Broadcasting live from its new location of the celestial kiln fueled by the souls of those who did evil in life, it’s part one of the 2018 Golden Moustaches Awards!
Our first nominee for the John Oates’ Moustache Award For The Games, The Games, That Are On My List (Of The Games Of The Year)
Into The Breach is a hard game to get out of my head as it perfectly sums up what I think of as a feeling of “wooliness” in strategy games by being the exact opposite. As I played through Steam World Heist, Mario and Rabbids and West of Loathing (to name a few examples) I found myself thinking of ITB as I put up with their various shortcomings: battles that dragged on past the point where victory was obvious, turns that didn’t seem to accomplish anything and victories that felt too easily won.
Describing ITB is a feat in itself, for while it may immediately conjure up games like Advance Wars visually, such easy comparisons miss out on its many innovations and features. For example, it asks you not to protect your own units or to completely rout the enemy but to protect particular points (cities) on the map. Battles don’t necessarily end when one side loses but when a pre-set number of turns have passed, your priority is to protect the cities as effectively as possible in that time against superior numbers. The battlegrounds are all relatively small, traversable in at most two turns and dense with enemies, environmental hazards, mountain ranges and cities. This lends a heightened sense of importance to proper positioning. In fact, one of your most valuable and versatile tactics is to simply move an enemy over by one space to disrupt an attack or block a spawn point.
But its signature innovation, around which all the others are built and come into their own is the amount of information it gives you about the upcoming enemy turn. Put simply, you know almost everything the enemy will do as well as what environmental hazards will strike and in what sequence all of these things will go down. Here are the raindrops, go walk between them.
With these characteristics in place, the problems of other games mentioned earlier can’t exist. Long wars of attrition aren’t possible when each stage only lasts a handful of turns and eliminating the enemy is in-all-likelihood mathematically impossible. In SWH, later enemies can teleport and in general the enemy range of movement is hard to ascertain, which disincentivises any attempt to apply a genuine strategy or considered positioning of units (I realise SWH is different because of the aiming mechanic and slightly different win conditions, don’t write in). Large, winding maps in other games require lots of dull panning of the camera to properly take in. Not so here. In other, just gonna say it, lesser games, bad turns happen, whatcanyado? Here, bad turns happen because you didn’t put the time into studying and assessing the situation, despite the game’s finely polished user-interface making it wonderfully easy and immediate to do so.
The Lee Pace’s Moustache At The Various Points In Time At Which He Has Had A Moustache Award For Games That Came Out This Year, To The Extent That Lee Pace Can Be Really Said To Have Come Out Given That He Was Sort Of Ambushed Into Doing It
It’s obviously Into The Breach, isn’t it? ITB FTW QED.
Dead Cells also came out this year, but also in a way, as an early access game, it didn’t. West of Loathing was released this year (for the Switch) but fun though it is, it’s no ITB-beater.
The Jerry and George’s Moustaches From That Bit In Seinfeld Where They Both Suddenly Have Moustaches Award For Biggest Surprise
When I first played it, I hated Virginia. I typed up what can only be described as a screed trying to pin down all the ways it annoyed me and for good measure tried to coin a phrase, a Games Journalist’s Game, which I felt Variable State’s offering was an ideal example of. I sought out reviews that I had a hunch would be critical of it, looking for that satisfying feeling of knowing you aren’t alone in disliking something widely praised. A year passed and thinking that the Games Journalist’s Game concept was still kind of interesting I decided to try and write up my rant in a coherent way. I loaded the game up to make sure I had the details right and began to play through it again, but this time I got really into it. The mystery engaged me and I had a genuine desire to understand what it all meant, not out of frustration as before but sincere interest. This time, I sought out positive reviews and discussion pieces to get other people’s views on it.
I’ve some suspicions about what was different between my first and second playthrough. It’s probable that going into it again knowing what was coming and what information to pay particular attention to made events easier to follow. There was also one detail (who is the person in the locket) that I completely misunderstood on my first run through which probably put me on the wrong footing early on too. Moreover, maybe I changed. At the time I wrote that “How cynical you feel the creators of the game were in designing this journo-bait is entirely dependent on how misanthropic you yourself feel at the time”, a rather telling remark in hindsight. As the long-time readers that I am forced to pretend might exist may remember, I was perhaps at peak bitter cynicism around that time as documented here.
Below are some of the notes from the rant I never published, present day additions in square brackets. What’s strange is that I broadly agree with what I said, just without the intensity or bile which I felt at the time.
Virginia is the journalist’s game taken to new heights, a story told in entirely artificial constraints, a thing which exists entirely so you can discuss it, every decision made so that someone can comment on how interesting it was, reflecting positively both on the game but also on the writer clever enough to spot such a detail.
If you look below the traits which are indicative of depth or of a piece of art there isn’t really much there. Threads that go nowhere. Reality/dreams confused, but without serving any real purpose other than to confound players.
