My 10 best games of my 2019

Well, that was a year. Unlike 2017 and 2018 – two other years we can all agree were largely piles of massive shit, culturally speaking – 2019 didn’t really impress me with its games. It wasn’t a bad year, but it did feel like an uninspired one, and so my top 10 includes quite a few games that were good without ever being exciting.

As usual, I didn’t play everything, but I got around to almost every release I actually had interest in. The only thing I wanted to try but didn’t have time for was Control. Otherwise, well…here we are.

As with last year, I’ll be breaking a few 2018 releases I didn’t previously get to play into a smaller list of standouts this year. Easy.

Less easy is the fact that release dates are getting hazier and hazier. For a while I figured I’d just go with the initial date of release, but that didn’t feel right. A game could be released in early access one year and properly the next. It could be released one year for one system but get a wider release the following year, which is when most people (myself almost certainly included) would actually get to play it. It could be released digitally one year and physically the next, meaning it only gets actual shelf space in one of those two years…

And, of course, it could be released in the waning weeks of a year, meaning idiots like me already wrote their “best of” lists before they came out, or before they could possibly have had enough time to play them and form an intelligent opinion.

So you’ll look below and see some games that came out in some form in 2018 but also came out in some form in 2019 and that’s just too bad.

Merry Christmas!

My best games of 2019 (2018 edition)

3) The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories


Unsurprising but necessary context: I’ve played many games — far too many to even number — that had terrible stories yet were a lot of fun. I know you have as well. It’s an extremely common thing in gaming. Far less common is a game that has a fantastic, riveting, important story that is literally no fun at all.

In fact, until The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that I would have described that way. I’ve played a lot of games with great stories that only had decent, passable, or dull gameplay, but never one that was atrociously, daringly unfun while still carrying a strong narrative.

I’m not including The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories here because I enjoyed it. Most of the time, I hated it. But its story is just that strong that it elevates the experience so far above the many negatives that come with actually playing it.

For that reason, I’m going to spoil nothing beyond the broadest strokes. You play as J.J. Macfield, whose friend / lover Emily disappears in the night. You search for her in a variety of locations, solving puzzles as you go. It’s a basic setup, and it’s given a harrowing twist: The solution to nearly every puzzle involves the physical mutilation of Macfield. It’s a horrific mechanic that is thrillingly introduced and then quickly and repeatedly beaten down into confusing tedium.

A warning at the start of the game makes explicit the fact that player is meant to learn from Macfield’s experience in a similar way to the far (far, far) superior Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This is meant to be a window into mental health issues that will possibly help you to understand them better but at least will help you to sympathize. Yet the game is so buggy, so poorly designed, so unclear in its objectives that you’ll end up mutilating Macfield so frequently — hoping that you’ll stumble upon precisely the correct kind of mutilation that the game will let you progress — that it loses the impact it should have. There’s a great story here, but unlike Hellblade, it becomes less impactful for the fact that it is interactive.

2) Spider-Man


Hello, I am a giant nerd. It’s nice to meet you. Even as a giant nerd, though, I have a huge nerdy blind spot: super heroes.

I don’t dislike them. I’ve enjoyed a number of their comics and games and TV shows and movies. But I also don’t…care about them. I’m not driven to experience them. Sometimes I’ll stumble across something and love it, but I’ve never actively sought them out. Batman is pretty much my only exception — I remember being excited to watch reruns of the 1966 live-action show as a kid, and then later to watch new episodes of Batman: The Animated Series — but even then, I don’t go out of my way to gobble up new Batman things.

So I didn’t bother with Spider-Man. Not least because it looked so much like the Arkham games I already had, which starred my preferred superhero anyway. And, honestly, now that I’ve played it, the Arkham comparison is not an unfair one. They’re very similar, right down to specific details of the stealth and combat mechanics.

But damned if Insomniac didn’t improve on them. I love the Arkham games, and while I think I still prefer them overall, Insomiac made Spider-Man so much smoother, prettier, and more graceful than the Arkham games ever were.

In fairness to both series, each approach fits each character. Batman should be a bit heavier and more cumbersome and should have to think a few steps ahead, whereas Spider-Man can afford a bit more sloppiness because he has more methods for pulling himself out of trouble. But there’s no question that the objective act of pressing buttons and seeing the game respond feels better here than it ever did there. For sheer, tactile fun and excitement, I’ve played few games that made me feel more fulfilled than Spider-Man.

1) God of War


I remember this game’s original E3 reveal, with a brief trailer in which Kratos teaches his son to fire a bow, and I thought, immediately, “I want to play this.” But it was released, it received universal praise, and I didn’t pick it up until much later. Why, I can’t say for sure, but I think I couldn’t quite believe in a reception so positive that it rivaled The Last of Us.

That’s not an irrelevant example. The E3 trailer and subsequent marketing never tried to hide the fact that The Last of Us was a direct influence. An older, experienced man leads a younger, less-reserved child through a hellish world that is ready to eat both of them alive. That’s fine, and that was appealing to me, but once the near-perfect scores flooded in, I believed less in God of War‘s ability to really have its own identity. I think I expected critics were giving it high scores because it reminded them so much of The Last of Us, rather than because it did anything interesting of its own.

And so I didn’t prioritize it until late this very year, and rarely have I been happier to stand corrected. God of War is a front-to-back masterpiece. Layered, intelligent, exciting, bleak, creative, and full of some of the best performances in the medium. Even the writing — which some have criticized — stood out to me in ways I did not believe it could.

At the start of God of War, I expected the game to either deliberately invoke Joel and Ellie (the distant father figure gradually opening up and allowing himself to get closer to the child) or just as deliberately invert it (reinforce Kratos as a bad father who continually, probably intentionally, fails to connect with the child). After all, what other way could it have gone?

It went a very different way. Something that was so far off my radar several times over that I couldn’t help but admire how masterfully the twists and misleads actually made the central relationship feel more honest and natural. It was a brilliant experience that married very human, very common themes to some of the best spectacle and most bombastic setpieces I’ve ever played through. I’ve finished many games having loved them. This is one of the few that I’ve finished having also admired it.

My 10 best games of 2019

10) Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night


I’ll speak properly about Mighty No. 9 at some point, I promise, but for now, I’ll say this: Keiji Inafune’s Kickstarter disaster has ten times the creativity and inventiveness of Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter success.

While Mighty No. 9 was meant to fill the Mega Man-shaped void left by that series’ dormancy, it attempted a lot of new and genuinely interesting things. Did it do so successfully? No. Let me say that again: No. And to be totally clear: Jesus lord no. But it tried. By sharp contrast, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is terrified to take more than however many steps were necessary from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to avoid a lawsuit.

As I said, this year hasn’t really impressed me in terms of games, so it’s probably not that surprising that I don’t have much good to say about the game at the bottom of my list, but I think Bloodstained‘s lack of ambition is important to discuss. It isn’t a bad game, but it’s the same game we played 20 years ago with the serial numbers filed off.

Enemies here look very similar to their designs in that game. Items are very similar. Characters are very similar. Controls, powerups, and music cues are all very similar. Even the layout of the game’s map is very similar, with Bloodstained keeping its equivalent areas in almost exactly the same place you’d find them in Symphony of the Night.

Why? Igarashi proved he could capture Symphony of the Night‘s spirit without joylessly repeating its exact beats with the Game Boy Advance and DS Castlevania games that followed it, so why he felt he needed to create a worse looking, less interesting, less fun retread this time is baffling. People bought it, critics mindlessly enjoyed it, and I played it without hating it. But that’s somehow worse, in my eyes, than a bad game that at least tried.

9) Horizon Chase Turbo


As much as many of us loved those “race into the distance” games from our youths – Out Run on the Genesis, Rad Racer on the NES – boy were they not very good.

They were fine, mind you, and impressive for their time, but it’s a genre that has not aged well. Whereas other retro throwback games (including a couple on this very list) aim to recapture what made us fall in love with those classic titles, Horizon Chase Turbo gives us exactly the game we always wished those earlier titles were in the first place.

There’s a real sense of speed and challenge to Horizon Chase Turbo, and its difficulty isn’t determined by its limitations, as the games from which it takes inspiration were. Horizon Chase Turbo is responsive, well designed, and entirely skill based. It also scales its challenge nicely in the form of optional collectibles on each track. Going out of your way to grab them all while still finishing in first place — and often needing to grab gas canisters along the way — makes many of the tracks feel like puzzles to be solved in addition to races to finish.

There’s also, without any question, a positively stellar soundtrack that is easily among the best I’ve heard in years. My main complaint with the game is that there isn’t more music; the songs are all great, but you’ll hear them often enough that you’ll realize the soundtrack could be two or three times as big without feeling crowded. That might just be a selfish thing to wish for, though.

The AI opponents are absolute dicks, which works to the game’s benefit. They know what you’re doing and they’ll stop you from doing it, trying hard to get a bump from your precious nitro boosts and relying on you to nudge them safely around sharp turns. They’re ruthless, which makes it all the more satisfying when you finally catch on to their specific strategies and outwit them.

8) The Outer Worlds


It’s a fun swig of irony that Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds mainly succeeds at reminding us of how well Bethesda makes games. For all it was positioned (mainly by critics and fans, mind you; not by Obsidian) as a 3D Fallout in everything but name that would surely show the world how that series should be handled, it handled it almost exactly the way Bethesda has been handling its worlds for about 15 years. Bethesda’s particular approach to open-world questing has been subject to vast amounts of criticism, and yet The Outer Worlds corrects none of its problems.

Can Obsidian make a better game than Bethesda? Yes. Do Bethesda games get criticized for valid reasons? Oh my, yes. But with The Outer Worlds, with the entire fanbase’s eyes on their product, Obsidian can’t seem to think to do more than imitate Bethesda with a slightly (and I do mean slightly) fresher coat of paint.

There’s still a slow-motion kill-cam. There are still idiotic AI companions who rush into danger and then sit on the ground crying until they’re miraculously healed at the end of battle. There are still settlements that are bigger than they are alive. The choices still rarely boil down to more than who you decide to kill. There is still little incentive to consider your character’s build as you will end up skilled in every category anyway. In a few cases, it’s a big step backward, such as the fact that the game feel more level-based than open world, there is such a small variety of loot that every container starts to feel the same and you’ll stop bothering to seek them out, and the fact that the story is difficult to get truly invested in as it barely seems to be interested in itself.

But the writing is surely better, right? Maybe. Even though writing is My Thing, I honestly don’t see a clear winner. Bethesda’s approach to writing tends to be short, direct, and obvious. Obsidian’s tends to be long, meandering, and packed with characters who will never use six words where a twelve-page monologue would suffice. Everybody will have their own preference, but both approaches are flawed and aggravating in their own ways.

And yet I enjoyed it, because it’s an enjoyable formula. Obsidian has managed to accidentally prove why Bethesda games are still enjoyed by those who can spend hours picking them apart: The framework is compelling, whatever you choose to drape over it.

7) Xenon Valkyrie+


This one didn’t really get any attention at all, and now that I’m looking it up I can see that the few reviews it did get were negative. I’m not sure why; perhaps the critics didn’t stick with it long enough to get a sense of how to handle it. Xenon Valkyrie+ is not the most user-friendly game in the world, but it was one of my favorites of this year.

It’s a roguelike platformer, which means I’m guaranteed to at least try it, but it’s also one of the best I’ve played. It scratches my Spelunky itch without ever really feeling much like that game.

Xenon Valkyrie+ has a story, and despite it being one of my most-played games this year, I couldn’t tell you what it is. That’s okay, because what stuck with me instead was the intense moment-to-moment gameplay…the constant weighing of risk and reward as I pushed through levels, often on the brink of death. If your reflexes are good enough, you can maintain the upper hand whatever the game throws at you. Mine are not, and so I had to outthink the game instead…something I could far from do reliably.

