January 9, 2019 ☼ Things
Even on only the 7th of January 2018 feels pretty far away, but better late than never right? I used to post my top movies of the year every year but stopped doing it the past few years for no specific reason. As part of my New Years resolution to “write more”, I wanted to rekindle the effort but also expand the list to be more generally “stuff I liked” in 2018. So without further adieu, here’s some things I liked in 2018, comprised of games, films, books, and other here-and-theres, organized semi-randomly to encourage a feeling of exploration as you scroll through the annals of 2018.
After making internet waves with his slightly-moral-panic-baiting post on algorithms delivering surreal content to children on YouTube Bridle released his book New Dark Age. A potent mix of philosophy, speculation, hard facts, and strange opinions, this book is for everyone sick of the techno-utopian preachings of the silicon valley monoculture and for those looking for new ways to understand the uniqueness of “now”.
The adorable and vicious Root is decidedly one of my favorite games this year if “time spent thinking about it after playing” is the metric to go on. The totally asymmetric design by Cole Wehrle builds off 2016’s Vast: The Crystal Caverns, and has player each inhabiting different factions trying to take control over a forest. More interesting is the fact that this is basically a COIN wargame, but wrapped in such a way that makes the concept appeal to people outside of COIN’s typical niche.
Hot damn I wished every game I played stuck with me like Paratopic continues to. It’s EXCEEDINGLY RARE for a game to ever feel confident in itself - usually games feel the need to hammer home certain points of their design or story until your eyes fall out, fingers fall off, etc., but shouts out to Paratopic for just really knowing what it is and wants to be. Its brief (~45min?) runtime contains a non-trivially long car drive as well as sections that take up less than 10 seconds, both delivered at a pitch perfect pace that never feels overlong or too short. Not since 30 Flights of Loving have I felt so damn good about a game, so here’s to Paratopic being just one of the best things about 2018.
The back half of 2018 saw me starting to get into synthesizers for the first time. I’ve had two pocket operators (Tonic and Arcade) for about a year now, but as the vision of the OP-Z was slowly rolled out I found myself with a type of gear/audio lust that I had never really felt before. It seemed like (and is) the machine for me — a 16 step sequencer with enough bells and whistles that after playing with it for probably 15 hours it still feels like I’m just learning the basics of its operations. Every parameter feels like it can lead to exponentially more sonic territory and possibility. I can’t say enough good things about this synth and won’t belabor the real point — the OP-Z is incredible.
This may be a bit of a cheat, considering the camera came out in 2016, but I promise it’s the only one and it’s here because I actually started using it in 2018. After my DSLR got stolen a few years ago I’ve been basically making due with a cell phone camera, in part because my camera “needs” were evolving. I graduated a bit out of single-man-do-it-all productions but also wasn’t taking photographs professionally, so I was left trying to figure out any reason for me to actually own a dedicated device. The answer? Something that feels good to shoot and shoots the way I want to. More specifically, I was looking for a camera that had interchangeable lenses, an optical rangefinder, and 1080p/4K video capability. That specific trifecta is only really doable if you’re looking to buy a Leica, but the good people at Fuji have also blessed us with the near perfect XPro-2 at about a 1/5th the cost.
Listen, I’m not even close to finishing this game yet but I’ll tell you right now that this is probably the most pleasant thing I played in 2018. Especially as someone currently trying to make their way through Red Dead Redemption 2, I find myself longing for the greener valleys of Dragon Quest along with its whimsical world and characters. I can’t wait to finish this off in 2019, just taking it in slowly over time.
Okay actually the last “cheating item”, though this one did come out only last last year, and like any good released “thing” is just as great no matter what year you discover it in. I’m not sure if I’ve not really been paying attention, but it really seems like Lego has been on one recently and has found an awesome flow with releasing these new “expert level” sets that really cater to the “I grew up with Lego” demographic that now has some of the buying power to fuel their hobby outside of a Christmas list. The sets also successfully capture what I felt was missing in a lot of newer, kid-centric lego sets, namely, the lack of what I (and the Lego community surely in some form) call “cheat pieces” — pieces where a single, large custom piece will stand in for what would usually take more pieces to build. These pieces often better represent what the effect of using the piece is supposed to be, but trade-off in the fact that just placing the piece is less fun or exciting than seeing how to build something similar with more varied components.
