Tetris Effect exists as an inevitability. There must be a new Tetris game because Tetris Holding – current owners of the Tetris brand – have spent decades rewriting copyright law to prevent anyone else from so much as sneezing in the shape of a Tetrimino. The brand must continue, licenses must be dispersed, artists must be contracted to legitimize these DMCA takedowns.
Even the Ocean sits unfortunately between an early indie hit and a decade defining classic. It is the studio’s most technically accomplished game to date but lacks the emotional heft of its siblings; a delight in itself that falls shy of the incredibly high bar Analgesic have set for themselves. But as a transitional piece it is one of the best modern examples we have of thematic development across games, made more interesting through Anodyne 2's parallels.
Video games about violence so often fail because they do not actually understand what they are doing. They can copy others, depict violence in shocking fidelity, and endlessly trawl the waters of individuals doing individually bad things, but they are culpable of so much violence themselves the shots will always miss. Lucah understands form is the message, that violence is messy and contradictory, and that games cannot simply adopt the language of film and literature and achieve the same ends. It is a game of relentless despair, and yet underneath it all its tenderness cannot but shine through.
Ghostrunner may as well have fallen backwards into cyberpunk for want of a theme. It can wrench nothing from this stone that has not already been ground up by other derivative works, and squanders its movement on inconsistent combat and weightless platforming.
I’m not asking Abzu to just be Journey, but if it is already working from that point of reference it’s strange how little Abzu understands why Journey worked at all. If Journey was a ballet Abzu is a SeaWorld show. Flashy, controlled, at times inspiring, its artifice fully on display.
The Last Survey is a two (arguably one) man play about justifications and the failure of modern liberalism to try to both hold on to capitalism and appear sympathetic to our concerns. It holds you in this limbo and dares you to justify your way out.
This tension between Tonight We Riot’s political ambitions and the limited depth of its systems is a large part of why it feels paradoxically tame. It has taken the mechanics and structure of a traditional beat’em’up and attempted to map them to anti-capitalist revolution, but it hasn’t thoroughly interrogated how those existing mechanics are also a product of capitalism.
Mutazione imagines a beautiful and complex life founded on small, self-sustaining community and a respect for the natural world. It is charming and warm but also plain about the challenges of sustaining a community like this. It reckons with the contradictions of colonialist greed and asks if things couldn’t be rebuilt without hierarchies and violence.
It was difficult to play Hyper Light Drifter and not feel a deep empathy for the drifter, also alone, also dying from an invisible disease. It’s an easy connection, but when the world is on fire all you can see are embers. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t prescribe specifics so it’s easy to imprint meaning onto it. But it also resists glorifying those readings.
Games can often feel like some kind of sorcery, impossibly complex and created by people with inhuman ability. But they’re just people. Highly talented people, but still. Anodyne 2 is not sorcery, but it is a kind of magic, an ordinary magic that is all the more exceptional because of it.
I am not sure if Evan’s Remains entirely earns its thematic heft when so much of it is inscrutable, but that it is willing to end its plot in a moment of intense duress is daring enough to elevate its weaker moments. It's untidy, its themes barely cohesive. But if Evan's Remains was not so unusual, if it had simply doubled-down on puzzles and pretty screens, I do not think it would have left half the impression it did.
Saving You From Yourself is just one story. In this one, it is possible to have a happy ending, for the experience of transitioning to be as friction-less as possible. But at every point it emphasizes how discrimination corrupts that process, making a moment of self-actualization a sequence of bureaucratic roadblocks. It was timely in 2018 and has only grown more significant in the time since release.
Had Signs of the Sojourner allowed the player to fail without having the door slammed in their face, it would be easier to forgive some of the flatness present in its card system or the brevity of its script. But by framing conversations as games to be won without anticipating how often they’d be lost, huge chunks of the game become sequences of frustrating nonsequiturs.
Near Death consistently hits the highs of the best survivalist fiction, so engrossing as to cause me to turn up the heat in my own home out of fear. But it is a story we have heard before. There is little to take away from Near Death that has not been played out in other works, and it made me long for the stories of survival that position life as not an individual pursuit but a collective triumph.
Games like Orwell recklessly attempt to work backward from the lies used to justify surveillance, rather than recognizing that we have to fight the concept itself. It is a game decades too late to matter and does more to legitimize its target than it does to take them down.
Corruption 2029 feels like a straight to VHS sequel. Zoomed out it looks like what you’d expect the studio to do next, albeit with a different theme and fewer talking ducks. But there is no soul, no justification for the game’s existence, and numerous moments where it feels actively inferior to a game that came out two years ago.
I like so much of what Mutant is attempting to do. Dux and Bormin are delightful, adding stealth gameplay onto a tactics game is clever and works well before becoming played out, and there are so few tactics games to speak of that even one which is otherwise derivative provided a welcome excursion for a few hours. It's so frustrating that everything begins to fall apart right as the game comes into its own.
Wandersong is a game of cosmic circumstances on a humble scale. It deals with questions of archetypes, destiny, an understanding of the self, and how our actions shape the world around us. It is a game that begs to be read as analogous to the hopeless pessimism that permeates modern life as well as a commentary on the tropes games so consistently employ, using our familiarity with both these elements to subvert the traditional hero’s journey.
Beyond Eyes is fragmented, half-hearted, and dull, and I doubt I would have cared enough to write this much if it wasn’t also irresponsible with its subject matter. I do believe Tiger & Squid had good intentions, and Beyond Eyes is far from paving any roads to hell. I just wish they had spent as much time considering Beyond Eyes’ framing device and mechanics as they did editing its trailer.