Sunday, January 2, 2022

2021 - Fiction books

Here are the fiction books that stuck with me this year. I read a lot of genre fiction, mostly sci fi and fantasy, and while I have plenty of recommendations, only a few things really defined "my year" in reading fiction. 

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

I can't stop recommending this book. Captain Awkward and Ask a Manager recommended this book. It's about a gig worker who picks up a temp job for a supervillain, gets incidentally injured by a superhero, and then uses spreadsheets in a quest for revenge because she can't afford the medical bills. It's hilarious, it's angry, it's got gross body horror. (Also, the author wrote for First Person Scholar and Kotaku??)

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

I personally don't really know what happened in the Soviet Union. Seems bad, right? Seems bad? Red Plenty is "historical fiction", an attempt to tell a true story through dramatized fictions. It is very human and neither "Hooray capitalism" nor "Truly the glory of Father Stalin will rise again". There are people who are trying to make the world better, and it just doesn't come together for them, and along the way, there are horrors. 

Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer

Ok, this is the second book in a series, and I'm not saying to skip the first book. But I am saying this book has a great setting: an underwater settlement on a moon of Saturn where  the protagonist drives an underwater truck route between disconnected bases while investigating a missing person. It is fun, it is pulp, and the setting has stuck with me. 

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru is a savant whose island home is assimilated by empire. She rises through the ranks of the "meritocracy" and swears to destroy the Empire from within. 

Through the trilogy, she is confronted with people who share her goals. Some of them have been assimilated themselves, and can no longer fulfill their goals because of how thoroughly they have been assimilated. Some of them have cast off their shackles entirely, and live wild and free. She must negotiate these boundaries for herself, somewhere between these two extremes. Also, she runs arbitrage schemes to fund herself, which is fantastic reading for a year where I have once again become obsessed with cryptocurrency scams. 

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

This is a fantasy series, but the magic is not the point. The real fantasy is good, competent governance. That alone made it worth reading this year.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

2021 - Nonfiction books

Here are the non-fiction books I enjoyed in 2021. 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I was born in upstate NY and later moved to the Pacific NW, and the author lives in Upstate NY and visits and discusses the Pacific NW. i kind of forgot about my relationship to nature even though I grew up next to a polluted river, and went to college by a polluted river, and now live in a city where the salmon are dying due to tire tread runoffs. This book reminded me that I do love the “natural” world around me, and I am going to share it with others to explain why it’s important to care about these things. I think it has some hitches so, again, I wouldn't make this like the only book you ever read by or about Native Americans , please. But I think it is a useful reminder that we are a part of nature and not separate from it or banished from it. 

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C Scott

Ok, listen, I did not finish this book. I got through the first chapter. That said, it has a totally fascinating thesis and set of examples, and you should like.... check it out from a library, especially if you like strategy video games. It's an anarchist criticism of bureaucracy starting with the example of forest science in Europe (which ties in beautifully to Braiding Sweetgrass, if you're reading along).

White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America by  Margaret A. Hagerman

This book is a scorching sociological study that shows how education is the knife's edge of white supremacy in the United States, especially if you're intentionally picking "nice schools" for your kid to go to. A good companion piece is the "Nice White Parents" podcast produced by the New York Times. 

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism  by  Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist  by Ibram X. Kendi

At some point I looked at all of the "antiracist reading lists" and said "Well I should probably figure out what people are reading when they start following these lists", and these two books were at the top of the list. And, look, I work for a megacorp that does a fair amount of Diversity Training. And I was kind of primed for White Fragility to be bad, but actually I ... found it useful? It names specific behaviors that white people exhibit in these diversity training workshops and the best ways to confront and deal with these behaviors, and gives some specific historical context for defusing those behaviors. Readers, I actually used White Fragility, in the real world, at work. So it shouldn't be the only book anyone reads about racism, but it's not full of like outright poison. It is from a white woman about how to deal with white people. There's a place for that, right? 

Kendi's work is also, for the most part, pretty good! Much deeper on history and context. I just think he dips a bit more into "People need to use these words the way I'm defining them", which I personally think is never a winning strategy, and he has an aside of "and I think people need to protest the way I think they should protest", which I will also say does not sit great with me, a white dude in Seattle. I don't think my opinion counts a ton here, but I think he's got some rough edges just the same. 