Good builds for me are sets that really leverage existing Lego pieces in new and delightful ways, and in building the Fishing Store this year I felt myself being totally enamored with both the design of the store as well as the experience of building it. Not only this, but it’s one of the first builds I’ve done that, as a set, uses the unspoken but much pointed to community guideline that all surfaces must be “smooth”. Wanting this and doing it in practice is incredibly difficult, and the way the set lays into this aesthetic and pairs it thematically with old wood construction is a beautiful marriage of style and form. I highly recommend this for anyone looking to get back into Lego in 2019.
I mentioned this in my OP-Z bit, but I’ve been getting into synthesizers this year. What I didn’t say in that section is that, while I’ve been enamored with exploring the OP-Z, I’ve also been heavily exploring the world of modular synthesizers. And what a better time than now to begin exploring this, as Kim Bjørn’s book Patch and Tweak presents the universe of modular in a way the speaks plainly about all aspects of it. From an overview of waveforms and harmonics to creator interviews to company/module profiles, this book is the reference for where modular is currently at, and an indispensable resource for me as I take steps into this wild world.
I may be the only person this side of the blogosphere that just really dug what Sea of Thieves was putting down. Was it empty? Yes. Was there a lot to do? No. But file this as a game that tried (and succeeded) to just nail their core idea before trying to build upon a shaky foundation in service of trying to build out a “bigger” experience. Though more content has been added throughout the year, I really appreciated the emptiness when it first launched — Not since Wind Waker has a game really done as well to capture the quietness of sailing. The rocking of the waves, and the tightening of ropes, the splashing against a hull — Sea of Thieves is less a game or more an orchestra of nautical sounds that makes you want to sit back and let it wash over you, no content required.
Readers of this blog may have inferred that I’m a game developer, and part of being a developer is that surprise you’re never done learning and there’s always something you don’t know so have fun with never-ending imposter syndrome! That said, as I try to become a better developer, I’m trying to get better at parts where I’m weaker, one of which being the process of rendering. I know just enough about shaders to be dangerous, but in terms of really understanding what’s going on in the construction of a frame I’m flying a bit in the blind. This new version of the seminal book, initially released in 1999 and the first new version in a decade, is heaving revised and expanded to include some new 2018+ things like VR/AR specific techniques. I’m not sure how much I’ll really “read” this book as much as refer to it, but presently it sits next to my desk and I suspect that over the course of the next 10 years its pages will start to yellow and fold as I navigate it into the future.
As a lover of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette I’m just really here for this similarly off-color historical dramas. Featuring great lines like “I like how it feels when her tongue is inside me” delivered with the perfect amount of aloofness and sincerity by a cast who all seem to be on the verge of having a little too much fun, The Favourite is one of those movies that doesn’t really “fit” into the normal procession of blockbusters and art house awards bait and instead defines a category of its own. I’d go watch The Favourite again right now if I wasn’t trying to finish this list.
Director Masaaki Yuasa makes his first debut on my list here with the staggeringly good anime series Devilman Crybaby. Featuring the relatively boring character Devilman but a story and setting that more than make up for it, watch as his world slowly begins turns in on itself and this anime just go there in a way that few series try to. The first episode left my jaw on the floor, and through the animation probably never reaches that first episode’s heights again, the whole thing is impeccable and the story stays interesting throughout.
