Phoenix Simms' Games of 2018

Nostalgia and Catharsis: A Game of the Year 2018 Romp

Note: My Top 5 is in no particular order. My GOTY list is structured by the games that stuck with me the most moving into 2019.

ss_a155ad5423e11e3e764a1a270dcf4f30323f0a35.jpg

Gris

Nomada Studio / Devolver Digital

After the eventful (and sometimes heartbreaking) year gaming culture had, Gris offered me a hopeful and healing experience. Everything about this game is engineered to soothe your fears (both about where gaming is headed creatively and on a personal level). For someone like me, who recently suffered a depressive and anxious episode mid-to-late 2018 and the slow climb to recovery, Gris and its impressionistic storytelling about personal struggle was a balm for my conscience. The creators of Gris deliberately left the meaning of the game open to interpretation, with the only lead being the intro to the game where the eponymous character loses her voice whilst singing a heavenly song and falls (literally and figuratively) into a gray landscape of despair.

Gris’ minimalist mechanics, beautiful watercolour-esque animation, and its environmental story cues craft an arresting yet subtle narrative design. As a former visual arts student who’s bored with a lot of derivative and uncolourful design in games as of late, Gris was a delight. Creative director Conrad Roset’s work on the game picks up where Child of Light left off and blasts off into the stratosphere. Your main goal in Gris is to return colour to the world and reclaim Gris’ voice and her joie de vivre. The player does this by completing symbolic platforming puzzles that teach her how to transform herself (she has several forms she can traverse the complex environment with) and build a pathway of constellations back to heavens to regain her voice and overcome her emotional isolation. Her suffering is embodied in the form of a shapeshifting creature (sometimes a bird, sometimes an eel) that turns out to be a personification of Gris’ despair. The game’s procedural rhetoric is elegant, emphasizing how taking the time to reflect and work through your struggles as well as engaging in play can help you transcend your mental rut. Think of the green forest level where Gris slowly befriends a kindred anxious spirit. In order to proceed in the level, the player must coax and nurture this character’s trust so that you can both move forward. Gris helps the spirit return to its home in a tree hollow, and the spirit in return helps her complete another step in her own odyssey.

For all its beauty and economy of gameplay, however, it’s good to keep in mind that Gris is the first title of a newly formed studio. Nomada Studios, composed of former AAA developers Adrián Cuevas and Roger Mendoza and artists from outside the industry like Conrad Roset, have a great set of skills to bring to the table for indie development. But as freelance games writer Malindy Hetfield notes in her thinkpiece on how Gris tackles symbolic hurt the game can feel uneven with its ambiguous yet specific with its visual and mechanical rhetoric. At times Gris feels like it’s trying too hard to evoke a specific emotional response out of the player, instead of allowing players to draw their own conclusions themselves.

Still, Gris makes it into my top 5 games of 2018 for a few reasons. Firstly, I think there’s important work being done in the indie game scene right now regarding mental health as a topic. For a game like this to release and gain acclaim on a platform like Nintendo Switch is a great step in the right direction regarding that. This game was also one that, visually, stood apart from the pack in 2018 and I want to acknowledge how important that is. The AAA market has been so focused of late on visual styles that sell well, that even games I’m looking forward to playing (like Spiderman) feel homogenous in their graphical representation. Lastly, Gris may not be as profound as Journey, but it understands a lot of what makes great story-driven games tick. Roset’s stylish graphics and Berlinist’s delicate yet dynamic soundtrack are harmonious with the simple platformer mechanics and all three elements serve the story of Gris’ emotional recovery. As Johnny Chiodini of Eurogamer put it in his video series “Low Batteries” about video games and mental health, Gris is a good “sadgame”—a game that helps players like me navigate their present mental health state and promote self-care.

image (1).jpg

Banner Saga 3

Stoic / Versus Evil

Want to learn about tough love and resilience? You better play the Banner Saga trilogy then. This game makes my GOTY list simply because it’s everything you could ask for regarding a single-player narrative driven epic. I also can’t remember the last time I played a set of video games that so perfectly simulated what fighting an uphill battle was like. Stoic’s choice to design their series around brutal tactical combat and resource management mechanics (fellow editor Jen aptly called the latter Oregon Trail-like”) was a stunning way to imbue this apocalyptic tale with a real sense of urgency and suspense. The first two games taught the player a lot about teambuilding and leadership skills, with you switching between human and giant Varl leaders. The finale, however, is all about coping under extreme pressure, and how everyone has their breaking point whether you’re a mountain of a man or a mere hunter from a backwater town.