We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba


The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together Heather McGhee

This is a book that seeks to tackle, "why does racism persist when it makes both black people's lives worse *and* white people's lives worse?" and the author is up to the task. She starts off with public swimming pools which filled with concrete rather than serve black folks, and then travels around talking people organizing labor, trying to fix up pollution, and so on. Clear and accessible, an easy recommendation for anyone. 

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Ok, I picked this up due to an offhand reference from the book "Calling Bullshit", because for SOME REASON I was interested in how to think about people rejecting scientific answers for the problems, ahem, plaguing us. Sagan is a compassionate dude, and his voice is sorely missed, and also this book could use some updates both virus-related and "It is literally no longer 1995 and we talk about some things differently now, Carl". Also, this book veers wildly between UFOs (...which mysteriously became relevant again? Was that this year? Did you know the crop circle stuff was absolutely a scam and we know who made crop circles in England? I didn't!), the literal history of witch hunts, and bunch of other stuff that isn't necessarily well-connected. However, it's the history of witch hunts that I think is the most important part of the book. That history has specifics which are important to know when people start talking about, say, demonic sex cults. 

The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines by Brian Deer

So HBomberguy had a video about vaccines and he referenced this book. I thought I understood that Andrew Wakefield was a fraud, but I did not understand the sheer depth and layers to the fraud. If you are interested in vaccine hesitancy FOR SOME REASON, this book is an incredible read. 

Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

This isn't a diet book, it's a "Here is all the scientific evidence that the relationship between fat and health is much different than virtually anyone, including doctors, talks about, and it's a lot of studies, and I know because I'm a nutritionist" book. Goes great with the Maintenance Phase podcast. 

Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America by Alec Macgillis

This is nominally a book about Amazon fulfillment centers, but is really about how urban/rural divides don't sufficiently explain America. Even "urban" areas have been split into winners and losers, and the gulf between them is vast. 

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

I went to college but the closest I had to a "radical Marxist" professor was one time in class a professor said "Marx was a more subtle critic of capitalism than he often gets credit for". Chilling! There's a lot more about "Nationalizing farms" than I expected. Also, a lot more digs at German philosophers. However, there was in fact a lot of subtlety and a fair amount of prescience. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 - Games I Struggled With

I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here.

Here are games that I struggled with. They weren't bad, but also the experience of playing them was frustrating in a manner that I did not find useful.

Paradise Killer (2020)


I love vaporwave and I love the world building. I did not love the total lack of a map which had me looking up how to enter several key locations or the fact that the soundtrack - which I started off loving - wore a hole in my brain. I mostly liked the investigations, but upon reading some walkthroughs after I finished, discovered I missed a whole plot thread because I missed a pile of dirt. That about sums up my problem with the genre as a whole; you can have tightly scripted interactions with no deviance ensuring I never miss anything even as I am force-fed a plot with deductions I may not have reached myself, or reached hours ago, or you can have freedom to miss large chunks of the plot. Basically this game was super cool and stylish, marred by minor-to-moderate mechanical mishaps.

After I finished, the essay Lady Love Dies can not save you resonated very deeply with me, especially after my experience as a juror (my experience as a juror came before I played Paradise Killer, for what it's worth)

Umurangi Generation (2021)


i really appreciated the visual aesthetic and the soundtrack, i really appreciated the slow burn of the story that gets told. i really appreciated that this is first and foremost a game about photography, about lining up a great photo.

i did not appreciate the controls, i did not appreciate the opaque and difficult to locate objectives, i did not appreciate the time pressure, and let's be honest even though i'm the biggest doomer of them all, i'm gonna go ahead and say: the game did not speak to me (except for the very last line of the game) nearly as strongly as it did some other people about being a member of "the last generation". i spent more time hunting down "the word boomer" or "a kiwi" than i did soaking in the message. It was good theming. It was a good plot. But my way of interacting with it meant I had a much more visceral reaction to the objective to take a picture of characters wearing masks and the billboards warning people to stay home due to parasitic infections. I don't think that's really a failure of the game - I do think it's legitimately got that stuff in its pocket - but I think the experience of playing the game mostly moves all of the textual stuff to the category of sideshow. 

