The Christ and Pop Culture writers got together and hashed out our list of the best games we have played this year. Here’s what we came up with.
1) Papo & Yo
Given the most popular AAA videogames’ penchant for jingoism and violence, it is easy to write them off as juvenile power fantasies. Papo & Yo, however is a fantasy of an entirely different fold, one that aptly demonstrates how controlling an avatar can be an exercise in empathy. Vander Caballero, creative director of Papo & Yo, has been upfront about why he made the game. It is an expression of his experience growing up with an abusive alcoholic father. Players control Quico, a young boy traversing a fantasy world of Brazilian favelas. Quico’s father is represented by a creature known as Monster who becomes enraged when he eats frogs and mindlessly attacks Quico. Despite these rages, Quico and his sister set out to lead Monster to a Shaman who they hope will heal Monster. The metaphor is a little heavy handed, but the “puzzles” of Papo & Yo are never just objectives to move you the next level–they represent grave realities that children face every day. These puzzles give players a brief glimpse into the world of a young boy facing the tension between protecting himself from his Father’s abusive compulsions and attempting to heal him of his addiction.
I was privileged to grow up with two parents who loved me very much and I have never seen them drunk. I have no idea what it would be like to grow up with an abusive father. Papo & Yo, however, not only gives me a glimpse of what that might be like, but put challenges in front of me that bring me into Quico’s world. In these moments, I am challenged to care for “the least of these”–those whose burdens it is all too easy to ignore. – Drew Dixon
Imagine you’re lost in the desert. You’ve been roaming around, following whatever path you can find for what seems like days. In the distance, you see movement. You run toward it and realize, finally, that the movement you saw was that of another traveler, just like you. In a desolate world of ancient ruins, two living breathing souls finally meet.
This is the circumstance that Journey seeks to simulate, and the resonance of that moment works because it speaks to our current cultural condition. We spend our lives, to varying degrees, shut off from one another. Privacy hovers toward the top of our list cultural priorities and communal experience rests much lower. What results is an environment that caters to our personal islands first and organizations and communities second.
Journey reminds us that while individual lifestyle might come with an inherent sense of freedom, life with others brings a profound delight that makes any exploration more exciting and any danger easier to face. A sense of responsibility is one of the primary themes that arises while playing, as the mysterious stranger you encounter (an unknown real-person playing the same game) falls behind or needs help. And while there may be moments of frustration, the contrast between those moments and the moments without a companion are stark. Journey illuminates the truth that despite what we may be able to do simply by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, it’s simply not good for man to be alone. – Richard Clark
3) The Walking Dead
Whether or not you are a fan of The Walking Dead graphic novels or the television series, if you have not yet played the game from Telltale, go buy it right now. I’m not kidding. Don’t even finish this blurb. Just go buy it and play it. (On the other hand, if “Not Safe for Work” language bothers you, do NOT get it. Apparently, when zombies rip out your buddy’s innards you are prone to expletives.)
The game is a pressure cooker of decision making. You just met two people. Both are in danger. Which do you help? Will it be a pragmatic survival decision? Will you choose the prettier one? HURRY UP! If the timer runs out, you do nothing and risk them both. Choose, and someone dies. You have maybe five seconds. No quick saves. No going back without starting the game over. You will squirm in your seat. You will, at times, regret your decisions but you have no other choice but to accept their consequences.
Despite the multitude of choices that one can make in this game, you hurtle to an inevitable end. But how you get there is what matters. The protagonist, Lee Everett, has a destiny, but will he arrive there with clean hands and a clear conscience? The Walking Dead reminds us that life’s decisions are hard, fast, and there are no quicksaves. It also reminds us that we, like Lee, are constantly surrounded by death. How will you live? The choice is yours. – Brad Williams
4) Tokyo Jungle
My three-year-old daughter explains Tokyo Jungle to Little Fox, her little stuffed fox:
“Little Fox, do you know about Papa’s Deer Game? Sometimes you are a deer but mostly a Pomeranian. You fight other animals. And eat them! [Solemn moment of silence.] Pomeranians are good fighters. But you never eat the little chickies because they are cute. And you don’t fight the sabertooth tigers. They are the best fighters—them and the beagles. But the best thing is that you make baby Pomerainians. But first you need to find a mama Pomeranian before you can make baby Pomeranians. They’re the ones with the pink-pink hearts. But stay away from the ugly mamas—they’ll give you fleas.”
My daughter loves to watch me play games. And loves even more to direct me how to play—it will be a rough night if I happen to mate in the nest that is not the nest she wants me to mate in. She loves Skyrim (which she calls Dragon) and Minecraft (which she calls The Cow-Cow Game), but for the last couple months, she has almost exclusively asked for Tokyo Jungle. She loves that we get to select a character from so many animals (I’ve unlocked everything that you don’t pay for) and will choose almost a different animal every time. Which makes it curious that she describes the game to Little Fox as being about a Pomeranian.
