1. Night in the Woods
Infinite Fall / Finji
Night in the Woods came out February 2017, but I didn’t play it until February 2018. Do you ever put off watching or reading or playing something because people are so insistent that you will love it that you feel like it can never live up to those expectations and also you are kind of contrary? Yeah… well, for me to finally play NITW it took a friend, at my 30th birthday party at Dave and Busters, (yes I am a child) going on her phone and buying me a Nintendo eshop gift card in the amount of NITW for the Switch and insisting over glow in the dark cocktails that I MUST PLAY THIS GAME RIGHT AWAY.
Reader, she was right. I went home that night with my stuffed arcade prizes and the next day when my friends headed home myself and my hangover downloaded NITW. NITW is the game I’ve always wanted but would have never even thought to ask for. It felt tailor-made for me; ironically kind of like a birthday gift. I used to think something along the lines of “people who make the type of games that make it onto consoles don’t talk or think like me and my friends so I don’t expect people in games to talk and think like me and my friends” but NITW proved me very very wrong. The characterization and dialogue in NITW increased my expectations for all media full stop. Why shouldn’t people in the media talk the way my friends talk? Joke the way my friends joke? Struggle the way my friends struggle? Despite being about a group of anthropomorphic animals NITW is one of the most realistic pieces of media I had ever consumed. NITW is smart, funny, touching, complex, fun, depressing, horrifying, optimistic and political -- all without being pretentious. Something I genuinely didn’t think that was possible.
I’ve written an approx 5000-word essay about what NITW means to me that will probably never see the light of day, so trust me I could GO ON, but I want to keep this short: this is the only game I have ever in my life completed, and then immediately that second started a second playthrough. I never ever do back to back playthroughs (I almost never re-consume anything, to be honest) but I needed NITW to not be over so I dragged that second playthrough out for a month making sure I read every bit of dialogue, fed every rat, chased every possum, and cherished every song. Especially that last part. The music in NITW is perfection, I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack countless times in the past year and I especially love Astral Alley and Die Anywhere Else.
Despite loving games, and devoting my whole career to playing, writing about, talking about, and teaching games, I never thought there would be a game that would feel this personal, that would somehow capture so many feelings that I can’t quite put words to. Capturing exactly what living in a dying mining town feels like, what atrophied high school friendships feel like, what true pure pseudo-suicidal small-town hopelessness and boredom feels like, what a total generational lack of life direction feels like, what totally accepted disgust and exhaustion towards capitalism feels like. And more so, NITW somehow also captures the weird unfounded optimism that I hold onto for the future despite everything pointing straight to hell. NITW’s tagline is “at the end of everything, hold on to anything” which feels fitting because here at the end of the world NITW is one of the things I hold onto to remember that actually everything isn’t trash. And to me that is everything.
2. Donut County
Ben Esposito / Annapurna Interactive
It feels weird both to start off this review by saying Donut County is cute when that is so incredibly obvious, but it also feels weird not to say that because it is just so fucking cute? This is a game about being a hole, and a game about falling down a hole, and playing it is kind of like falling down a very nice hole for a few hours. A very aesthetic hole with great relaxing Animal Crossing-like tunes and weird-twitter like humour. I bought this game for the aesthetics but then I also discovered that I loved playing as a hole and swallowing trash, that I loved the characters stuck in this hole, and that I somehow loved the poor misguided raccoon BK who destroys everything while insisting he’s done nothing wrong.
I wasn’t expecting Donut County to be a game about labour, gentrification, and capitalism but I’m happy it was and that is the reason I’m telling you to play it. This game never tells you the solution to gentrification, it’s far too silly to try to get far down that path. But it is going to make you think about it -- and for those players who have maybe never thought about the impossibility of ethical consumption under capitalism that is a really good thing. A spoon full of trash pandas makes the radical thought go down. Or something like that.
Donut County is a great example of a game that is a “single play” experience that feels completely worth it. You will complete it in one sitting but that isn’t a bad thing. It would feel wrong to draw it out any longer. I firmly reject the popular idea that a game’s price is “worth it” simply because it is long. I am all about game makers being compensated for creating the incredible unique experiences we love even when (or maybe especially when) they are bite-sized.