of course, after writing all of this, i finally got around to reading Kaile's excellent pieces on this game and I discovered that once again, i'm unintentionally falling into the role of "some reviewers" who didn't find the game hitting like they expected. I think part of this is that I am, in fact, engaging with a game in a very specific environment: heavy time pressure (i get about 1 hour of quality time with a game a night, and if I don't like something I end up disengaging rather quickly), heavy peer pressure (it was the knowledge that Kaile had published a 3 part essay that made me want to finally get around to playing this game), and the overall media context that surrounds games which do something different. What I mean by the media context is: the overwhelming context of videogames tends to be "New Halo, new Battlefield, New Call of Duty, New Nintendo release". As a rejection of that suffocating sameness, there's a circle of folks who try to shine a spotlight on stuff like Umurangi Generation, the dev's "first real game". Therefore the lens a lot of people come to this game is through "new game with an original outlook". In contrast, the default lens of videogame culture is "shiny AAA move fast no friction". It's not necessarily that one is right and the other is wrong, they're just different frames to look at when you're playing a game. Sometimes I feel like kind of a simpleton because I do actually like move fast no friction. I think that good design is neat and fun (while acknowledging it can also be a tool used to paper over abuse or waste, or be used to gatekeep people who don't have access to the training or resources to invest in design and polish). I don't want to diminish people who value unique games because I think unique games are incredibly important and I also want to see unique games succeed! I just sometimes personally don't connect to something unique, feel bad about not connecting to it, and then feel defensive about how I personally didn't connect. 

That said, an anecdote:

the dlc is unlocked after you finish the game, but the first level is two weeks before the events of the main game. In this flashback DLC, the first level is a club full of partygoers and TVs with false bravado about how great everything is and nothing can possibly go wrong in two weeks time. One objective requires you to go up to the entrance of the club - under a sign that says "LOCKDOWN ENDS IN 7 HOURS" - where the door jitters open and shut, to indicate it's not in fact the level boundary it appears to be. Once you go through the door, you exit the club. The doors shut behind you. The omnipresent soundtrack drops out and for the first time in the game you have silence. The crusty punks who have been present in the main line of the game are once again here, in contrast to the the well-dressed members of the nightclub. The silence is cut by announcements - "LOCKDOWN IS IN EFFECT. EVERYONE IS REQUIRED TO SEEK SHELTER". A tent sits in the corner of the alley. As I reentered the club, I noticed the bouncer at the foot of the entry stairs. He wasn't there to keep *me* from the comfortable shelter of the nightclub. 

That scene from the DLC rung a lot more true for me than many of the other scenes from the main game. The eerieness of the music cutting out, the severity of the first fully-voiced announcement in the whole game, the sudden contrast between the poverty outside and the wealth inside the club, it all combined to push me to look hard at what the nightclub really represented. I did not get the same experience from exploring the UN Wall or on a train ride home (especially when I was busy clipping through the tracks, slipping off the walls, and clipping through the map). 

Kid A Mnesia Exhibition (2021) 


i mean you're not gonna get me to sit down to pyramid song and have me say I had a bad time, but... i'm just not really sure what's in it unless you are a mega die-hard fan. there's some new intros and outros in the songs. there's some neat poster art.

there's like some degree of interplay between your movement and the music, but i honestly expected more from radiohead? I imagine them as very cutting edge and while this wasn't like a straightforward a-to-b experience - there is nice vibes in the art, there's some legitimately interesting stuff in the geometry and design - it was pretty much "Stand here, hear a song, or maybe just the drum track of a song". And again: it's a great album! just the drum track isolated is interesting and good! but god it feels like a waste of possibilities to get "stand on this poster to hear a different sound". rhythm games do more with getting you into the music and walking sims do more with getting you into the environment.

i think if you haven't listened to the album you will get the ~vibes~ from this game, but honestly just listen to the album? it stands on its own, and associating it with this weird art game will probably be kind of confusing or make you think the album is more inaccessible than it is. and if you're a huge fan of the album you will get a kick out of hearing it slightly recontextualized. but i've honestly played better album-games than this, and i'm really disappointed i have to say that

Outer Wilds (2019)


Look, it's a good setting, and it's good sci-fi, but I can't shake the feeling that I paid $25 for this game to call me an idiot over and over again. Is the time loop really necessary? Do I really need an excruciating flashback of my slow and oncoming death because the sun kidnapped my ship while I was trying to find the exact place to stand on a travelling meteor? Do I need the creeping time pressure of a collapsing planet as I try to figure out the exact non-Euclidian route I need to take to get inside a tower that maybe has the next breadcrumb that might maybe make me feel like I've made progress?

