This year I didn’t play a lot of different video games, and moved away from my long-time love for Bethesda products. I played quite a few short indie games on itch.io and from steam, and started valuing storytelling and challenge a lot more.
Full disclosure: my computer is a five year old laptop so most games I play are a few years old in order for her to keep up. For this list, I’m including games I played for the first time this year, rather than games released this year.
Often when talking about games there’s a discussion of power fantasies – FPSs tend to take that line pretty strongly. As a millennial living in a big city with an income that technically puts me below the poverty line, there is no greater power fantasy than that provided by Stardew Valley.
The story starts with you, an office worker in an unfulfilling job, receiving an inheritance from your grandfather. You take the plunge and move to the farm he left you in Pelican town in Stardew Valley (I named my farm after the one I spent every summer on growing up).
There are a lot of things you can do to make money and upgrade your farm: fish, farm, mine, fight off monsters in the mine… You can upgrade the Community centre, which has been neglected for some years, or if you’re in a particularly “soulless capitalism” mood, you can buy a membership with the JojaMart (the big corporation that has recently opened in town and is disrupting the harmonious village). You can also date and marry someone (anyone) (how gay do you want to be? my answer is, as always: very very gay).
Stardew Valley fills a hole in my heart. It is a story about caring for each other, living off the land, and fighting skeletons in a mine. Everyone in Pelican town has their own life and their own goals, and to help them achieve those is rewarding in a way I haven’t experienced in a video game for a very long time.
It’s a power fantasy of having control over your own fate, of having enough power to choose the life you lead, whether that life is fighting monsters in a mine or automating a farm or catching legendary fish. That’s a kind of power that is missing in many of our lives, when home ownership and the wife and two kids might be a seemingly unobtainable goal or incompatible with other duties we have to fulfil.
Stardew Valley provides a world where tax and rent don’t exist and you never have to worry if foraged blackberries are doused in herbicide. It’s beautiful, it’s cheering, and sometimes it accidentally results in me being up all night.
My game loves this year have all fallen into one of two categories: “things are happy most of the time but there is some challenge” or “you’ll die multiple times and your character/s will almost definitely go crazy”.
Sunless Sea is from the crew that made Fallen London, an online RPG which I have played on and off since 2010. Dipping back into Fallen London is always enjoyable as the game continues to evolve and develop new tendrils but Sunless Sea provides the total immersion/slight fear when playing at night that the (predominantly text-based) Fallen London cannot.
You are a ship captain. You are exploring the sea. Sometimes you have quests. Sometimes you do not. Sometimes you go crazy. Sometimes you eat your crew. Sometimes you eat other people, who are not your crew. Sometimes you pray to gods who do not care for you. Sometimes you pray to gods who hate you. Sometimes you take on tourists and sell them as slaves. Sometimes you destroy a whole civilisation. Sometimes you found one.
Sunless Sea is on occasion a genuinely scary game. It’s also a lot of fun, challenging, and has some beautiful artwork and storytelling elements.
I purchased Darkest Dungeon after seeing this overview from Polygon, because apparently making my sea captain go insane in Sunless Sea wasn’t enough of art imitating life for me. I also got it in the Steam Sales so this is based on not more than 20 hours of gameplay.
In Darkest Dungeon you have a team of adventurers that dungeon crawl. You’ve inherited a hamlet and the surrounding lands from a relative and by using teams of four adventurers that you train and equip, you can discover what, exactly, your relative did to mess the surrounding land up so much.
I don’t care a huge amount for the story, although the narration is gorgeous both in writing and delivery. What is fun is trying to make the best out of a bad situation, over and over again. Putting together different teams and seeing how they compliment each other, while trying to stop them dying from heart attack or blight.
One of the key mechanics in Darkest Dungeon is stress. If your characters get too stressed they may become afflicted, becoming fearful, hopeless, paranoid, selfish, or some other afflictions I haven’t caused my teams to experience yet. Managing stress, supplies, and Good Fighting is a fascinating balancing act, and there’s always the option of throwing different level 0 recruits at a problem until it gets solved.
Darkest Dungeon is beautiful and spooky and has some wonderful team management problems.
There aren’t any other games this year that have made a particular impact, partly because I’ve had a lot of work and travel happening, and partly because these games have had such a major impact and have resulted in me sinking nearly 100 (or in Stardew Valley, upwards of 100) hours into them. I also did spend a bit of time going back to older games (Mass Effect 2) and experiencing them again.
Having said that, the “A Good Bundle” from itch.io has been fun, Rodina has been very pretty and frustrating, Superhot has been fascinating but just not jamming with me yet, and I purchased a few items off my wishlist in the last sale so can look forward to Checking Those Out. If you’ve got recommendations feel free to @ me.