3. Stardew Valley
Do you ever have a game that feels like the reason you survived a year? I honestly don’t know how I would have survived 2017 (the year I spent editing my dissertation) without Breath of the Wild and I couldn’t have survived 2018 (the year I defended my dissertation and had to get on with my life) without Stardew Valley. This game is comforting, and cosy, and immensely addictive. I genuinely think it is one of the greatest games ever made. It combines the best parts of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing and adds in the perfect amount of mystery and dungeon crawling. The fact that it was made entirely by one person is mind-blowing. In January 2018 I was getting up every day in real life and feeding my animals and watering my crops in Stardew while pedaling away on my exercise bike. Video games are about the only way I can convince myself to do exercise which I know is sad. Stardew especially had a special power where the amount I wanted to play it outweighed the amount I didn’t want to wake up or exercise or eat or do about anything else. It might seem sad to say but some days playing Stardew was the main thing that made me want to get out of bed but I was in the 6th (and thankfully last) year of my PhD and if you have done a PhD yourself you will fully understand.
There was also something so blissful about the escape into a world of physical labour where you create a real product that you can really sell. Stardew starts with you leaving your office job for the country to take over your late Grandfather’s farm. This sounds like a fantasy I hear my friends wistfully type into group chat on the daily. This idea of a place we could move, a job we could do, where housing and families would be attainable, and where work would be rewarding. Let’s be honest I don’t actually want to run a farm, I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and I like living a life of ideas or whatever, but there is such an appeal to the idea of selling a thing you made for cash and then taking that cash and upgrading your life as opposed to selling your time and your brain and other immaterial things for “money” that goes entirely to paying an absolutely enormous student debt.
In Stardew I have my little farm (Christmas Farm) that I live on peacefully with my wife (Abigail of course) and daughter (Eve, because she came to us on Christmas Eve) and our collection of animals. We grow pumpkins and make truffle oil and red pepper jelly and duck mayonnaise. I worked hard and now we have a nice house, nice furniture, a nice TV, and disposable income. In real life no matter how hard I work owning a house, paying my debts, and having a kid feel like far off impossibilities so I turn to this simulated life, simulated capitalism, to experience that comfort. As you can imagine I can not wait for the new Animal Crossing. I hate how much I love simulated capitalism (right now I’m playing Moonlighter for the same high) I guess it plays on that part of my brain that believes on an emotional level the things I’ve long rejected on a logical level: that hard work is rewarded, that meritocracy is real, that I can “make it” and “do it all” if I put my mind to it. Leaning in and #girlboss and all that fucking bullshit. I want to believe that I’m above that. But my longing for stability and safety and an escape from poverty still holds me in its icy grip.
I think the ritual of the days in Stardew (get up water your crops, feed and pet your animals, put on a batch of Jam, ferment some cheese, maybe go on an adventure in the caves) actually changed the way I think about my own days and made me apply some structure to them instead of just working 7 days a week at any time of day and eating when I realize I haven’t in 12 hours. In 2018 I tried to work on so many things I had neglected as a grad student: going to bed and getting up at normal times, eating at least two meals a day, doing the dishes at the same time every day, cleaning the apartment every weekend, going grocery shopping every week and not just when there is 0 food, working actual 9-5 hours. I’ll be honest it made a huge difference. After a few weeks, I didn’t need video games to wake up which was good because I had played Stardew for over 200 hours and I was out of shit to do. I play a day here or there just because I miss that other life but I don’t feel like I can ever go back to the thrill of that first playthrough.
