• 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.