Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2016

by Jed Pressgrove

In my estimation, 2016 has been a better year for games than 2015 or 2014, the year Game Bias started. While nothing in 2016 beats last year’s best (Cosmo D’s Off-Peak), the quality has been more evenly spread across releases, and I hope this trend continues in 2017. A friend, critic Patrick Lindsey, asked me if the new Doom would be on this list, so now that he and everyone else knows it is not on the list (I would say spoiler alert, but spoilers can’t hurt creative expression), I can say Doom serves as a prime example of a good game that had too much competition to make the cut.

(For more reading, check out the 10 best games of 2015 here.)

Note: I am aware my No. 1 choice arrived to Steam in 2015, but I only first heard of and played it this year when it came out on consoles. If this troubles you greatly, imagine it is not on this list at all, move each subsequent choice up a spot, and insert your own No. 10.

1. Assault Android Cactus

Assault Android Cactus tops every twin-stick shooter in arena and weapon design, transforms into camp when you fail and listen to Jeff van Dyck’s “Little Android” (the video-game song of the year), makes Doom (2016) look relaxed, and puts an unforgettable spin on evasive maneuvering. For these reasons and more, developer Witch Beam can say it has made one of the greatest shooters of all time.

(See review of Assault Android Cactus here.)

2. 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.

3. Titanfall 2

The big-budget masterpiece of the year, Titanfall 2 supports the idea of suicidal combat and thus elevates the standards we should all have for single-player campaigns. The “Into the Abyss” and “Effect and Cause” missions deliver the most dizzying one-two punch of the 2010s, as the former puts you through a horizontal and vertical gauntlet of prefabricated communities and the latter allows lightning-fast time travel with the press of a button. “Screw getting online with a bunch of strangers,” the people might finally say after experiencing the story of Titanfall 2.

(See more broad thoughts on Titanfall 2 here.)

4. Kirby: Planet Robobot

As a contrast to 2014’s Kirby: Triple Deluxe, Kirby: Planet Robobot proves that new content means nothing without new context. Director Shinya Kumazaki has delivered a personal, essential take on Kirby that goes unexpectedly suggestive in its climax, challenging the way we have always looked at the androgynous hero and his role in restoring dreamy worlds.

(See review of Kirby: Planet Robobot here.)

5. Hyper Light Drifter

Unlike Arnt Jensen’s Inside, Alex Preston’s Hyper Light Drifter understands that mature nihilism leads to an appreciation of life as much as it does to a criticism of supposed meaning. By making the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask more nonlinear and limiting characters to a language of imagery, Preston creates an unpredictable and mysterious fluctuation between beauty and misery so that life and death are never trivialized nor fetishized.

(See more broad thoughts on Hyper Light Drifter here.)

6. Layers of Fear

P.T. director Hideo Kojima should take design and writing lessons from developer Bloober Team, whose blunt Layers of Fear registers both as the most spectacular vision of unnatural hallways in games and as an unsentimental critique of the tortured artist and self-obsessed husband.

(See more broad thoughts on Layers of Fear here.)

7. That Dragon, Cancer

Don’t let most positive reviews limit your understanding: That Dragon, Cancer will remain underrated until critics realize the “empathy” marketing label should not drive our personal reactions to art. Relying on far more than emotional appeals, Ryan and Amy Green don’t make the game only about the brief life of their son, sending the player through myriad portraits of humanity affected by cancer. With this more universal framework and an unrelenting dialogue on faith in God, the vignettes of That Dragon, Cancer represent a philosophical challenge to those in troubled times: what are you going to rely on when all hope seems lost?

(See more broad thoughts on That Dragon, Cancer here.)

8. Mighty No. 9

Due to Kickstarter drama that the gaming press shamelessly helps invent, people have been denouncing Mighty No. 9 creator Keiji Inafune when they should be thanking him for executing a daring take on the shooter-platformer so well. Basing a combo dynamic on stunning and dashing through enemies is a simple yet wild innovation that results in some of the most unusually compelling action of the year.

(See review of Mighty No. 9 here.)

9. Clustertruck

What appears to be an idiotic game becomes an exhilarating breed of racing in which platforming is mandated and disaster is ensured. Creator Wilhelm Nylund needs a slap on the wrist for forcing players to unlock essential maneuvers via points, but the level design of Clustertruck gets better and better (that is, crazier), reminding us that counterintuitive game design can be as elating as rules and conditions you can depend on.

