Night in the Woods is both crushingly adorable and deeply sad in a real way. Of all the recent adventure games that aim to get at the millennial (!) experience, this one might be my favorite. Mae, a college dropout, returns to her Rust Belt town and lower middle-class home where she is confronted by the ennui and expectation of adulthood. Growing up in Rochester in the wake of a steadily deindustrialized and diminished Kodak empire, I'm keen on a game that has the theme of "stagnating local economy." Dev Infinite Fall's choice of anthropomorphic characters to tell a real, human story is smart, and the story might have fallen flat with realistically rendered human characters.
I love Mae's friends: boyfriends Gregg and Angus, and Bea, a goth girl I think I went to high school with. I think I cried during the opening of the game, and I think I wept with laughter when Mae and Bea stole from a Hot Topic (basically the only store open in a dead mall), possibly my favorite single scene from any game this year. The game's strength lies in its contemporaneity and how American it is. I would never spoil the third act but will describe it as a fever dream from hell, a poignant "genre as metaphor" twist that wraps things up in a shocking way. It's pretty great.
I question whether or not NieR: Automata needs to be as beautiful as it is to convey its narrative (an inexplicable, minimal sci-fi anime tale told in a cumbersome, non-intuitive way). Does its beauty do its content a disservice? NieR focuses on spectacle in every aspect with its dramatic cutscenes reminiscent of the best of Xenosaga, its pounding music, its spectacular action combat with sometimes more enemies at once than one can count, and my favorite, those battles that are also space shooters that encompass all the different formats of space shooters (holy crap).
Spectacle becomes integral to NieR, and it never ends up feeling overdone or misguided. The game requires a bit of patience but ends up being the real deal.
There's always a chance I could wake up some morning and realize that Final Fantasy XII isn't my favorite Final Fantasy (VII instead?), but The Zodiac Age is a firm reminder that this game is still near perfection of the JRPG genre. Final Fantasy XII is my favorite due to its ecstatic scope, its fullness, and its wild version of Final Fantasy combat ("Active Dimension Battle," lol). The Zodiac Age adds some needed quality of life updates to the decade old title, and lets players experience the "International Zodiac Job System," which adds a tiny bit of strategy to the game's already intricate upgrade/battle system.
In a year full of true divisiveness and a rampant normalization of evil, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age becomes a shallow but necessary therapeutic ritual, a reminder that good can and will triumph over evil. That, and I finally (after a decade) defeated Yiazmat, the ultimate boss with over fifty million HP.
Persona 5 kicks Final Fantasy XV out of the "Most Millennial JRPG" spot. I mean, Persona 5 is so millennial that one of the boss battles is against an abusive, famous artist who mistreats his unpaid intern (how did they know?!
). At its heart, it's about depressed, oppressed teens trying to rebel against an adult's world that blames them for all its problems. It's an uphill struggle that lasts dozens (and dozens) of hours. The game itself isn't terribly subversive (a missed opportunity), but is oozes style, energy, and has practically perfect JRPG gameplay. It's also cute (in the best sense of the word), and takes the "power of friendship" anime value to its highest limit. I'd be doing Persona 5 a disservice if I didn't mention its brief, but extreme shortcoming in its "joke" portrayal of some queer NPCs, especially in a game revolving around oppressed kids. I'd challenge the devs to "do better next time," but for now, this is a glaring blemish on a true genre and pop masterpiece.
Not everything needs to be an open-world RPG, but it's a fun exercise to try the formula out anyway. Breath of the Wild is incredibly tight for being open-world, a "Nintendo tightness" that is impossible to replicate elsewhere. Could Breath of the Wild be the best Zelda game of all time? It depends on what one wants from Zelda, but maybe.
What is Breath of the Wild missing? It lacks a sense of descending, of real, earthy mystery. Its underworld is shockingly shallow and ultimately holds few secret moments. I wish the shrines had different color schemes to match where they are located (red ones in the volcano area, for instance). Breath of the Wild lacks that Zelda elemental formula that is (possibly lazy and) easy to take for granted: the player enters a lava temple and fights a lava dragon, for instance. These formulas seem completely rote when noted, but a world almost completely free of them could feel barren or undesigned.
Upon "completing" Breath of the Wild, I worried that I'd never think about it again, but this has not been the case. Though lacking haunted wells, disfigured villages, disturbing NPCs, and an inexplicable... weight, Breath of the Wild succeeds in its scope and high level of explorability (to the point that those details seem silly to ask for). Remember when Ocarina of Time was new, and you first reach Hyrule Field, and it feels overwhelmingly huge (even though when you return there now, you know it to be constrained, empty, and small)? Breath of the Wild recaptures that moment of energy, and, somehow, maintains it for dozens of hours. Exploring Hyrule here is truly ecstatic, and has never felt so real and involved.
Twelve months ago, there were a handful of games on my radar that could fall into this category. One was Destiny 2, and in some ways, Cuphead now becomes the anti-Destiny 2. There isn't a ton of content in Cuphead, but what is there is meaty as hell. There's too much content in Destiny 2, but I don't even feel compelled to explain it (unless we're talking about some kind of post-post-modern video game hell lobby). Cuphead is fun to compare to Dark Souls, too, because it is brutally difficult (Cup Souls?), but what fans and critics really mean when they say that is that Cuphead feels unprecedentedly well designed. Cuphead succeeds in challenging the player to die over and over again and still want to play. Its levels are slim but entirely alive, and its world somehow feels full and detailed. At its core, Cuphead is about
aesthetics, and the fun
of playing games, and feels like the best of the 16-bit era 2D action games. This is a game that could only exist in the post-indie game boom and I'm glad it's here.
Like its predecessor, Proteus, Oikospiel is non-competitive, non-traditional, and not worth explaining when it can just as easily be experienced. But whereas Proteus is spiritual in its quiet inexplicability, Oikospiel erupts with an operatic violence, encompassing all things, leaving the player sick and heavy. It seems to want to get at the heart of "play," the surprise and joy and misery of it, the *gulp* godliness of it. One might worry that such an exquisite experiment could turn blue chip, but even the game's website is delightfully defiant.
I had the pleasure of visiting Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center (Buffalo, NY) during its exhibition of Washko's dating sim (!), The Game: The Game, this fall. Installed and fully playable, the piece uses the language and motions of dating sims and visual novels to explore and critique the aggressive techniques and misogyny of the "pickup artist" community. It's a smart choice to pair this content with this form, as players quickly realize the futility of the choices they make. Gameplay and theme become one. What is most exciting to me about the installation of a dating sim in an art space is the prospect that challenging new media/"video games as art" can exist physically outside of larger metropolitan areas like New York City.