How do you follow up Papers, Please? Pope’s 2013 indie megahit was iconic, the type of game that most independent designers only hope they can make one day. A perfect marriage of theme of and mechanics (such that Papers, Please impersonators could never feel like anything but an echo of their source) with a degree of personality injected that wouldn’t come out of a bigger studio, Papers, Please stood out among other games released that same year as a singular experience. Not only that, but it continues to do so, with, as of writing this, SteamSpy has pegged it with an ownership number between 2 and 5 million people. This is the kind of thing you release, then quit. You pack up shop, give everything one last look, then walk away.
But not Pope. As early at 2014 Pope started working on his follow up game, Return of the Obra Dinn, the announcement of which was met with a general feeling of excitement from the audience as people were still discovering (and raving about) Papers, Please. “Would Obra Dinn be as good as Papers, Please?” gamers asked. Unfortunately, and I think to a lot of people’s surprise, we wouldn’t find out the answer to that question for another four years. I’ll even admit that as recent as the summer of 2018 I wasn’t sure Obra Dinn was ever going to happen. I was sold initially on the art (we all were) and played the early demo, but I thought it may eventually disappear into the world of could-have-beens.
Appropos of nothing, and with the sort of dispondency of a man just tired of working on something, this happens. It’s the sort of announcement that affirms people’s suspicions that Pope may have given up, just damn released the thing because he was tired of working on it. That he was going to release a good idea, but not really the game wanted to make. Luckily, that couldn’t be further from truth.
More well construced, mature, and all around better than Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn shows us we have no idea what Pope is capable of, and he may well just be hitting his stride. Though not subject to the same blockbuster fervor around its release like Papers, Please, Obra Dinn takes nearly every idea from Papers, Please and expands it to its full potential. For all those that thought Papers, Please was too on the nose or obtuse, Obra Dinn does it better. For all those who thought that the document simulator was Pope’s one good design idea, Obra Dinn shows off more ideas in spades. It’s like Pope can barely contain himself - Obra Dinn is injected with so many great ideas and flourishes that work so well together I find myself often just sitting back and trying to go through the thought process that could lead to such great outcomes. Everything feels totally considered, from player control, to story beats and pacing, to mood, theme, interface, etc. Not only this, but Obra Dinn’s central gameplay conceit is something that also feels new. It’s like Pope, similar to people like thecatamites, exists in his own design space, one that we all luckily get to take part in. All this, and many other reasons, are why Bad End gave Obra Dinn it’s GOTY for 2018 over everything else.
I recently finished reading Rings of Saturn after a nearly year-long journey with it, and near the end Sebald cites Chateaubriand’s memoir in manner that made me piqued my interest. Like other things in Rings of Saturn, I looked it up to see if it actually existed and was surprised to see that not only was this memoir real, but NYRB, one of my favorite book publishers, put out a new edition of the memoir this year (2018)! The NYRB edition covers the first 12 of 42 total books from the memoir, and like other things received in back half of 2018 I’m excited to really dive into this in 2019.
Carta Impera Victoria is a short Civilization-esque game that offers an amount of theme and depth that is surprising given it’s brief playtime and relatively simple rulest. Play cards that represent development in a “domain” like Military, Science, Religion, etc. and enjoy the benefits from having “leveled” in that domain. Different levels open up new domain-specific abilities, and the addition of a mechanic that allows you to invoke a separate domain skill upon discarding a card makes this otherwise simple “draw and discard” game really open up. Even in the span of a few turns people start to narrativize their civilization, using their dealt and received domains in combinations that make each player feel like they are working with a different ruleset than you. Each time I play the game I discover more and more depth in it, and have managed to pull off some pretty crazy card combinations that makes me feel like there is even more to discover. Top it off with an incredibly brisk 20 minute playtime and it’s safe to say that this game has traveled with me ever since I got it. Shout out to Space Biff for putting me on to this one and speaking so highly of it — I definitely would not have found it otherwise as it seems to have totally slipped under the radar.
