My 10 best games of my 2020

Look! I haven’t died! Neither have you! Wonderful.

Anyway, a lack of posting isn’t for lack of things to talk about or lack of time, even. Everything’s just been a struggle lately, and I know that is far from unique to me. Here’s hoping by this time next year we can all breathe again.

For now, though, let’s talk about video games! I’ve played a lot of them this year, because if I go outside I will die. I’ve also read a lot of books, but I don’t think a single one of them was published this year, so don’t expect a list for those. Books don’t have as many guns to collect or even jiggle physics, though, so who cares.

As ever, there were a number of games I didn’t get around to, so a lack of those games doesn’t mean I disliked them. In this case, the big ones I wanted to play were The Last of Us Part II, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Cyberpunk 2077. Additionally, I haven’t upgraded to either the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X (but, come on, it will obviously be the PlayStation 5), so none of the one or two games exclusive to those systems are in the running, either.

Before we start talking about my favorite games of 2020 by discussing games that are much older, though, here are my three favorite games that I overlooked in 2019.

My best games of 2020 (2019 edition)

3) The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III

Trails of Cold Steel III
Yes, I’m behind on my Trails of Cold Steel. SUE ME. The fourth game came out this year, but as of this writing I’m still working my way through the third game. I’m confident in saying it will end up being one of my favorites from 2019, both because it’s great so far and because games in 2019 sucked on toast.

The first game took a while to grab me, but once it did I was hooked. As the characters opened up and revealed their depth I was able to relate to them — or at least care about them — in ways I didn’t expect. You play as Rean Schwarzer, a student at a military academy. During field exercises, you are send to various regions to help the residents address their concerns and to learn about how the different areas behave and interact. For both Rean and for you as a player, this is a slight misdirection; you’re really touring the world to see what it’s like before war tears everything to hell.

Throughout the first two games, you balance your studies at the academy with maintaining peace as well as possible in the empire. And, of course, with flirting with the classmate or associate of your choice. (Fie is the correct answer.) The third game, however, takes place post-graduation. Rean is now a war hero and an instructor for a new group of students.

And it’s…kind of great. By interacting with them and struggling to keep their egos in check, you gain a genuine appreciation for your flighty old instructor Sara. In the previous games she was clearly competent, but she was also carefree and casual to a comic degree. In retrospect, as serious Rean bungles his relationships with his charges, you see just how effective she was at her job, and how valuable an instructor she really was.

It’s an incredible bit of character work that’s all the better because it takes us three games to get there. The length of the games in the series and the fact that they form one continuous story is probably enough to push many people away, and I don’t blame them. But those who dive into it and stick with it will be rewarded for their patience. Ditto the way in which so many background characters from the first game have grown into their own lives, roles, and personalities by this point, so that reconnecting with them is genuinely interesting and worth while. (Vivi is the correct answer.)

Of course, seeing how the empire has changed is another benefit of occupying this world for three games and counting. Sometimes you’ll see it with your own eyes. Sometimes you’ll hear about something you’re glad you didn’t have to see. Other times you visit for the first time locations you’d only heard about in the first game. Trails of Cold Steel plants so many seeds at so many points that if you hang around you’ll find many surprising things blooming around you. It’s lovely, and I’m excited to play the fourth game too late as well.

2) Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn
I rarely play games on PC. I’m not opposed to it or anything, but I don’t think I’ve ever own a computer powerful enough to play contemporary games and most of my career has involved the computer, so when it’s time to unwind, I don’t think to sit back down at one. This is to say that when Return of the Obra Dinn was released for PC in 2018, I didn’t go near it. I’d heard nothing but good things, but I was waiting for a console release if I were ever to touch it.

We got that release in 2019, and there’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t been said already, by people who are much, much more intelligent than I will ever be. If you don’t know what it is, somehow, I’ll at least say that it’s a kind of whodunit. You are an insurance agent tasked with figuring out the fates of the passengers and crew of the Obra Dinn, which vanished at sea and has returned to shore with no living creature aboard.

You accomplish this with a magic stopwatch, of course, which lets you view the literal final moment of various people’s lives. Sometimes this makes it very clear how they died. Often it doesn’t, but will shed light on someone else’s fate. You use clues from one vision to figure out what’s going on elsewhere. Describing it does it no justice whatsoever. Playing it is necessary to understand both the appeal and the craftsmanship behind the game.