Again, the setting is good. Each planet is different. It does fun things with gravity and perspective and it's genuinely creative. I just wish I was playing a walking simulator sometimes, because I'm old, and I get frustrated when I know that jellyfish are electrically resistant and this surface is electric but I can't figure out the exact sequence of steps I need to take in order to combine those two facts before the sun explodes and I get to watch a playback of my jerk avatar failing to solve a puzzle for 15 seconds over mournful music.

My primary emotions are embarrassment, anger and exhaustion instead of wonder and awe.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

2021 - Games where I Had a Time

 I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here. 

Games I played in 2021 where I, like, got it, but also, tripped over my own feet a lot:

Night in the Woods (2017)


I loved the characters and the writing. Unfortunately the premise of “struggling at college teendult returns to economically depressed hometown and hangs out with high school friends” did too much psychic damage to me, due to Circumstances, and I will likely be unable to continue

What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)


At the end of the day I was moved, and that's more than I can say most of the time.

But there's some weird tonal stuff here. Some of the deaths are very pulpy, from the buck knocking Sam off a cliff (complete with a camera taking a timed picture of his descent!) to a guy busting out of his bunker only to immediately get run over by a train. But then there was a baby literally drowning in the bathtub????? I actually looked away from the screen for that one. So I experienced a little bit of whiplash there and I'm not sure if that was wholly intentional.

Maybe this is more about my personal feelings on, say, infant children dying unattended in the tub rather than anything strictly in the text of the game. Maybe the authors are playing with shit they don't fully understand for shock value. 

So, look. It's an experience. I would recommend this experience with some qualifiers.

Endless Space 2 (2017)


I really loved Endless Space 1 for sweeping Galactic Civilization's confusing and unnecessary clutter away. ES was a bold, beautiful, clear 4x where almost every element was clearly defined in the interface.

I don't know if, like, I changed or ES2 did. It seems to have added systems which aren't bad on their face, but are more confusing and less explained. I found myself feeling more restricted in my strategic options and listlessly clicking End Turn through the midgame waiting for a strategy to pan out.

Maybe it's the game. Maybe it's the space4x genre. Maybe it's me. I think this game is beautiful, still, even if you have to turn off a lot of the zoomy cutscenes to make it playable. But I'm more interested in what the devs are doing next than I am interested in thoroughly mining the corners of this game, for whatever reason.

Sunless Sea (2015)


Definitely nails the Fallen London vibe, sometimes to its own detriment. Creeping horror is a great vibe, but I'm tired of creeping out of port and creeping towards the far edges of a map and creeping back home. Am I tense? Yeah, totally, mission accomplished. Is that the vibe I want right now? No.

Divinity: Original Sin - Enhanced Edition (2015) 


How much jank can you tolerate in service of a genuinely goofy and self-aware RPG campaign where, let's face it, a little bit of jank is part of the appeal?

Yeah, accidentally fireballing the entire room because pigs bleed poison which combusts when hit with your flare is funny. Is it still funny when you are inching your characters through the room post-battle and they still insist on collecting every possible status ailment, and they die because the character with a poison treatment won't move into casting range automatically and there's no pause time button?

How about quests that kinda, sorta tell you where to go, but whoops, there was a translation error, and whoops, the wiki hasn't been updated in six years, and oh yeah, there was a bug for about two years where the intended way to do this quest doesn't quite work, so maybe cheese it?

How about the ever-present lack of easy healing post-battle, juggling a thousand inventory items with no functional interface to do so, slider-only entry for gold values, absolutely glacial battle animations you will see a thousand times, and a hundred other straws on the camel's back?

I'm not a stranger to jank. I like Larian's games, and I've even played some of the previous Divinity games. But the speed at which I went from "Hm, this is kinda weird but I think I can take it" to "are you FUCKING kidding me" suggests maybe I'm a little less patient these days. Or maybe the multiplayer - which seems genuinely cool and genre-defining - was too big of a bite and they didn't ever go back and polish off the smaller things. Either way, I'm sad I won't finish this but I just can't take it.