10. Shadow of the Beast

With this brawny but emotive remake, Heavy Spectrum Entertainment Labs infuses the original game’s parallax scrolling with gravitas. Through mostly visual suggestion, Shadow of the Beast’s bloodletting is accompanied by moral purpose that shows up the storytelling of most platformers.

(See review of Shadow of the Beast here.)

Super Mario Run Review — Sleepwalking

by Jed Pressgrove

Anyone who says Super Mario Run represents an admirable effort from Nintendo to reach a wider audience is either lying or not thinking. Super Mario Run can only be played on one’s phone with a sufficient Internet connection, a shortsighted requirement that betrays notions of reliability and accessibility.

One might pardon this sin by claiming Super Mario Run is good, but that’s not true, either. Director Takashi Tezuka and producer Shigeru Miyamoto, two men whose fingerprints appear on many classics (including Super Mario Bros. 3, the best Mario game of all time), have run out of ideas if judged by the eyes. The art direction in Super Mario Run is prefabricated; none of the level or enemy concepts stray enough from previous games to give this entry its own visual identity. This timid approach is exemplified by the embarrassing boss fights that imitate, rather than build upon, memorable scenes in Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3.

That Mario automatically runs across levels doesn’t make Tezuka and Miyamoto’s lazy oversight more tolerable in Super Mario Run. Although nabbing every special coin as Mario jogs along can be somewhat satisfying, the game drags compared to the pacing enabled by the run button in Super Mario Bros. It’s more than a bit odd that a 2016 game with “Run” in its title would feel slow compared to its 1980s counterparts, but this limitation also reflects how postmodern the video-game stratosphere has become: because fewer people care about historical precedent, fewer will know how running can and should operate in a given release.

But it’s the jumping, not the running, that feels the strangest in Super Mario Run, despite its low difficulty. You have to hold your finger on the phone for Mario to perform a higher jump, and even though this action can be consistently accomplished, it seems as if Mario is barely able to cut through the air. I am often surprised Mario is able to do anything that my fingers tell him to because of a fundamental disconnection between me and the avatar. For example, you might tap twice expecting Mario to do two short jumps in a row, but if you’re not careful enough, you will perform a spin move during the initial jump. Or you might tap the screen with foresight so that Mario can smash a flying enemy, only to run into the bad guy’s face. Yes, this type of failure could occur in previous Mario games, but Super Mario Run makes success seem as arbitrary, as you can smash ground enemies with little precision. If you don’t want to know, or if you want to forget, how Mario can feel, sleepwalk with Tezuka and Miyamoto through Super Mario Run.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2016

by Jed Pressgrove

2016 brought more mediocrity than disasters in video games. For the first time, Kentucky Route Zero resembled a sitcom too comfortable in its clothes, but Act IV wasn’t a stupid game by any means. Street Fighter V gave the middle finger to the working class with its lack of a traditional single-player mode at launch and its requirement of online fees; at the same time, the strategic possibilities of the game are impressive. While Dark Souls 3 is pandering and regressive compared to the original, it did manage to be more tolerable than last year’s flat-looking Bloodborne. I’m not saying we should be thankful for these titles, yet their shortcomings don’t compare to those of the following choices. (For more reading, check out 2015’s 10 worst games.)

1. Final Fantasy XV

This is the clunkiest, stupidest Final Fantasy yet. I would now welcome the frustration of watching characters swat at thin air in the original Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Even the majority who praised this entry admit any sense of meaningful narrative is virtually nonexistent, so in theory I don’t have to talk about the story of four privileged meatheads performing beyond-banal extermination and fetch tasks, which should be unacceptable in light of the humanistic side quests of last year’s Witcher 3, if not those of 1999’s Planescape: Torment.

Director Hajime Tabata can prepare software patches for Final Fantasy XV’s plot during the entirety of 2017, but that won’t fix the delayed “real-time” attacks of the player’s avatar. Has SquareEnix forgotten its own action/roleplaying games Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore, which made you feel uniquely connected to your character’s slashing and bashing? (I might ask the majority of game critics this question, too.) Moreover, the platforming of Final Fantasy XV is limited and stiff compared to that of Super Mario RPG, and running in the two-dimensional settings of Final Fantasy VI, the greatest SNES RPG, is more exhilarating than dashing in the big and boring world of XV, whose protagonist eventually gets tired, an irritant to the player just looking to explore.