That latter point, by the way, almost caused me to have a kind of breakdown as I tried to deconstruct the game afterward, mentally, trying to figure out how, exactly, it was assembled. It’s like a four-dimensional puzzle that makes sense as you put it together, but I couldn’t figure out how each of the pieces was constructed, how they fit together, how they allowed for people to discover them at (almost) any point and in (almost) any sequence and still make sense overall.

Of course, part of the magic is that mystery. I was more curious as a writer than I was as a player, though, and I knew there would be incredible lessons to learn from the method by which which this plot was created, segmented, and then scattered in such a way that allowed for multiple paths to correct reassembly, but I had to stop because I was genuinely causing myself grief and dismay. The game is that good!

It is sincerely one of the most creative and innovative works of fiction I’ve come across. The narrative itself is nothing that ever would have held my attention, but the presentation of that narrative is second to none. In a very real way, it’s a game about telling a story. You tell it to yourself as you go, and that would have been fascinating, brave, and brilliant even if it hadn’t worked. It worked, however. Good Lord did it work.

1) Control

Control
When I first saw an E3 trailer for Control, I had no clue what I was looking at. I did know, however, that I was interested. There seemed to be some kind of weird gravity mechanic, or perhaps the ability to disassemble and reassemble reality around yourself. Which, yeah, let me at it.

That’s not quite what the game ended up being, but the confusing nature of the trailer was appropriate. I never knew what to make of the game ahead of playing it, and I don’t know what to make of it now. It’s a rare thing for a game to turn so much of the interpretive duty over to the player, and I appreciate that Control did just that. I could tell you at various points the things I did, saw, or fought. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the game is, however, beyond the broadest of broad strokes. And that’s wonderful.

The game finds you wandering into a mysterious (and mysteriously open) government building in search of information about your missing brother. What you find is a series of loose meditations on reality, on the power of perception, and on what it means to exist. It’s heavy stuff, but it never feels heavy. At least, not until you’re done and you reflect on what you’ve been through. That’s when you’ll feel the weight of everything you put off thinking about. And that’s wonderful, too.

The odds are you won’t be thinking about these things until the game is over because Control keeps you so engaged throughout. It doesn’t necessarily distract you from these topics, but it does dazzle you enough that you’ll probably choose not to focus on them. After all, you get to rip parts of the building apart and hurl them at spooky enemies, flying around like Peter Pan as you do so. From a purely visceral standpoint, Control is excellent. The fact that it also makes you think long after the experience is over is just a perfect, unnecessary bonus.

In fact, since I played it early this year, I’ve been meaning to write an essay on this site about one character in the game. Not the player character, not the missing brother, not even a character you meet. Just one character who exists in this universe, who has given me so much to ponder for months now. Control is a rich game for the thoughtful. And if you don’t care to consider anything beyond what you’re doing at any given time, well, you’ll still probably enjoy it.

It’s funny, it’s weird, and it’s unforgettable. I wish it were a bit scarier — at times it creeps up to pure horror without ever quite pushing through — but that’s a personal preference thing. I think I wanted to be a bit more disturbed by what I was seeing instead of only intrigued. But, well, reality isn’t always what we’d like it to be, is it?

My 10 best games of 2020

10) Resident Evil 3

Resident Evil 3
Last year’s remake of Resident Evil 2 was my game of the year, and I stand by that decision. The moment I finished it, I started it over again. It was so much fun to play, ramping up the action from the original version without — in my opinion, at least — sacrificing the scares. With the exception of a few stretches (boss fights, usually), the game kept me on edge at all times, and did a great job of escalating the tension so that I never felt secure in my ability to survive.

I’ve played it many more times since. It’s an extraordinarily good game and one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. There is no reason Resident Evil 3 couldn’t have offered an experience of similar quality, but boy was it a big step back.

To be clear, it’s not a bad game. I think “Resident Evil 2 was better” is the sort of thing people will hear and therefore write this game off as an unmitigated disaster. It isn’t. But it seems to only superficially understand what made that previous remake so great. It indeed looks nice. It has great sound design. There are moments of exceptionally crafted atmosphere. But that’s really it. It’s the kind of game that works very well as a trailer or as a bunch of screenshots. Playing it is another story.