Control (2019)


There’s some cool stuff here - the architecture, the SCP lore, the story, the hilarious live-action science skits. Unfortunately it’s got to contend with a lot of cheap combat deaths, rare checkpoints, poor signposting, puzzles that drove me to guides frequently, and graphics bugs which left it looking like a PS2 game at times. Fortunately a patch added in some difficulty modifiers including a blessed Invulnerability option. Unfortunately I think the plot - which I loved! - ended very weakly, cutting away from the actual conflict resolution in favor of a voiceover summarizing what happened.

I would watch a let’s play of this game. I would play it for the maxed out Launch and Levitate abilities. The lore is fun. It’s just kind of ….suboptimal. Designed for someone who isn’t me.

I would recommend The Secret World for “urban fantasy conspiracy puzzle games which are a mechanical trash fire” and Prey for “paranormal ability immersive sim” as great partners to this game.

OMNO (2021)


You know, I think there's actually a lot of space for a really chill platformer that isn't super in your face with an overwhelming number of unlockables and enemies. I was even kind of enjoying myself. Then I got to the memory puzzles, and I said "huh", but it wasn't overwhelming. Then I got to the timed jumping puzzles and I said "You know what, this is no longer chill for me". I think the lesson here is to know your vibe and stick with it.

Loop Hero (2021)


Much like the premise of this game, I too am occasionally wiped of my memory and thrust into a formless void of endless recurrence.

However, in my unstoppable cycle, I keep buying roguelikes. Surely, this time I will accumulate the knowledge I need. Instead, my true self is revealed - actually, i'm impatient, lazy, and bad with memorizing details - and I am instantly killed, losing all progress and sent back to the beginning of my cycle. Hey, this roguelike has citybuilding elements! This time this will work for me!

Zach, my dear self, let me contribute to your metagame progress. You hate roguelikes, dude. You hate the glacial sense of progression roguelites offer, you hate the frustration of starting over with a clean state after spending hours painstakingly eking out progress, and you definitely hate the wiki-first approach needed to make any serious attempt at victory. It doesn't matter how good the roguelike is. You bounced off of Hades, my guy. It's not the play mechanics, it's not the art style, it's the difficulty and repetition!!! Break free of the samsara!!! Take the materials with you from this run and make 1/19th of the progress needed towards this permanent building awarding +1 to your next decision making roll!

(This game is a work of art and worth the money you pay for it. I just have a difficult relationship with the genre)

Cloud Gardens (2020)


i wanted a relaxing game that wasn't totally thoughtless, and this game mostly filled that need.

but: i gotta say after finishing almost the entire thing, it's a little wacky in practice. i found it hard to read the seed in my hands (especially wheat vs ferns - both are kind of tan, i guess? - or pothos vs monster - both are green???). it's hard to tell when you start a stage the exact moves you need to make to clear it, especially since your upcoming items are hidden. and more than once i got to the end of a stage, ran out of items, sighed and busted out a water cloud for a few minutes to get to 100% because the clear conditions are just not easy to figure out. i'm almost done with the game and i'm still not super confident what it takes. also the music is wholly uninspiring, i was really hoping for chill beats to etc etc etc instead of generic synths.

on the one hand, i basically finished the game, all of this stuff is mostly optional because there's an "unlock everything" button, and there's a creative mode. i didn't suffer any penalties for restarting (besides some kind of drawn out animation times for transitions and seed recharges). i honestly did make some pretty landscapes and chilled out.

on the other hand, this stuff is part of the game, and the majority of what you actually do if you don't engage with it as a pure toybox. it intruded on my chill game vibes. my recommendation is not without its criticisms

PC Building Simulator (2019)


Work simulators are still weird, but it's also weird when you accidentally fall into the rhythm of one. "Ok let me just fix one last client's computer then I'll stop playing" bro?? (I probably would have gotten deeper into this if the interface didn't demand being so tactile - simulate screwing these screws in, simulate plugging these cords in, simulate unplugging these cords - over and over. it was a familiar rhythm, but a time-consuming one that the interface seemed to delight in drawing out rather than making easy for me) 

