Monday, December 29, 2014

End of the Year Awards!

I've been thinking about how to go about a Game of the Year list for a while since I played a lot of games this year that didn't come out this year and don't really like the idea of ranking games. It'd also be too hard to choose from just a few to talk about. Then Merritt Kopas compiled for her curation site Forest Ambassador a game award list featuring every game posted on her site this year with awards given out by anonymous users via Google Docs. I thought that was a really cool, fun way to do an end of the year list for a ton of games. Since I kept track of all the games, regardless of release, I played since January, I've decided to shamelessly copy the format to that list of games. And of course, these awards are all ones that I've given out personally because selfishness, the biggest reason this list could never be as good as the Forest Ambassador one. Forest Ambassador has been a hugely important source of great games for me this year, so a lot of games on this list I first found through the site. You should consider supporting Merritt Kopas and her work here.

The Last of Us - Best Use of the Tired Zombie Apocalypse Trope and Accompanying Themes

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons- Best Bros/Best Button Press

Animal Crossing: New Leaf- Snarkiest Citizens

GTA V- Most in Love with Itself/Best Social Media Simulation

Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon- Best Vacuum/Best Game to Actually Turn on 3D function on 3DS

The Last of Us: Left Behind - Best Photobooth

Assassin’s Creed II- Most Distrust of Authority/Weirdest Mario Reference

Dark Souls II - Most Improved Multiplayer/Best Dragon Level

DmC: Devil May Cry - OMGWTF Award for Outrageous Nonsense/Provolone Award for Cheesiest Writing

Valiant Hearts: The Great War - Best Treatment of Soldiers as People/Most Loyal Doggie <3

Child of Light - Coolest Hair Physics

Dys4ia - Best Imagery as Speech

Alpaca Run - Best Song/Most Uplifting

Talks with My Mom - Best Use of Text in Dream Bubbles

Patatap- Most Mesmerizing

Nihilistic Acid Oppression- Most Oppressively Nihilistic/Lowest pH

The Citizen Kane of Games- Best Search for Games as Art

Catachresis - Best Walking Animations/Scariest Apocalypse

Sacrilege - Sexiest Gospel Evangelists

Oh No! - Best Escape from Hostile Disembodied Head

On August 11, A Ship Sailed Into Port - Silliest Listicles

Other Side- Loneliest Game

Mainichi - Most Uncomfortable Walk to a Coffee Shop

Problem Attic - Best Glitches

Probe Team - Best Robot Noises

Electric Tortoise - Best Cyberpunk Game

The Faeres’ Curse - Most Orange

Bite Me - Funniest Attempt to Escape Death

I’m Really Sorry About That Thing I Said When I Was Tired and/or Hungry - Best Daydreams/Most Recollective

Social Justice Ice Cream Shoppe - I Need It Award for Game I Want to Become a Thing in Real Life or Place I Can Go in Real Life/Best Ice Cream Flavors

brick [brick smash] smash - Coolest Meta-bricks

Last Chance Supermarket - Most Dangerous Shopping

Enviro-Bear 2000 - Smartest Bear Driver

BrokenFolx - Loveliest Hearts

Curtain - Best Use of Space

Glitchhikers - Most Interesting Strangers/Most Introspective

Gone Home - Most Riot Grrl/Most Joyful Ending

Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Video Games - I gave the award at Forest Ambassador “Best Dancing that Kills Video Games,” which is unwieldy, so maybe “Best Weaponized Dance Moves” is better

Coming Out Simulator 2014 - Most Clueless Parents

Realistic Kissing Simulator - Most Tongue-y

Dee’s Big Night - Best Toying with Player Expectations

How do you Do it? - Best Childhood Confusion

Five Nights at Freddy’s - Scariest Animatronics

Chef - Best Eyebrows

Tampon Run - Best Weaponized Tampons

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U - Best Game to Play While Listening to the Isometric Show/Best Fanservice

Super Meat Boy - Best Wall Jumps/Most Meaty/Most Spinning Saws

Wunderheiler - Best Investigative Medical Care

reProgram - Best Look at Self-Care

The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo - Most Disastrous Sleepover

Sonic Adventure 2: Battle - Sonic the Hedgehog Award for Best Sonic the Hedgehog Game/Weirdest Replay

10 Seconds in Hell - Most Urgent

Parable of the Polygons - Most Educational

Creatures Such As We - Best Metanarrative

Queers in Love at the End of the World :) - Most Upsetting/Most Short-lived Moment