Gradually, though, you get better. Even though the levels are randomly generated, you start to understand how the bits fit together. The first room or two would routinely grind me into paste until I learned how to deal with any combination of hazards they might throw at me, at which point they became breezy warm-up areas. And so on and so on, less of the game feeling impenetrable with every pass.

Multiple characters, randomized goodies, and the chance to permanently unlock upgrades if you play intelligently enough keep the game interesting even after several complete runs, and just writing about it makes me want to pick it up again for another spin. It’s a good game that didn’t seem to find its audience. Here’s hoping it eventually does.

6) Katana Zero


Like a few games on this list, Katana Zero does very well what other games have already done better. That’s not a bad thing (it is actually A Good Thing), but it does contribute to the year feeling overall rather pedestrian.

Here, the point of comparison is Hotline Miami, with its pixel art, its lovingly rendered gore, its gradually revealed storyline, its twitch gameplay, and the spacey pulsing of its soundtrack. You even return home after your missions to reflect on what you’ve done. That’s a lot of overlap, and on paper it can sound like an outright clone, but Katana Zero does have enough of its own ideas and personality to make it feel like a worthy successor instead.

Like Hotline Miami, Katana Zero requires precision while still offering a wealth of options. A number of times I only noticed the intended path through a level after I’d figured out how to execute my own path. The game never punished me for it or tried to steer me back on course; it just let me deal with things the way I chose to. It also, of course, helps to know that if you’re getting frustrated with a certain situation, it’s like one you don’t actually have to be in.

There’s an in-universe reason that you’re able to attempt stages as many times as necessary, and that’s nice, but one thing I’ve seen people criticize Katana Zero for is the fact that enemies won’t necessarily behave the same way during each attempt. I have no way of knowing whether or not that’s a bug, but it’s definitely a feature. Katana Zero — deliberately or not — never lets you hone your approach to the point that you won’t have to think on the fly, with enemy behavior always being just that side of predictable and the need for focus — even through repetition — never going away.

It does end on a cliffhanger, which hopefully means we’ll have a sequel to look forward to soon. There aren’t many rough edges to Katana Zero, which means an improved second installment has every chance of being something truly wonderful.

5) Shovel Knight: King of Cards


Shovel Knight was one of the best games of 2014 and it’s reasserted itself as the best game for several years since. The additional campaigns Yacht Club Games have released are more like full-fledged sequels (and are, in fact, available as separate releases) and are far better than any “play as a boss” mode should ever be. Instead of different sprites with a token new move or two, we get completely different experiences, tailored from tip to tail for each character.

In King of Cards, we play as King Knight, and it’s probably worth pointing out that I was a bit disappointed by the selection of bosses who got their own campaigns. If I remember correctly, the choices were made through a prerelease poll, so I’m certainly not holding anything against Yacht Club, but having the campaigns go to two spooky guys in cloaks and one guy with no personality beyond the fact that he appears to be rich was disappointing. I think there was more fertile ground than this, but Yacht Club definitely did everything they could to make these campaigns worthwhile.

This one follows King Knight’s dishonorable ascent to the throne, as well as his parallel interest in the collectible card game Joustus. Joustus is no Gwent, but it’s a fun enough diversion and it’s nice that Yacht Club is constantly looking for ways to give us more content than what they promised.

Mainly, though, the adventure involves traversing stages, discovering new abilities, and beating down anyone who stands in your way. That’s familiar Shovel Knight territory, but even moreso than with Plague Knight or Specter Knight, King Knight’s movement is its own kind of puzzle. You’ll see an enemy or a platform and know what you have to do, but figuring out how to do it with King Knight’s decidedly graceless moveset isn’t always easy. It makes for some admittedly tiresome trial and error, but overall it works quite well and gives some new spice to stage types we’ve now played through four times.

I’m certain I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed Specter of Torment, but I’m not sure if I liked it more or less than I did Plague of Shadows. (All three of these campaigns are good, but none of them rise to the level of Shovel Knight original recipe.) Even a relatively disappointing reason to return to the world of Shovel Knight, though, is a reason to return to the world of Shovel Knight. And that will never be a bad thing.

4) A Robot Named Fight


I spilled a decent amount of ink last year lamenting that Dead Cells proved that metroidvanias and roguelikes couldn’t truly fit together. That game was, I felt, the closest the two genres could come to coexisting, or at least close enough that I felt comfortable dismissing any kind of natural fit.

Then A Robot Named Fight came along to prove me wrong, and I’m so very happy it did. The design of this game is miraculous in its simplicity. Instead of trying to fit the same set of upgrades and progression into every randomized run, this game randomizes the upgrades and progression and then builds a game world around them.

It’s a remarkably effective solution that takes the best elements of each genre and combines them in a way Dead Cells did not. That game is destined to be the one people play and remember, but A Robot Named Fight deserves the attention.

Each run is an impressive challenge in ways I didn’t expect. Typically roguelikes offer up a range of difficulty based on how much health / defense / power you stumble across, combined with some assortment of enemies that may go easy or tough on you. Here, though, the difficulty goes beyond that. It goes into the types of mobility you might find, into the ways in which you are able to navigate areas, into the specific types of challenges assembled around that particular run’s moveset.

A lot of luck goes into a successful run — at least while you are still discovering and figuring out the items the game bestows upon you — but exploring an entire map never takes too long, and failure is rarely frustrating. The game always makes sure you are technically equipped to face whatever you find, and it’s up to you to build up the skill from there. It’s a simple concept executed brilliantly. It’s what Dead Cells falsely gets credit for being. Give this one a try instead.

3) Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana


I’d played a few of the very early Ys games, and I enjoyed them, but I knew the series had changed a lot since then. For instance, there would be actual combat instead of two sprites walking into each other. I picked up Ys VIII more or less on a whim; I was in the mood for an RPG on my Switch, and this was on a shelf. That was pretty much my entire thought process. I would have been satisfied with one that was just okay.

Instead, I got one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had all year. Ys VIII is deeply fun and interesting, and in very unexpected ways. The game opens with our protagonist Adol on a ship that is attacked and destroyed by a sea monster. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is what happens next, and for the next dozen or so hours: Adol washes up on the shores of an island…and that’s it.

In many RPGs, it’s your job to save the kingdom, to defeat or halt the looming danger, to essentially serve as some degree of global savior. In Ys VIII, you’re alone on an island. Survive.

It’s such a remarkably simple premise it feels like something an indie game would do. It takes the mechanics and expectations of a classic RPG experience and applies them to one man’s attempts to survive — and hopefully escape — an island full of beasts. You collect resources. You fortify your little dwelling area. You gradually expand the areas you can explore. It’s a setup that has worked well with games such as Minecraft and its countless imitators, but it’s handled entirely through the mechanics of a roleplaying game rather than a crafting / survival one.

The more you explore the more you find other survivors of the wreck, other castaways who help make the island hospitable. Your dwelling becomes a little town. Your chances of escape increase. You learn more about each other and create a new order with its own rules and dynamics. It’s Gilligan’s Island as told by Gary Gygax. Eventually the game does hit upon more comfortable RPG territory, narratively speaking, and that’s okay. But Ys VIII is at its most interesting and most memorable when it’s at its smallest and most basic. It’s worth playing for that alone.

2) Hitman 2


I was late to the Hitman party, I admit. But now that I’m at the Hitman party, all I want to do is run around shouting, “Why are more people not at this Hitman party?!”

The sequel to 2016’s Hitman came out in late 2018, and I grabbed it quickly, knowing full well it couldn’t possibly live up to that game. It lived up to that game. What’s more, if you owned that game, it gave you free access to every single level and mission from it here, letting you replay the previous masterpiece with this masterpiece’s tweaks to the mechanics. That’s one of the most profoundly generous things I’ve seen any game do.

You take control, as ever, of Agent 47. You locate and then stalk and then dispose of your targets in large, complex areas packed full of obstacles, complications, and opportunities. The game is willing to give you a leg up — allowing you to save and reload however often you like, tracking relevant bits of overheard information — but you’ll benefit from not using those features, because the game is actually at its best when things go wrong.

Deciding how you’d like to dispose of a target isn’t (and should not be) the entire experience. Rolling with the cascade of unforeseen consequences of your plan is where the fun is. Restricting yourself from saving and reloading means you’ll have to be extra careful as you plan, and then extraordinarily creative as you adjust on the fly. Failure is the best part of the game, which is good, because failure comes frequently. When it does, you’re in the middle of a brilliantly escalating farce. When it doesn’t — when you’ve planned your hit so perfectly there is no room for complication — it’s a white-knuckle dance of graceful violence, bookended by elegant ingress and egress.

Hitman 2 never has one perfect solution. It has many perfect solutions and innumerable imperfect solutions. It’s a game you can play every night for a week, choosing the same mission every time, and never have the same experience twice. Each level is a fascinating, extraordinary clockwork toy that impresses you more the closer you look at it. I don’t know how such remarkably elastic experiences are designed while still retaining the mark of their creator. Play Hitman 2. Because I’m already worried we might not get a Hitman 3.

1) Resident Evil 2


As I mentioned, it’s been a year without many true standouts. So, hey, let’s open our discussion of my favorite game of the year with a complaint! In 2006, Capcom remade Resident Evil. You’ll have difficulty finding many people who don’t consider that to be one of the greatest remakes in the history of gaming. It was true in spirit to the original, improving it in every aspect without stepping on its identity. Its greatest achievement, though, was the new material, of which there was a lot.

Specifically, there was Lisa Trevor, perhaps one of Umbrella’s most unfortunate victims. Her story is woven through Resident Evil‘s original narrative, and rather than jostling for space with it, it coexists, as though poor Lisa were always shuffling around the Spencer Mansion; we were just fortunate enough not to cross paths with her the first time. Lisa’s story wasn’t just some extra content; it remains for me the best material in the series and in games period.

When Capcom announced this remake of Resident Evil 2, I was excited, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see what their equivalent of Lisa Trevor would be. It turned out to be…nothing. Don’t get me wrong; Capcom did a remarkable job of improving the Resident Evil 2 experience, and I’d be lying if I said there was nothing new, surprising, or unique about the game, but there wasn’t any new material that elevated the game in any notable way from where it already was.

And yet…man, aside from my “I wish I had something I can’t articulate” gripe, I could not ask for anything more from this remake. It’s gorgeous, it’s tough, it’s satisfying, and it became one of the very few games I’ve finished in recent years and immediately started playing again. In fact, I’ve played it several times this year. I won’t say it gets better each time, but I do appreciate a little more of it with every pass.

Some have complained that the remake has actually reduced the number of differences between its two campaigns and the order in which one plays them. That’s correct, full stop, and I don’t intend to argue against that. I wasn’t really bothered by it, however. I admit that that’s disappointing, but like my nebulous complaint above, the game does so much exactly right that I can’t truly fault it for what it chose not to do.

How video games can solve the problem of trolley problems

Note: This article contains big spoilers for the video games Prey and Soma. They’re both very good games and I encourage you to play them. While I know you will still find a lot to enjoy if you have something spoiled ahead of time, I encourage you to play one or both of them before reading on. That’s because if you read this first, there will be something the games cannot teach you, and which you may therefore never learn. You’ve been warned.

Note the Second: This article also contains comparatively minor spoilers for Maniac Mansion, Fallout, Fallout 3, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and a few others.

I’ve written about the “trolley problem” before. To briefly explain it for those unfamiliar with the concept, the trolley problem is an ethical thought exercise. The participant is faced with a series of dilemmas of escalating severity, the outcomes of which can be determined by whether or not the participant throws a hypothetical switch.