4. Spyro: Reignited Trilogy
Insomniac Games + Toys for Bob / Activision
You can’t return to your childhood, but you can recapture the childhood frustration of trying to find every hidden gem in The Dragon Realms. I’ll be upfront with you, I’m a collect-athon gamer. I know not everyone experiences the same joy as me upon seeing that 100% flash on your screen but it REALLY gets me going. A few months back I “played” the newish PS4 Spider-Man, and what I mean by this is that I swung around collecting all the locations and every single backpack while admiring the city and then I played maybe at most, 10% of the story, and then never turned it on again. I pick up every rupee even when my wallet is full. I really, really like collecting things; it gives me a feeling of completion and peace and control and accomplishment that my day to day participation in capitalism does not (did you think I wouldn’t be able to bring up capitalism in my review of Spyro the Dragon? You fool!).
It has been great this past month to wash down the disappointment of what I didn’t manage to get done in a day with a cool glass of some evening gem collecting. I’m especially in love with the flying/speedway levels which are a really rewarding level of difficulty. It will take a lot of strategizing and a lot of tries to collect everything under the time limit but you will feel an enormous sense of accomplishment upon doing so. I will admit that I haven’t started the third game in the pack yet, and the second game is not as great as the first, but the first game remains a near-perfect experience for gamers who love to collect all the shiny things. Getting to the point where I reached 120% was such a sweet victory. If only I could feel that much pride and accomplishment about my PhD or literally anything else.
5. Bendy and The Ink Machine
Joey Drew Studios
This is probably the biggest surprise and most off-brand of the games on this list. I didn’t even know this game existed until probably two months ago when searching for presents for my nieces and nephews (presents that were not some sort of creepy 100 dollar poo themed purse surprise bullshit) and I stumbled upon some very cool looking but very creepy sepia-toned almost Fleischer style toys and immediately needed to know what they were from. For my own interest, not for the kids. Some googling told me these toys (that were in the kids Christmas toy flyer at Wal-Mart??) were from a survival horror game called Bendy and the Ink Machine. I could not understand why there were toys for a video game I had never heard of in a Walmart flyer and why little kids were playing a survival horror game so I bought the game and started playing it that night. And I got really into it.
Bendy is a really accessible horror game. I love horror and I love horror games but I stopped playing them because they all just kind of felt like more of the same. Bendy was different, sure there were jump scares and dark staircases but it felt refreshing. While parts of it did fall into a lot of trope traps that I found myself sighing heavily about (the only female character is just such a typical femme fatale/black widow/sexualized monster stereotype that it’s boring) I found myself more pulled in and more hooked than I do with most games. Themes of worker exploitation and greed are rampant with jabs at Disney and other transmedia producers. The game seems to really be about reexamining the relationship between mental health, human labour, and executing an artistic vision something that feels like a very necessary message in the video games industry currently. This isn’t a game about unionization or anything like that, but it is a game about the cruelty and selfishness of bosses and large corporations and how easily “passion” is exploited in certain industries. It’s also scary as fuck but without there really being any blood or gore which is maybe why it’s catching with a young audience? The aesthetics are amazing and I found myself actually laughing a lot. Most importantly every night when I finished work I needed to play to find out what happens next. The ending was, in the end, not very satisfying but I'm not bitter because the experience was so great. I still haven’t got any of those toys though so you now know what to get me for my birthday next month.
Lastly, games that I loved but were made by people I know:
It felt weird to put these games on my list or talk about how great they are because I’m friends with the people that made them. But these are games I loved and, if you like the games I like, I think you will love them too.
Swallow by Emily-Flynn Jones
A powerful “autopathography” of an eating disorder and its relationship to alcohol. Games like Swallow and Depression Quest are so powerful at a time when so many people need to be educated about mental illness but probably won’t say read an article about it-- but they will play a game about it. Swallow recounts the experience of day to day life that I guarantee is nothing like any other depiction of an ED you have seen and will, therefore, expand your ideas of what living with an ED actually looks and feels like.
The Earth Is a Better Person Than Me by Kara Stone
A brilliant and beautiful NSFW game about mental illness, beauty, sex, femininity, sexuality, and nature that plays on tropes of the dating sim genre. There are branching paths where you choose which part of the forest to explore and then have a different experience depending on if you say go swimming or lie down in the dirt and can’t move. I really enjoyed having sex with the tree and you can too.