Anyone who calls Final Fantasy XV a road trip should play any game with great driving (like Driver). What good is having a car in an open world if the game steers for you and if, about two seconds after you press a button, the vehicle initiates a joyless U-turn? The mechanic who fixes your automobile is even more atrocious: don’t tell your “paw-paw,” but you’d have to be an urbanized ignoramus to think anyone in the South talks like Cindy Aurum.

And as if to further infantilize audiences to cover up the fact that the developers have churned out what amounts to Chocobo excrement, you get a “Report Card” after battle. One needn’t bother giving this game a grade because everyone involved deserves expulsion.

2. Mafia III

Racial and ethnic conflict sets the stage for fun and catharsis in this reprehensibly pretentious action game. The creators should knock off the bullshit about being aware of historical discrimination: the nonstop racist stereotypes and laughable moral debate in Mafia III dangerously suggest there’s no point in trying to respect people and their histories.

(See review of Mafia III here.)

3. Pony Island

This abomination from Daniel Mullins offers a type of cynicism that doesn’t know or care about video-game history. Most of Pony Island’s jokes (e.g., evil narrator, a game with a mind of its own, etc.) are so old and/or childishly executed that everyone should be rolling their eyes, but maybe some players welcome this audience-insulting garbage because they’re bored with big-budget franchises and hyped indie releases. Pony Island might appear to pull back a veil with its hacking and glitching exercises (which are inferior to those of Hack N’ Slash and Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic, respectively), but even something as unnecessary as Halo 5 could teach you more about game design than this descent into hipster cleverness.

(See review of Pony Island here.)

4. The Voter Suppression Trail

Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher think it’s cute to obfuscate U.S. voting problems with nostalgic references to The Oregon Trail. This game serves as more disappointing evidence that too many people in the United States would rather encourage partisan smugness than articulate real-world experiences.

(See review of The Voter Suppression Trail here.)

5. No Man’s Sky

Ed Smith said it best when he compared the planet-generating No Man’s Sky to “the novel-printing Versificator in [George Orwell’s] 1984.” The protagonist’s too-slow gait and crappy jetpack prove that developer Hello Games is insecure about its universe: being able to zip through these worlds would only further reveal that the discovery experience is almost always the same.

6. Enter the Gungeon

I get it, Dodge Roll. You combined the words “gun” and “dungeon,” then you copied and pasted environmental details from the mobile game Wayward Souls, then you threw in a dodge roll because your studio is called Dodge Roll. Bravo for a flagrant lack of creativity in the year of Assault Android Cactus coming to consoles, a brilliant counterpunch to Enter the Gungeon’s lighthearted laziness.

7. Inside

Director Arnt Jensen fetishizes child death for the second game in a row, all the while encouraging yawn-inducing interpretations about power, whether that of a video game over players or that of an immoral society over human experiments. Nihilism is unenlightened when it is violent, unoriginal, and ambiguous like Inside.

(See review of Inside here.)

8. Virginia

The film aspirations of directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny emphasize something needed in so many video games: editing. Unfortunately, Virginia’s usage of cuts is often repetitive in smaller moments (e.g., riding in a car) or confusing in big moments (which involve enough plot threads and themes for multiple works), rendering the game tedious and bloated.

(See review of Virginia here.)

9. Umbrella Corps

This Resident Evil online shooter approaches “so bad it’s entertaining” territory. Although this backhanded compliment can’t be applied to the choices above, Umbrella Corps is undeniably a waste of time — and puzzling, considering the high standards set by The Mercenaries modes in recent Resident Evil games.

(See review of Umbrella Corps here.)

10. Uncharted 4: Thief’s End

Notwithstanding pretty graphics or well-constructed scenes, you can’t excuse something as full of it as Uncharted 4: Thief’s End. To address the dishonest subtitle, there is zero lasting reflection on the actions of Nathan Drake. Jesus Christ, who is referenced in Uncharted 4 because of his crucifixion between two thieves, said on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The moral and spiritual points that show up at the beginning of Uncharted 4 might very well ask the same thing of the charlatan directing team of Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann.

(See review of Uncharted 4: Thief’s End here.)

Dishonorable Mention

Oxenfree

How can you care about the interpersonal relations of people in a horror story when they are too politically correct, like the protagonist Alex, or annoyingly underdeveloped, like the antagonistic Clarissa, who, if writer/director Adam Hines cared about complex emotions, should have been the star of Oxenfree? The proceedings aren’t helped by the worst visual aesthetics of any indie darling in 2016.