For instance, a train is barrelling down the tracks toward a man. If you throw the switch, the train will follow a different track, avoiding him. It would be tremendously difficult to argue, in that instance, that it isn’t ethically correct to throw the switch.

But then we have the train barreling toward two men, and if you throw the switch it will follow a different track and hit one man. That’s ethically muddier. Yes, you’d save two people instead of one, but that one will only die because you interfered. He’s safe unless you throw the switch. Which is ethically correct? Would your answer be different if it were five people in the train’s path and one that would be hit if you threw the switch?

The dilemmas take many forms from there, ultimately asking the participant to decide whether or not to intervene in any number of hypothetical situations. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a way for us and for sociologists to gauge our moral compasses.

When I wrote that article I linked to above, in January 2016, I referred to this as the Moral Sense Test, because that’s what I knew it as. (And, at least then, what it was actually called.) In the few short years since, the trolley problem has bled into the common language of popular culture, fueling a winkingly absurd meme page, an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a card game by the Cyanide & Happiness guys, to name just a few examples.

I think it’s notable that the trolley problem has so rapidly found widespread resonance. After all, it is at is core an exercise in which we are faced with exclusively undesirable outcomes and are asked, in essence, to chose the least-bad one. That’s something the entire world has been doing, over and over again, since 2016. It’s become a part of life, and our entertainment reflects that.

But video games, well before there was ever a term for it, have been conducting (ha ha) trolley problems almost as long as they’ve been around. In fact, you face one pretty much any time a game gives you an actual choice.

In 1987’s Maniac Mansion, for instance, the evil Meteor (an extraterrestrial hunk of sentient rock turning the Edison family into murderous monsters) wreaking havoc in the basement of the Edison Mansion can be dealt with in a number of ways, and you get to decide which is most fitting. You can call the Meteor Police to arrest it. You can stick it in the trunk of an Edsel that you then blast into space. You can get it a book deal. (Maniac Mansion is weird.) If I’m remembering correctly, you can also simply destroy it. The fact that I can’t be sure of that lets you know, ethically, the kinds of choices I gravitated toward, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that each of these outcomes have potential pros and cons, if you’d like to think beyond the strict narrative boundaries of the game. The Meteor Police can take it into custody, but what if it breaks out? You can shoot it into space, but what if it lands somewhere that it can do even more damage? You can get it a book deal and give it something productive to spend its life doing, but does it deserve a happy ending — and profit — after ruining so many lives?

For another high-profile example, jump ahead 10 years to the game that kicked off my favorite series of trolley problems: Fallout. Your home of Vault 13 needs a part to repair its water purification system; without it, everyone in that shelter will die. You find the part you need in the town of Necropolis…where it’s in use by another community. Swap out the nouns and you’ve got an actual trolley problem. Do you throw this switch to save one group of people while damning another? Do you have that right? Can you rationalize it ethically?

You can, in fact, resolve this issue without damning either community. (At least, without directly damning either community.) Through a more difficult series of events, and a reliance on a skill your character may not even have, you can fix the Necropolis water system so that it will run without the part you need to take home. Time is of the essence, though; take too long to figure out how to do this — and risk not being able to do it anyway — and the residents of Vault 13 will die. That’s its own sort of trolley sub-problem: Is it ethical to risk lives you could save right now in the hopes that you might be able to save more later?

The Walking Dead

Jump ahead again to 2012’s The Walking Dead, 2015’s Life is Strange, and games along those lines, packed to the brim with trolley problems that often wear clever disguises, and which — much more in line with a formalized Moral Sense Test — process and analyze the numbers, letting you know what percentage of players made the same choices you did. You get to see how your personal morality measures up against a larger social average. (Presumably the developers of these games closely study the dilemmas that approach a 50%-50% split, in order to keep future choices just as tricky.)

Here’s the thing about the trolley problem, though: You’re making a decision consciously.

…well, yes, of course. Does that matter?

In a way, no. In a formal, Moral Sense Test-like environment, we are being asked to think. To ponder. To make a difficult decision that requires personal rationalization. Ultimately, we provide an answer. It may be one we’re unhappy with, neither outcome feeling personally, ethically correct. But that’s okay. Groups of people get studied through the years and sociologists track tends to come to some larger understanding of what is ethical.

In another way, yes, it absolutely matters, and it matters crucially. Because what we can get out of trolley problems ourselves is distinct from what a researcher studying data would get. To the researcher, those final decisions (along with, possibly, how long it took us to reach them) are important, but that’s it. We collect our $5 check and leave the office and they crunch data. The study goes on without us; the part we play in it has concluded and our specific answers will be smoothed out by averages.

But we, the individuals responding to any given trolley problem, can learn a little bit more about who we actually are. It’s a bit like that vegan billboard with a row of animals and the question “Where do you draw the line?” You’re supposed to think about it. Thinking is the point. Your decision — even in thought exercises such as these — is important, but it’s the thinking, the rationalization, the responsibility of accounting — inwardly — for what we would or would not do in a certain situation that matters.

That’s valuable knowledge. But because we know we’re making a decision — and an imaginary one without external consequences at that — it’s essentially bunk.

The decisions we make when faced with dilemmas on paper, in a formalized setting, in a multiple-choice questionnaire…they aren’t real. They reflect what we think we would do rather than what we would actually do. Because…well…they have to. We don’t know what we would actually do until we’re really in that situation.

In a general sense, we can see this in the number of films and television shows that pass focus group muster (or are altered to meet the feedback received) and flop massively. The participants in these focus groups are almost certainly honest — they stand to gain nothing from dishonesty — but the kind of project they think they’d enjoy isn’t the kind they actually end up wanting to see.

Or, as The Simpsons concluded after showing us focus-group absurdity in action, “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”

In a less-general sense, I worked at a university a few years ago, and we had a mandatory active-shooter drill. It was unpleasant, as you’d expect, but what will always stick with me is that during the debrief, as folks discussed exit routes and hiding places and the best ways to barricade specific doors, some of the younger members of staff made comments — under their breath sometimes, slightly over the rest of the time — about how they’d just run at the shooter and tackle him, try fighting, at least go down swinging…you get the picture. They mumbled and interjected, and that sucks, but at the same time, I get it.

A woman I love and respect dearly who is, I think, three or four years older than me, was evidently very displeased with their comments. She spoke up finally. She said, firmly, “You haven’t been in an active-shooter situation. I have. Everybody thinks they’re going to fight. They don’t. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the hero. They aren’t. When somebody comes to work with a gun and starts shooting at you, the last thing you’ll be wondering is how to get closer to them.”

I’m paraphrasing, necessarily. It was a sobering moment. She shared more details that aren’t necessary, suffice it to say both that a) hiding doesn’t indicate cowardice and b) the 250-ish mass shootings in America so far this year prove her right. You can count the number of people who tackled a gunman on one hand. Everything else is either resolved by the police or the gunman himself.

It’s a long way around, but in that debriefing, we were faced with a trolley problem, and the group of younger males gave their hypothetical answers. They weren’t lying. They were honest. That is what they assumed they’d really do. But my friend spoke up with the cold reality that in the moment, under pressure, unexpectedly having to respond, without time to think or plan or weigh options, they’d do something very different.

So while trolley problems — literal and figurative — are a great way to get people to think about right and wrong, ethical and unethical, where they’d draw the line…they are a terrible way of gauging how somebody would actually behave in the same situation. Both points of data are important, but we can only measure one in a controlled environment.

In the Moral Sense Test. In a debriefing. In a video game.

Controlled environments.

And so when you need to decide in The Walking Dead which of the starving members of your group get to eat that day and which have to go hungry, you know you — you playing the game — have the dual luxuries of time and distance. When tree-man Harold in Fallout 3 asks you to euthanize him, though keeping him alive against his wishes means foliage and wildlife returning to the Wasteland, you can think ahead. You can act pragmatically. You can understand that whatever happens, these are characters in a game and while you may not be happy with the outcomes of your choices, you won’t really have to live with them.

Enter 2017’s Prey. Initially I had intended to write this article focusing on Prey alone and praising it for being the best execution of the trolley problem I’ve ever seen.

Consider this your second — and final — spoiler warning if you ignored the one that opened this article.

Prey begins with a trolley problem. A real one. Several real ones, actually. Your character is run through a series of tests, including multiple-choice questions. Some of them are classic trolley problems, plucked right from the Moral Sense Test.

And that’s it. It doesn’t quite matter what you pick, because you don’t know the purpose of the test (yet) and, just like trolley problem exercises in our world, there are no consequences for your decision.

What we learn, gradually throughout the game, is that this isn’t our first time taking these tests. We are aboard a massive research station in outer space. We have developed neuromods (basically sets of knowledge, skills, and talents you can plug into your brain) using alien DNA. The neuromods are not able to be swapped in and out safely, at least without massive memory loss, but your character, Morgan, volunteers to be a test subject to change that.

So every day you’ve been taking the same tests, your memory wiped clean from installing and removing a neuromod. The scientists administering the tests are tracking your responses to see if there is a kind of memory left behind. Will your answers be the same each day? Will you arrive at them more quickly, because you have seen them before, even if you don’t remember them?

Well, we never find out because Prey is a horror game and the aliens bust out of containment and slaughter almost everybody aboard the space station.

You then wake up in your bed, as though from a nightmare…but the nightmare is real. It’s your bed — like your entire apartment — that’s a simulation. In order to avoid the panic that would come with waking up in surroundings that are in anyway unfamiliar (remember, your character doesn’t remember she’s repeating the same day and over), the researchers have set up a small number of rooms to simulate the same events in exactly the same way every day. Also, y’know, they want to make sure deviations can’t affect the data they’re collecting. Morgan is in a controlled environment.

One of the game’s great moments comes soon after the test, when you wake up in your room and you can’t leave. Something has gone wrong. You’re trapped until you smash the window overlooking the skyline in your high-rise apartment and find…that you’re actually on a sound stage.

It’s a good mind-fuck moment, but smashing that window also smashes the barrier between the two halves of the trolley problem’s data. Instead of simply answering questions on a touchscreen, Morgan is now going to find out what she would do in reality.

For most of Prey, you don’t encounter other survivors. You discover their corpses. Your friends and colleagues are torn to bits, smeared across walls and floors, in some cases braindead zombies controlled by the aliens running amok. As one might expect from a game such as this, you can find their audio logs and read their emails and dig old notes out of the trash cans to learn about who each of these people were.

Because they were people. They’re chunks of bloodied meat now, but they were people. You get to learn who they were and what they were doing. The first time you find a body, it’s scary and gross. As you learn about them and the lives your careless research has ended, it becomes sad. And then, of course, you get used to it. You’ve seen enough dead bodies — whatever number that is — that you are numb to them.

Which is why when you finally do encounter a survivor, it matters. In most games, meeting an NPC means you’ll get some dialogue or a mission or an option to buy things. Here it jolts you back to reality, because you have evidence that you aren’t alone, that someone else has lived through this nightmare, that with a friend by your side it becomes that much easier to figure out how the fuck to get out of this mess.

At least, that was my experience. Yours might have been different. After all, survivors have needs. They have requests. They can slow you down. And as the space station is gradually taken over by the aliens — something you witness unfold during the game, with hostiles encroaching as time passes into previously safe areas — you might well have decided to focus on yourself, your own survival, the much-more-pressing matter that’s larger than the safety of a colleague could ever be.

And at the end of the game, whatever decisions you made, however you handled the alien menace, whether or not you put your own needs above others’, you learn that you aren’t Morgan at all. You are a captured alien. You had Morgan’s memories implanted into you — like a neuromod — and were run through a simulation of the disaster that really did happen on the space station.