Released and then seemingly forgotten, this adaptation of the successful sci-fi book series The Southern Reach is both a great adaption and a terrible one. On one hand the movie is almost nothing like it’s namesake book, with the actual plot of the book not really being reflected outside of it’s major beats. On the other hand, this rejection of the series’ story frees up the movie to more deeply explore some of the books themes in its own way without needing to deal with the “well in the book in went like THIS…”. The movie then feels more like an interpretation than an actual adaptation, and stands on its own as its own thing. The only major downside of the film is its emphasis on a romantic plot, a facet of the film that represents either a fundamental misunderstanding of the books or a necessary concession to try and make what could have been an otherwise a very weird movie palatable to a larger audience. Regardless, I enjoyed the film and loved me sum dat abstract VFX and wobble music.
Speaking of weird sci-fi films, what about this other amazing release? It’s hard to say a lot about Sorry to Bother You without spoiling it, as its themes/ideas are really hard to speak on unless you know the full arc of the film, but the one thing I can say is that I think this is one of the best visions presented for our future I’ve seen in a while. It grapples with popular media dissemination, labor, art, race, techno-politics, normal politics, and everything in between. Eat your heart out Black Mirror.
As someone who has never been a huge Alexis Kennedy fan in practice but always interested in theory, I’m happy to say that Cultist Simulator is the first time I really felt like his ideas + a game’s mechanics clicked for me. On past projects like Sunless Sea, you got the sense that he had all these narrative ideas but was somewhat stymied in implementing them due to the limitations of their delivery vehicle, that is, a videogame. It’s hard, if not distancing, to to try to narrativize actions literally thousands of feet below your perspective, and then meaningfully display their ramifications in a way that makes sense to the player.
Cultist, in a deft design move, totally sheds the constraints of this requisite story + visual feedback loop and chooses to instead plays out more like an interactive book. Your mind gets to work at all the fiddly bits of how things go, which means the space of what can possibly happen gets to expand. This also means that visual feedback can be deployed more sparingly, and upon its arrival can feel more meaningful, even if its doing less. I’m speaking obtusely as to not ruin some of Cultist’s surprises, but I hope you get the point. The game full of so many good theme + mechanic and I’m hopeful for the future of the game and what Weather Factory does with it next.
The other Yuasa banger released this year was the little-mermaid-esque movie_ Lu Over the Wall_, where we get to enjoy his delightful animation style again but in a feature-length form. Whereas I felt like Devilman never beat it’s first episode (expect maybe the last), Lu is full of animation goodness from front to back. Not only this, but the broader themes of the movie pair well with Yuasa’s animation — his sketchy, slippery style nicely complements the a movie filled with water, waves, music, and dancing. It IS weird though that a central part of the plot seems to suggest that a teenager is falling in love with a toddler, and that this dynamic is never really questioned. Otherwise, the film is wonderful.
Coming out of nowhere and, at least in my circles, having seemingly gone nowhere, Hilda is a dark horse candidate for one of the best animated series to come out of 2018. Take a little bit of Adventure Time whimsy, throw in a healthy dose of Over the Garden Wall, and mix in some really good short story storytelling, and you’ve got something that feels original despite being composed of familiar (if not over-referenced) pieces. It’s hard to sell Hilda without it sounding like an Adventure-Time-but, but it’s well worth anyone’s time if they are looking for something that scratches the Adventure Time itch without feeling pandering.
Before, when this list was just games, I had an idea that instead of highlighting my top games, I’d highlight what some of my top moments from games would be. A good moment can come from an otherwise shitty game, and “good” games can often fail to produce meaningful moments. That said, SpyParty falls into neither of these categories, and instead is a great game with a lot of great moments.
In SpyParty, two players directly compete with each other, one as an attendee at a party and one as a sniper, looking at the party and trying to shoot the other player. While this may sound easy/boring, IT’S NOT. SpyParty is probably one of the most tense/anxiety-inducing games I’ve ever played, and that tension is what leads me to discuss one of its best moments: the simple act of not getting killed.