For my part, Tokyo Jungle has been a lot of fun despite some UI problems and a particular in-game event (at 100 years) that is an unmitigated disaster for the gaming experience. When the game begins it feels insurmountably difficult. But gradually players grow accustomed to the various curveballs this post-apocalypse throws and learn to hedge bets against the next disaster to threaten the Pomeranian or gazelle or polar bear or Dilophosaurus that is being played. Where surviving 15 years may have previously been an event, the player can soon routinely survive 80 years and beyond. As well, it helps that you can engineer your future animals through a simple kind of selective breeding (my gazelle now begins the game being able to trounce a hyena—and boy is that something!). The variety of animals and the subtly different ways in which they play makes the game exciting and replayable. I have yet to tire of my daughter’s requests to play The Deer Game. – Seth T. Hahne
5) Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is a gem in a sea of specious war games. Most war games, whether intentionally or not, encourage players to find pleasure in participating in digital war. While war games are giving us more and more creative ways of ending the lives of our digital adversaries, Spec Ops is devoted to creatively exploring the consequences of doing so. When your actions result in the destruction of civilian water supply you must walk through the wreckage you left in your wake and look into the eyes of those you’ve hurt. Unlike so many other war games, where your avatar seems untouched by the violence he commits, signs of violence are written all over the player’s avatar in Spec Ops.
As I played, I became more and more aware of the many things I tend to take for granted when playing violent videogames. Because Spec Ops regularly forced me to face the consequences of my violent actions, I started noticing some rather troubling things that gamers do in violent videogames. For instance, I noticed how I’ve been trained to mindlessly jog over the bodies of fallen enemies in order to collect their ammo. The result of all of this is a war game that not only explores the horrors of war, but our strange obsession with “playing” at it. – Drew Dixon
6) Super Hexagon
I’m still playing Super Hexagon, but not as much as I used to. I used to take multiple breaks between writing, cleaning, working – anything productive really – just to see if I could somehow make it just a bit farther in this seemingly simplistic iPhone game. It felt like an obsession in the traditional way videogames often feel like an obsession.
But, of course, over time that obsession waned. I found other games I wanted to try, and work started to become more and more impossible to ignore. I was growing up, growing older, maturing. Again.
Still, every other night or so when I am finding it hard to sleep, I pull up Super Hexagon on my phone, and I realize that my obsession has little to do with the kind of videogame addiction it first seemed like. Laying in bed in the dark and staring down Super Hexagon’s void is an existential experience. To me, it’s a meditation on the claustrophobic feeling life can often give you when the walls are closing in. Of course, before that it was more like an analogy for life and death.
But whatever. Super Hexagon is abstract art. It allows us to project ourselves onto it, to analyze it as we play it, and to grapple with what it is about this simple game made up as lines, squares, hexagons and triangles that makes us love it so much. It’s sparse in all the right ways, but the core of the game is profound. Half the fun of the game is figuring out why. – Richard Clark
In a year when videogame violence is as hot a topic among news reporters as it is among gamers, Dishonored certainly doesn’t hold any punches. The violence is raw and bold — you’ll sneak around cutting throats and shooting enemies in the face. But Dishonored doesn’t force the violence down your throat–it gives you the options on how you will enact it. Sneak around this guard, knock him unconscious, or shoot him in the back? There’s no easy way to apply “WWJD” to that scenario.
But unnecessary violence does have real consequences in the steampunk world that Dishonored takes place in. Dunwall is quickly spinning into utter chaos as a rat plague infects the streets and a tyrannical cultish government squeezes its grip on the citizens. With every ounce of blood you spill, you push city’s descent into chaos a little further. Dishonored isn’t the kind of game that will point its finger at you. It recognizes that brutish violence is one way of saving the world — and that’s what makes the choices that Dishonored gives you so compelling. – Luke Larsen
8) Analogue: A Hate Story
In a less open-minded era of videogame history, Analogue: A Hate Story might be criticized for being a “non-game”. “It’s more of an interactive novel”, they would say — and maybe it is. All I know is that Analogue: A Hate Story is an experience worth partaking in. The story that creator Christine Love has crafted is a bizarre one, touching on everything from A.I. and abandoned interstellar spaceships to ancient Korean culture and gender roles.
At its core, however, is a rich love story that the player finds themselves deeply involved in. The protagonist is a blank page, free for the player to project themselves on and make decisions for. The result is one of the most personal games of the year — and also one of the most heartfelt. – Luke Larsen
9) Dear Esther
Dear Esther is a game about being alone, a practice that we, in our age of social media, seem to have forgotten the value of. The game is a self-described ghost story but it isn’t particularly scary. It is a story about a man dealing with the loss of his wife and the loneliness of the Hebridean Island the game is set in forces him to explore the depths of his grief. The game can be finished in an hour, but I spent at least two and a half hours playing it because this Damascus Road experience is one that encouraged me to pause and consider how death is a truly bitter enemy. It is a dark tale that leaves players considering the importance of processing the grief we must face in life as well as both the importance and danger of being alone. – Drew Dixon
For all the talk of emergent storytelling, few games really been able to get it right. FTL is one of those games. FTL is a roguelike — a game genre that features a randomized series of events with a linear path that the player must construct. But FTL isn’t just a roguelike–it’s genre-defining game that the industry will look back on years down the road. In FTL, you never know when your crew might get injured or your ship even boarded. You never know when things could take a severe turn for the worst. But by providing players with a long series of randomized narrative cues and plot events, FTL does most effectively what only the medium of videogames can do: let players tell their own story. – Luke Larsen