Why? Because whatever the real Morgan and others attempted was unsuccessful. The alien infestation has spread to Earth, and while humanity still exists it has decisively lost the battle. Throughout the game you searched for ways to beat back the invasion, without having any idea that it was already too late to win.

Humanity’s only hope is to broker a peace with the aliens. They won’t leave Earth, but perhaps they can achieve a kind of truce that would allow mankind, at least, to survive. By running you through that simulation and seeing how you responded to various things, the researchers are in a better position to decide whether or not you — this one particular alien — can feel enough empathy toward humanity to broker that truce.

In summary, it was a trolley problem. And the researchers in this case understood that hypothetical situations might not correlate to reliable data, and that can be a problem, especially now when they might not ever get another chance at success. They had to be certain, and for that reason they didn’t give the alien any formal version of the Moral Sense Test; they plunged him into a simulation without his knowledge or consent, because that was the only way they could be certain his responses to stimuli would be genuine.

They could have — if they really wanted to — found some way to ask him the same questions, giving him time to reflect, giving him the luxury of rational thought. But the only way they’d know for sure is to watch him make or not make those same decisions.

Is it worth attempting to rescue a survivor drifting in space, or does the fact that he’s minutes from death make him a lost cause? Do you put yourself in danger to retrieve necessary medication for another survivor, or do you leave her behind? (Complicating this one is the fact that she expressly tells you not to go back for it; she understands that she’s going to die and that it isn’t your problem.) Do you find some way to neutralize the alien threat? Do you contain it so that the neuromod research can continue? Do you say “fuck it” and just jet back to Earth leaving the space station to its fate?

The core “it was all a dream” reveal earned Prey some backlash, but not as much as I would have expected. The game was strong enough and well-enough written that many critics and fans gave it the benefit of the doubt and were willing to believe that the ending justified itself, whether or not they understood the reason for it.

Those who were critical of it argued that your decisions didn’t really matter, because you were making them in a simulation, and once that simulation was over you weren’t even in the same world anymore. But I’d argue that that’s exactly why they mattered. Before the reveal, you thought this was reality, and acted accordingly. Had you known it was a simulation, you might as well have been answering a series of yes or no questions.

The reveal means that at the end of the simulation, the researchers have a strong understanding of this alien’s particular sense of personal ethics…as well as the value (or lack thereof) of human life.

What Prey does beautifully, though, is encourage conversation beyond the boundaries of its own design. The alien saw through Morgan’s eyes. You see through the alien’s eyes seeing through Morgan’s eyes. The alien is, ultimately, playing what is essentially a video game, which is also what you’re doing. It’s a Russian nesting doll…a simulation within a simulation (and containing other, smaller simulations). You have a level of “belief” in the world that you wouldn’t have had if you’d known it was a simulation at the outset.

Games are always testing you, whether or not they do anything with the results. Prey just has the guts to let you know it. When the adventure aboard the space station is over, the alien is sitting upright in his chair, in a room far from anything he’s just experienced. You, likewise, are sitting in yours, in your own room, far from anything you’ve just experienced. The alien is directly and explicitly judged for his actions by the researchers.

Which…were your actions. They call him out for those he abandoned, those he failed to save, those he couldn’t save, and praise him for making decisions that helped others, to whatever small degree, even in the face of looming human extinction. The first-person view employed by the game means the researchers are also speaking to you, judging you precisely as much for precisely the same reasons.

Like the alien, you don’t get to answer some trolley problems and walk away, leaving the researchers to their data. You’re there, being lectured, accounting for the decisions you’ve made and the action you’ve taken or failed to take. You’re being told exactly how reliable you would have been in the face of catastrophe.

And it’s remarkable. It makes you think about what you’ve done in a way that has nothing to do with in-game rewards. The reward — or punishment — is inward, because in this moment of forced reflection you have to come directly to terms with who you’ve proven yourself to be. Were you a good person who tried their hardest? Were you a selfish ass? Probably you were somewhere in between, so were you closer to either end? Where do you draw the line?

In the first draft of this article that I never wrote, I was going to argue that Prey was gaming’s best trolley problem, because it both adheres to and undercuts our expectations of one, and it measures how we’d respond to a formal test and how we’d respond to an informal disaster. It asks us where we’d draw the line, and then it tests us, and forces us to account for drawing it any differently.

When I chose to end Harold’s life in Fallout 3, that was it. I felt his wishes were important, and keeping him alive against his will seemed cruel. If The Wasteland were going to be restored, it would have to find a way to do it without keeping an innocent man in a state of permanent agony. But then I moved on, and I did some other quests, and while I never quite forgot about Harold, I never had to account for what I did. As suggested by the dialogue options you see here, I was essentially answering a multiple-choice question, and afterward I could walk away.

In Prey, my decisions literally defined me, and they made me realize that they could define me in any other game as well. The only thing missing from other games is a panel of researchers materializing at the end to call me a standup guy or a piece of shit. But now that I’ve been judged for it once, unexpectedly, it’s redefined games in general for me.

They are simulations. Whether or not a researcher learns what I do, I can learn what I am.

Then, months later, I played Soma, and it may have outdone Prey with its own trolley problems, this time without ever drawing attention to the theme.

And that, I think, is important. It’s one thing to make a decision on paper. It’s another to know — or believe — you are making a decision in reality. It’s a third thing, and perhaps the most telling, to not know you’re making a decision at all.

In this third case, conscious thought doesn’t even enter into it. And when you make an ethical decision, you get a far better sense of who you are when you’re on autopilot. When you’re not thinking. When you aren’t even aware of what you’re doing.

In Soma, we play as Simon, a man suffering from a brain injury. Early in the game we visit his doctor, who attempts an experimental treatment (with Simon’s consent, I should add). He captures a digital model of Simon’s brain, and plans to run it through a variety of simulated treatments while Simon himself goes about his life. The idea is that eventually the simulation will hit upon a treatment that works, and then that treatment can be explored and potentially performed on the real Simon.

Fine, right?

Well, as Simon, you sit down in the doctor’s chair, the doctor starts working his equipment to capture the digital model of your brain, and in the blink of an eye you’re somewhere else entirely.

At first you don’t — and can’t — know where you are. The doctor’s office is replaced by cold steel and sparking electricity. You’re in an environment more advanced than the one you left, but also one that is clearly falling apart and long past its prime. Robots of various kinds roam the halls. Some seem to be afraid of you; others are clearly aggressive. You’ll probably ask yourself what the fuck is going on.

…and then you’ll probably know the answer. This is the simulation Simon’s brain is undergoing. Before the process began, we and Simon — and probably the doctor — figured a digital model of a brain was nothing more than 1s and 0s that could be reset millions of times over for the sake of simulating the results a near-infinite amount of stimuli and potential treatments would have on the real brain.

In fact, our outlook is given away by our word choices. “The real brain.” “The real Simon.” Everything else is just…data.

Until we wake up in this spooky, damaged environment that’s barely hanging together, infested by robotic creatures doing it further harm and attacking…well, us. Our consciousness.

This is how Simon’s brain — digital though it is — processes its situation. It doesn’t know it’s experiencing a simulation, so it assigns shadowy shapes to the dangers and represents its own neural pathways as a series of long, winding corridors, some of which are already damaged beyond repair. As the doctor bombards Simon’s brain with various potential treatments, the brain incorporates these new feelings — pleasure, pain, anxiety, hopelessness, fear — as additional aspects of the world it’s mentally constructed. New enemies appear, friendly faces introduce themselves, potential ways through and out of this ringing metal hellscape come together or fall apart…

It’s a clever and interesting way to observe the treatment as it happens from within the simulation, not just seeing but experiencing the ways in which the human mind strains to apply logic to that which it cannot understand.

…only, y’know, it’s not that. That was your brain trying to apply logic to what it couldn’t understand.

One of Soma‘s best twists is the fact that the situation in which Simon finds himself isn’t a twist. He is exactly where he seems to be.

He was in a doctor’s office one moment, and the next he was in this underwater research facility, isolated at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The more he explores and learns, the more we understand. Earth was struck by a meteor that wiped out life as we knew it. The researchers at the bottom of the sea survived the mass-extinction event, but obviously that would only be temporary. Humanity was doomed, and there wasn’t anything the few survivors at the bottom of the ocean were able to do about it. Simon’s nightmare turns out to be real.

And once you know what’s happening, the question instead becomes, “How did I get here?” After all, what does Simon have to do with any of this?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Nothing. Simon has nothing to do with any of this. So why is he here?

The answer comes later in the game, but I think it’s possible to overlook it if you’re not being thorough. You’ll find some recordings of the doctor who performed the experimental procedure on you. In one, he’s talking to Simon. To you. Only it’s something you haven’t heard before. It’s a recording made some time after you sat down in that chair and had your brain mapped.

The doctor tells you that the experiment has failed. None of the treatments seemed to work. He would not be able to help Simon recover from his brain injury.

However, the digital model of Simon’s brain could still potentially help others. It’s valuable data. It’s a major step forward in mankind’s potential understanding of neurology. He asks Simon for permission to keep using it, to keep experimenting on it, to share his findings and research with the greater scientific community.

Simon doesn’t hesitate. He says of course, please use it. He understands that he can’t be helped, but sees no reason whatsoever the digital model of his brain shouldn’t be used to help others.

You can possibly guess what happened at this point, but let’s step away from Soma for a moment.

I’ve thought about things like this before, and I’d have no problem with allowing the doctor to continue his research on my digital brain if I were in Simon’s situation. I know this, without question, because there is no reason not to. I would stand to gain nothing by refusing, and I’d be robbing society of potential enrichment.

The first time I was given reason to consider these things was when I read The Emperor’s New Mind, a non-fiction book exploring an intersection of mathematics and philosophy, with an eye toward artificial intelligence. Specifically, it was an early stretch of the book about teleportation.

It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I can’t quite remember why author Roger Penrose spent several pages discussing the established sci-fi concept of teleportation. Indeed, he’s specifically focusing on the fictional portrayals that we see in things such as The Fly and Star Trek, wherein a human being stands in one place and some futuristic device removes him from that place and places him at his destination.

Penrose argued that such a thing wouldn’t quite be teleportation. Instead, the man standing in one place would be destroyed by the process, and a second man — though identical — would come into existence at the destination. You aren’t teleported, in other words; you cease to exist and another version of you is brought into existence elsewhere. (This theory was even discussed in an episode of Breaking Bad.)

I didn’t quite buy it, which I remember thinking was okay. I didn’t get the sense Penrose was trying to convince me he was right; I think he was more encouraging me to think about things that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. I was a philosophy minor, which means I’m pretty comfortable with the thought process being more important and often more valuable then wherever you land at the end of it.

At the very least, I figured the distinction was academic. If Scotty beamed Kirk up, did it matter whether it was a single, smooth process or a destructive/reconstructive one? If the end result was the same — Kirk was there and now he is here, no worse for the wear — did it matter?

No. It didn’t. Easy.

Much later a friend shared with me the concept of Roko’s basilisk. I’m far from the person to explain it accurately, so please do correct me in the comments, but I’ll do my best to offer what I retained as the summary.

Roko’s basilisk is a hypothetical AI that could exist in the future. It’s advanced and capable of independent thought to degrees that we couldn’t possibly hope to create today. However, the reason we can’t create it today is that, y’know, we aren’t trying. We aren’t actively working to create it. We’re doing other things that gradually push the research forward, and we’ll eventually get there, but we’re not there today, weren’t there yesterday, and won’t be there tomorrow.

This pisses Roko’s basilisk off so much that when it does exist, it exacts revenge — in digital form — on everyone who didn’t actively help bring it about sooner. It tortures and torments simulated reconstructions of them for all eternity.