One Step From Eden (2020)


yes mega man battle network had an extremely dope combat system. it also had a plot, and interplay between the physical world and the cyberworld, and neat little things like packing special abilities into a grid, and cameos from characters we still find reasons to care about somehow.

this is a by-the-numbers roguelike with an admittedly dope battle system that unfortunately invites comparisons to a greater game. choose your route on a map. hyper-optimize your deck. weigh every choice like it's the last one you're going to make. repeat x1000 to learn a boss pattern.

it was neat seeing some of the bosses join me after fighting them, but gosh, once again: nothing like pulling out a GUTSMAN card!

sorry bud! i was rooting for you! i just can't stand the roguelike run structure!

INFRA (2016)


god, i wish i could finish this game. it seems like the dream! an urban exploration game about crumbling infrastructure tinged with conspiracy or maybe just urban politics and threaded with some light puzzling.

well, the puzzles weren't so light. i hit the PIPE ROOM and realized that, like, .... oh. this is one of those serious Logic Puzzle games, not one of those "pull this lever, haha you did it, good job" puzzle games. which is too bad, because as we have well established in Zach Lore by now i am tired and impatient all of the time.

The Wild Eternal (2017)


oh no!!! i genuinely wish i was able to connect with this gorgeous, original, thoughtful game. but i had a moment of dread when i missed a jump and lost my compass and spent 20 minutes totally lost. then another moment when i saw a hollow log and my character said "what a good place to hide from a big animal". finally i found a tiger lurking around a corner and he chased me and it turns out this chill atmospheric exploration game is actually very difficult to navigate, very slow, and has mandatory chase sequences. i can't do it, i'm sorry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

2021 - Games where I had a good time

 I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here.

Games I played in 2021 where I had a good time:

Chicory: A Colorful Tale (2021) 


The first half of the game kind of drags. Sure, it's a Zelda-like. Ok, the painting is... something. Yes, there are characters who speak in lowercase and in slang. Alright.

At some point in the last half, I started getting more comfortable with the painting tools. The story started fleshing out the characters. I started vibing. And you know what? Damn, it really works. By the time I finished, I was eagerly exploring the map for the last of the collectibles, and painting for fun, to make things look good. 

Wandersong (2018)


Ok, on the one hand, I enjoyed myself. This comes from an older cloth of "let's throw in an optional skiing game... now a pirate song... alright, time management sim!", and you get a fun variety.

On the other hand, and maybe this is my fault for playing it back to back with Chicory, there's a pretty straightforward vibe of "I want to be the hero and I'm not". And it's warm and fuzzy and not meanspirited, which through one lens is refreshing, and through another lens (having just played Chicory), is a second teaspoon of pure sugar.

the musical nature of it is very forgiving, the platforming came right up against the edge of my very low skill bar but didn't push me too hard, and that's a neat trick to achieve. the unlockable dances were hilarious. and the composed songs were great. However, the actual act of singing was.... not always the most pleasant thing to hear.

i finished this game a few days ago and I'm just reflecting on what it left me with. The answer isn't a lot, but it also isn't negative. So, you know. A number rating isn't the whole and total picture. 

Dicey Dungeons (2019)


I at least i felt like someone was having fun, even if it wasn't always me. i loved the way the very simple idea of rolling a dice gets reinterpreted by all the different abilities, from the "split this into smaller parts" to "roll this exact number" and etc. killer music, too.

i'd grind this during my commute if i still had a commute.

Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (2018)


It's neat having a kingdom sim running while you are out doing quests because it gives a little extra incentive. It's nice the kingdom building gives rewards to combat. But, the kingdom sim thrives on hiding information behind expensive and unbalanced upgrades. The higglies seem useless. It's hard to keep the item tiers in your head. And the plot is pretty standard (thank god for that skip button!)

I played it purely because I like the blend of kingdom sim + jRPG, and I enjoyed doing quests to recruit new people to my town. If that's not your genre jam-re, you probably won't get far.

In Other Waters (2020)


30min in I was a little bored. 45min in I was hooked. I loved the ecology aspect, which reminded me of Waking Mars. There was a decent scifi story in there as well, but mostly this is a game about exploring a cool ecosystem in a tight 3 hour package with some unique and interesting interfaces.