The series’ ludic inspirations, which include Square Enix’s cult classic Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, XCOM, and Baldur’s Gate really shine through in this final installment both mechanically and in the storytelling. Banner Saga 3 combines the unabashedly gray ethics of FFT, the branching narrative of Chrono Trigger, and the high fantasy role-playing of Baldur’s Gate (harkening back to Stoic’s former Bioware veterans’ roots) to create a masterpiece. One that is both tragic and hopeful in tone. Regarding the that last strand of Banner Saga’s DNA, the concluding title showcases the writer’s chops in the best way. For the tactics of the game are not restricted to just the battles but encompass every conversation you have throughout ever chapter of the story. One of the most memorable conversations I had, which made me realize how thoughtful the dialogue and its player choices were written involved Tryggvi and Rook or Alette (depending on who survived the Bellower fight in the first game). In the middle of an onslaught by Raze, a giant and legendary Dredge enemy called a Sundr, on the last human city Arberrang, Tryggvi harries the protagonist in a roundabout way about finding “the moon”. The moon is in fact a necklace and a memento of his wife, but it’s also an object whose loss makes him wax philosophical about right and wrong choices and dealing with mental fog during crises. The player is given plenty of chances to cut the conversation short, but if you allow Tryggvi to work through his thoughts he realizes he had the moon necklace with him all along. The player is then rewarded with a significant item in the form of the necklace, not to mention the resulting humorous yet strangely heartwarming dialogue. By making the moon necklace (a talisman of calm) a reward, making the choice to allow Tryggvi to talk through his stress feels meaningful in more ways than one.

There’s a lot of care and attention to detail put into this game, and knowing it has five varied endings makes me not only want to replay it but from the very start of the series. This project is worth your time, which is saying a lot in an era of games that are often designed to last hundreds of hours that are thin on meaningful content.

ss_aac1c1911182026e53ac6c9840495305c1cde00b.jpg

Heaven Will Be Mine

Worst Girls Games / Pillow Fight Games

This indie hit brought back all the memories I had of emotions stirred in me by mecha anime classics I watched growing up (Gundam Wing, Neo Genesis Evangelion, Escaflowne, RahXephon, to name a few key titles). All the existential angst, the fraught and strained networks of past romances, friendships, alliances, and rivalries that struggle to survive during long conflicts, the philosophical discussions of what makes us human or Other...HWBM is a nostalgic stream-of-consciousness kind of game.

I first encountered it while volunteering at Hand Eye Society’s “Comic X Games” showcase in 2017. The elevator pitch was intriguing to say the least, which consisted of: mecha fights, deciding the fate of space, and sexting your rivals as one of three queer female pilots. As I had been playing the demo for Pillow Fight’s Rose of Winter that year, I expected that HWBM would be similar romantic visual novel fare, swapping the fantasy genre for sci-fi. And that’s not me throwing shade at Rose of Winter, because I’m a huge fan of that VN and its light-hearted yet mature writing (not to mention its wonderful buff lady knight protagonist). But HWBM is compelling in a very different sense from RoF. As Colin discusses in his opinion piece on HWBM, the game is a deep-dive on “identity, sexuality, and humanity” through the lens of conflict against The Other. Space and mecha fights in this game are not just about war and peace, they are about how far humanity is willing to expand and stretch its concept of itself before it fractures into factions once more and returns to an “us and them” mentality. At times it reminds me of the parts of Battlestar Galactica (2003 series onwards) I enjoyed the most, but with a more hopeful bent. Since the focus is love and sex between the three pilots Luna-Terra, Saturn, and Pluto against this space opera backdrop HWBM is not just fixated on the existential setbacks of expanding into space. The game is more concerned with exploring possible ways to work through those setbacks in a way that won’t deteriorate the most promising aspects of human interactions.

