2019 was a fantastic gaming experience, from comfortable RPGs like The Outer Worlds to the polished, capable raid shooter The Division 2.
But when I put up my Christmas tree and look at the 2020 releases, I find that not every game is in my head. Some experiences, including those in which I have sunk dozens of hours, disappear before the New Year.
Others resemble tiny gremlins on the figurative wing of my brain plane. They hang around, dig their hands in things, and force me to think about them all the time. But what distinguishes these experiences from those that stay with me?
These three games got weird and even though I didn’t like the whole package, they taught me something about how to tell a story or build a world that will stay with me until 2020 and beyond.
control: Great moments come from strange places
Control is scary, but it’s not a traditional horror game. There are puzzles and monsters, but Jesse, our heroine, is a powerful force in itself.
I felt ready to tackle anything at The Oldest House. This is not a dead room where I am a chunky engineer who just barely survives. In Control I race around, grabbing enemies’ bodies with my psychic power and hurling them at other enemies, then shooting them with my cool, changing weapon.
But a series of videos that I could collect made me cold. The Threshold Kids are a universal puppet show that explains some aspects of the supernatural horror in Controls’ setting with two little Munchkins. It’s awkward. There are many long, disturbing breaks. It is based on creepy online copypastas or adult swims too many cooks.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7RsKbvAD-U (/ embed)
In short, it could easily have gone very, very wrong. It is much more difficult to deliberately do something “bad” than you might think, and The Threshold Kids may have fallen flat. It served as a strong reminder that taking the risk of getting weird can pay off.
Death stranding: Go big down (and then not down again)
I could talk about many different parts of Death Stranding, from Norman Reedus, who pees relaxed, to the wonderful actors and their very strange names. At first I was carried away by the flood of strange new terms and concepts. (DOOMs, BBS, chiral, timefall …) but I was just beginning to treat the game like a fantasy epic.
When I stopped thinking about the little details, I realized how much I have to love the big picture. Death Stranding plays with intriguing post-apocalyptic images, like Sam wandering through levels that expand forever and are characterized by both the weak remnants of American pre-beaching infrastructure and new tools from other players to support my journey. I have never felt so alone and still felt the hope of a connection between invisible players who have been here before and wanted to help others.
Death Stranding is an interesting contrast to The Division 2, which likes to bring out provocative images or a deterrent premise. What if the Lincoln Memorial was covered in graffiti and the Washington Memorial stood over a devastated DC? What if what was left of society had to unite against impossible chances of survival? OK, with these missions here is your weapon, soldier: Shoot 80 million guys and unlock new vests through seasonal challenges.
The nice thing about Death Stranding is that it likes to return to its craziest points and reinforce them. Sometimes the writing is pretty ham-handed. (Did you know that the game is about people connecting? Do you understand? Sam cannot touch people because he has a phobia … but people keep trying to touch him! Do you understand?)
But Kojima Productions know what the game is about, and Death Stranding never tries to work around its problems. It’s not a perfect game – quite the opposite – but it never wants to hide behind the idea of being a game. While writing is out there and many story lines are pretty wild, Death Stranding fits titles like The Last of Us is strong in portraying a vision and not hesitating to introduce an immediately more pleasant design.
It is what it is, without apology and with no apparent interest in watering itself down. It knows what it is doing and remains without shame, even if that may not be the best idea. But nowadays “frustrating but interesting” can often be much more refreshing than “satisfying but uncomfortable”.
Kojima Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment
Disco Elysium: You don’t have to be mean to be crazy
Disco Elysium is a game that indulges in the absurd. The story comes up with balls on the wall very early, and even if the action’s bets are low, it is never lost if everything is worked out in the story and in dialogue. The more I looked into it, the better my personal list of games of the year got.
As soon as I found a groove in my policeman and his internal beliefs – and a dynamic in my infinitely patient partner Kim Kitsuragi – I enjoyed exploring the city of Revachol and getting to know its residents.
Disco Elysium is deeply strange. It reminds me a lot of the falling London franchise; There are dialogues that seem like they are at home in Sunless Skies and its strange, expansive imagination. But Disco Elysium and its world are grounded and the stakes start very low: at about the same time that the workers are protesting, a body hangs on a tree. It seems open and closed.
The beauty in Disco Elysium lies with everyone you meet on the way to reveal the story behind this body. There are characters that start out as a one-note joke, like the hideous kid Cuno. Cuno is aggressively crappy and howls at you. I hit him, which wasn’t my proudest hour, but I couldn’t stand this kid.
Depending on the decisions made, Cuno can be an endgame companion and even go through a salvation arc. It was this moment that made Disco Elysium really click. It’s a game that desperately depicts flawed people in tough situations, but it always has empathy for them. In the world of Disco Elysium it is quite possible that you are wrong. In fact, most people see the world through their own lens, and I found that most of them are technically incorrect.
Image: ZA / UM over polygon
However, their views came to them in an understandable way, even if they found it difficult to see the world in a helpful way. I didn’t always like them and in some cases I could hardly tolerate them, but I always felt that they did for a reason. Nobody chose to be bad just to be bad, and in many cases even the disgusting people I met did their best in a shitty situation.
With a large number of characters in a semi-imaginative environment, most of whom represent a certain philosophy, it would be so easy for developers ZA / UM to make these inappropriate characters ridiculous straw men. Instead, they are mostly rounded people who are shown with empathy and grace.
It is so easy to be mean, but it is much more difficult to create a convincing cast and treat it with dignity, even if their actions seem like they did not deserve it.
When Disco Elysium ends, the climax can be devastating – and the effect would be lost if characters like Cuno stayed flat and hate-able.
Why are these lessons important?
I left these three games with a new perspective on our entire hobby. It is a reminder that the story may not have much of an impact if stories and ideas are too safe. A game can be perfect, but there is nothing to cling to if the developer only knows how to paint within the lines. And being weird doesn’t mean to upset someone or something. Becoming strange is an opportunity for empathy as well as a way to earn some cheap points.
These three games triumphed in making interesting decisions with extreme confidence. These games will drive me in 2020 if I look for more experiences that will stay in my mind after the credits. It’s nice that games are experimenting and evolving, even if I don’t love every aspect of the end product.