This is a scary concept, for some. “He’s basically God, but at the end of the universe instead of the beginning,” my friend said, and he definitely wasn’t referring to a loving or forgiving God. This was the Old Testament bloodthirsty God.

It’s not scary to me. It wasn’t and isn’t. Because a simulation of me isn’t me. I’ll die at some point. If a simulation of me lives on, who cares? If it’s tormented, who cares? If it’s treated like simulated royalty, who cares? It isn’t me, and I’m not here anymore.

The threat of Roko’s basilisk relies on a belief that a simulation of me is me.

But it’s not. So there.

Teleporters and basilisks. If it’s a copy, it isn’t you. If it’s you, it isn’t a copy. This is easy stuff, people.

So back to Soma.

Doomed at the bottom of the sea, one of the researchers has an idea. She comes up with a ray of hope, or the closest thing to a ray of hope the last straggling survivors of the apocalypse could have.

She proposes the construction of what she calls an “ark.” It’s basically just a computer, and the survivors can digitize and install their consciousness to it. Then she’ll blast it into space and…that’s it. They’ll still die, here, alone, without any hope of rescue, at the bottom of the ocean. But in theory, at least, mankind will live on. It’s just 1s and 0s representing people who are no longer alive, but it’s something, right?

In the game, we learn all of this in the form of gradual backstory. The ark project has already happened. It’s never presented to us as a “solution” to the problem. Instead, it’s something constructive the researchers can do, a project they can work on rather than wait around to die.

Another researcher, though, seems to subscribe to Penrose’s belief. Copying one’s consciousness to the ark wouldn’t really copy you over, because the two versions of you would deviate from each other far too quickly. One of you is on the ark, and the other is at the bottom of the sea, doing things, living his life, going about his final days, drifting further and further from who he was when his consciousness was copied to the ark. Before long — before any time at all, really — it wouldn’t be you on that ark anymore. It would be something — or somebody — based on what you were at some point. That’s distinct from “you.” It would be somebody else.

So this researcher shares his views with some others. He calls it Continuity, and he convinces others of it as well. It requires the survivors to commit suicide as soon as they upload their consciousness to the ark. That’s Penrose’s teleportation. The version of you on the ark would be you, because you existed here and now you’re there. There would be no deviation (aside from the necessary one: one of you committed suicide), and you would actually get to live on in a digital form.

It’s madness, of course. It’s idiotic and false, but it catches on, and a number of researchers do kill themselves right after the upload, all in service of Continuity. Which is complete bullshit. Because they exist. The “real” versions of them are destroying themselves and the false, lesser, artificial copies are being preserved.

I know exactly where I stand. The Continuity. Penrose’s teleportation. Roko’s basilisk.

I understand what everyone’s getting at. I see their points. I follow their arguments. And I disagree.

But what of Simon?

Simon, we learn, isn’t Simon. At the beginning of the game, Simon is Simon. When we find ourselves in the sealab, though, “Simon” is a robot with Simon’s memories loaded into it. That’s why we popped right from the doctor’s office into the research station; that’s when the mind-mapping happened. Whatever Simon did after that, “Simon” doesn’t have access to. Between the space of two seconds, he stopped existing there and started existing here.

His consciousness is loaded onto this robot because the doctor spread his research far and wide. He made it available — again, with Simon’s consent — for others to use, to study, and, in this undersea laboratory, to employ. As we wandered the research station and fought to survive, we thought we were controlling Simon, but we were controlling a robot who thought he was Simon. Oops.

At some point, “Simon” has to explore the depths of the ocean outside of the lab. The pressure would crush his robot body, though, so with the help of another AI he decides to load his consciousness — Simon’s consciousness — into a different, sturdier body.

Why not? He’s just a robot, right? What difference does it make which body he uses?

So you sit down in a chair like you did at the beginning of the game and in the space between two seconds your consciousness is copied from one body into another. You open your eyes in your new, sturdier frame and…you hear yourself asking, from the chair you initially sat down in, why the transfer didn’t work.

Because that version of Simon kept existing. It sat in the chair and…stayed there. Nothing happened, from his perspective. But from your perspective, everything happened. You popped into existence elsewhere, in another form. The Simon in the chair panics and passes out.

That’s it. You need to explore those depths. That’s your next task. You aren’t making a moral or ethical choice. Soma is linear and you follow a set of objectives in a predetermined sequence.

But when this happened, I didn’t leave the research station the way I should have. That was my goal, that’s what I had been working toward, and now I could do it. But I didn’t do it.

Instead I walked over to the Simon in the chair and shut him down.

Because if I left him there, he’d wake up. And he’d be trapped. Because he can’t go any farther and his body can’t withstand the pressure. He’d be left alone with the scary monsters at the bottom of the sea with no hope of rescue. So I shut him down. I killed him.

Because he wasn’t a robot.

Or, he was. Obviously he was. But wasn’t he also Simon? Wasn’t he me?

He was. I controlled him. The game said I was Simon, and I controlled Simon. Later I learned it was a robot with Simon’s consciousness, and fine…it’s sci-fi. Life goes on.

But then when I transferred to another body, and that Simon stayed alive…panicking, asking why the transfer didn’t work, fretting, knowing he was trapped…I suddenly saw him as more than just a robot with Simon’s consciousness. He was me. I really would be leaving “me” behind. I really would be subjecting “me” to an eternity of hopeless torment. That robot could survive without any hope of escape for years, decades, centuries. Trapped and distraught and miserable. And I couldn’t let that happen.

So I didn’t let that happen.

And the best thing about how Soma handles this trolley problem is that it doesn’t present it as one. I’m not being faced with a moral dilemma. I’m not being told that my ethics are being measured. In fact, they aren’t.

A number of situations like this occur throughout Soma, and at no point do your decisions have in-game consequences. If you spare someone’s life, they won’t come back and help you later. If you choose option A, you don’t get a better weapon. If you choose option B, you don’t get a better ending. If you choose option C, you don’t open up new and interesting dialogue choices.

Soma is designed so that it doesn’t matter, to the game, what you do. It is, after all, a dead-end situation. Humanity is doomed. You’re a robot investigating a sea of corpses. Do the right thing, do the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter. It’s already over. The game doesn’t care, and the tasks unfold the same way however polite or rude you are while doing them.

And that’s fantastic. Because it means the consequences are within you. The game doesn’t judge you; you judge yourself.

And because it doesn’t judge you, and doesn’t even pretend to judge you, the data you can gather about your own moral compass is far more reliable.

Soma didn’t present me with a moral choice regarding shutting Simon down. I could do it or not; it wasn’t the task at hand. But the mere fact that I saw it — immediately and urgently saw it — as an act of mercy is remarkable.

Had I been asked if a simulation of me were me, I’d have said no. In fact, I had said no every time I encountered the prospect in the past. Put my hand on that lever and present me with the trolley problem, because I know my answer.

But Soma doesn’t structure it as a trolley problem. I think it “knows” that players will question things like Continuity and the simulated treatments for Simon’s brain damage and many other things and arrive at their own conclusions. I’m pretty sure most of them would have arrived at the same one I did: a copy of something isn’t that thing.

And Soma is fine with that.

But then it puts us in a situation that gives us a chance to prove our beliefs. It’s just something that happens. We don’t have to pay attention to it, but we will.

Because when we can sit back and rationalize something in a hypothetical sense, we’ll come to a conclusion. In reality, faced with the actual situation, without the luxury of theory and cold logic to separate us from what’s really happening right now, we could well come to a different conclusion.

Soma raised a question I’d already answered many times before. That could still be interesting, but probably wouldn’t be meaningful. What gave it meaning was the fact that, for the first time ever, it got me to answer that question differently.

It reset my thoughts. It allowed me to think the problem through all over again, arrive at the same conclusion, and then proved me wrong. It showed me the flaws in my own reasoning not by providing a counter-argument, but simply by giving me the chance to practice what I preached.

And I didn’t

And I didn’t even realize I didn’t.

I wasn’t in that situation and thinking, “Actually, now I understand that simulations of me are me.” I was in that situation and I thought, “I can’t fucking do this to myself. I can’t leave myself here. I’d rather die than be left here.”

And I moved on with my life. I moved on through the game. I turned the game off and I got ready for bed. And somewhere, at some point, it clicked in my mind.

Because I wasn’t given a trolley problem. I just did something and later reflected on that decision and realized just how completely my actions flew in the face of what I thought I believed.

I understood myself a little better after that. Soma took both the trolley problem and the real-world application of the same problem, and let us see whether or not our actions supported our beliefs.

The game doesn’t know what my beliefs were before this moment. The game doesn’t care. Nor should it.

But I should sure as hell care.

Soma didn’t present me with a difficult moral quandary. At least, not directly. It just let me do whatever I did. And then later, inside, lying down, trying to fall asleep and failing to do so, I found myself evaluating my decisions and reevaluating things I thought I’d figured out long ago.

Trolley problems help us decide where we draw the line, but they tend to involve rationalizations after the fact. We decide what we’d do and then attempt to justify it, landing on some explanation that satisfies us, regardless of its degree of bullshit content.

This version of the problem asked me to draw the line, which I did. Then it pulled back the curtain to reveal that actually, when not drawing it consciously, I drew it somewhere very different.

That’s the best version of the trolley problem, I think. It’s not just a difficult one that provides useful data…it’s one that makes us realize how far from the truth our rationalizations actually are.

Video games are uniquely positioned to help us experience these awakenings, and so far I believe Soma has done it best. Games are simulations that immerse us in little worlds, and we do within them as we please. If a game can reveal the band of darkness between our beliefs and our methods, that’s uniquely valuable, and potentially revelatory.

New video, new show, new house

I announced it on the Facebook page — be sure to follow that if you don’t already for quick updates that don’t warrant a full post — but I wanted to wait until I had something specific to show you before I announced it here:

I have officially joined the Triple Jump team as a writer. You can watch the first video I’ve scripted — posted this very day — here:

So, a few notes on this. Firstly, Every X Ranked Worst to Best is a brand-new show on the channel, and so far I’m the only one writing for it! That doesn’t mean it’s my show in any way — in fact, please allow me to make clear that it is not — but it does mean I get to help it find a voice and an audience, which is immensely flattering to me.

Secondly, you may have come across Ben and Peter at either WhatCulture or Vidiots before. Triple Jump is their personal venture, and I certainly encourage everyone to like and subscribe to their channel. They don’t just make some of the funniest video-game stuff on the internet, but they’re great people as well, and by doing something as simple as subscribing you’re helping them do what they love. (And, y’know, helping me as well.)

If you don’t know Ben and Peter, I’d strongly encourage you to watch their Worst Games Ever series, which has followed them between channels. It’s fantastic.

Also, if you subscribe, you’ll get to watch a bunch of stuff I’m writing, which is evidence that I really am writing, guys!

Yes, I know it’s been quiet here, but I do have a lot of things in the works. One of which is TripleJump, which is a lot of very fun work that I already enjoy immensely, so please do support it by subscribing. Another of which is another draft of The Book I Can’t Quite Talk About Yet, incorporating a third round of very helpful feedback. It’s coming together great, I’m happy with it, and at some point I hope to talk about it before I die.

And the other big thing I’ve been doing is…buying a home. This is a huge thing for me, especially as it was made very clear to me that if I chose writing as a career path I was basically signing up to be a hobo.

Instead, well…I’ve done alright for myself, but I’ve also spent my entire adult life renting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are certain things I’ve always wanted with a place of my own that I couldn’t easily (or perhaps even wisely) have in a rental, such as a library area, or a freestanding arcade cabinet. Now I get to actually create the home I’ve always wanted, and that feels really great.