This time, I didn’t restart the game as soon as I finished it. In fact, I had to force myself to return to the game just for the sake of pushing through. Considering how short it is, that says a lot. I confess that the original Resident Evil 3 is nowhere near as good as the original Resident Evil 2, so the team definitely had less to work with. That’s hardly an excuse, however, especially when this game’s centerpiece, Nemesis, is equivalent to the previous game’s Mr. X. Mr. X was the highlight of the previous game, remaining a lurking, horrifying, genuine threat long after you think he’s out of your hair.

Dressing Mr. X up like Nemesis and calling it a day would have worked, if they were truly feeling lazy. Building on the threat of Mr. X and making Nemesis even more of a terrifying presence would have been ideal. Instead, they relegated Nemesis to a sort of quick-time-event generator. He pops up, you press the right buttons (sometimes indicated on screen), and he goes away again. That pales in comparison to the Resident Evil 2 remake, yes, but it also pales in comparison to the already pale original version of Resident Evil 3. There, Nemesis’ appearances had a degree of randomization, meaning you really couldn’t predict when you’d encounter him, even if you played the game multiple times. Here, his appearances are fixed and your way of dealing with him predetermined.

It’s far from an awful game, but it’s a big disappointment.

9) Bubble Bobble 4 Friends

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends
Upon further research, this game evidently came out at the very end of 2019. Oops. I can’t think of anything else to include because I hate most things, so I’ll just roll with it. Yell at me. I don’t care.

Anyway, Bubble Bobble and I go way back. I remember playing it endlessly as a kid. It was one of a handful of games I had for the NES, and if you were only going to own a handful, this was a great one to have. It was adorable, it was fun, it was easy to play, and it offered simultaneous two-player mode. It was also a long and challenging game, not that I cared about those things as a kid but, in retrospect, we got damned good value out of this one.

I remember ending up having to stop the game whenever I got to a certain stage that required you to bounce on bubbles up to a higher ledge. The timing on doing so wasn’t too bad, but as a kid, I couldn’t manage it. I’d get most of the way up, mistime a jump, and fall all the way back down. This was with two players, one of whom did nothing other than supply the bubbles. I’m sure it was possible to do it alone, but it was even more difficult.

Flash forward a decade and change. I’m in college and I meet a friend who had exactly the same experience with Bubble Bobble as a kid. We decide to break out the old NES and, finally, as what we thought qualified as adults, beat the fucking game. We set aside an entire weekend. We drank. We ate junk food. We had a mutual friend who joined us to relieve us in turns. It was enormous fun and it took us forever but, finally, we beat it. For the first time since we were children we watched the screen with our hearts in our throats and waited to see the ending…which never came. Instead we got a “BAD END” displayed on screen, because we neglected to pick up some certain item during the course of the game. We were disappointed, yes, but it was also hilarious. The perfect punchline to a wasted weekend.

Eventually we did beat the game properly, but my fondest memory was having the satisfaction of a job well done — a job 10+ years in the making — snatched away. Bubble Bobble 4 Friends won’t be doing any such snatching. It’s far too easy for that and quite forgiving. But as far as the fun goes, it’s right where the NES game was. This is what we saw in our minds when we played that version, and it’s a shame this game won’t get as much attention now as that one did then. For anyone with fond, distant Bubble Bobble memories, this will be a welcome return to them without any of the frustration.

In fact, they recently doubled the size of the game with a free DLC pack…which I’m realizing was released in 2020. There, that’s my excuse. Pick it up if you can. It’s sweet and cuddly and super fun and the DLC adds that ghost whale thing that will kill you for dawdling. It’s now perfect.

8) Spinch

Spinch
I’ve had my eye on Spinch since that stupid ALF E3 thing. I couldn’t really tell what the game was then, but it definitely had a great art style. It reminded me at the time of Atari games, but I wasn’t sure why; Atari games didn’t look anything like that. What it was actually reminding me of was Atari box art; abstract, cartoony, priming the imagination for the experience to come.

My imagination was barely primed enough for the reality of Spinch, which I say as a positive thing. Spinch is one gorgeously simple punishing platformer. It enemies are characters, but so are its environments. In a literal sense, even its projectiles are characters. Spinch oozes personality, and I’m choosing the word “oozes” deliberately.

It’s an extremely strange game, but charmingly so. I’d love to call it perfectly designed, but the fact is that that’s Spinch’s problem. It presents such a wonderful and unique world that not executing it perfectly feels like something of a crime. And, of course, falling short of perfection in a brutal platformer is a bit of a problem in itself.