(See review of Oxenfree here.)

Gamergate Obsession

by Jed Pressgrove

You might know what Gamergate is, but perhaps you haven’t recognized Gamergate Obsession. Gamergate Obsession refers to people who speak about the lurid details of Gamergate to make themselves look smart. Even when Gamergate seems dead or irrelevant, these people want you to think “Gamergate. Gamergate. Gamergate.” so that they can feel insightful. The Guardian, no stranger to smugness, recently published something that tops every previous example of Gamergate Obsession: an article condescendingly titled “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right.'”

Matt Lees, the author of this piece, uses roughly 20 paragraphs to connect Gamergate to the alt-right, also known as white nationalism, Neo-Nazism, etc. What Lees doesn’t tell you is that his grand revelation could have been expressed in one sentence: “Steve Bannon, U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s chief advisor, is a founding member of Breitbart News, which publishes articles by Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer who rose to fame opining about Gamergate.”

But Gamergate Obsession demands more than that. It demands for you to believe, for instance, that “[T]he culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House.” Nevermind that riling people up with discriminatory rhetoric has been a common practice throughout recent political history (citing Gamergate is hipper than articulating Hitler’s rise). Nevermind that this “culture war” likely involved scores of non-voting immature little snots who wouldn’t know a male Nazi from an old man buying chocolate for his grandchildren. Nevermind that Bannon is not merely defined by his involvement with Breitbart. Nevermind that Trump is not thinking, “You know, I think that Milo guy made great points about Gamergate; I need to hire a random founding member of Breitbart.” Lees just wants you to think that Bannon represents supporters of Gamergate.

After making this outrageous claim with evidence that amounts to “These two guys worked at Breitbart,” Lees showcases another common characteristic of those who suffer from Gamergate Obsession: defining women by the abuse they endure rather than by the work they produce. That Lees names specific women, rather than making a general point about sexist harassment, speaks to his concern that, if he doesn’t name the same names the media have largely focused on, his Gamergate Obsession will be called into question.

The most absurd Gamergate Obsession characteristic is pretending no one talked about Gamergate. Notice the irony of Lees, a writer for Guardian, saying, “This hashtag [Gamergate] was a canary in a coalmine, and we ignored it.” Who is he talking about? The Guardian? Certainly not: here is a collection of every Guardian piece that talks about Gamergate. Other media outlets? The New York Times, among others, ran more than one article on Gamergate. Social media? Just look up “Gamergate” on Twitter and see what you find.

Lees concludes his article with one final symptom of Gamergate Obsession: the implication that, before Gamergate, we had it all figured out, that no one experienced targeted online harassment or got phony-baloney information from the Internet. From Lees’ perspective, only right-wing movements deal in false or questionable language. That sort of bubble-world thinking doesn’t prepare anyone for what may come in a virtual land with virtually no grasp of what’s true or moral.

Pony Island Review — Indie Torture Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

In its simplest form, Pony Island is an endless-runner game in which you control a pony that must jump hurdles and shoot enemies. But within minutes it’s obvious that designer Daniel Mullins only intends to mess with you, doling out hackneyed meta tricks like the game “crashing” and an omniscient presence telling you what you should do. While some of these jokes might be fun at first (the options screen that goes awry is the most inspired part), Mullins wears out every idea, much like Davey Wreden did in The Stanley Parable, with the apparent goal of impressing easily amused hip gamers.

Like The Stanley Parable, Pony Island encourages the nonsensical, anti-intellectual stance that you can’t talk about the game without spoiling it. Thus, discussing Pony Island can be as big of a joke as the game itself, resulting in everything from Zoe Quinn’s hideous “Top 10 Games of 2014” entry to Angus Morrison’s hesitant interpretation to Jim Sterling’s admittance that Pony Island partly exists to “show off how clever the developer is.”

To my knowledge, no critic has answered this question yet: how clever is it to offer a hacking exercise for numbskulls? Pony Island presents coding puzzles where the only object is to make sure you position arrow icons so that the next part of the game can be unlocked. Other sections reinforce a sense of utter pointlessness, such as when you must chase around a window with a mouse cursor or engage in inane instant-messenger conversations with paranoid characters. Since Pony Island is a game within a game that does not want to be played, the real solution is to stop praising indie sadists like Mullins whose work is just as vapid as the popular, conventional video games they sneer at.