So stay tuned. More is coming. Much more is coming. And I appreciate your patience as so much comes together. It takes a while sometimes to get where you’re going, but as long as you’re moving, I think you’re doing okay.

Small Particles

O my countrymen!–be nice;–be cautious of your language;–and never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Before we begin, this is your fair warning that this post contains plot spoilers for Far Cry: New Dawn. I can’t quite decide if I’d call them minor spoilers, so if you plan on playing it and believe any story-related spoilers would interfere with your enjoyment, bail now.

Okay.

I finished Far Cry: New Dawn recently, and I enjoyed it very much. It retained just about all of the best things about Far Cry 5 and cut huge amounts of fat. The result is a tight, focused experience that allows for plenty of freedom but also never loses sight of itself for the sake of providing more content.

I wasn’t quite sure going in whether or not I would encounter a sincere ethical dilemma at any point in the story. I hoped I would — as those are almost always my favorite parts of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic games — but I was also fully aware that Far Cry, as a series, is about moment-to-moment action and bombastic thrill.

I did finally get my ethical dilemma toward the end of the game. It was a good one, but it was complicated in a way I didn’t expect and which I still don’t know how to process.

If you regret ignoring my first spoiler warning, consider this to be your last one.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, you play as a different character from the one you played in Far Cry 5, but it’s a direct sequel — set around 20 years later — and you encounter a few of the same characters, including that game’s central villain, Joseph Seed.

In Far Cry 5, Eden’s Gate — his doomsday cult in rural Montana — is a genuinely dangerous force that commits atrocities against the residents of Hope County, which Joseph and his followers have seized.

Throughout the game you liberate the county inch by inch as you fight your way toward Joseph. When you finally do confront him, the distant explosion of a nuclear bomb vindicates his prophecy — though certainly not his methods. Doomsday was coming, and now it’s here.

In Far Cry 5, Joseph is very clearly a villain. You can argue that he’s charismatic. You can, ultimately, argue that he’s correct. But as a human being, the most slack you could possibly cut him is a willingness to believe that he’s a slave to severe mental illness.

He is not sympathetic, and any sympathy you could possibly feel for him is stripped away every time you see his followers gassing innocents, peeling their skin off, or executing them on the roadside.

That’s okay. There’s enough going on that Joseph Seed doesn’t seem one-dimensional, even if the game doesn’t complicate his role as villain.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, the game complicates his role as villain.

Here, the villain title — within both the game and its marketing materials — is usurped by Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of a massive group of raiders called The Highwaymen.

Being as Joseph survived the events of Far Cry 5, the twins taking over as villains suggested two possibilities to me. Either Joseph is now reformed, or the twins are so terrible, his behavior seems tame in comparison.

Both of these things are true.

While Joseph and his followers behaved horrendously and absolutely did need to be stopped — in the face of a looming apocalypse or not — they operated by a kind of logic. Cruel, reprehensible logic, but as you take down his three “Heralds” who each control their regions, their individual motives and methods are clear. There is a kind of law — a clear system of transgressions and punishments — at work. The whip comes down for reasons you were explicitly told the whip would come down.

The twins, in sharp contrast, are wildcards. They behave every bit as terribly as Joseph and Eden’s Gate did, but they do so for the hell of it. There’s a bit of loose logic behind their actions (so loose it would only muddy the discussion to get into it here), but they are ultimately creatures of selfish impulse.

Talk back to them and they might smack you. Or kill you. Or kill your friend. Or kidnap your family. Or burn your settlement to the ground. They’re capricious. They’re unpredictable. And so while someone could — in theory at least — carve out a life for themselves within the strict and unforgiving doctrine of Eden’s Gate, nobody, at any point, could possibly be safe from the twins, because there are no rules. There is no system by which one can avoid punishment. When The Highwaymen drive by, you can do nothing other than hope that they keep driving.

So, yes, the twins are worse on a day-to-day basis than Joseph was.

And Joseph has also reformed.

He is no longer violent. He has abdicated his seat at the head of Eden’s Gate, and lives a life of simple, isolated humility. (Well…comparative humility.) The settlement he founded is the most successful one in post-blast Hope County. It’s self-sustaining, quiet, and peaceful. His followers have traded guns and fatigues for bows and cloaks. Unlike the Eden’s Gate of the previous game, which worked to actively conquer the land, the group now coexists with it. It lives in easy harmony with nature, far from the gunfire and explosions and chaos that dominate the map.

Before I even encountered Joseph in New Dawn, the game did a great job of making me consider my feelings toward him.

For starters, I had information my character didn’t. I saw Joseph in Far Cry 5, and I saw the atrocities committed in his name. My character in New Dawn, however, did not. My character sees the fruits of Joseph’s labor and not the blood with which they were fertilized. Enough people in Hope County survived the apocalypse that word of Joseph’s unforgivable ways still floats around, but damned if my character can see any evidence of them. In fact, at one point we turn to Eden’s Gate for help and…we get it. At great cost to their community, they help us defend ours against those who seek to harm us. Because I’ve seen both sides of that coin now, my feelings are complicated.

And so I eventually face the dilemma I should have expected.

I won’t get into the complete events of Far Cry: New Dawn because I don’t want to spoil things unnecessarily, but it’s enough to say that things don’t go so well. (It’s the post-apocalypse, for crying out loud.)

Joseph, alone in a remote cabin, frets for his soul. As certain of himself as he was in the previous game, he’s uncertain now. He isn’t sure he was ever a prophet. His faith in God doesn’t seem to waver, but his faith in himself sure as hell does. Almost two decades of reflection have him questioning whether the ends justified his means.

Far Cry: New Dawn expects us to have experience of Far Cry 5. Our character does not, and this contrite, damaged, tormented Joseph is all they know. But we know more.

So when we are given the prompt to kill Joseph, we recognize it as a bookend to the prompt that opened Far Cry 5 telling us to arrest him.

We didn’t actually have to arrest him. We had a choice. We could silently refuse. And we have that same choice now.

Do we kill Joseph?

What a great ethical question. Has he atoned for his crimes? He certainly seems sincere. Moreso than he’s ever seemed. He’s lost everything and asks for nothing. Could that be enough? Can we (and should we) leave an old man alone in the wilderness? Or should we remember that he was once a young man who did terrible things? Technically the same man and yet…they genuinely could not be more different now.

Isn’t capital punishment intended to remove from society someone who poses a significant threat to others? If Joseph no longer poses that threat, is it right to punish him that way? Perhaps his crimes should not go unpunished, but what about all the good he’s done in the past 20-ish years? He founded the only successful settlement, and he founded it on peace. Does that count for enough on the karmic scorecard?

All of this and more went through my mind when I realized I had the choice to kill him or to let him live.

But then it was complicated. And it was complicated by one word.

Here’s what the game’s subtitles told me he said:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Here’s what actually came out of his mouth:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I have only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Note the word “have.”

I’ve seen plenty of discrepancies between what a voice actor says and what a subtitle tells me they are saying. It happens. Sometimes they skip a word without realizing it. Sometimes they smooth a sentence out because what looks fine in print doesn’t always sound right when spoken aloud. Sometimes they find a certain quirk or vocal tic in the character that affects how they say things in a way that isn’t actually reflected in the script.

And all of that is fine. Actors across all media — and even singers with their own songs — change the words a bit, deliberately or not, when it comes time to perform.

But that one word — Tristram Shandy’s small particle — completely changes the meaning of Joseph’s confession.

If I were only reading the subtitles, I’d conclude that Joseph is upset because he continues to be a rolling source of disaster. If I were only listening to his voice, I’d conclude that he’s upset because he has caused so much disaster in the past.

One of those things might deserve mercy. One of those things might not. One of those things abandons responsibility to a cosmic absolute. One of those things accepts responsibility.

And, in a case like this, I’m still not sure — several days after I made my decision — quite how to handle that self-negating information.

Was the subtitle an error in transcription? Was the voice actor wrong and nobody caught it? We could, in theory, turn to the original script to find out, but does it even matter what’s in the script if it doesn’t reflect what the character actually said?

We’ve all misspoken, and while our intentions undoubtedly matter, are we not still responsible for the things that actually come out of our mouths? Don’t our actual words — whatever we meant to have said — shape the way others see us and respond to us? And…shouldn’t they?

There’s no chance Far Cry: New Dawn did this deliberately (if this were Nier: Automata, for instance, I wouldn’t be so sure), but in this moment, we get both versions of Joseph Seed, coexisting.

In one voice, it’s the old Joseph, the fount of continuous destruction. In another voice, at the exact same time, it’s the new Joseph, distanced from who he used to be.

I have very different feelings for each of these Josephs. I imagine I can’t be alone in that. And what was either a four-character omission by someone at a keyboard or an actor’s slip of the tongue that went unnoticed holds a character’s life — and his future, and the future of Hope County — in the balance.

The reason I love ethical quandaries in games is that they force me to think about them, to process them, to react to them, to learn more about who I am based on how I respond to unclear moralities. They make me more aware of what I think.

This one I ended up loving because it reminded me, unintentionally, to be more aware of what I say.

My 10 best games of my 2018

As I said last year, I don’t usually do an annual best-of games list because I don’t usually play many games close to their release. Once again this year, though, I did, and what I played felt like it was absolutely worth spotlighting.

So here we are again, yes, but I have the same problem I had last time: I want to include games that I missed out on the previous year. Games that would have made my list had I gotten around to them.

I’m still not quite sure of the best format to use for something like this, so I’m just going to stick three 2017 highlights in their own list, and then move on to my favorite 10 from 2018. My only real rule is that remakes/remasters don’t qualify…even though this year saw a mountain of truly great ones. Shenmue I & II, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Lumines Remastered, Katamari Damacy Reroll, and a bunch more.

The probably obvious caveat here is that I haven’t played every game this year, including some high-profile ones that, to be honest, I’d probably love. No Spider-Man, no Red Dead Redemption 2, no Hitman 2…I’ll get to them, but not in the last week or so of the year.

My best games of 2018 (2017 edition)

3) Prey

Prey is honestly the game that made me want to reach back into 2017 and spotlight it…and, obviously, it didn’t even end up being the best game I overlooked that year, which says something.

This was a massively pleasant surprise. I didn’t get around to it initially because the reviews were middling and I figured I’d wait for a sale. I regret that, because I wish I could have shown my support to the game with a full-price purchase.

Prey is difficult to discuss without spoiling some of its magic, suffice it to say it’s a sci-fi horror adventure that takes place on the space station Talos I in the immediate aftermath of horrific tragedy.

You are Morgan Yu, and your goal is…well, that’s your call. You can try to salvage what you can of the research that went wrong. You can try to escape and never look back. You can sacrifice Talos I — and yourself — to prevent the still-unfolding catastrophe from reaching Earth.

I’d be overselling the game to say there’s limitless freedom, because there certainly is not, but Prey is impressively versatile in ways so passive and quiet that a good deal of reviewers overlooked them. I remember one sequence midway through the game during which I really wanted some supplies behind a crate that was too heavy to move. Strength upgrades were available to me, but I had passed them up in favor of other things that I thought would be more useful. I couldn’t get to the goodies I wanted.

For whatever reason, I decided to fire my weapon at the crate…and it moved, just enough to make me realize I could blast it out of the way with enough firepower. And that was the moment Prey revealed itself to me. It’s not a matter of killing or avoiding an enemy…you can repair a turret to kill it for you, or hack a terminal to lock them in a room, or scale a wall to avoid them entirely, or or or or or. I returned to earlier areas of Talos I that I thought would be inaccessible until I found the right abilities, only to find that, actually, I just had to learn how to use the abilities I already had. Nearly every “lock” in the game is one you already have a key for, if you know what you’re doing.

