For the past two years, I’ve been writing short diary entries on games I’ve played or interacted with. These diary entries appear on my Pillowfort, where they’re honestly not very popular among readers. But they’re popular among one very important reader–myself.
I will share my personal highlights from the diary–which is not to say my favorite games, but my favorite diary entries. Keep in mind that the purpose of these diary entries is not necessarily to review the games–and some of these games are so obscure that why would you particularly care if they’re good or bad? The best diary entries are ones that say something interesting even if you have no interest in the game–or else they’re just funny.
Some diary entries may be lightly edited or excerpted to highlight the good bits.
In Barotrauma, you work with a team to maneuver and maintain a complex nuclear submarine. It’s a lot like maintaining a real life physics lab. All the students who knew what was going on already graduated, and the remaining students just have to fumble around until things get fixed or they die.
I can’t find a picture of this online, but the loading screen shows what looks like a trans symbol, so I went through the whole game trying to impose a trans reading on the thing. [ETA: you can see this symbol in the lower right of the screen in this Let’s Play.] Was this warranted? Not really, I mean, except in the sense that it’s always warranted.
A sinister goat explains to the protagonist that she made a bargain to save a sleeping damsel, and that to hold up her end the protagonist needs to bring in 12 wicked souls. What follows is a quest for retribution against the wicked–a bunch of abusers and con artists, the lot. I imagined the protagonist as a trans lady with a well-sharpened sense of justice. The sleeping damsel is a representation of the feminine ideal she wishes to embody, but is it worth the cost (of being an instrument of poetic justice)? The trans reading actually works really well. Better than Tell Me Why.
Every so often, I think to myself, am I too prejudiced against hidden object games? It’s quite a large genre that often goes under the radar because most of its players are women over the age of 55. But that shouldn’t stop me, hidden object puzzles are legitimately interesting! But whenever I look at the hidden object genre, it’s all pulp genre stuff, like “Tales of Lagoona: Orphans of the Ocean” or “Grim Legends: The Forsaken Bride” or “Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood”, and that really does not appeal. More recently, there have been “indie” hidden object games with artistic directions that appeal more to me, but I can’t help but wonder if the games like “Enigmatis 2” are actually more sophisticated, because they’re catering to dedicated fans.
Anyways, this spot the difference game is unexpectedly problematic. It’s full of primitivist imagery. Differences are restricted to stuff that’s low effort to model in 3D. And it’s extremely colorblind-unfriendly.
The Sexy Brutale
The Sexy Brutale is a time loop game about the titular casino, whose guests are all going to be murdered in increasingly melodromatic fashion before the night is over.
It occurs to me that if you want to get away from just environmental storytelling in video games, but still want an explorable nonlinear story, then time loops are a great way to do that. How can you watch a series events until you understand, unless the unrepeatable repeats itself? It’s not like a book where you can just reread a paragraph until you get it. (If I keep on rereading the same paragraph in a book, have I trapped myself in a time loop?)
Lord of the Rings: The Search
[Note: my game diary includes a small minority of entries about board games, but this is the only one that made it to the highlights.]
This is a 2001 board game for two players, officially licensed by Lord of the Rings, but shockingly discordant in its themes. The players take the role of Frodo and Sam, and are competing to find Mount Doom first. Not to cast the ring into Mount Doom, just reach Mount Doom—and if you happen to have the ring when you get there, that’s 1 VP. Reaching Mount Doom is 3 VP, which is far from enough to win the game; most VP is gained through various encounters around the map.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the actual gameplay of the game involves placing a bunch of terrain tiles while obeying contrived rules. Mount Doom is placed when you have no legal tile placements. So not only does the hobbit-race theme feel discordant, it also feels like we’re playing not as hobbits, but gods terraforming the land.
Why do we even have this 20-year-old game, you ask? Well that’s a fascinating story, but it’s too long to fit in the margins. Next!
Jelly is Sticky
I’ve sure played a lot of Sokoban games, and it can be hard to describe what makes each one feel a bit different. I dunno, let me just make up a bunch of words that can be used to describe different puzzle designs.