Battlefield 1 Review — The Empathy Dollar

by Jed Pressgrove

With Battlefield 1, publisher Electronic Arts taps into the “empathy” market established by the likes of Journey and Gone Home — games that want you to tear up regardless of whether they say anything substantial. Although many journalists have said otherwise, there is nothing outstanding about Battlefield 1 taking place during World War 1 and trying to be sensitive about the lives that were lost (have most critics forgotten about the admittedly forgettable Valiant Hearts?). Battlefield 1, more than anything else, is a new league for a popular sport with the goal of gaining new fans through the pretense of historical perspective.

Battlefield 1’s intro manages to capture the chaos of war in a way that only a video game can. When you die in this scene, you see the name of your deceased character as well as his fictional date of birth and death before Battlefield 1 throws you into the role of another soldier. The effect is jarring as you sort out where you are in relation to allies and enemies after a character switch, only to fulfill the preceding narrative: “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Despite the intro’s predictable tokenization of the Harlem Hellfighters (you only learn names and dates, not personalities), this sequence holds its own against great opening scenes of war movies like Saving Private Ryan in how it dismantles any notion of glory.

The rest of the single-player campaign reminds one that Battlefield 1 is just another entry in a series that uses history as a playground. While the campaign offers five character arcs, the overall story doesn’t provide any fresh, meaningful context for the conflict, as it limits your perspective to that of the British, Italian, American, and Australian armies and forces led by Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most glorified heroes of World War I. Even if you take these tales for what they are, they come up short against superior fiction. For example, the tank-focused “Through Mud and Blood” arc begs for a comparison with David Ayer’s 2015 film Fury but is far too neat in its depiction of conflict, failing to match Fury’s provocative commentary on the role of masculinity and morality in wartime.

Battlefield 1 proclaims that World War I “ended nothing” but “changed the world forever,” but it’s difficult to feel this statement among contrivances that obliterate the suspension of disbelief needed to instill the sense that you are looking at a war and not a new map for an eSport. Stray too far from a path in order to better flank enemies, and the game will tell you to “return to combat area.” Not only does this prompt announce the real purpose of Battlefield 1 (competition in a regulated space), it shows a lack of imagination from the developers in terms of designing a world that doesn’t seem artificial and behind the times. During “The Runner” arc, I stopped caring altogether about the story and action because blades of grass stopped my bullets while I was on the ground firing a rifle. Every time you die, you see the current protagonist’s name and lifespan before you jump back into an arena of varied and attractive combat options. This monotony reveals the truth: Battlefield 1 desensitizes one to death like most first-person shooters. As long as we keep competing, Electronic Arts doesn’t mind if World War I remains largely misunderstood.

Virginia Review — Cut the Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

“Play Feature.” With this main-menu item, Virginia directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny imply their game is a movie waiting to come to life. To their credit, Virginia often incorporates the cut, a common film technique, while you play as protagonist Anne Tarver; most movie-wannabe games reserve cuts for a cutscene, when players tend to only have the option of watching or skipping the scene in question. As such, Virginia’s editing is refreshing in some cases, as when you walk in a hall and suddenly find yourself in a stairwell, knowing you would have arrived there anyway without the cut. Sadly, this good idea can’t save the game’s brutal combination of no dialogue and a rambling plot, which touches on everything from a missing-person case to the dehumanizing effects of internal investigations to a secret society, with metaphors to spare.

At the beginning of Virginia, it’s hard not to think of David Cage’s Heavy Rain (remastered earlier this year) when you take control of FBI agent Anne Tarver as she looks in a bathroom mirror. Besides their obvious debt to movies, both Heavy Rain and Virginia ask the player to engage in mundane activities like getting ready for the day. Such events in Heavy Rain suggest a universality that connects us as human beings, with Cage’s constant requirement of timed button presses serving as a commitment — equally inspiring and laughable — to the repetitions of life. Burroughs and Kenny take a different approach to the mundane in Virginia, putting a little circle in the middle of the screen that represents the center of the player-controlled camera. As Tarver, you look around until that little circle becomes a diamond, which indicates you can press a button to make something happen.