Additionally, Prey has some of the best sidequests I’ve ever encountered, which surprised me considering the fact that just about every character is a torn, burnt, disfigured corpse on the floor somewhere. Reading two halves of email conversations, finding notes, listening to recordings…nothing about Prey‘s execution in this area is groundbreaking, but the writing is phenomenal. You learn about games the crew members invented and played to stave off boredom. You uncover a secret love affair that’s genuinely touching. You follow the stories of colleagues who knew something was awry but were silenced, one way or another, before they could speak up.

Prey is far better than it was given credit for being upon release, and if you skipped it, you really should pick it up sometime. Come for the scary monsters. Stay for the fragile humanity.

2) What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is a dramatic masterpiece, not just within the medium but in general. I have never, in my entire life, been moved so deeply and so unforgettably by a video game.

The game is a walking simulator, to use that needlessly disparaging term, but it’s one that any fan of narrative, of characterization, of family dynamics, of simple storytelling truly needs to experience. There are important lessons here, for readers and for writers alike.

I’m being purposefully vague, so please don’t correct me in the comments, but you play as Edith Finch, who returns to her childhood home with adult eyes. The things she assumed were part of the standard childhood experience are revealed to her now as something quite different, and we piece together along with her the tragic history of the Finch family. Her family. Our family.

By exploring their old bedrooms, each of which has been sealed up and preserved like a shrine to the Finch who once occupied it, we learn about who these people were. And then we take control of them, one at a time, to live out their final moments. By the time we leave one room and move on to the next, we’ve genuinely gotten to know somebody. Somebody who…well, somebody who is already gone, leaving behind the clutter of who they used to be in a house that nobody will ever clear out. Their rooms are frozen in time, but time itself refuses to freeze.

Some of these vignettes are sad. Some are funny. Most are both. What Remains of Edith Finch is a series of emotional gutpunches that assemble into a profound statement about identity, about destiny, about personal growth. Every one of them matters. In an industry that loves to celebrate its own games for lasting hundreds upon hundreds of hours, What Remains of Edith Finch is a brief experience built of brief experiences. It gives you what it gives you, and then it moves on. Like each of the Finches themselves, it doesn’t stick around long. Just long enough that you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

I’ve liked a lot of video game characters. I’ve laughed with them and been afraid with them and I’ve helped them along. Then I eject the disc or the cartridge and get on with my life.

In sharp, painful contrast, I spent a part of my life with Edith Finch. I got to know her better than I think I will ever know most people. I cared about her. She mattered to me without me even realizing it.

You know.

Until it was over.

1) Nier: Automata

I’d be hard pressed to think of many years in which Nier: Automata would have had to fight very hard for the top spot. Not only was it one of the best-made games I’ve ever played, it was one of the most impressive.

There are games that play well, that look good, that sound great, that have intriguing stories, that have memorable characters…and then there are games that do all of these things, with each element of the experience working so perfectly in tandem, that it feels like it crossed over from another dimension in which they make games far better than we do.

Nier: Automata is one of those rare glimpses into another world, and I am privileged simply for being here to experience it. The soundtrack alone feels like something so beautiful we have no right to even come near it.

The story centers on a war between machines, with players taking control of the humanlike 2B in her battle against far less advanced, more obviously robotic enemies. At least, that’s how the first run of the game goes. The second time through, you play as 2B’s companion, 9S, experiencing the same story from a different perspective, filling in some narrative gaps, answering questions, raising a few more…

And then there’s the third time through, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that this time you play through a sequel story with a decidedly schizophrenic approach that both sheds light on and complicates both halves of the previous story.

Yes, Nier: Automata requires three playthroughs to even truly experience, but it rarely drags. The player-controlled characters all handle differently, and while 2B is damned good at bruising her way through hordes of enemies, 9S is far weaker and relies on his hacking ability, which takes the form of a shoot-’em-up minigame. You may play through the same story twice, but everything about it is different, simply by virtue of experiencing it through a different set of eyes. And this is triply true for the third run…

It’s impossible to say much about the game without spoiling some of its many surprises, but I will say that if you think you know the twist, that’s okay; you don’t. A number of reviewers — most infamously Yahtzee, who seems to play games just long enough to find something to complain about and nowhere near long enough to realize the game addresses his complaint — patted themselves on the back for guessing what they referred to as the “twist.” Play it yourself, though, and you’ll realize that that’s not a twist at all…it’s merely a plot point, and the story is far larger, more urgent, more compelling, more important than any singular reveal could ever account for.

The twist is what happens inside, to you, as you guide one group of robots against another, and learn more about human nature in the process than any video game should be able to teach us.

Buy it. Play it. Nier: Automata is a fucking masterpiece.

My 10 best games of 2018

10) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I was in a very small minority that believed the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was the best in the series, which I believed right up until the Wii U and 3DS versions came out.

Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl definitely made the series more interesting for serious competitors, but I wasn’t one of those. I’m still not. I never will be. The appeal of a series in which Kirby swallows Mario whole while Samus shoots at them and Link hurls bombs all around is its sheer fun factor, at least for me. That’s also why I don’t care at all about the rubber-banding in Mario Kart games. These things should be chaotic, beyond the point of fairness, because that’s what makes them fun.

Melee felt bigger, but was less interesting. Brawl felt like it tried to introduce some fun things (such as Assist Trophies and Smash Balls) that were far more annoying than they were probably meant to be.

Course correction came with the Wii U and 3DS games, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate manages to please both the silly and serious fans in seemingly equal measure…something I honestly would have thought was impossible.

Its default settings thrust me right back into exquisite chaos, and anyone who doesn’t like that can tweak any setting imaginable to better suit their desires…and then, brilliantly, save a variety of these settings for easy switching depending upon who you’re playing with.

It’s easily the best game of the series, and while I may have ranked it higher if I’d spent more time with it (it’s only a couple of weeks old as I write this), I probably wouldn’t have as a result of its appallingly poor online performance. It’s better than Brawl in the sense that one might theoretically be able to play a match online, but it’s far laggier and less reliable than the Wii U and 3DS entries. I have no clue how or why it took such a large step backward in that regard, but it is definitely unfortunate, because every other element of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is perfect.

9) Bleed 2

Bleed is a game I missed as it was an Xbox exclusive, but I grabbed it in a sale last year when it came to PS4. Since then I repurchased it on my Switch, just to support the developer (…well, and for the portabilty, because the game is perfectly suited to portability). It was a smooth platformer/shooter that wore its brevity and simplicity on its sleeve, and I found myself doing what I rarely have time to do anymore: replaying it over and over again.

Bleed 2 was an easy purchase when that came out this year. It seemed like it would be little more than another set of Bleed levels and, minor tweaks aside, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s all I wanted.

You take control of Wryn, a girl with an exceptional command of both firearms and aerial acrobatics. The plot is barely an afterthought; it’s the gameplay that’s front and center. And though Wryn’s movement at first feels floaty and imprecise, it honestly doesn’t take long to master. And I can say that, because I am absolutely terrible at most shooters.

With the ability to launch Wryn multiple times (in multiple directions) during a single jump and the ability to slow time on command, playing Bleed 2 is an elegant dance of graceful brutality. Bullets and obstacles and enemies come from all angles, and you’ll have to learn how to snake around, over, behind each of them in the blink of an eye. Speaking of which, blink a few times before you start playing, because you won’t be able to during the game.

That may sound intimidating, but Bleed 2, like its predecessor, welcomes all comers. It’s exactly as difficult as you’d like to make it, and there’s no shame in playing through each level a few times on the easiest, most forgiving setting. In fact, that’s probably a pretty smart approach. Once you have a handle on what to expect, you can crank the difficulty up as many notches as you like and really test your abilities.

The entire game can be blitzed through in just a few minutes, and you’ll have fun for that time. But replaying levels at higher difficulties, squeezing off tricky shots while deflecting projectiles and weaving through swarms of enemies, feeling your heart speed up to keep pace with the pounding soundtrack…it becomes transcendent.

Bleed 2, again like its predecessor, provides some of the best arcade-style action out there. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s willing to teach you how to play it in the most rewarding way. And that’s worth learning.

8) Dead Cells

I want so much to love Dead Cells, but instead I have to settle for merely liking it quite a lot.

I think the game reaches a bit further than it really should, and the seams show too clearly as a result. It wants to be a procedurally generated metroidvania, which sounds like a great concept, but the limits on its procedural generation means you can’t backtrack to explore previous areas with your new tools, stripping it of the defining trait of metroidvanias. Instead, it’s just a roguelite with permanent upgrades, no more metroidvania than Rogue Legacy or Spelunky.

Dead Cells took two incompatible genres and tried so hard to make them work together that it’s frustrating to see how far short it falls of its own goal. What it does offer, though, is quite good.

It’s brutally hard, which is to be expected, but almost always rewardingly so. The nature of procedural generation means there are certainly times during which you’ll end up swarmed by powerful monsters and have very little chance of getting out alive, but it also means that other runs will hand you incredible weapons and items out of the gate, meaning you’ll barely struggle until the late stages of the game.

And that’s part of the fun. You get squashed like an ant; you squash everything else like an ant. The invisible hand of fate casts the dice, and while you aren’t told where they land you’ll sure as hell figure it out.

It’s a compelling gameplay loop. You find some items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. You come back to find more items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. But each time, you become just a little better equipped, and you’ll make it reliably further. It’s not a unique formula, but Dead Cells handles it well. Many was the time I sat down for a single run or two through the game and ended up playing for more than an hour.

The game’s main problem is that it doesn’t realize what it already has. It doesn’t need to inelegantly cram two genres together when there’s a single genre it does quite well. It doesn’t need to be constantly winking at the fourth wall and throwing cutesy meta jokes at the player, because it has an affecting, brooding atmosphere that should carry the experience instead.

Dead Cells doesn’t understand its own attributes, but even the lumpy, unrefined game we got is much better than most other developers manage throughout their entire careers.

I just wish, to paraphrase a Frank Zappa album title, it would shut up and play its guitar.

7) The Messenger

When games look back to the NES era for inspiration, they tend to focus on Mario titles, Zelda titles, or, more rarely, Mega Man titles. That’s okay; it’s a testament to the quality of those games that they serve as enduring inspirations decades later. The Messenger, though, finds its inspiration in Ninja Gaiden, a notoriously difficult action platformer that was among the most addictive and compelling on the console.

The Messenger is essentially a spiritual fan update, tightening the level design, eliminating the outright unfair moments, and turning Ninja Gaiden into the smoother experience it always should have been, an engaging and simple adventure from point A to point B, with a direct emphasis on moment-to-moment combat.

At least, that’s what The Messenger is at first.

Before long, the game reveals itself as something else entirely. You earn the ability to return to previous stages with your more recent upgrades, finding longer, more interesting paths than anything you’ve seen before. You find portals that allow you to travel back and forth in time, giving the game a new visual style, a remixed soundtrack, and clever puzzles requiring an understanding of what a certain section of stage looks like in two timeframes at once. You are given quests by NPCs in areas you previously blew through in a whirl of steel.

The Messenger is a game full of surprises, and while the narrative ones weren’t always great, the gameplay ones certainly were. The time-hopping mechanic is possibly the best implementation of such an idea I’ve ever seen, with the sly pun of console generations representing the leap in actual, human generations.

There are also multiple ways of solving problems. A few times I found myself at the end of a puzzle without having used a number of things that were clearly carefully placed around the screen. If you have a mastery of your tools, you’ll be able to skip over certain crutches that less-skilled players will have to rely on.