Your jumps need to be accurate. Your timing needs to be tight. Your understanding of what enemies will do needs to be vast. When the game fails to be as perfect as it’s asking the player to be, that’s a problem. It’s very possible it’s only an issue with the Switch version — which is what I played — but if so, that’s only slightly less disappointing. If it’s being sold on the Switch, it should function on the Switch.

The game stutters regularly, which interferes with the enjoyable flow of the experience, and which also makes the timing of player actions far more of a crapshoot. And not to be rude — I love the way this game looks — but Spinch is clearly not pushing any hardware to its limits. Stuttering, in other words, isn’t due to ambition; it’s due to poor optimization.

When Spinch works correctly — which it does for long stretches at a time — it’s brilliant. The spacey techno-funk soundtrack feels like an excellent running joke in itself, which I also mean as a compliment. It’s a contrast to the sunny vibes of the art style just as much as the punishing difficulty is. There are things I’d tweak — give players more than one shot at the bonus levels; add another checkpoint to the longer stages — but those are nitpicks. What I want is Spinch to run smoothly so I can enjoy everything it does absolutely right, because there’s a lot of it.

7) 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
I am of two minds about 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Possibly three minds. I bought it after hearing people praise the writing, as good writing is A Thing I Do Enjoy. Beyond that, I knew nothing. I expected a more or less standard RPG starring school kids, perhaps in the vein of Persona (or Trails of Cold Steel). I did not get that.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is divided into three distinct sections. There’s the storyline (which unfolds as a series of chapters similar to a visual novel), the combat (which is seen from overhead and mech-based), and the lore (which is collected in various ways through the other two modes). Seeing lore — essentially an index of terms and a chronology of events — elevated to stand beside the two “main” gameplay modes seemed strange to me, until I spent more time with the game and realized that learning about what is happening is just as much a part of the game as what is happening.

How much can I say without spoiling things? A bit, but nothing definitive. I will say, though, that “starring school kids” is both correct and completely wrong, and rarely will you meet anyone or experience anything without there being at least one more layer that you won’t understand until later. The various protagonists — from whom you can choose, usually, whenever you like — each have their own stories and histories that interact and overlap, both directly and indirectly. What you learn in one story can inform the way you interpret another, even if the protagonists of each don’t cross paths.

Amazingly, this works well. It’s nearly always more interesting than it is frustrating, as each character’s story — and each chapter within that story — makes sense. It will always operate on a kind of identifiable logic. You may not fully understand everything that is happening, but you will understand what is happening in that moment. It helps that every character is interesting in their own right, and that the chapters span a wide range of tones. Some are funny. Some are scary. Some are emotional. All are interesting, even if they may not seem so until they get going.

But the game has its issues. Poring through lore entries is indeed a valid game mode for this specific game, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. (And aside from learning about various types of real-life Japanese foods, I didn’t learn much from them that I wouldn’t have learned from the rest of the game.) Asking players to alternate between the visual novel sequences and the mech battles as they see fit both abdicates the responsibility of pacing and means someone can burn through all of the content they enjoy and then be left slogging through the content they don’t.

That’s unfortunate, because both the visual novel sections and the combat sections are good, but they do feel like two very different games elbowing against each other rather than two modes that work in tandem. What’s more, the combat was far too easy. It was fun, which is the most important thing, but I felt like I was earning S rankings most of the time just by not falling asleep while playing it. And the visual novel sections sometimes strand you with no clear way to progress. As an experiment, though, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is an interesting one, and a more successful one than I would have expected it could be.

6) Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo couldn’t have possibly released Animal Crossing: New Horizons at a better time. Toward the beginning of the global pandemic — and during actual lockdown, at least in my area — we didn’t just get the cutest, most charming game imaginable, but we were able to meet with friends while using it. I know I’m not alone in the fact that I actually hung out with people I know in real life and spent time with them here, in this little virtual world full of friendly animal people and presents falling from the sky.

The game also does a great job of always giving you something to work toward, which I think is especially valuable in times of boredom and when we feel the need to escape reality. Again, perfect timing all around for Nintendo. Upgrading your house, adding facilities to your island, collecting crafting components, digging up fossils…everything leads to something else. There’s always something to do and something specific to aim for, even if that goal is just rearranging your island to look exactly the way you like it.