Pornography for Beginners - Most Rules About Pornagraphy

Cis Gaze - Best Use of Colored Text

Capitalism - Most Coins/Least Apples

A Pretty Ornament I Made - Most Stressful Christmas

A Bird Story - Biggest Paper Plane

Okami HD - Most Inciting Anger at Education System for Leaving You in the Dark about Eastern Culture/Cutest Animals You Can Feed <3

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Simulated Anxiety in Creatures Such As We and Queers in Love at the End of the World

Earlier this month Cara Ellison wrote about two romance games (as Cara Ellison does): Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such As We and Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World. I played these games after reading her words about them, and both games, though very different in what they try to accomplish, put me in unfamiliar situations that evoke familiar, old feelings brought about by social anxiety--feelings and fears that still haunt me though more irregularly and less potently.

Creatures Such As We is a piece of interactive fiction that I recommend taking the approximately two hours to play. In Creatures Such As We, the AAA game-within-the-game’s emotionally disatisfying ending hangs over your head before you go back to your job. You’re a tour guide for the moon, and today you happen to be guiding the development team of said game on a lunar retreat. Besides having a chance to ask the designers about the game in order to come to grips with its ending, you can also romance one of the several developers. Creatures Such As We has a lot of good thematic meat wrapped in well-written science fiction. Even though the characters talk about the themes so directly to a fault, the game asks questions with nuance about the nature of romance in games and the inability for non-playable characters to consent, whether the author or the audience controls meaning in art, the pros and cons of indie vs. AAA development, and death and failure. There’s a lot to delve into, and I’d like to maybe later on take a closer look at Creatures Such As We after multiple playthroughs and exploring different paths, but in the meantime Cara Ellison (linked above) and Emily Short provide good overviews of the game and analysis of its metanarrative.

As for how the game incites anxiety in me, it presents choices of interaction in a way much closer to reality than other games I’ve played. It’s not through any particularly groundbreaking system, but whereas most mainstream games with NPC interaction allow you infinite opportunity to get to know a whole cast of characters or even an entire population of a town, Creatures Such As We forces you to choose who you hang out with in the plot’s linear, unstoppable flow of time. Early in the game, once you meet everyone in the development team, they invite you to join them for lunch. But you must choose between two tables to sit at (or decide to maintain a professional distance [more on that later], which, if I was roleplaying myself, that’s what I would have done, but who wants to do remain distanced in a dating sim?). And immediately I’m whisked back to the beginnings of high school, wondering what table I should sit at. At this point in the game, much like that first day in high school, you’ve gathered some cursory details about the personalities of some people, including James’ frankness, Ren’s focus, and Diana’s curiosity. But that’s not enough to determine who you’re going to want to spend time with, and so you start to panic. What good times am I going to miss out on if I go sit with this group over that one? Can you really trust the people at this table? It’s obviously not healthy to obsess over these thoughts, but with social anxiety at its worst, they can seize you up frozen, preventing you from connecting to anybody as you continue contemplating your decision after you’ve already sat down.

Of course I didn’t reach this extreme over the fictional characters, but I did feel a twinge of these old anxieties that led to a vivid recollection of them when presented with certain choices. And the game seems to build on these symptoms of social anxiety through the tension caused by the player character’s duty to perform a role for these characters vs. fulfilling personal needs and desires. You’re supposed to be a professional tour guide and help make sure everything runs smoothly for the guests and be a good employee, but you also want to get away from the loneliness of the job, speak the truth about the whole operation, and understand more about the ending to that damn game. When I first sit at a table, I am asked uncomfortable questions about the facilities and the company’s practices and motives as well as philosophical questions about game design and art after inquiring about their game (I said they were direct). I answer vaguely about my work and my employer and say clichéd things about games and art, so I get a lukewarm reception from the characters. I feel like I fail at performing both as a good tour guide for allowing to guests to air and perhaps reinforce skepticism of their retreat and as a potential friend for being blasé and detached. It’s exactly the sort of experience people who long for friendship but are hindered by anxiety have.

