This year has been an interesting one for digital entertainment. With the many shifts and changes in the global gaming industry, and especially the rise of mobile games competing for limited attention spans on the go, I've been feeling more and more outmoded as a conventional gamer.
That allure of choosing to devote time to a robust sit-on-your-couch gaming experience has not made the transition well for those with busy lifestyles. However, just like with reading a good book in the solitude of the home, the most thoughtful gaming experience begins and ends with a controller in hand and all other distractions at bay.
To disclaim, this is not a list of games that changed my life, nor the only great gaming experiences of the year. They are simply the sort of long-form games which personally left me with a lasting impression on their own merits and failings. On the whole — a look back on this year's most interesting and valuable digital art.
[blockquote cite="Provost Willem, Bloodborne."]"We are born of the blood, made men by the blood, undone by the blood."[/blockquote]
Perhaps no other gaming auteur has as much conversation with their genre than Hidetaka Miyazaki, with FromSoftware's Bloodborne wearing the romanticised trappings of the ultra-Gothic unabashedly on its sleeve.
Bloodborne is one part homage to Lovecraft and one part exploration of the occult manifest in the physical plane of flesh and blood. O lord, so much blood …
You see, Bloodborne tells the tale of you, a Hunter, who has travelled to the city of Yharnam on the night of 'The Hunt'. While Yharnam once flourished with the panacea of 'Blood Ministration', the widespread transfusions of the mystical 'Old Blood' caused an endemic illness that transformed the people of the city into hulking beasts.
If that alone doesn't evoke images of Transylvanian terrors and Cosmic horrors, then I don't know what will.
Conventional tropes of Gothic horror permeate throughout — albeit, filtered through a characteristically Japanese lens. The streets of the spired and buttressed Yharnam are infested by its insane residents, who themselves are thoroughly riddled with the taint of death, disease, and the scourge of lycanthropy.
The Gothic is intertwined with the Cosmic of gruesome corporeal monstrosities, so unknowable, that the mere knowledge and sight of them drives one insane.
Bloodborne, really, is about finding forbidden knowledge and succumbing to the visceral pulpy horrors as a consequence. Miyazaki's game is inscrutable, hostile, and drenched in a dread of the unknown. And it never gets better, the more of Bloodborne's lore you experience. And the more insight you gather, the further the dread sets in like the final nail in a coffin.
[blockquote cite="Toby Fox, Undertale."]"Playfully crinkling through the leaves fills you with determination."[/blockquote]
Undertale embodies lucidity. Undertale is about playing a waking-dream. Undertale is a stream of consciousness. Undertale is surreally logical. Undertale is metanarrative. Undertale is self-aware. Undertale probably even has charming sentience.
Undertale is a game made entirely by Toby Fox.
Undertale is a Japanese roleplaying game which you can finish without killing anyone.
Undertale follows the story of a young human child who adventures deep underground into "Monster World", a veritable land of strange creatures riffing on pop-culture to folktales with an almost absurdist yokai quality in their designs.
Forgive me if I withhold any further plot or premise. This gem is best experienced without that essence of discovery marred beforehand by spoilers or context. Just trust that you'll be in for a kooky ride.
Playing Undertale is a comic exploration of compassion, determination, and true morality and what the consequences of violence and its alternatives can mean when interacting with videogames. Toby Fox's depiction of this is with playfulness and sincerity, while never once toeing the line of the overwrought.
The pacing of the story is excellent and the danmaku 'combat' system is positively enlightened. To top it all off, Fox's soundtrack for the game is evocative of those 90s-kid days growing up playing the SNES with my father. The chiptunes are oh-so catchy and reminiscent of Earthbound.
It's no coincidence Earthbound rears its head in comparisons — Fox is vocal about the prominence of Earthbound's influence in Undertale's making. Though the influence is strong, it is only spiritually so.
There may be no new ideas under the sun, but derivative is not a word that describes Fox's work or his humour.
[blockquote cite="David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World (1970)."]"Oh no, not me
We never lost control
You're face to face
With the man who sold the world"[/blockquote]
This game will forever be remembered for being haunted by phantoms both literal and metaphorical. Director Hideo Kojima has had a rough year dealing with the appalling actions Konami took against him and his studio, Kojima Productions, during their falling out.
The game that came out of the crisis is both fundamentally flawed and fundamentally brilliant, and a worthy installment in the Metal Gear series. MGSV is an example of life imitating art. During development, Kojima Productions suffered continuous pressure and harassment from upper management at Konami. The result is a game that is narratively incomplete and dissatisfying to long-time fans, but game systems finely-tuned like a well-oiled war machine.