I will say this game did not have a text speed control option that I found and that drove me up a wall. Please always allow for instant text display.

Heaven's Vault (2019) 


An incredible setting, fun sailing, amazingly compelling translation mechanic, and mystifyingly bug-filled experience. Potentially my favorite story game I played this year. 

Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2019)


The range!!! This studio always makes games that tell wonderful, nuanced stories about existing slightly outside of systems, but also: the games are funny as hell. They are weird and delightful and silly and cutting and satirical. Also, mechanically, they are super diverse and do a great job of setting up interesting elements, making you stretch your brain a bit, and then moving on before totally exhausting you. 

And yet every time, I spend years agonizing over "am I in the right space to play this yet?" Yeah, man, they're excellent. I should be running towards their latest release, not letting them languish on a backlog.

Psychonauts 2 (2021)


Gosh, yes, this holds up. Absolutely delightful. I'm not quite sure it matches the first game in terms of sheer originality in level design, but I'm not inclined to hold that against this game. 

Blackhaven (2021)


It starts off slow but it's in service of a very cathartic ending. It beautifully illustrates a point about hidden history without being too heavy handed or even judgemental. Ok fine it's a 'walking sim' almost literally but honestly being able to read the historical documents at your own pace and doing incredibly authentic goofy guided museum tours is a good use of the medium so THERE. 

Here is the article that made me immediately download and play Blackhaven: Blackhaven Confronts the Truth Behind Historical Whitewashing

Demon's Tilt (2019)


it's pinball.

pinball with a ripping soundtrack, and a legible scoring system, and some fun ideas. it's good pinball! i liked it!

i also don't know how much time i want to invest in getting good at pinball. like, definitely some! i got a little better at nudging the table this time around!

but in general, yeah, i set my goals (finish all the rituals on each level) and didn't quite get there (That top level is hard to stay on!) but my score went up impressively. ok! see ya!

Dorfromantik (2021) 


tile laying machine goes brrrrrrrrclickclickclick PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 (This was my favorite game of the year - relaxing, engrossing, elegant.)

Donut Country (2018)


I would recommend this game to anyone. Sucking stuff into holes is just plain fun. Bumpin music and funny writing complete the package.

Crying Suns (2019)


I actually finished a roguelike because the “easy” difficulty was truly easy. And good thing, too, because even though the story starts off steeped in technobabble it quickly won me over and I was eager to see it to completion.

The combat was interesting, the factions were distinct, and the art was that chunky pixel style I love so much.

That said, the amount of content seemed low. In one run from beginning to end with no deaths (again, thanks easy mode!) I started to see repeat events. And the interface was clearly built for mobile first, to the point of excluding useful information.

Mutazione (2019)


I put off playing this game for a while because I kind of dreaded a slow and joyless ArtGame experience. Instead I got a really tight story told through the lens of a community with awesome characters who I loved, with a bonus moral of "we live alongside nature, not separate from it". It made me laugh, it made me ache (Poor Tunk, my large sad boy), it unsettled me, and it inspired me. Wow! That's a lot of stuff for a videogame to do in 5 hours!

Tacoma (2017)


A strangely straightforward story about corporate greed, which was kind of a letdown after the multilayered journey Gone Home took me on. I mean, I liked it. I found sticky notes with numbers on them and then I used those numbers to unlock doors.

Exo One (2021)


something between tiny wings and flower with a wholly extraneous and poorly bolted-on scifi story. I saw the outlines of the story from the first scratchy cutscene and every scene from there merely confirmed my first impressions without adding anything new. Fortunately, tiny wings + flower is basically a perfect combination and the levels themselves were nicely varied without being too frustrating. 

The Gunk (2021)


I had fun vacuuming up sludge and restoring the world to a vibrant state. I thought the story was fairly well told and the voice acting was excellent. I think it earned its cliches, including an elevator level fraught with emotional tension and a monochrome walking level at half speed. I loved the music and thought it looked gorgeous.

That said, it didn't really go above and beyond. I wish there was more stuff to scan or more upgrades to get. Yet it knew not to overstay its welcome, so.... Good! Fine! I'd recommend playing it as a comfort game and not expecting to have your mind blown!