I played a lot of good games in 2016, and while I tried to write about as many of them as possible, some always slip through the cracks. I could wait to write about them next year, but damn it, more games just keep coming out! So here’s a short list of the games I’ve shortchanged in 2016:
Last Word takes an interesting concept, and explores just a tiny fraction of its potential. That sounds negative, but it’s not. The story is small in scope but successfully hints at a much larger world without getting swamped by backstory or mythology. The bigger picture ideas are only explained when it serves the purpose of this story, which shows a restrained kind of storytelling that most games don’t achieve.
Last Word takes place in a world where arguments have supernatural power. Winning an argument, i.e. getting the last word, gives you physical power over your opponent, and they must obey your next command. In the game, a polite dinner party among the city’s upper class is interrupted when the mysterious host reveals his new invention: a one-way intercom that allows him to have the last word in every conversation. He uses his power to force his guests to stay and mingle, casting a menacing air over the otherwise posh party. It falls to Whitty Gawship to converse her way around the home, looking for an artifact that would give her the power to talk her way past the intercom: the fabled Last Word.
What’s more interesting than that plot is stuff around the edges. There’s a definite class discrepancy here with the well-educated elite able to argue the lower, less-educated populace into a kind of forced servitude. Another twist reveals that the mother of a shy kid kept arguing him into being sheltered. He’s a poor naive boy; he didn’t even believe conversations had power, but he’s only that sheltered because his mother won every argument when he tried to assert himself. It’s a tragic twist on a familiar trope—his sheltering was a forced self-imprisonment. Add in vague talk of war and the mythical Last Word, and you have a world that feels rich without being overbearing.
The gameplay is also fascinating. It twists the act of conversation into a JRPG-like battle system. It looks daunting at first, a series of menus within menus, but it all makes sense when you think about it. The point of each argument is to lower your opponent’s Composure, so you use Submissive conversation to gain Tact, which you can spend on Aggressive conversation, which lowers Composure. That’s the system in a nutshell, but there’s still a lot more to it, and those nuances can be easily seen within an hour of playtime. It’s a complex system, but it’s a shockingly accurate way of systematizing the ebb and flow of a heated argument.
Wait is a perfectly serviceable RPGMaker horror game with a great ending. It’s about a man who can’t escape his apartment and the weird things that happen around him. For the most part, it’s not particularly scary, but it is intriguing. The apartment seems to travel through time, with objects appearing and disappearing each day, as the protagonist visits various online message boards looking for help translating a number sequence drawn in his wall. The mystery is compelling, but it feels like the story was written around this ending revelation.
Ancient beings already lived on earth by the time that humans evolved. Rather than just kill us, these beings decided to let us live, but only if we accepted five “aspects” that made us inferior, thus ensuring their dominance. This contract and these weights are our price for existence, and they must be renewed every 100 years. A human must be present to sign on behalf of our species. The last attendee decided not to go through with it. Hoping to free humanity from these aspects, he killed himself, but with the ritual incomplete, the beings just waited for another human to appear, and meanwhile, their presence caused time distortions.
It’s a neat twist on the trope of Lovecraftian ancient gods. There’s no secret religion and no crazy worshipers, yet we’re still faced with cosmic insignificance. The idea that the fate of humanity hangs on a literal contract signing is frightening in its mundanity, but what’s even worse is that it’s an unnecessary contract. These beings already have us enslaved, the whole act of signing is just a power play, a way to make us beg for a life of pain and suffering. We lost this fight long ago, yet they still insist on making us re-surrender every 100 years or face extinction.
Out There: Chronicles
Out There: Chronicles is the interactive-fiction adaptation/spin-off/reboot/whatever of the space roguelike Out There. Right away, I think it’s great that Chronicles is such a huge departure in genre from its predecessor. With so much of the gaming industry built around franchise world building, those worlds should at least be open and diverse enough to allow for a variety of genres within them. I’d love to see a space combat Mass Effect or a 4x civilization building Fallout (CDProjekt Red gets this with The Witcher 3 birthing Gwent and Ubisoft struck gold with Assassin’s Creed and its multitude of spin-offs games, comics, apps, and movies).
But back on point, Chronicles does some impressive world building of its own with a narrative that incorporates many of the mechanics from the roguelike but presents them with a text-based twist.
I love how the game uses its branching dialogue to simulate learning an alien language. When you ask a character to define an unfamiliar word, they’ll make some sort of gesture; then you’ll have four possible interpretations of that gesture. Whichever one you choose, that’s how the game will automatically translate that word in all subsequent conversations, which means a botched definition will trickle into casual conversation and casual misinterpretation. It sounds like a punishing system, but in practice, it’s just one of the many ways thatChronicles makes conversation thrilling.
The branching dialogue system is also used to great effect in fight scenes, space exploration, and espionage.
The game is titled “Episode 1” in the app store, but that labeling does it a disservice. It’s a long game, and while it ends on a cliffhanger, it also tells a complete story. Characters have arcs, and mysteries are set up and then resolved. “Episode 1” implies a beginning without an ending, but this is more like the start of a movie franchise, a standalone story that introduces a universe, while teasing more stories to come.
Games have always been trying to recreate the convoy scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Uncharted 3 has already done a damn fine job of it, but Rodeo Stampede does an impressive job of recreating the experience on a mobile device.
You’re a cowboy in the middle of a stampede, and the whole point of the game is to leap from animal to animal, lassoing them from midair to stay alive for as long as possible. It’s a simple premise, but its greatness is in its execution.
It simply feels good to play. Swipe and hold the screen to move left and right, then lift your finger to jump. The cowboy is flung through the air, but everything slows down when you fly over an animal, giving you time to think before you land. Each animal has its unique traits—giraffes throw you farther, lions eat other animals, elephants smash through obstacles—so the animal that you land on does matter. Picking the right target can mean the difference between crashing and setting a new record. It’s that split second strategizing that gives the game its legs. The controls allow you to jump over pits, mountains, and trees, while also planning what animal to land on.
So there’s a lot to think about with every jump, and making things even more complicated is the fact that your lasso gets smaller after every landing. The game gets harder the better you play, adding a bit of tension to each successful leap.
The game is as challenging as you want it to be: If you simply want to ride and jump like it is a typical platformer, you can, and if you want to do that with the precision and perfection of an action hero in a choreographed action scene, you can. Either way is pure fun thanks to the slick presentation of speed and stunts.