlevania.

Like it or not, most video games are like Castlevania (exceptions include works that invite full readings without much skill, such as Off-Peak, Actual Sunlight, or Proteus). You know what you’re getting after several hours of observing the same kind of stuff. It’s as simple as that. (What’s more, the suggestion that games should only or primarily be played to be “finished” doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to spend hours and hours just for the closing credits of something you hate for 10 different reasons?)

Granted, if you want to talk specifically about the ending of a game, or its final level, or its climactic boss fight, and so on, yes, you should have seen the final credits or at least gotten close enough to them in order to make particular claims about any of these things. If I had reviewed the original Castlevania before beating Dracula, I could have reasonably called it a very good game, but I couldn’t have said, for instance, that Dracula is a great boss fight.

The truth is almost nobody seems to care if you’ve not beaten a game yet and you love it. But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will. And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go. Gamers have a rich history of not beating games, only to hold and share passionate opinions about their qualities. It’s a tradition that I find instructive and significant from a critical standpoint, within reason.