There is no scope here to cover all that Metal Gear is or represents, and doing so would be a gross waste of time. Really, go ahead and play the whole series — the HD collection and a few let's plays will serve you well in introducing the quirky and serious world of Metal Gear.
At this point Metal Gear has a pedigree and a lineage, but at least Kojima can stick by MGSV being his last Metal Gear game, and leaving Konami to move on to newer greener pastures with Sony.
Suffice to say that MGSV is the story of legendary soldier, Naked Snake AKA Big Boss, leader a global military without borders or conscience. After suffering defeat and destruction of his Mother Base at the hands of secret organisation Cipher and falling into a coma for 9 years, Big Boss awakens in 1984 to don the codename Venom Snake, rebuild his army from the ashes, and pursue revenge for his fallen comrades.
Less of an open world and more a military sandbox, the Phantom Pain is the first in its series to be set in a continuous world that takes Venom Snake to Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region during the height of the Cold War. Fascinatingly, this is not a military nor a war simulation; the Phantom Pain is an 80s Action Hero™ simulator à la Rambo with PF backing.
Reimagining and innovating Metal Gear's stealth gameplay, the Phantom Pain simulates John Rambo, as you sneak your way through Soviet bases scattered around the north of Kabul.
Tense cinematography, visually arresting cutscenes, and characteristically epic narrative are Kojima's calling cards, but here they feel compromised in vision due to Konami's interference — leaving us with the shell of a game and that interminable, uncanny feeling of phantom pain and no idea of knowing whether this was intentional or not. Life imitates art.
There will probably be no game before and after where I can craft my own war stories infiltrating and clearing a village in Afghanistan, loading the bodies of the tranquilised Soviet soldiers onto a truck, ramming the truck into their neighbouring desert fortress, and slipping out just in time to rescue a hostage held there amidst the ensuing chaos.
Kojima's final Metal Gear deals ludologically with the concept of nuclear warfare, arms escalation and détènte especially in its multiplayer invasion component — like the best parts of Nash's game theory. The anti-war, anti-nuke message of the series takes on a different meaning in 2015 with elements of MGSV hearkening back to Cold War era geopolitics, while also acknowledging the spectre of 9/11 and America's 'Forever War'.
Yet the most interesting aspects of MGSV's villain, Skullface, and the central conflict involves the issues of ethnic cleansing and genocide by language — issues that Bangladeshis relate to more personally, as one of our grievances against Pakistan in 1971. Cipher's Skullface lashes out against America and the English language. His belief is that English helped destroy his personal identity, manner of thought, and cultural perspectives through its colonial imposition. Something that only happens when one's mother tongue is supplanted by that of the coloniser's.
"Words can kill."
[blockquote cite="Geralt of Rivia, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt."]"If I'm to choose between one evil and another, I'd rather not choose at all."[/blockquote]
AAA gaming has been selling the allure of hundreds of hours of content and open world gaming for some time, and 2015 certainly feels like the year of the open world as it were. However, I'd be loathe to say that what the Witcher 3 offers is merely a pile of meaningless content you mow through to make the numbers on your stat sheet go up.
The Witcher 3 is instead a medieval rural tapestry of beautifully crafted stories that take place on the unnamed Continent. I didn't think I would enjoy being Geralt of Rivia, the dashing titular Witcher (monster hunter), until realising that the role and world I was inhabiting combined folklore and fairytale, the epic saga, and hybrid low fantasy — credit to the author of the original books, Andrzej Sapkowski.
CD Projekt immerses gamers in every authentic minutiae of the world and its peoples. There is parochial beauty in the profanity of the common, ugliness of character hiding behind the pristine, and whispered secrets carried in the winds blowing through the rustling trees. The Witcher 3 has a lot that immerses: A beautiful blend of narrative world-building, a sharp focus on story, complex systems and mechanics, and amazing graphical fidelity married to a grotesque and colourful aesthetic.
The inescapable feeling of being mired in a truer Poland, with its environs of bogs, meadows, and mountains was palpable. Finding a world of wonder to discover and inhabit but never fully grasp in its entirety, channelled the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog".
And after hundreds of hours of content, after the lives I had touched, failed to save, or ended brutally, and the bizarre monsters I had slain — so alarmingly alike in kind to the Rakhosh and Dainis my grandmother spoke of in my youth — I was left with fulfillment.
And it all meant more to me than the coin they paid.