• Retrospective, Part 2

    Updated list of games played taken from Backloggd.

    The last six months have been weird. Between my first bout of COVID, a car accident, a fried motherboard, and deciding to quit my job, I’ve had more trouble than normal focusing on games. Add to that the continued decline of Twitter and I’ve pretty much had to rethink my entire approach to recording my thoughts about games.

    With that in mind, I decided to finish the year with another recap of some of my most recent playthroughs. My tangible goals were practically nonexistent this time around, but the idea’s to shift to handwritten journals and a six-month retrospective calendar next year.

    In terms of stats:

    June 20, 2023 –
    December 31, 2023

    • Played: 13
    • Finished: 10
    • Abandoned: 2
    • In Progress: 1

    June 19, 2022 –
    June 19, 2023

    • Played: 41
    • Finished: 35
    • Abandoned: 4
    • In Progress: 1
    • Shelved: 1

    Unsurprisingly, my pace for finishing games over the last six months dropped roughly 35-40% from the prior year. Part of this, though, came down to my choice in games: I generally spent more time playing longer RPGs than shorter titles from other genres.

    I also tended to pick games I was more likely to enjoy this cycle; with limited time and less of a clear motive to branch out, I figured I might as well keep things simple. In the process, I found myself much quicker to jettison those that couldn’t hold my attention, regardless of the exact reason.

    Even then, only a couple stand out as being especially painful, so I’ve decided to stick this time with a Top Five and Worst Two:

    Top Five

    Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
    [17h 12m]

    A fantastic narrative adventure with one of the greatest licensed gaming soundtracks outside of Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. Not that that’s surprising — after the success of the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), any Guardians game worth its salt pretty much needed to have an outstanding soundtrack to succeed. Marvel’s Guardians knocked it out of the park by underscoring its surprisingly realistic character arcs and bombastic narrative with fantastic song choice, stunning costume design, and genuinely enjoyable easter eggs at all points along the way. Combat could at times become slightly shallow and repetitive, but hardly enough to take away from the overarching experience — and the “Huddle” mechanic was always more than enough to make up for it.

    A young Peter Quill looks at a movie poster for Furthings.

    Crysis 3 Remastered
    [6h 54m]

    As with the BioShock trilogy, I get the sense that the “best” Crysis game is a matter of contention. I’m not quite convinced that Crysis 3 wins that competition, but something about this one stuck with me more than the rest. Maybe it’s because I was finally playing as Prophet, who was basically a non-entity (sometimes literally) in the previous two, or maybe it’s because it felt like it tried to tackle some of the deeper questions behind the whole series. In the end, I wanted more — if only because I think they were on the cusp of doing something great.

    A cutscene from Crysis 3 identifying a low-altitude weapons system called HADES.

    Ghostwire: Tokyo
    [26h 51m]

    Now one of my all-time favorite games. I let Ghostwire sit on my backlog for over a year because it ties directly to my research — I wanted it to be good, I knew it’d feel like work, and I needed the time to really dedicate to it. And it was worth the wait. Although it does have problems, like the occasional fetch quests and semi-floaty, repetitive combat, the narrative caught me off-guard and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game as well-researched when it comes to its treatment of so many smaller elements of Japanese culture. It doesn’t need a sequel, but I would love to see Tango return to this world in the future.

    A mural in a red-tinged basement in Ghostwire depicts Hannya, the primary antagonist.

    Baldur’s Gate 3
    [200h 48m]

    The playtime alone should tell you all you need to know. To be fair, my PC did die right before I finished my first playthrough (~70hrs) — but I still made the choice to start fresh about a month later on my backup. I’ve wanted to play D&D for so long, and Baldur’s Gate proved more than capable of scratching that itch for me. My only regret is that they added Honor Mode right before I finished Tactician…

    A conversation with a pig in Baldur's Gate 3. The pig says, "Oh, how kind of you to say! I have been growing my bristles out -- it's something of an art, you see."

    Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
    [49h 20m]

    One of the two JRPGs (alongside SaGa Frontier 2) that sparked my love of games as a kid. Despite all of the time I’d spent with it, though, I’d never once finished the game — I was always too intent on trying to fully upgrade every Celestial Weapon. (I still didn’t manage to do that this playthrough, but I came closer than ever!) The story stands out to me as one of the more powerful of the series, if only because I’m partial to the religious and philosophical overtones that drive the entire journey. But more than anything else, I have only two words: Sphere Grid.