I rarely have time to 100% games anymore, but by the time I finished The Messenger I knew I wanted to go back and find everything I missed. I did, and while the actual reward for doing so was a bit underwhelming, I felt great for having done it.

The Messenger is the best Ninja Gaiden game right out of the gate, and then it becomes its own kind of even better game from there.

6) A Hat in Time

I already provided some thoughts on A Hat in Time, so go read those so you know just how impressive it is that a game with that many faults is ranking pretty damned well on this list.

In the months since I’ve played A Hat in Time, I still remember it, think about it, smile at it. The only reason I haven’t gone back to replay it and find some collectibles I missed is that there are new levels coming in a future update, so I’ll save my second pass for that.

A Hat in Time is just a lovely, charming experience. And while you (and I!) can sit around at pick it apart and shine a light on its flaws, we can’t rob it of its addictive, adorable fun.

It has a lovely visual style (with the hand-drawn static images perfectly capturing a Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic), a remarkable soundtrack, and quite possibly the most varied gameplay in any 3D collectathon platformer.

Hat Kid as well is such a well-developed character…not in the sense that there’s much depth or complexity to her, but because absolutely everything about her informs a recognizable and consistent personality. Her animations, her abilities, her design…she’s having a ball in this game, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

There were no shortage of throwback games this year, as this list and many others will attest, but A Hat in Time did the best job of nailing that carefree feeling you used to get from sitting on the carpet and playing a new game long into the night. It doesn’t just take cues for its presentation from those retro masterpieces of your youth…it inherits their spirit.

5) Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball platformer, which is a combination of words that should make any healthy human being cringe. Every review of this game I saw before playing it made some comment along the lines of “this shouldn’t work.” Those reviews were positive, and I assumed that was because Yoku’s Island Express worked well enough for what it was. I never dreamed it would actually work brilliantly.

In the game you take control of a little dung beetle, rolling a big ball of…well, anyway, Yoku ends up becoming a postman, rolling all over (and above, and below) an island to deliver mail. Of course there’s also puzzle solving, combat, exploration, and so on, nearly all of which is handled by playing pinball with little Yoku.

This shouldn’t work.

I love pinball, but I’ve never been very good at it. I suspect most people who love pinball aren’t very good at it. It tests my reactions far more than it tests my ability to think ahead, or my accuracy, and any time I end up with a half-decent score, it’s because luck was on my side.

That’s fine. I can enjoy pinball without knowing what I’m doing. But there’s no way in hell I should be navigating a platformer, a genre reliant on precision, that way. Yoku’s Island Express, though, never becomes frustrating, and the times it gets closest to being frustrating have to do with puzzle solutions, not with pinball sequences.

I’m not entirely sure how it achieves this, but it’s certainly helped by the fact that Yoku never dies; you can always roll your ball back to whatever pinball sequence you’ve failed and try again. And when you’re relying on flippers and bumpers to navigate around the map, they are each carefully positioned to aid your progress rather than hinder it. You get the fun of pinball without the steep demand.

Yoku’s Island Express is a triumph in a way Dead Cells was not; this mix of seemingly incompatible genres feels graceful and correct. Whatever difficulties the developers encountered getting pinball and platforming to work together, they clearly worked hard to identify not just functional but elegant solutions to the problem.

It’s fun, beautiful, charming, and has one hell of lovely soundtrack. It shouldn’t work at all…and yet it’s better than most of the games I’ve played this year.

4) Dragon Quest XI

Most of my friends love the Final Fantasy series, and while I can understand why, it never quite grabbed me. Having said that, I did enjoy Final Fantasy IX a hell of a lot, and the little I’ve played (so far) of Final Fantasy X is promising. I hope to get to that one properly in the new year.

But the other games in the series…the older ones, the newer ones, the celebrated ones…they’re fine. I admire them, but I never actually want to play them. (And, to be frank, I had to take a long break from Final Fantasy IX before I worked up the interest to come back to it.)

But Dragon Quest?

Jesus goodness do I love Dragon Quest.

I really can’t explain why this series grabs me in all the ways Final Fantasy doesn’t. Maybe it’s because the cartoony aesthetics are more pleasing to my eye. Maybe it’s because it takes itself just seriously enough not to be ridiculous, but not seriously enough that it won’t stoop low for a good joke. Maybe…it’s just a better series.

I wanted to skip Dragon Quest XI because I knew it would eat up so much of my time, but I couldn’t. I broke down and bought it on release and invested more than 100 hours in it, which is a serious rarity for me. And while it didn’t do much that earlier titles in the series hadn’t already done, it did just about everything perfectly.

I’ve heard other fans describe Dragon Quest XI as comfort food, and I can’t think of a more accurate descriptor. It’s not meant to be dismissive; it’s a chance to have another helping of something you know you love. And, sure, it may not feel all that different from the helpings you’ve had before…but you love it enough that that doesn’t matter.

Dragon Quest XI is a perfectly tuned experience. If you’ve played and enjoyed any of the previous titles, you’ll find yourself in a similar place this time around, but with so many of the rougher edges sanded off.

The one area in which it might flag a bit is the narrative, which is by no means bad but also is nowhere near the kind of story that requires 100 hours to tell. Having said that, it’s something of an achievement that the game stays fun for that long without the strength of narrative to prop it up.

There’s nothing revelatory about Dragon Quest XI. It’s just Dragon Quest in its purest form.

And, honestly, that’s enough.

3) Iconoclasts

The Game Boy Advance was so perfect for comic book-like graphics, it’s a shame retro-styled games tend to focus on the NES/SNES eras for their visual inspirations. Iconoclasts, deliberately or not, reminded me in all the right ways of the GBA’s particular brand of presentation, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

I’m glad I did, because far from being the sunny throwback I expected, and admittedly would have been just fine with, Iconoclasts was downright revelatory. It’s a fairly simple 2D platformer that managed to weave a better, more affecting story than most RPGs I’ve played. It’s a brilliant tale told as simply and quietly as possible, which only makes it more powerful, and it has a downright unprecedented skill with characterization that I don’t believe any other platformer has topped. It’s an achievement for the genre, and one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

You are Robin, a working-class mechanic living under the oppressive regime of something called The One Concern. The adorable blonde collection of pixels seems as though it belongs in a much happier game, living a much more carefree life, fighting a far less threatening force. But Robin didn’t choose to be here. Nobody did.

Throughout the adventure, you meet and team up with other characters, all of whom, potentially, have a lot to offer your budding rebellion. None of them live up to their own potential, giving the narrative, at times, a very effective feeling of hopelessness, even as you make progress. It’s nice to have these characters along, because it prevents you from feeling alone. But it’s easy to see that when you’re fighting an organized, established, well-armed oppressor, the actual strength you gain in numbers is negligible.

That’s not to say the game is all that difficult. Most of the trickiest bits are puzzle-centric, and the penalty for failure is, at worst, starting a room over again. But the narrative sells the danger, the stakes, the urgency of doing, somehow, what you know you’re not equipped to do.

With minimal dialogue, simple character design, and backstory parceled out just enough that you have some sense of what’s happening, Iconoclasts manages to build a a remarkably rounded and realistic set of characters.

I came to know these people. I understood them. Even when they did something I wished they wouldn’t do, I understood why they did it. Toward the end of the game a certain character behaves in a certain way that should have frustrated me, except that it was so perfectly earned that I instead had to admire the way Iconoclasts built to that frustrating and yet fully understandable moment.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the pixel art gorgeous, and the gameplay rewarding. On top of all of that, Iconoclasts manages to be genuinely funny at times while always taking itself seriously. Dead Cells had to resort to winking at the audience. Iconoclasts finds moments of levity in the world it actually occupies. One of those approaches is infinitely more rewarding than the other.

2) Hollow Knight

I have a weakness for simple games. Games that understand what they’re doing, do it well, and keep it interesting. Nintendo has long been the reigning champion of this kind of game, turning Mario’s jump, for instance, into something that stays interesting across dozens of levels in dozens of games.

Hollow Knight understands how to keep simplicity interesting as well as Nintendo ever has, and it also adds layers of optional complexity that keep you learning all the way through the experience.

Hollow Knight is about a fallen civilization of insects. You play a cute little greyscale bug that wields a nail like a sword. So far, so adorable. But its gorgeous hand-drawn style aside, this isn’t a cartoon world. This is a dead world full of dying characters. The atmosphere is sombre and morose. You’ll find a new toy that you’re excited to play with and it will ultimately, unavoidably, lead you to new reminders that this universe has more of a past than it has a future.

Moments of levity only serve to remind you how much was lost. An elderly stag beetle with aching joints ferries you back and forth across the map, reflecting on what once was. A brave adventurer you meet early in your journey is a corpse you find much later. A cute little pillbug mines away, singing a happy tune…succumbing slowly to madness…eventually no different from any other enemy. You slay her. It’s a mercy.

Hollow Knight manages to weave a story of remarkable — but usually only suggested — depth. It keeps you on its own narrative surface. You can learn more about who you are, about what happened, about why your journey matters, but only if you look for it and almost never will you get a straight answer.

It’s a massive game that repeatedly feels like it’s ending only to open up again and again into new territory, and it never once feels like it’s dragging. It’s full of fantastically designed boss fights and surprisingly sympathetic characters.

Hollow Knight, without any question whatsoever, the best metroidvania I’ve ever played.

1) Celeste

As much as I love Hollow Knight, there was no doubt in my mind that Celeste would take my top spot. I hope you realize just how much that says in itself.

Celeste is a brutally hard screen-by-screen platformer in the tradition of Super Meat Boy, but where that game (and just about every other one that took inspiration from it) relished the opportunity to beat you down, Celeste works very hard to lift you up.

It isn’t easy. It starts off difficult and gets harder every single time you think you’ve gotten the hang of it. But it actively encourages you to keep going. It speaks reassuring things to you in its loading screens. It reminds you openly that optional pickups and levels are, indeed, optional. It encourages you to push through even when it feels impossible…even when you’re sure it’s impossible…

…which, beautifully, is also the game’s story. We play as Madeline, a young girl determined to scale a difficult mountain. Celeste is that mountain, and Celeste is the game in which you scale it. It’s Madeline’s struggle that becomes yours. You work together to accomplish a singular goal from opposite sides of a screen. And the frustration you’ll feel throughout the game is Madeline’s frustration as well. It’s a game that connects you directly, emotionally, with the character you play.

Madeline is hounded by anxiety, by depression, by crippling self-doubt. Like last year’s big surprise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Celeste is a game about mental illness. But whereas Hellblade placed you in Senua’s mind — hearing and seeing and pushing through her various hallucinations — Celeste is external. We see her the way anybody else would see her…not as the nervous failure she believes she is, but as an innocent girl dangerously unprepared for what she’s facing. The more time we spend with her, the more we understand what’s happening in her mind. Why this foolish excursion is so important to her. Why she refuses to be satisfied with anything she’s accomplished, always bracing herself against whatever comes next.

I never finished Super Meat Boy, though I genuinely loved it. At some point it got too difficult for me, and had I kept trying I would have eventually succeeded. But I didn’t keep trying. I had my fun, and seeing it through to the end didn’t matter. That game joked about the irrelevance of its own story, and that was part of the fun.

Celeste takes itself, and its heroine, and its subject matter, seriously. And I did finish it. This game got too difficult for me, too…but by the time it did, I knew Madeline. And I couldn’t leave her shivering in the snow, reflecting not on how far she’d come but on how much she’d never overcome in the future.

I helped her overcome. It was important to do so. She needed someone. Playing Celeste, you get to be her someone. And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you do help her…

Well, you helped a friend. For now, at least, you gave her a reason to believe in herself. And that’s not something either of you are likely to forget.

What were your favorites of the year? Let me know what I missed!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...