At one point I had to take a deep breath, put down Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and tell myself to move on. I remember how much I played New Leaf, the 3DS game, and I knew if I kept playing New Horizons I’d never eat again. It’s addictive escapism. That’s a good thing, to be clear, but I knew I needed to make a break for it if I were going to play or do anything else this year.

I will say that I’m not entirely a fan of the fact that Nintendo keeps rolling out more content for it. What a thing to complain about, eh? Really, I just mean that I’m not a fan of releasing a game in one state and then adding so much so regularly. Patch some bugs out, release DLC, that is fine. But when I buy a game, I don’t like knowing that it’s now a different game a few months down the line. I’m sure from a business perspective it’s the correct decision, and I know for a fact a lot of people enjoy it, but I don’t like knowing that I need to keep playing as long as new content keeps being added for me to actually experience the entire game.

There are things people are now doing in New Horizons that I wasn’t able to do when I played at release. And anyone stopping now won’t be able to do the things that other people are doing in a few months. It’s a complaint, yes, but it’s also personal preference. Some people love logging into the same game over and over to find new surprises awaiting them. I can’t blame them for that! It sounds like a lovely feeling, but it’s not a feeling I share.

I like to explore games at my own pace. I like to move on when I’ve decided I’ve had enough. Animal Crossing games already have seasons and holidays built into the experience to keep you coming back — not to mention various timed events and waiting periods — so I don’t think adding content and functionality that wasn’t on the game card to begin with is necessary. But that’s just me. If Animal Crossing is moving in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me personally, that’s okay. That may even be a good thing. I’ll get my life back.

5) Fury Unleashed

Fury Unleashed
Fury Unleashed has such an unremarkable title that I’ve looked it up twice while typing this sentence just to make sure I remembered it correctly, but it’s a hell of a fun game. It plays like a version of Rogue Legacy that focuses on firearms rather than melee weapons, and that in itself would probably be enough to convince me to give it a spin, but it stands as its own experience as well.

And it’s a brutal one. In a good way! I loved Rogue Legacy, to be clear, but the longer I played it, the more the difficulty receded. I’d encounter a tough enemy, boss, environment, whatever, and I’d die a bunch of times. Dying those times gave me the chance to upgrade my abilities, meaning when I returned I was stronger than they were. I’m simplifying, and the process isn’t quite as quick to unravel as it may sound, but the fact is that simply facing tough enemies often enough will allow you to surpass them. Instead of the game challenging me more as I progressed, it challenged me less.

With Rogue Legacy, it got to the point that I wouldn’t hit a wall of difficulty unless I got exceptionally unlucky with the randomized levels. With Fury Unleashed it’s the opposite: I’d barely make progress unless I got exceptionally lucky with its randomized levels.

I still can’t beat the first area reliably. Often, sure, but not reliably. I’ve upgraded my character many times over, but none of that makes up for carelessness. Stop paying attention to what you’re doing, even briefly, and you will likely suffer damage so severe you’ll massively reduce your chances against the eventual boss. I’ve hurled many profanities at the game, but really I was hurling them at myself. The game is fair, almost mockingly so. You’ll die frequently and have nobody to blame other than yourself.

It’s not my favorite game of the year, of course, but it’s difficult to identify many true flaws. The leveling is a slow process, but when comparing it to Rogue Legacy’s issues, that may be a good thing. The controls feel slippery, but only until you get used to them, at which point they feel perfect for the game. The close-quarters melee combat is a bit wimpy, but that’s surely by design in a game that wants you to use your guns.

There’s nothing Fury Unleashed does that I can’t justify, in other words. Its missteps are differences of opinion. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and writing about it is making me want to play it again.

4) Panzer Paladin

Panzer Paladin
Panzer Paladin had a very real shot at being my favorite game this year. Every one of the ingredients was there, and, honestly, I’m probably being more harsh on it than I really should be simply because it was so close to being great. If it did few things right and bungled the rest, it would be easier for me to engage with it for what it is. Instead, because it’s so close to being exactly what I wanted, it’s difficult to focus on much other than the small gap that keeps it from getting there.

I am a sucker for so much of what Panzer Paladin is by default. It’s a work of gorgeous pixel art. It has a genuinely incredible soundtrack. It takes design cues from some of my favorite 8-bit games, including Mega Man and Blaster Master. That’s the surface-level stuff and because it nails that, I enjoy it.