    The whale-like Sin flies on translucent wings above the city of Bevelle at sunrise or sunset.

    Worst Two

    Disco Elysium
    [4h 42m, Abandoned]

    To put it bluntly: I don’t think Disco Elysium is a bad game, but I’m not convinced it’s as good (i.e., well-written) of a game as I’d been told. I gave this one a solid try, too — a solid three tries, if I’m being honest. My initial problems were with the pacing, which I felt was far too slow, and the roll system, which I thought was far too punishing (damn you, Cuno!), but I didn’t actually believe either were indicative of the quality of the game. I still wanted to like it, and now I’d even argue that my time with Baldur’s Gate has probably better prepared me to deal with the gameplay, as a whole. That being said, I couldn’t get past the dialogue options tied to each of the four political alignments, which always felt much more like a caricature of a mid-2000s Buzzfeed “Which Character Are You?” quiz than a nuanced treatment of personal ideology. I suspect there’s more to it, especially given the sardonic humor that seems to characterize the broader game, and yet I have little real interest in slogging to uncover it. This one’s just not for me.

    The protagonist and Kim Kitsuragi discuss the Chi-Rho, a "symbol of the Perikarnassian church."

    Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood
    [1h 15m, Abandoned]

    I downloaded Earthblood on a whim because it seemed to have a promising premise: Eco-terrorist werewolf fights corporate overlord. I’ve never regretted anything more in my life. Unlike Disco Elysium, it’s just plain bad. The voice acting is terrible, the characters are basically lifeless dolls, and the stakes are practically nonexistent. Stealth is presented as an option (via traversal as a standard wolf), but I couldn’t identify a reward for pursuing it in the early game, at least not when the faster and easier alternative is mercilessly slaughtering dozens of guards in a blood-fueled rage. I saw better endless horde-style combat in Dynasty Warriors 3.

    Two white sheep on grassland in front of a blue lake.
    I didn’t take any pictures of the game, so here’s a couple of sheep that will give you more enjoyment than it ever could.

  • Retrospective, Part 1

    List of games played taken from Backloggd.

    For those of you following along on Twitter, I’ve spent most of the last year — from June 19, 2022 to June 19, 2023 — playing through as many games from my backlog as possible.

    I had two main goals:

    1. Pay attention to narrative.
    2. Actually finish each game.

    Easy enough, even if not entirely quantifiable — although I did decide early to differentiate between “finishing” and “completing” (i.e., 100%) for the sake of my own sanity. I also eventually found myself paying attention to other elements like level design (e.g., Deathloop) and score (e.g., Hades, Wolfenstein: The New Order) and decided to keep those in mind as loose subsets of the first goal.

    And, overall, I think I was fairly successful. There were a few rough ones, most of which I’ll get to below, but after years of pretty much never finishing any games, I’m pretty happy with the final stats:

    • Played: 41
    • Finished: 35
    • Abandoned: 4
    • In Progress: 1
    • Shelved: 1

    I didn’t exactly set out with the idea of doing any kind of “formal” post-mortem, but right around the halfway point, I did happen to catch Rob Mostyn’s latest yearly wrap-up. I was especially fond of his concision — something I’d do well to emulate! — and have toyed with the idea pretty much ever since.

    In the interest of space, the challenge, and not completely stealing his formula, though, I’ve limited myself to a Top Five and Worst Three:

    Top Five

    BioShock Infinite
    [17h 9m]

    The conclusion to the series that started the entire year for me. Although I’ve since learned that its ranking in the trilogy is a matter of controversy, Infinite was my awakening to the potential power of narrative design. That being said, Elizabeth’s arc is somewhat incomplete without Burial at Sea — one of the few times I’d ever argue that the DLC is a necessity — and I’m curious to know if it’ll all hold up in the face of a fourth entry. I’m also willing to wager that nothing in a sequel could ever surpass the Lutece Twins, the visual nod to Le ballon rouge (1956), or the tactile pleasure of catching the coin that Elizabeth always throws to you at just the right time.

    A kinetoscope video showing a human, two red demons, and three crows. A caption reads, "Narrator: Press to summon murderous crows!"

    Prey (2017)
    [22h 16m]

    A fever dream in the best way possible. I played this immediately after finishing BioShock Infinite and it only solidified my newfound love for immersive sims. It was definitely strange to switch from such a linear experience to the relatively “open” world of Talos I, but the sheer size and verticality of some of the levels really intensified the tension and fear of being (effectively) alone: There was no shortage of hiding spots for the Typhon. In terms of high marks, the zero-gravity movement system was appropriately nausea-inducing and the found narrative collectibles were surprisingly delightful. This is absolutely one I wish I could wipe from my memory and play again from scratch.

