2020: Games to Play at the End of the World
Looking back, it’s clear I was pulled to two types of games this year: games about cycles and games about relationships. Ends and touch, these have undoubtedly weighed on everyone's mind at various points. Below are games that spoke to me this year, that I enjoyed in a nourishing way, that have stuck with me. This recontextualization seems to me the most productive use of a genre that is, at its best, completely arbitrary. They all, these games, say or explore or provide something relevant to me today -- especially the ones that didn’t come out this year. They’re all worthy of some attention in the now. If you know me, none of this will surprise you. If you don’t, then, well, just know that I bought a Wii U this year.
I’ve written much about ends this year. Ends in games, in years, in worlds. Cycles offer an unrequited intimacy, and with repetition they beg to be understood. They make themselves vulnerable this way.. At no point in history was anyone sure they were on the verge of breaking a cycle (and inevitably falling into a new one), but, like the setting for many of the games below, the sense of potential energy all around us is palpable. In this year it is worth reflecting on our orientation towards all sorts of ends: credits, the autumn, capitalism, those sorts of things. I offer up these games because they are unconventional in their optimism, their vision for what life looks like after the biggest cycles end. Because they can tell that we are in so many cycles and can see them breaking rather than rolling out into some zombie wasteland as if these and other hyperobjects are natural phenomena. Because they know there is a better ending.
Nier Automata and Outer Wilds: We can embrace the inevitability of death in all cycles, because there is hope to be found in their return. Everything stays, but it still changes.
Xenoblade Chronicles1 and 2: Cycles of violence are perpetuated by the pursuit of revenge-as-justice. Forgiveness and reconciliation are, then, earth-shattering heroics.
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim: We can rewrite these rules that keep killing us, they were probably bad video game logic anyways.
Umurangi Generation: We will still love in the end. We will still rebel. We will still loiter. There is beauty in this, too.
Two Smudges In Infrared and Can Androids Pray: Please. If we can have one last thing, let me make this about us.
Under A Star Called Sun: I place this here, betweens sections, because of how this game connects. Under A Star Called Sun is a Bitsy “elegy” that meets both these themes. While several games on this list have been lauded as “of” and “about” this year already, I give these monikers over to this short thing you can experience in a few minutes. Because we have been lacking grief. A brief meditation on loss -- of others, memories, and possibilities -- it reminds me I have much to grieve this year, and you do too.
Touch, or The VN Section
Look, at several points this year I felt myself slipping into the boisterous fanfic-reading, OTP-shipping girl I didn’t fully embrace in high school. Now that I’m actually on E, all that fluff hits different. These are games that remind me why touch is important, that illuminate all the ways I have felt without knowing fully in the moment, and that, sometimes, just leave me feeling worse this year.
Heart of the Woods: This is pretty much what I go to fanfic for. It’s really well written by that standard, and it’s a decent queer VN too. The voice acting is a great addition, the 18+ patch a bit less so. It’s more marshmallow than chocolate, but in the winter the heart wants what the heart wants. (Also a surprisingly fitting game to play on Halloween.)
Hades: I don’t know that I can say anything that has not already been said or is not in edits currently, except that the healthy depiction of polyamory makes my heart sing. More OT3, please.
A Summer’s End: Hong Kong 1986: Please don’t let Hades be the extent of your horny gaming. Please, there’s an entire genre that’s been working on this for decades. (And Hades is practically a VN anyways, so that’s not an excuse.) A Summer’s End is the hottest game I played this year, one of the hottest games I’ve ever played. It’s also a deeply meaningful exploration of queerness at a specific place and time that deserves more attention from audience, medium, and genre alike.
Autumn Leaves 1 and 2: God you wish you knew yourself this well in high school, Autumn. (The ace and trans rep is lovely too, and I wish high schoolers were written this well in everything else.)
If Found…: Very few games are as critically important as they are emotionally impactful. If Found’s premise is familiar, generic even, but play tells something original. It pushes at my emotions by breaking and reshaping convention. If Found… is more than about or by queers, it is a queer game -- one that’s proves their is growing critical space for such art on the margins of the mainstream.
Okay now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about Ring Fit. A lot of games say they want to make us feel things, and 90% of the time, even when they succeed, they just make us feel like shit. So I am only being quasi ironic when I say Ring Fit was the most emotionally impactful game I played this year. It turns out there are things other than pressing buttons on a control that can be good for you! And don’t ask why I had to pay $80 for a buff dragon in a leotard to make me think that.