I get that people want something new, something different, but you can’t just let your standards slip, or allow your own need to write something different colour your feelings about something.
The game is a proof of concept for a concept they themselves admit has already been proven. [Thirty Flights of Loving, which they acknowledge in the credits]
If it hadn’t pitched itself in a particular way, you could easily take all of the “it’s got shades of classics like twin peaks and the x files, I’m very clever for spotting this” stuff as simple “REMEMBER THE X FILES” crap. [I stand by this point in particular. The line between “artful homage” and “cheap nostalgia bait”, I think, depends entirely on your mind set going into it]
Westworld [‘nuff said]
I’m almost afraid to replay Pony Island in case that turns out to be a good game I misjudged as well.
Winner: Virginia (apparently, I was surprised by exactly one thing in the previous two years)
The Feel Of A Moustache Award As It Brushes Against Your Lips Award For Game Feel
A few months ago, I tried to describe the hypnotic quality and intricate sound design of Mini Metro and at the time I thought it was a shoe-in for the “game feel” category that I had just then at that moment decided to create. However, in the intervening months another contender arrived. We have, as they say, a “real barn fire on our hands”, or however the saying goes.
A “rhythm violence game” in the words of its developers, Thumper casts you as some sort of metallic beetle, careering along a track through a hellish void. Almost as soon as you start the game you are struck by its heavy and menacing soundtrack, complemented by the titular THUMPS as you hit targets and avoid obstacles, interspersed with the grind of metal on metal as you drift around dangerous corners.
Thumper is at times a little punishing, but when you get to grips with it, and in particular where you hit that point where muscle-memory, instinct and rhythm work in tandem it’s a fine example of kinaesthetics in games. This piece on a different game, Super Hexagon, inadvertently captures the Thumper experience well: “When you get in the zone, there’s almost a fear you’ll become conscious of what you’re doing”. On the rare occasions where I found myself somehow stumbling through a particular level by accident or luck I felt a strange sort of frustration, as if I had cheated myself out of the experience of playing the level properly.
The Henry Cavill’s Moustache Award For Conspicuous Absence
Shenmue 3, the Final Fantasy VII remake, surprisingly not Red Dead Redemption and (just in time to qualify) Metroid Prime IV…
Look, I mostly did this one for the Henry Cavill joke, trying to keep up with what games are delayed is big ask (and, you know, boring) when you have a full-time job. End of segment.
The Clash Of Clans Guy’s Moustache Award For Best Mobile Game
At the risk of repeating my concerns about repeating myself, I’ve discussed Mini Metro before and the mild issues I had with its mobile interface. Similarly, I first played Downwell on mobile having played it on another system and feel that it’s a slightly better experience on a console or PC, the touch screen failing to give the same comfort and certainty that you get from a trusty controller or keyboard.
I’m perhaps guilty of not putting enough concentration and focus into Hitman Go and would prefer to return to it before saying much about it. It’s hardly the game’s fault that I brute forced my way through many of the clearly intricately designed puzzles as I lay half asleep on my bed in the evenings.
This leaves Layton Brothers: Mystery Room and Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links vying for the top spot. I mentioned Layton Brothers briefly in this list and on the whole enjoyed it’s take on the mystery genre and slightly more grounded spin on the Layton universe, though it could be argued that the similarities and connections with the rest of the series are only superficial.
Duel Links is Yu-Gi-Oh! made digital and easily available on your phone. Trying to pin down the appeal of the card game itself is beyond the scope of this post but in general I found that the game captured it well while making some concessions to make it workable on the platform. One thing I did find interesting during my time with it was the slightly erratic choice of cards to include (“Pumprincess The Princess Of Ghosts” and “Naturia Strawberry” were MVPs of many a game for me), leading to a peculiar “meta” of its own.
Winner: Duel Links
Continuing my fine tradition, the game I’m most looking forward to playing this year actually came out last year. In a year with a new Rockstar game, a much-praised revitalisation of the God of War series and plenty of other Big Names, I’m most stoked to play a game about being a magical insurance investigator in The Return of the Obra Dinn.
The Kenneth Branagh’s Moustache As Hercule Poirot In Murder On The Orient Express Award For Bigness
It’s a popular refrain from a million forum threads and what feels like every games podcast in history: “games are so long these days, I have children, I don’t have the time for these big titles”. Now, I don’t have children, though in a way I consider this blog my child, hence why I wish you would all be a lot nicer to it, but I too found myself staring down some Absolute Units, a battle that I eventually lost.
It’s an impressive feat on the part of CD Projekt Red that at times The Witcher III can feel as big as its main opponent for this award, No Man’s Sky, a game whose primary selling point was its millions of simulated planets. This apparent similarity really highlights the difference between an experience made “by hand” and one that is procedurally generated.