    Breaking a window-mirror in Prey.

    [85h 54m]

    My first roguelite. I had low expectations for this game because I knew next to nothing about it — or the genre — but it didn’t take very long to hook me at all. And while the combat was undoubtedly a fantastic selling point, I think I was even more invested in the piecemeal structure of the narrative. (It must’ve been 60-70h before I finally figured out the name of the warrior shade in Elysium!) At the end of the day, it’s a simple and old story at its core, but I’m still extremely impressed by the extent to which Supergiant was able to revitalize it for a modern audience. Let’s not talk about the fact that I put more than three days into it, though.

    Hermes thirsting for Aphrodite.

    Wolfenstein: The New Order
    [10h 12m]

    Wolfenstein absolutely blindsided me. I played this after The Old Blood, so technically out of release order, and I’m so grateful I did: Where The Old Blood is irreverent and superficial, The New Order is lovingly crafted and deeply moving. It doesn’t shy away from the ridiculosity of its predecessors, but it also never takes its own hypermasculinity too seriously. In fact, I said it at the time on Twitter, but it bears repeating that Ramona’s diary is an example of found narrative done right — and its introduction near the end of the game only further reinforces the weight of everything you’ve seen up to that point. If I could forever teach one game to student developers, it’d be this one.

    A low-angle shot of B.J. Blazkowicz's head and shoulders. A caption reads, "I'm on the motherfucking moon."

    Hollow Knight
    [26h 22m]

    My second metroidvania after Ori and the Blind Forest, which I found rewarding to finish but infuriating to play. Hollow Knight had a much shallower learning curve, even if it did eventually take significant practice to down some of the mid- to late-game bosses. I briefly uninstalled near the end of the game — mostly out of sheer boredom from my inability to make any progress — but I couldn’t let it go after about a week. Something about playing as a creepy-cute little bug steadily gaining power in a dead world appealed to me, I guess.

    The Knight trapped in webs above the ground.

    Worst Three

    Gotham Knights
    [20h 48m, Abandoned]

    I’m actually sad about this one. I wanted to like it. After weeks of negative reviews, I thought they had to be overblown — and even now I’m convinced that I was at least half-right. As I see it, Gotham Knights was clearly meant to be a “live service” game, but it never found its footing. Although I was especially fond of the characters (and stuck to Jason Todd / Red Hood my entire playthrough), the repetitive side quests and monotony of the core loop, coupled with the burden of managing a gear score, took away from the entire experience. Even so, I was able to put up with it until one of the very last missions, which tasks the player with hunting three mini-boss-like Man-Bats in a single night. In the midst of my mad rush to the endgame, I’d largely neglected gear score without any real repercussions — but here it caught up with me, halted any forward momentum I’d gathered, and completely shattered the pacing of the final act.

    Jason and Barbara play a dancing game in the Belfry in Gotham Knights.

    Thief (2014)
    [10h 28m, Abandoned]

    Thief was guilty of a similar crime, albeit in a slightly different way. By the time I’d abandoned Gotham Knights, I’d reached my last few missions with Garrett and, once again, thought I could push my way to the end. I completely hit a wall in the second-to-last boss fight: Set in a closed circular arena-like space, it forces the player into a direct, unavoidable conflict with the opponent at hand. I’d enjoyed much of the level design and gameplay to this point, but the very existence and structure of the battle immediately undermines the “freedom” of choice offered to players from the start. It just felt wrong on all counts.

    Sketches of Garrett's face on a stone wall in Thief.

    Jedi: Fallen Order
    [Approx. 3-4h, Abandoned]

    I wanted to like this one a bit less than the previous two, but I was excited at the start. I’m not a fan of Star Wars, so I thought this might be the one that would really pull me into the world — and, again, it almost succeeded. After a few hours, though, I had to give it up because I just hated the platforming elements and puzzle design. I think both are incongruous with the setting, and I’m not convinced they added anything to the experience. The combat was phenomenal and the story seemed extremely promising, but I didn’t have nearly enough stamina to slog through the levels themselves to get anywhere meaningful.

    Alien pilot pointing from Jedi: Fallen Order.
    I don’t remember his name. From StarWars.com.