This visual novel reimagined the mecha genre in a way that makes it fresh again. HWBM reminds me of all the potential in the genre for exploring humanity when it is writ large in the form of giant robots that act as extensions of our own bodies. That moment in Evangelion when you realize the EVAs aren’t just lifeless metal avatars for their pilots? HWBM asks us what would happen if we used god-like machines not just to fight one another, but to help us better relate to one another. There’s so much more that could be said about this VN masterpiece, but for the sake of space in this GOTY list, let’s just say this indie title has more than earned its props.

ss_c6cacd56ea165e17c22c93763889b993ccb48cea.jpg

Darksiders III

Gunfire Games / THQ Nordic

I’ve been waiting for this title for years. I came to the Darksiders series late a few years ago and was left hankering for more after having played through the first two games. I have a love-hate relationship with edgy 90s art styles and tropes; they’re what I grew up with, but there’s only so much oversexualization of the female form one can take. Yet, boobplate and armoured high heels aside, Darksiders III is another fine example from this series of consistent game design and storytelling that throws back to some of my most treasured childhood animated shows like Gargoyles or Batman: The Animated Series. Maybe it’s just my age showing, but a lot of the games I’ve enjoyed in the past year hinge on containing heartening nostalgia. Reviews have been fairly lackluster for this title, and in some regards I understand where fellow editors opinions are coming from. Topping the epic scope and feel of the first two games was a difficult feat, and it doesn’t help that Darksiders III falls back on the overused 7 Deadly Sins trope to boot. But I refuse to sum this title up as just another Dark Souls-like. I’ve always loved that this series is open about its influences, each title has referenced everything from Zelda to Portal and they often feel like meta-games rounding up the best each gaming decade has to offer. Darksiders III’s criticisms are, for me at least, a good example of how gaming culture and developers can become trapped by “shiny new object” syndrome.

Yes, this game is not the most original or ground-breaking experience you will ever have. But to damn with faint praise is, in this instance, ignoring the fact that Darksiders III does something a lot of AAA games have been struggling to do in the past year: deliver consistent projects that are consistent in quality. Darksiders III manages, despite several years of production hell, to deliver a title that is still comparable to the other two games in terms of stylistic concept art, smooth (if derivative) gameplay mechanics, stellar voice acting, and a fun soundtrack as well. Fury, who’s a breath of fresh air as the only female Horseman of the Apocalypse, is voiced by Cissy Jones of Firewatch fame and like her brothers War and Death she’s full of personality. Her journey to best The Seven and become the leader of the Horsemen is a lot of fun, with sarcastic banter between her and her Watcher (voiced by Fryda Wolf), cameos by several beloved characters from Darksiders I and II, and bosses that include one that I swear is homage to the Skeksis from Dark Crystal.

This is arguably the one entry on my GOTY list that I’ll admit is quite the underdog, but I think it’s underrated to be honest. Darksiders III may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s important to recognize its accomplishments considering how close to the brink the series came when THQ claimed bankruptcy in 2012.

bf091b5a7f3e52d26bdf80d9cfa0fac3.png

God of War

SIE Santa Monica Studio / Sony Interactive Entertainment

What can I say? This didn’t win The Game Awards GOTY 2018 title for nothing. While I am a little sick of the video game industry following a similar model to Hollywood, regarding endless remastering and creating dozens of sequels to franchises, God of War was one series sorely in need of a reboot. Technically it’s not truly a reboot, since it is chronological with the rest of the series, but how they re-contextualized Kratos’ character and his world certainly revitalized the series in a way I would not have thought possible. What was once a hyper-violent, button-mashing power fantasy has now transformed into a more nuanced dark fantasy game that approaches violence from a more survivalist stance. Making Kratos a father who feels compelled to force his son to grow up quickly in order to thrive in a brutal environment filled with epic enemies was an ingenious creative decision. Those many moments even early on where Kratos wants to show empathy for his son’s corroding innocence, yet must abstain, are brilliantly subtle touches to add to a game series that was often known in the past for more ham-fisted gestures.

The mechanics, while not necessarily anything new to the third-person adventure genre, are beautiful and appropriate to the story being told. Having to work in tandem with Atreus (both in combat and in puzzles) drives home how differently the creative directors wanted to frame this Kratos from his old self; a lone hero who got by on just his own colossal strength and rage. Some key hallmarks of the series are kept as well, however, which is important to note regarding the success of this reboot. You still encounter enemies and obstacles of giant proportions and strength, and you are still on a hero’s quest. But this time the stakes are less selfish, and the goal is not mere revenge but a memorial rite. And might I say that despite the dead mother trope, this title managed to at least paint the mother Faye as someone who was a heroic figure in her own right. While motherhood still has a long way to go in game writing, I feel it’s not entirely true that Faye is simply another “fridged” female. Dadification has served God of War well, but I look forward to the day we can see more nuanced heroic mother figures in games too.

Honourary Mentions:

The Earth is a Better Person Than Me, Circuits, Florence, Halfway to the Lamppost, Swallow

Need to Play:

Spiderman, Into the Breach, AC: Origins, Vampyr, The Missing, Subnautica