Creatures Such As We evokes a sense of anxiety because it doesn’t cater to the player like games such as Mass Effect, a series the game heavily invokes with its game-within-a-game that makes players feel entitled to a satisfying experience only to have them let down by a “bad” ending. In a playthrough of Mass Effect 3, you can go through pretty much your whole crew’s dialogue. Having a conversation with Mordin on the Normandy doesn’t exclude you from a conversation with EDI that should be happening at the same time. According to Bioware, the player should be able to see everything if she wants to. Despite the urgency of your mission to save Earth from the Reapers, you’re free to run the Citadel dry of inconsequential side quests and have idle conversation with all of your crew members in between missions. Time in the Mass Effect universe is controlled by you, the player, as time only passes when you want it to--when you decide to trigger the main plot events. This freedom to essentially stop the clock allows you to experience all the content (that word) the creators put in the game. Therefore, the anxious question of “who am I going to hang out with today?” doesn’t hang over your head because you’ll be able to talk to everyone. In Creatures Such As We, you have a limited time with the designers, and every interaction you have with the game progresses that time. This approach to narrative design is conducive to the anxieties of “missing out,” the fear common to real life that your actions might not be leading to the best outcomes for either yourself or others. 

I realize that Creatures Such As We might not be special in this case because I haven’t played many dating sims before. Would Hatoful Boyfriend evoke anxiety in me through similar means? If I ever take a closer look at Creatures Such As We I’ll do more research on dating sims to find out.

I’d also just like to say that Creatures Such As We may also contribute to anxious feelings with its use of ChoiceScript, which uses fill-in bubbles for your options in the game, which makes playing the game feel vaguely like taking an online standardized test or filling out an application of some sort. Heh.  


While Creatures Such As We simulates anxiety about who you interact with, Queers in Love at the End of the World focuses on how you interact. Unlike Creatures, Queers has already decided who you’ll spend time with, but you have to choose how you’re going to spend the last ten seconds of existence with your lover. Once you begin the game, a timer ticks down as you click the text to choose what to do with or say to your lover. When time runs out, the screen of text you’re reading is cleared and “Everything is wiped away.” You’re able to restart the sequence again and again indefinitely [insert Groundhog Day reference].

Your various options for physical intimacy, proclaiming your love, and revelling in seeing the end of oppressive systems are bittersweet because the happy moment is far too short before the world ends. It’s impossible to savor the overtly emotional, breathless writing in the game because it’s gone in an instant, most likely before you get to the end of a particular narrative branch. The utopic scenes in Queers are such fleeting teases that playing the game feels like a nightmare. The timer tells you that you need to act NOW to make this moment good and special for you and your partner, but there are so many options and so little time that you don’t know if you can do one thing meaningfully with your lover let alone everything. So much for taking twenty minutes to decide the future of the Geth in Mass Effect without anyone batting an eyelid.

The game is like the anxious indulgence that nearly everyone takes part in of replaying a real or imaginary scene in your head, wondering how different actions you could take might affect the situation. It’s an activity you can easily get wrapped up in despite its glaring vanity. In Queers, like these agonizing moments of angst in the shower or in bed, you start to worry about the minutiae of your possible actions. Should I kiss her softly or fiercely? On the lips or the forehead? You don’t really have the time to consider, to over-analyze these things. The end of the world doesn’t give a shit about your anxiety. Time passes. You play the game again. Was simply holding hands enough? You tend not to think so. You play the game again and again and again, but nothing seems to really be enough. You want to do everything with your lover, and you want the moment to last forever, or at least long enough.

Cara Ellison writes in her verse about the game:

I want to destroy the game
I want to get inside Twine nodes and fuck with the script and dismantle the timer
I want to kick the shit out of it

Time is the anxious person’s mortal enemy (or at least one of them). Not only is there not enough time in the day to do everything you want to do, there’s not enough time to be anxious about everything you want to be anxious about. While games like Mass Effect remove the element of anxiety caused by the progression of time in order for players to enjoy their constructed worlds, Creatures Such As We and Queers in Love at the End of the World embrace time as a successful narrative device. Creatures uses the progression of time to posit that games that don’t cater to the player may make her uncomfortable, but such stories that don’t center on the player are worth telling. Queers uses the limitation of time to emphasize the need to take action to communicate and express with your lover (and to destroy your heart). Anxiety is the aftermath that makes you obsessively question if what you did was “right” or “the best” of if you ever could have done what was right or best.

In Queers you kiss your partner hungrily, thinking that this intimacy is healing both your wounds and hers. But--

“Is this healing?