Tight – A puzzle is tight when you need to follow a very narrow path to get the solution.
Chaotic – A small change in initial conditions can produce large changes in outcomes. Basically, it’s hard to predict outcomes.
Laborious – This is when a puzzle seems to require a lot of steps to execute the solution. For instance, there are Sokoban games that will force you to go all the way around a long wall, and then all the way back just to push a block around.
Puzzle chains – This is when you have multiple puzzles in the same space. This can make things more difficult, as it introduces the possibility that an earlier part of the puzzle has a different solution that impacts later puzzles.
Muddling – This is when you solve a puzzle by just messing around until the solution pops out.
Linchpin – This is when a puzzle requires some sort of key realization to solve.
Search space – This is the size of the space you have to search to find a solution.
Gadgetry – This is when the designer makes a contraption that behaves a certain way. First you need to figure out what the contraption does, and then you need to use it to solve the puzzle.
Planning – This is when a puzzle requires you to do some setup, and then after some delay it checks whether your setup was correct.
Discovery – This is when a puzzle introduces new mechanics that you need to learn through experimentation.
For example, I think the core of the sausage-like genre is discovery. Baba is You had a preponderance of chained pairs of puzzles. A Monster’s Expedition had a fair amount of muddling–mostly because individual puzzles were small. Deadly Rooms of Death tends to have a lot of gadgetry. Jelly Is Sticky has a lot of small muddling puzzles, and large gadgetry puzzles. I think the underlying mechanics are fairly chaotic, so the designer uses gadgetry to impose some structure on the larger puzzles.
The Great Ace Attorney
The Great Ace Attorney distinguishes itself from other Ace Attorney games by being set in the Meiji era. Ryunosuke Naruhodo goes to London to learn about their great (but actually terrible) legal system. This premise is fascinating, because it’s an inversion of the white savior narrative. Ryunosuke arrives in London, and though being a newbie, he immediately excels and dominates. Eventually he shows the British judiciary the value of truth and justice, and rescues their legal system along the way. However, it differs from the usual white savior narrative, in that Japanese people are clearly in a lower social position, and many of the British characters are openly racist towards them.
A Papers-Please-like with no time pressure, about identifying plants. I used to have a booklet that would identify plants 20-question-style, and well this game isn’t very much like that, it’s more like reading comprehension: the game.
At one point my brother asked to see what I was playing so I showed him this game, and then we sat in silence for ten minutes while I flipped through a book of plants.
A short open world survival craft, and apparently a solo project. It hits the essentials of the genre.
My brother watched me stream this and said, “This isn’t the kind of game I’d expect you to play,” and I said, “Well, I finished identifying all the plants.”
A game about dismantling spaceships with a laser cutter.
What I thought was really neat about this game is that they don’t force you into any preferred orientation. Most games force the camera direction into polar coordinates, which privileges the vertical axis. That means you can rotate freely in the azimuthal (i.e. left/right) direction, but you can only rotate only tilt your head up or down up to 90 degrees. But in Hardspace: Shipbreaker, you can rotate the camera without such limits. You can experience holonomy! Move your mouse around in a circle, and the camera will have some spin relative to your starting point. So, in the course of normal play, you’ll often find that the things below you have spun around to be to your left, or above you. You can upright yourself if you want, or you can roll with it. This is rotation in its full disorienting complexity, as nature intended it.
This game is my go-to example for ludonarrative dissonance. The story is about escaping from white collar drudgery to enjoy the pastoral lifestyle, but if anything the player just replicates the drudgery on the farm. On the other hand, perhaps the game is an exercise in letting go of that attitude, realizing it’s okay to just relax and idle away your time. However, if that is the thematic point of the game, then the player’s realization is much delayed relative to the protagonist’s.
My brother and I had both played this years ago, and picked it up again briefly. We recalled the issues with this game and said to ourselves, we’re not going to worry about it. And coop helps with that, because in coop the clock doesn’t pause during cutscenes. If I’m wasting hours and hours of in-game time having a brief heart to heart with the local granny, why bother optimizing?