While the title of “gamer” is insurmountably ass, and I try not to wear fandom on my sleeve too much, video games have always been an important part of my life. I’ve been playing with or engaging with games since I was a toddler in my dad’s lap, forming wordless sounds to him whenever my 15 month old brain intuited he skipped a hidden 1 Up Mushroom or Fire Flower.
Having had a newborn daughter this year though, it’s only natural that I’d have to be very choosy where to dedicate my downtime moving forward, especially considering most high-budget video games can take upwards of a hundred hours to complete.
To that end, the Nintendo Switch has been a godsend. When Fiona was in the womb, I remember reading this great Kotaku article about a contributor who felt “the Nintendo Switch gave him his games back” and I had no idea how true the sentiment would feel until now. Whereas sitting down on the couch, turning on the PS4, and monopolizing the TV feels like a decadent luxury boarding on parental malpractice, the Nintendo Switch’s quick boot up, portability, and good-enough horsepower triangulates perfectly with the quick-play experiences I need in my life right now. My entire life, I have grown up purchasing Nintendo hardware, so it’s almost eerie that they would release this product at this exact point in my life.
Even outside of the form factor of the Switch though, there is something about this idea of “a big AAA game” that has gradually lost it’s appeal to me. It seems like every large budget games from publishers I admire are “massive open world game with RPG elements” and I feel like Homer and the yard full of rakes where I keep these expecting to like them before getting smacked in the teeth.
Although I was totally sold by the prospect of cruising the countryside in a muscle car with a squad of gothpunk hotboys, but Final Fantasy XV: Royal Edition was complete ass. I knew this game was clunky nonsense when the main character learned of the wanton destruction of his dad’s empire via a newspaper article (even though they have cell-phones?) and a mere 10 minutes later the boyband is back on the road-taking selfies and teasing one another like it was no big thang. It’s amazing that a game that can look and sound this good, but somehow hamfist so many pointless and forgettable story arcs that don’t land with the player or the protagonists whatsoever.
To ease the pain of FFXV, I thought I would rebuy the granddaddy of RPG’s a game I thought I really liked, Skyrim. This game has not aged well. I roleplayed as Garfield for a week or two before remembering how little I cared about Dunkle Stormbung and Dorolres Bumblethunder and every other forgettable, moonfaced character that aimlessly wanders around that shades-of-brown bore fest. Skyrim seems great for the first five hours until you wander away from the boring main story line, get wrapped up in a bunch of boring sub-plots, and then retire after realizing you’re spending 75% of your time doing inventory management by manually dropping the five hundred thousand pot lids you accidentally picked up.
Some traditional RPG’s didn’t click with me as well. Octopath Traveller was easily my biggest let down of the year; entirely overrated with it’s 85 at OpenCritic. While the production values are a refreshing 2018 take on a 1998 aesthetic, the game feels like a glorified tech-demo. The game has terrible pacing with a braindead story that forces you to experience the beginnings of eight distinct subplots with the same quest progression and story beats, all before proceeding to the rising action of any one of them. It all kind of reeks of when the one smart kid in class wrote the essay, and gave it to his seven friends to run some words through Thesaurus.com to make it sound unique before turning it in. Hard pass.
Dragon Quest XI satiated my cravings for a good JRPG much better. It’s evocative, colorful world did a much better job then Octopath of bringing the promise of a SNES-feel RPG into 2018, especially with it’s imaginative enemy design. However, it took dropping 80 hours into the game before I even “revealed” the games main antagonist! While it’s a charming world to linger in, DQXI doesn’t have enough to say to justify the amount of time it takes to say it.
Another big AAA title that did really stand out to me this year was Red Dead Redemption 2, whose commitment to rich, adult characterization and an incredibly organic feeling world was completely in my wheelhouse. From the worldbuilding chatter between Dutch’s gang to the amazing environmental sound design of being in the wilderness, RDR2 is a game that demands you put on headphones and completely submit yourself to the full scope of it’s universe with zero distraction. However, that level of immersion is a high demand for me to meet nowadays. The fact that I can’t make time for a game that’s obviously as engrossing and up my alley as RDR2 points to the shifting relationship I can engage with games.
The games that did resonate with me the most this year were digestible and bespoke experiences by smaller, independent studios. A lot of the kids that also bathed in CRT light from their parent’s laps are developing games of their own now, and have a lifetime of experience to know what tropes are well-worn and ripe for subversion.
This week, partially in an effort just to start flexing my writing muscles again, I wanted to spend a little time reflecting on the games that really resonated with me in 2018 as I try to navigate my favorite hobby against my new life as a father. I’ll ruminate over a new game each day this week in greater detail.
Before that though, below are 6 other games I enjoyed this year.
10. Thimbleweed Park (NSW) – This point and click game in the vain of the LucasArts classics had an incredibly strong first impression that declined over time by leaning way too hard into nostalgia and self-reference, especially with its haphazard, up-it’s-own-ass ending.
9. Super Smash Brothers Ultimate (NSW) – I mean this came out like ten seconds ago, but it would be malpractice not to include it in some capacity. I do know that the greatest step forward Nintendo has taken with this iteration is around it’s single player offerings, which weaponizes 40 years of video game nostalgia to celebrate even the most obscure characters from a huge variety of game series.
8. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (NSW) – A long-as-fuck, decidedly “pre-Fiona” game I can’t imagine finishing now, XC2 is fucking messy. The characters feel like they broke out of the horniest prisons of DeviantArt, where big-tittied sorceresses talk to lolita cyborgs yet somehow beg to be taken seriously. It’s literally a game where you are in a tsundere love triangle between yourself, and your sword’s (??) split personality, while another sword/girl looks on wistfully. Rife with boring ass side quests, a pointless city development mechanic, and way-too long chapters, there are so many things to hate about this game. But I don’t. Instead, I rather liked it thanks to it’s endlessly entertaining rhythm-based battle system and the sheer audacity of the story it tries to tell.
7. Radiant Historia – Perfect Chronology (3DS) – I posted a detailed thread on ResetEra about how I really came to love this game after hating Octopath Traveler. It’s the most I’ve enjoyed a classic JRPG in some time, with an intricate, weaving time travel storyline that feels more maturely realized then a lot of other competitors in the genre. I particularly love the sections where you can accidentally destroy the world with seemingly innocuous decisions.
6. Life is Strange – Before the Storm (PS4) – As a prequel to a game with a perfectly-realized story, by an entirely different studio, that felt like it was conjured up in a board room, this game should have been utter dogshit. Developers Deck Nine did the franchise justice though, by expanding Chloe and Rachel’s backstory, introducing the hilarious Backtalk mechanic, and keeping tradition with a killer original soundtrack. I particularly loved the scene where Chloe needed to cram-memorize lines for Rachel’s play, which brought back all of the thrill and anxiety of being in a 6th grade drama production.
5. The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (PS4) – The Witcher 3 is the only game this generation that carried the torch of massively detailed world building that Mass Effect lit on the Xbox 360. I finally finished the final expansion this year, and it was so fun to see the developers button down with the whimsical region of Toussaint, a world that contrasts hilariously with Geralt’s stoic grunt of a personality.
Check back each day this week for a post about my four favorite games of the year.