For all the planets that you can visit in NMS, the entire game could take place on just one in terms of the different experience on offer. In fact, it’s my belief that a sequel should take place on only one planet. Having multiple distinct and contrasting biomes that bleed into each other built to a more familiar scale could conjure up the sense of adventure and traversal that drifting through space and jumping to hyper-space can’t really capture. It’s difficult to really care about your surroundings at a certain point when they are mostly similar environments (a typically flat expanse dotted with occasional repeated structures) upon which you gather elements in more or less the same way everywhere. Breath of the Wild has shown the value of just being in a world, seeing something interesting in the distance and making your way over to it, a sense of discovery and orienteering that NMS has flares of but ultimately fails to capture consistently.
The Witcher may not be able to offer you something that no-one else has ever seen before but instead it gives you moments and places that have been crafted with time and care — a more than fair exchange. In a post-BotW world (which I consider to be a more manageable size and thus not in serious contention here) aspects of The Witcher III’s approach to open-world design and navigation seem lacking and I would apply many of my feelings on Arkham Knight (it’s not good gang) to CD Projekt’s opus. This doesn’t take away from the most relevant point to this category though “Golly, there sure is a lot of this”, even if much of it passes by in a blur as you blindly follow scent trails (don’t @ me for playing the game wrong).
(For the record, the bulk of my playtime with NMS was with the release build and the Foundation Update)
Winner: Big Chungus
The Guy You Know Who Did Movember And Earned A Little But Not A Lot Of Money For Charity Award For Good Effort
God loves a trier and with the good effort award I want to give a nod to games that tried to push the boat out in one way or another but didn’t quite stick the landing. Didn’t stick the landing of the boat. I’m not saying I’m God here, just to be clear. That was a very well constructed opening sentence.
A worthy nominee for this year’s Good Effort Award is Democracy, I’m speaking here about the game series and not the general concept or tradition, which had slightly less awful than usual year this year (I made a joke like this before but none of yiz read that so who cares). Democracy 3, to get precise about which version I played, is an interesting game to play but perhaps even more so a interesting game to think about — in particular, its limitations, blindspots and biases that result from such a far reaching remit as “simulate the work of a government”. For example, in an interview (that I’m struggling to find again) developer Cliff Harris noted (I think) that the game acts on a “rational actor” premise whereby everyone, without fail, votes in line with what policies best suit their socioeconomic grouping. There is no “Borris Johnson factor” (here, for clarity, I am quoting my own hazy memories of the interview that I read, and, gee, still cannot find) that compels people to vote for the funny buffoon on the television. Scapegoating and blame shifting are also not simulated. In this at-once complicated but at the same time simplistic simulation , in which politicians have access to perfect polling information, economic predictions of the effects of policies are always correct and the electorate is hyper-informed about the goings-on in every aspect of government we can speculate as to how the features not modelled lead to the governments of today.
Ultimately however, Democracy 3 is ultimately an impersonal and rather cold game about moving sliders, looking at graphs and then waiting to find out how the random number generator will screw you over this time, so it’s a little difficult to get truly excited about. The “Electioneering” update wasn’t included with the bundle I got the game in, so I might one day dip my toes back in and see how that plays.
That a lot of effort went into Heat Signature, Tom Francis’ follow-up to his smash-hit debut Gunpoint, is readily apparent from Francis’ extensive vlog series discussing the various stages of the project’s development and from the thoughtful, considered and often funny to read updates and events since launch. For these reasons. it’s a worthy nominee for the Good Effort Award.
Consortium had the ideal quality of a Good Effort Award recipient, that I really wanted to like it. Much like ITB earlier, Consortium is so full of notable features that pinning down a single one to describe the game completely is impossible. Consortium seems to be attempting to realise the “one city block concept” outlined by Warren Spector by setting the game (almost) in its entirety in a single, relatively small, but detailed space. In this case, that space is a futuristic military aircraft, part of the titular Consortium peace-keeping force. You control a new crewmember and go around talking to “your” colleagues, investigating a murder and fighting off intruders, among other things.
While also, technically, playing as the person from the present day who’s controlling the player character using some sort of time-bending satellite.
Reference this fact to your co-workers or reveal a lack of information that you’re character by-rights should know and they’ll get suspicious. Further complicating matters, certain characters appear to understand your situation more than others. By taking the immersion out of the immersive sim by explicitly drawing a line in-between you and your player avatar, Consortium manages to put the immersiveness back in (uh…) by removing the disconnect between your character’s understanding of the world and you. It’s like oddball DS game Contact but actually clever. And good.
Finally, layered on top of all this is the series’ lore. This encompasses both the time of the Zenlil and the Consortium in the future as well as the present day and, boy, is it dense.
Yet sadly, Consortium’s ideas sometimes get lost in the technical aspects of what it wants to achieve. Despite its size the Zenlil is a little difficult to navigate, not helped by the samey, militaristic stylings. The gunplay is turgid at best and overloaded with systems of questionable value or use. I had a few instances where I felt that I was on some branch of the narrative for which I didn’t witness the events leading up to it. Is this a bold statement about making the player character less pivotal to the events of the world around them or a glitch? The game’s history of the latter points in one direction.