As a party goer, to not killed killed, all you have to do is blend in with the AI crowd. This sounds easy enough, but the issue with computer players is that they act like computers, and you, as a human, want to act human. The beauty of SpyParty is that you have to adopt a computer’s mannerisms vis-a-vis how you navigate the space, resisting your stupid human instincts that will get you sniped instantly.
You have to walk, talk, and act, like all the other fake intelligences around you to survive. And when you do this, when you blend in with the machines for the first time and successfully escape death, you can’t help exploding with excitement and a small feeling of transcendence. It’s almost like a reverse Turing test that poses the challenge “How can you make yourself indistinguishable from a computer?”. 50,100,500, matches in, answering that question never ceases to be great.
Whereas SpyParty is a great game with a lot of great moments, Objects in Space is a great idea with a lot of potential for great moments, marred by some hefty technical issues and a case of the Early Accesses. In some ways I wish Objects in Space would have taken a more Sea of Thieves style approach to development, but instead we do get a really interesting game that is currently trying to find its feet.
You’re flying a ship through space, doing all sorts of space game quests, but instead of commanding some sleek cruiser like the Normandy you’re flying something of a junker that just feels like a submarine about to fall apart. Call it “Jalopy in Space”. Additionally, Objects in Space’s main proposition is that not only is this a feeling, but you are almost totally in control of the ship. Unlike other games that may abstract away the systems of a spaceship, you instead are presented with them directly, their myriad control panels, dials, screens, blinking and beeping at you asking for your response. There’s even a computer on the ship that has a non-trivially important terminal used to debug your ship’s systems.
Objects in Space also has one of those aforementioned “moments” in it that still sticks with me. Here’s my record of the event:
“I was intercepted by a pirate that demanded I drop cargo or be destroyed. I hit the S.O.S button on my ship, having no idea what else to do and being too early in the game to even know how to drop cargo or fire a missile, and then I got magically teleported to a space station and charged with a tow fee. Now my hull is damaged from the probing shot the pirate sent and I don’t have the modules available at the station I’m at to do the proper repair (having sold the broken modules and not realizing that I needed to match ship model and not just any CM-9 would work), so now I think I’m stuck. I could take on a big loan and buy a new ship I guess, or maybe sell some modules I don’t need? Not sure what to do next…”
This moment was incredibly frustrating, but it’s also the sort of emergent gameplay you hope a game like this can deliver. The kind of true emergence that makes you start thinking about what you can do in the terms of the game vs. running into a designed “problem” that can be easily solved with a strategy guide. Time to boot up the ship again and see if I can get off this damned station.
My top gaming moment of this year has to be from Jason Rohrer’s new game One Hour One Life. It happens near instantly when you start the game, and then every time after you start over.
When I heard the premise of One Hour One Life, that you basically live a whole life for an hour, from childhood to old age, and die, I was intrigued but had a ton of questions, which I assume was the case for literally everyone. My main though had to do with how you make people at different ages meaningfully different enough to warrant a mechanic of aging. Are babies weaker? Do old people move more slowly? What are people’s food needs at different ages? Rohrer answers all of the above beautifully, but also addresses the dynamic through something I never thought of: language.
Chat, especially for online games, is usually taken for granted, but Rohrer actually makes the ability to speak in chat (seen globally in the world) a meaningful life event in One Hour One Life. The moment at the beginning that I’m referring is when are first born into the world of the game as a baby and you can literally only type a single letter into the chat. As a baby, you are non-digetetically limited in your communication mechanism and are forced to start immediately finding creative ways to communicate what you need. As you get older, you unlock the ability the use more letters and eventually words and sentences, beautifully marrying the idea of “getting older” with real implications in the game world. It’s so smart and a perfect example of using unconventional methods to achieve unconventional design goals.
Thanks for reading, see you in 2019!
Others briefly noted: Moonquest, Subnautica, Tetris Effect, Red Dead Redemption 2, Into the Breach
Never got around to: Lucah: Born of a Dream, Dead Cells, Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, X4: Foundations, Northgard, Dusk, The Red Strings Club, Chuchel,