Surprisingly for a game about a gigantic robot, Panzer Paladin focuses on melee weapons. And I don’t mean that in terms of combat alone. Melee weapons are broken down at the end of stages to fund upgrades. They break with repeated use but can be destroyed before that point in exchange for a health bonus, defense boost, or other one-off effect. They also serve as checkpoints; embed one in a pedestal and you can start there if you die…but you really are leaving it behind. If it was your only weapon — or only good weapon — you are making the screens to come much more difficult for yourself.

All of this is great, in concept. By tying so many functions to the weapons you pick up (there are more I haven’t discussed, such as opening certain passages or hurling them as projectiles), you take one of the most basic givens of platformers and elevate it to a level of ongoing consideration that I’ve never seen in a game of this style. Every use of your weapon — and those potential uses are many — constitutes a decision. It’s brilliant. It adds a memorable wrinkle to the gameplay without ever interrupting it.

As I said, it’s so close to greatness. So damned close. And yet it falls down in other areas of the design. The game being difficult should indeed be a given; I am glad my big robot is so easily destroyed by traps and enemies. I am less enamored of the fact that its stiff, tiny jump leads to falling into pits so frequently, ending my run no matter how well or poorly I was doing up until that point. I am less enamored of the sparse checkpoints, which often require me to redo huge portions of the level due to failing one of those jumps. I am less enamored of the blind jumps and unforeseeable death traps. You can have one or two of the things on this list in your game, but when you’re combining impossible-to-predict death with rare checkpoints, you will court frustration.

There’s also the problem of fighting without a weapon. Since your weapon can be destroyed, lost, consumed, or sacrificed at so many points along the way, you need to be able to fight without one. Panzer Paladin allows this, but with a punch with such a short range that it’s difficult to use without taking damage yourself. You’ll find yourself fighting bosses with unclear hitboxes long after you’ve run out of weapons, and a little bit of grace there would help them feel more sporting. Everything is so close with Panzer Paladin. So close. It might be my most frustrating game of the year.

3) Spelunky 2

Spelunky 2
I honestly can’t say enough good about Spelunky, which quickly became one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the rare non-retro games that I still boot up to take for a spin years later. To be clear, I’m not saying this to brag about my skill or anything; Spelunky is brutal and while I keep getting better at it I never quite get good at it. My deaths are frequent, avoidable, and hilarious. I love the game for what it is, in other words, and that’s not bolstered by any feelings of superiority or accomplishment.

Spelunky 2 could have given us more of the same and it would have ended up on this list. Which is good, because that’s basically what Spelunky 2 did. Everything feels familiar. The art style, the music, the physics (for the most part). The different environments even call back to those in the first game, even though this time we’re on the moon. The items are similar. The mechanics are similar. The enemies are similar.

And that’s half of the problem. With a procedurally generated game like Spelunky, it’s endlessly replayable. (So long as you actually enjoy it, that is.) In other franchises — say, Mario — you buy a new game even if it doesn’t change much because you get the new levels and enemies and powerups and all of that fun stuff to play with. Those things are still true of Spelunky 2, but enough of those things were already in the first game that it often doesn’t feel much different. Spelunky 2 has new content, but it’s spread out enough that it sometimes doesn’t register.

Is that a complaint? Not really. I do think Spelunky 2 is worth a buy (it’s on this list, after all), but it doesn’t usually feel different enough to justify the sequel. That’s the other half of the problem: When it does feel different enough, it’s not as good.

The features it adds feel either pointless or frustrating. An example of the former is the fact that levels are layered now; you can walk through a door to enter a “background” portion of the level, and then come back out again. As many times as I’ve done this, I think it’s only ever led to a few snakes or bits of gold. Rarely have I explored a background layer and felt that it was a good use of my time. In the frustrating category, we have enemies that are difficult to predict, such as burrowing ones that pop out and bite you before you can react. Are they impossible to avoid? Of course not, but part of the brilliance of Spelunky was that if you could somehow zoom out and view the entire environment at once, you’d see easily which hazards would threaten you at any given point. Here, they’re far more difficult to predict. Sometimes an enemy pops out and kills you, and that ends your run. That’s nowhere near as fun or fair as being speared by an arrow trap because you were paying attention to the wrong thing.

Overall I don’t think it’s quite as good or as fun as the first game, but I’ll keep playing it. It’s rougher around the edges, but it’s still a great time.