So in the bathroom in Virginia, you press a button to open Tarver’s purse, and you press that button again to apply her lipstick. Compared to similar sequences in Heavy Rain, one could say this action is mercifully brief, but it could have been absent without compromising the tale. In other scenes, you have to advance the story by drinking coffee, which comes across as a weird excuse for the player to move that little circle around to find the diamond. With this throwaway action, it’s almost as if Burroughs and Kenny are struggling to find a reason for Virginia to be a game rather than a full-length movie feature.

With its lack of dialogue, Virginia begs to be compared to silent movies, but this comparison exposes the storytelling of Burroughs and Kenny as cinematic amateurism at best. On the simplest level, Virginia’s plot has too many wacky details, some of which are nothing more than dreams or hallucinations. Given Virginia’s normal-looking town hiding a sordid underbelly, Burroughs and Kenny clearly enjoy the work of David Lynch, but mimicking Lynch in a silent-movie context makes no sense with this story, especially without intertitles to clue the audience in on basics like character relationships and motivations.

Virginia also needs more diverse visuals. As mentioned before, the cuts in Virginia often serve to reduce the time it takes the player to travel, but it’s not compelling to watch this idea multiple times while Tarver rides in the passenger seat of a car for whatever reason. Burroughs and Kenny also utilize flashbacks that, in addition to recycling old imagery, can lead one’s brain astray in a dialogue-less game where events of the present are not always clear. Here we arrive at a wicked irony: while Virginia, with the usage of cuts, presents itself as a game that trims unneeded material, it still seems monotonous and confusing.

The Voter Suppression Trail Review — Partisan Lines

by Jed Pressgrove

The Voter Suppression Trail shows that developing a video game is like playing a guitar: almost anybody can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should. As part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, The Voter Suppression Trail parodies the well-known computer game The Oregon Trail under the guise of being a funny, informative indictment of Republican-led strategies to disenfranchise nonwhite voters in the United States. Unfortunately, creators Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher don’t seem to be aware that their nostalgia-ridden joke doesn’t treat the important issue of voting with the respect it needs in the globally embarrassing election year of 2016.

In The Voter Suppression Trail, you play as either a white, Latino, or black character during an election. I first played as the white voter, and the game only lasted a minute. The character didn’t have to wait in line and faced no obstacles near the voting booth. The message is if you are white, you can vote no matter what, even though the game specifies the character is a Californian programmer — hardly a good representation of the average white person in many states, but the figure does confirm a myopic understanding of the world.

When you play as the Latino and black characters, you immediately join a very long line of people outside of a building, but the situation comes across as a cold presupposition rather than a dramatic event that can lead one to humane understanding. This is when Baker, Moore, and Lacher showcase their juvenile and forced sense of humor. Playing off the famous “You have died of dysentery” line in The Oregon Trail, the game says the following when you play as the Latino voter: “Your son has dysentery. Will you leave the line and pick him up from school?” By shoehorning a reference to a common problem in 19th-century pioneer survival, The Voter Suppression Trail makes its point about voter disenfranchisement difficult to take seriously, eliminating virtually any chance of the game changing how anyone thinks or feels in a political sense.

The black-voter story is not much better. As this character, you are told that you better go back to work instead of staying in line. If you stay in line, the consequence is taking a dock in pay from a boss who, not so coincidentally, supports Donald Trump. Later, the game says one of your coworkers has dysentery. If you don’t agree to take over the coworker’s shift, you get this Telltale-like message: “Your coworker dislikes you.” With cheap line after cheap line, The Voter Suppression Trail trivializes the nonwhite experiences its creators supposedly want the audience to care about. Of course, none of this matters when you consider the real point behind The Voter Suppression Trail: giving Democrat-leaning players a(nother) reason to feel morally superior. Here’s looking forward to swell election commentary in 2020.

Manual Samuel Review — Narrate This

by Jed Pressgrove

When you take control of the massively disabled wealthy protagonist in Manual Samuel, you have to manually perform actions we take for granted in both video games and life: breathing, blinking, and walking. Developer Perfectly Paranormal’s superficial purpose for this concept is physical comedy and challenge; Sam will, for instance, do the splits if you mistakenly press the right- or left-foot button two consecutive times (Manual Samuel is one of the only games that could be smartly called a walking simulator). The experience is a hoot thanks to good animation and how tied up your fingers can get in what is usually a failed attempt to move Sam without awkward pauses. It’s Brian Sommer’s narration, though, that makes Manual Samuel special, infusing the slapstick with class-based schadenfreude, as when you assist Sam with two steps: “Good job, Sam! You are very good at existing!”