The world ends. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Last Chance Supermarket: Control and Capitalism

Sebastian Lague’s game Last Chance Supermarket is a goofy little satire on consumption during the holiday season. It’s Christmas Eve and to make your family happy, you have to go out to purchase inexplicable numbers of printers, orange juice, cooking books, et al. But this pedestrian act of shopping quickly becomes a deadly race between shoppers to grab items before they fly off the shelves. You’re put into the high-strung perspective of an avatar who can’t stop--can’t even slow down--until every last item on his list is somehow stuffed into his cart and he’s made it to the checkout. The game raises the stakes by limiting the your control to only the direction of the shopper’s movements and limiting your spatial awareness to the first-person perspective. The speed of the character and the high probability of another shopper ramming into you around the corner creates a frenetic tension that clashes with the game’s simple but cute aesthetic, much like seeing my frenzied mother in the kitchen on Christmas Eve listening to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or in the mailroom scene in Ron Howard’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Last Chance Supermarket deals with capitalistic Christmas angst much more cynically than my mother or the (super weird) adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s children’s story. For Last Chance Supermarket, the holidays end in the loss of control, the erasure of identity, and the illusion of happiness.

You steer the shopping cart with the mouse in order to get as close as possible to the items on the shelves before pressing the space bar to add them to the cart. But the avatar runs through the store indefinitely, so there’s a ridiculously small time window for you to grab anything. This means that you must mash the space bar as you run parallel to the aisle, picking up extraneous items in order to make sure you gets the one on your list. Glancing at your list for more than a second likely causes you to crash into another shopper or a shelf, which instantly kills you, ruining Christmas for your family. No, this game doesn’t represent how people shop in the real world, but that’s obviously not the point.

Zolani Stewart’s piece on Expressionism and Sonic Adventure 2 applies analysis of expressionist art to games, particularly Sonic Adventure 2, in which spaces use “abstraction [to communicate] larger ideas and perspectives about [their] settings.” I know very little about art criticism or history, but if I understand correctly from Stewart’s post, expressionism distances depicted objects from reality through exaggeration to comment on what’s beneath the surface of realistic representations. Last Chance Supermarket follows this principle. While Sonic Adventure 2 uses “structural impossibilities” in its level design of Mission Street and Radical Highway to emphasize the decay of structures caused by militarism, Last Chance Supermarket puts unrealistic restrictions on the player in a bizarrely set-up supermarket to comment on the pressures of delivering a good Christmas through spending.

The absurdity of the game’s premise that coincides with the absurdity of the conception that a good Christmas requires consumer products runs through both the gameplay and the aesthetics. The avatar’s endless sprinting through the store suggests a blind sense of urgency that not only doesn’t stop to shop more precisely but also doesn’t stop to consider the dehumanization of the practice. You run over dead bodies with cubic, faceless heads in the aisle without a care as you fling 4 mini Christmas trees and 6 muffins trays into your cart. All of the shoppers look just like one another, and you’re just another eager body ready to shell out while risking death. The blocky facsimiles are robotic representations of people who are so enraptured by the need to fulfill a standard for holiday “joy” that they don’t realize that the other shoppers are in the same boat and will happily snatch up items they don’t need in order to ensure that shallow ideal of a perfect Christmas. After you fall dead, a message pops on screen reading, “You died in a shopping cart accident. You family was mortified, and Christmas was  a flop.” The importance is placed on the failure of Christmas rather than your death, with “flop” connotating disappointment due to missed potential rather than a family tragedy. In this surreal world, your family cares more about products and purchased happiness than human life.

No, Last Chance Supermarket is not subtle (see big sign in the store reading “You’ve only got ONE chance before the year’s end to prove just how much your family means to you. SO DON’T SKIMP ON THE EXPENSIVE STUFF”). It’s also not particularly nuanced. I even worried for a while about whether or not the game contributes to the culture of shaming low-income shoppers who can only afford holiday deals for luxury items. The shoppers in this game are dehumanized as I already mentioned, and their deaths are portrayed as funny in their absurdity. But I think the game is at least a bit sensitive to the cause of the frantic, dangerous shopping scene even though it focuses on depicting an exaggerated effect on the shopper instead. The reminders in the store about the pressure to please your family (while overbearing) indicate a surface-level critique of the promises of consumer spending. And the deaths in the store are always caused by accident instead of volitional violence, suggesting the shoppers are more victimized by the system and cultural messages rather than each other as “materialistic savages.” Still, I think it’d be more interesting for a game to examine where those cultural messages come from and why people believe them, especially since everyone already knows that the holidays are hectic and stressful. Regardless of what Last Chance Supermarket doesn’t do, it’s a simultaneously fun and unsettling little game with a simple message about the commodification of holiday joy.