2) Wasteland 3

Wasteland 3
I loved Wasteland 2. It felt like a step back into the early days of Fallout. I am of course aware that Fallout grew out of Wasteland, but it also presented itself, its world, and its mechanics very differently. Wasteland 2 felt — in a superficial sense — like it was taking after Fallout 2 more than Wasteland. The snake nibbled its tail.

That in itself is a welcome service to provide. Fans who came to Fallout with Fallout 3, Fallout 4, or Fallout: New Vegas would almost certainly end up curious about what the earlier, isometric games were like. Maybe they’d boot them up. If they did, I’d wager a huge percentage of them gave up quickly. The games seem more confusing than they really are, but the difficulty is massive for a newcomer. For many fans of the series, they remain historical artifacts. You might walk past them in a museum and nod. Very interesting. Next exhibit…

Wasteland 2 essentially updates that style of gameplay to be less impenetrable. The challenge is still steep, but it’s easier to accept as a deliberate part of the experience rather than as a symptom of unintuitive design. It presents a post-nuclear landscape that is relentless, bleak, and relentlessly bleak. Fallout cuts its horror with humor, which I love, but Wasteland 2 relegated the humor to the sidelines. Fallout would lock you out of earning a fun weapon or handy armor if you made the wrong decision in a quest. Wasteland 2 would literally wipe an entire location from existence before you got to explore it. Fallout gave you an objective to strive for. Wasteland 2 asked you, and not even firmly, to just try to make the world a little less shitty.

You were a Desert Ranger, basically one member of a group of mercenaries who represented the closest thing this world had to justice. You were sometimes mediator, sometimes jailer, sometimes executioner. The moral dilemmas were many, and it was rarely as easy as solving that dilemma for yourself; you’d often have to back up your decision with brute force, with firepower, with luck. Make a decision you know is right and you can still find your squadmates gunned down under the desert sun because the person you sided against disagrees.

Wasteland 3 is more of the same, and yet unique in many ways. It’s more forgiving than Wasteland 2, which felt to me like a step backward, but which will probably be a genuine selling point for many people. It also relocates the action from Arizona and California to Colorado. This makes a superficial difference — it’s snowy instead of sandy — but little else. In fact, Wasteland 3 commits the sin Fallout is now so fond of committing: Your buddies from the previous games all show up so the studio audience can applaud. Honestly, the characters I remember most strongly from Wasteland 3 are ones I actually met in Wasteland and Wasteland 2. That wouldn’t be the case if the new characters got to occupy some space of their own. It almost makes me wonder why we changed settings between games at all if everyone would make the same trip with us so we wouldn’t need to miss them.

All of which is to say, Wasteland 3 wasn’t as interesting or clever to me as Wasteland 2, and yet it was a genuinely great experience. It’s somewhere between the brutality of Wasteland 2 and the accessibility of modern Fallout. It feels like a transition between Wasteland 2 and whatever Wasteland 4 will be, rather than a game with its own identity. And that’s okay; it’s more entertaining as a transition than most games are as finished products. But only rarely were the moral dilemmas, combat, and exploration as tricky for me as I wanted them to be.

1) Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise

Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
Deadly Premonition is a weird game, and I’m speaking about more than its tone and content. I’m speaking about the way in which you need to engage with it. If you treat it like any other game — something that provides outputs to your inputs, illustrating success or failure — you will get absolutely nothing out of it, other than periodic bafflement. But it you treat it like…well, like a unique artistic experience, and you keep yourself open to what the artist behind it means to say and is trying to do, it’s genuinely unforgettable.

In the years since its release, it’s become a fascinating game to study. There are things it does wrong from a design standpoint, but it’s still fun. There are narrative decisions every author would be cautioned against making, but it’s still engaging. There are exaggerations of characterization that shouldn’t happen outside of a Looney Tunes short, and it’s still moving. Deadly Premonition is a rare game that doesn’t just succeed in spite of its flaws, but is strangely enhanced by them. Everything the game does “wrong” somehow elevates everything it does right. I could spend literal hours speaking about the game’s serious problems, and that same speech could serve as my justification for why it’s one of my favorite games overall.