The story starts as Sam is having dinner with his girlfriend and being, as Sommer puts it, a douche. From the start, Sommer represents the envy and dislike that players might have for someone like conceited, spoiled, and stupid Sam. Indeed, when Sam needs your help after losing control of his body due to freak injury, you might laugh at his failure even if it’s due to your poor timing. After arm spasms cause Sam to tip his barrister, Sommer takes aim at the character’s previous rich-boy arrogance: “He really was hit hard on the head.”

As you progress in Manual Samuel, you might find yourself more sympathetic for Sam despite Sommer’s almost-hidden glee at seeing the rich in pain. For one, Sam gains perspective on the morbid prospect of being a working-class citizen when he dies and goes to Hell (one of the more memorable depictions of the setting in games), where new arrivals are forced to stand in line to be assigned a job and “become functioning souls of society.” It’s also hard not to feel for Sam when you meet his mean and detached father, who thinks his son doesn’t live up to the high standards that brought the family wealth.

But Manual Samuel cranks up its demands for hand-eye coordination in driving and combat sequences, which, more than likely, will have you thinking more about your own frustrations with such obstacles than any class and interpersonal implications of Sam’s state. The happy ending also pulls away from class-influenced emotion, with little moral point other than Sam not being an asshole to his girlfriend. Thankfully, the script avoids the superiority complex of The Stanley Parable (and its haughty narrator Kevin Brighting) when Sommer berates the game’s own notion of speedrunning through its ridiculous scenes. In the same concluding speech, Sommer reveals he is an American doing a British accent, further cementing one of the best voice-acting jobs in video-game history.

Oxenfree Review — Dial-Up Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Oxenfree writer/director Adam Hines makes caring about people in a horror story too difficult. Piss-poor aesthetics is the primary major problem, which you can see right off the bat when the game introduces its main characters — Alex, Jonas, and Ren — riding a boat to a deserted island. The three teenagers look like unimaginative Xbox 360 avatars that have found themselves in a nice painting, and different-colored word balloons pop up every time they speak, further clashing with Heather Gross’ superior surrounding art. With this goofy, nagging mismatch of visual styles, Oxenfree appears to be stuck between a hope to be quirky and a desire to make audiences consider the ghosts that haunt human relationships.

For the first half of the game, you might wonder why you should care about the tension between the three teens and their two friends, Nona and Clarissa. Most of the interpersonal issues result from the fact that two of the characters are annoying and one-dimensional: Ren is always bouncing off walls, while Clarissa seems to harbor negativity for no good reason. This limitation is especially problematic given that you are supposed to rescue these two misfits after Alex, urged by Jonas and Ren, opens a triangular portal in a cave, transporting the teens to different parts of the island. The prospect of having to listen to Ren or Clarissa again does not serve as motivation to solve Oxenfree’s easy but tedious puzzles, which mostly amount to tuning a radio with an analog stick until the controller starts vibrating.

Until Oxenfree requires you to grapple with the death of Alex’s brother Michael (who dated Clarissa) and to consider how you should treat characters while trying to escape the island, the bits of dialogue that you choose as Alex seem inconsequential. In fact, since the game doesn’t force you to do anything when a dialogue choice appears, I sometimes didn’t select a response because the conversations tended to float around the trivial, such as whether a tree looks interesting or not. Even worse, the voice acting and avatar movements often come off as too calm and restrained during crucial emotional moments, such as when two of the friends watch someone inexplicably commit suicide. During a large part of Oxenfree, the cast acts like it is auditioning for a Wes Anderson movie, giving off a privileged, blasé attitude that runs counter to the notion of empathy.

In the second half of Oxenfree, when the characters start behaving more like people who have seen triangular portals, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, you start to feel something as the one pulling some of Alex’s strings. Unfortunately, Clarissa’s emotions, which drive so much of the dilemma in the story, are not explored enough despite the fact that I, by chance, triggered a revealing conversation between Alex and Nona about Clarissa’s sweet side. If anything, perhaps Oxenfree should have been about the player assuming the role of Clarissa, not the consistently straightforward Alex. The choice to make Alex the star points to this idea that female characters shouldn’t be complicated, and if they are, you should not comprehend their feelings. For playing it safe with Alex, and for not establishing aesthetics and dialogue that directly connect the audience to an uneasy realization about the effects of death on human interaction, Oxenfree is just another island to get stuck on.