All of which is to say, a sequel was a fucking terrifying prospect. It could either iron out the “flaws” of the first game, robbing it of at least some of its unique identity, or it could lean into them, aware of the “joke,” trodding all over its accidental charm. Somehow, Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise does neither. That perfect blend of roughness and brilliance that almost certainly came together accidentally for the first game comes together again, intentionally this time but no less effectively. It’s an absolute miracle.

Deadly Premonition 2 is a prequel and a sequel, following FBI Agent Francis York Morgan on a murder investigation that unfolds both before and after the events of the first game. It’s serious and silly by turns, and it’s often one when you’re expecting the other. You’re investigating a grisly dismemberment that requires mastery of a bowling minigame to solve. You’ll narrate key information to yourself as you skateboard through town, stopping mid-thought because you’ve been struck by a motorist and flung into somebody’s yard. You’ll have a tagalong moppet who seems to add nothing at the start of the game but who becomes a crucial, emotionally significant part of the overall experience.

Everything about Deadly Premonition 2 should be in conflict with everything else, and maybe it even is. Maybe that’s the magic. Maybe internal conflict somehow moves the game ahead of where it otherwise would be. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s clever, it’s unnerving, it’s emotional, and it’s cartoony. Deadly Premonition shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it did so better than many other games that, technically speaking, did far more things correctly. Deadly Premonition 2 can’t work, and in spite of that it does. Right in front of you. As you watch. Amazed by whatever sorcery it’s employing to take so many things that don’t work together and arrange them in such a way that it’s the best game of the year.

I don’t know how developer SWERY managed to get the blend just right for the first game, and I don’t know what demon purchased his soul in exchange for getting it right a second time. SWERY is either one of the most brilliant artists making games today, or he’s by a country mile the luckiest one. Either way, you owe it to yourself to experience the madness.

Merry Xmas, happy new year, continue to not die. I’ll see you on the other side.

Announcing: Resident Evil, by Philip J Reed

Three years in the making, it’s finally time for the official announcement: My book, Resident Evil, is part of season five of Boss Fight Books.

Boss Fight Books is an excellent publisher, and I cannot express how profoundly honored I am to be included in their lineup. Each of their books focuses on one particular video game and then branches — to varying degrees — into larger topics, histories, personal journeys, and so much more.

This season includes books about The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Red Dead Redemption, Silent Hill 2, and Final Fantasy VI.

My book is about Resident Evil. Here, I can prove it:

Resident Evil is my central case study for discussing horror and how it works, with an extended tour through the deadly Spencer Mansion allowing us to discuss the writing, directing, and structuring of scares, along with the surprising power of horror to bring us together.

It’s done. It’s as ready to be distributed as it can possibly be without actually being printed.

Which is where you come in.

The Kickstarter campaign for season five is live right now.

If you were only ever interested in a copy of my book, then don’t worry; think of this as a preorder. Pay $5 for a digital copy or pay $15 for both a physical and digital copy. You get my book and you support the campaign by doing so.

Nice and easy!

However, there are other options available that are worth exploring. Pay $25 and you’ll get all five books digitally. Pay $30 and get two physical/digital copies of any of them. (Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2 fit nicely together, I hear.) Pay $75 for the entire set physically and digitally and get a personal thank-you within the books.

The list goes on. Check out all of the different ways you can support the campaign and get some nice goodies for yourself.

The nicest goodie of all might be Nightmare Mode. If the campaign hits $20,000 in funding, backers will receive this anthology featuring additional material from 10 Boss Fight Books authors past and present, myself included.

I have put more work into Resident Evil than I can express without sounding like I’m writing a suicide note. There is no doubt in my mind that if you enjoy my writing in general, you’ll enjoy this. (To be frank, you’d be nuts if you didn’t enjoy it more. Working with professional editors makes a huge difference.)

You can read all about my book and the others on the Kickstarter page.

I hope you will consider supporting the campaign, which you can do no matter what title or titles you decide to buy.

During the campaign I’ll be sharing more information about the book right here on this site. (Seriously, I’m not going to shut up about it.) I hope you’ll join me in reading about the adventures I’ve had off the page and getting a sense of just why this game — like the writing of this book — has been so important to me.

For now, though, please visit the campaign. Watch the video to learn more (and to hear the original Resident Evil narrator Ward Sexton introduce my book!), decide what awesome stuff you’d like to have on your bookshelf, and consider supporting some great authors and an even better publisher.

I hope you enjoy reading Resident Evil even half as much as I enjoyed writing it.

More to come. See you soon.

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...