A high score list of a past time.
This website was not around during previous decades. I have no time capsule evidence of what my top video games of the 2000s would have been as I would have written it at that time.
But I can recall the general feeling I had. The Sega Dreamcast, and Sega as a game console manufacturer, had bowed out. Which, as someone who was rather into all manner of oddball Sega stuff, was a huge downer. The Playstation 2 had an explosive popular reach, becoming the most sold through device of its kind. This did result in a number of little screwball and niche titles getting published overseas, which helped a lot. But the jump to High Definition visuals as the decade went on caused a huge studio retraction. It felt like all the fun little games I enjoyed so much were disappearing. All in favor of fewer, more expensive, and less risky projects.
Video games were still happening all around, and kept getting bigger than ever. Yet by the end of the 2000s, I felt like there was less out there for me.
Now, due in part to factors like digital distribution of independent creator works, I had more than plenty to fill out a list for what games carried me through the 2010’s.
Some ground rules before the list starts:
– “Retiring” Various Legacy Franchises: As I get older, some games have been such consistent and impactful parts of my life for multiple decades. Guilty Gear. The Battletech and Mechwarrior universe. Final Fantasy. Shin Megami Tensei. The Shenmue and Yakuza heritage. Among so many others. Including them seems downright unfair. These titles have enjoyed years and years of success, sequels, and funding based on past performance. This is not a Games Of My Lifetime list. While not outright banned, an explosive entry is needed for my longer loves to break through. And maybe one did!
– Excluding Games I Crowdfunded: I am hyper selective about crowdfunding games, which includes fan favorite sequels. So after the first rule, this only impacts Lab Zero’s Indivisible. I am not sure how comfortable I am putting a game I crowdfunded on a list like this. But do know I had so much full faith in the project to give it that seal of approval.
– Store Links Are NOT Affiliate Links: After each title, I wanted to link to various PC and console stores to note where each game is available. Small indie games may be hard to find. These are simple digital store links for your convenience and wishlisting. I do not receive any incentive for any purchases.
One final note: every game on this list has fantastic music I love.
I will save well over a thousand words of repeating myself if I say this up top. I own each soundtrack, where possible. They have stayed by my side and provided hours of extra entertainment during work commutes and the like throughout my decade.
13.) Sonic OC 7, Forsaken, Arc Symphony, and Subserial Network
If I were to use a single word to describe Matilde Park’s and Aether Interactive’s work, it would be: Interfaces.
There is a kind of surreal magic to computers. You can let your imagination run real wild with the “data is fragile and we taught poisonous rocks how to think” train of thought. We also have such limited control over how close we can get. For most folks, maybe a mouse with a few buttons and a keyboard with a hundred more. You need to be so careful and considerate, precise in your every action, or it will not understand you.
How could we be so cruel.
Sonic OC 7 and Forsaken can play in your web browser. The later is a short snapshot of a 1994 adventure game world falling apart. The former, designed as a web-chat based in 1995. You can make your own Sonic the Hedgehog original character and talk to someone on the other side.
Arc Symphony is an adventure centered around email and a fandom newsgroup for a Japanese Roleplaying Game for the Sony Playstation. You are surrounded by love and lore and calls for contributions for a game which does not exist in our reality. But it seems so close and familiar.
Subserial Network synthesizes many of these individual parts into a sprawling series of windows all over your actual desktop. A music player, web browser with its own in-universe internet to search, chat-rooms, email, downloads, and more. Here, machine bodies like perfect humans are widespread and fill society. But some machine bodies yearn to be closer to and express their machine selves. Perhaps to even get in touch with something even further.
You pull over your browser to do some sleuthing, and your email pops. You reply. You are digging through fanfiction archives. Searching for contact info. A friend of a friend, a secret signal, something you can not quite put your finger on yet. Another email reply. You switch to another song on your music player. Chat is silent.
I found these games immersive because they are so thorough in their understanding of how my mind and body have trained over decades to interact with computer systems. How to use that, subvert it, and subvert subversion. We know on a deep automatic reflex level what “clickable” buttons and text can do. How to search keywords.
We know what their brokenness looks like, and trying to claw and reach through it.
So, tell me about your Sonic OC.
Sonic OC 7 is available on itch.io
Forsaken is available on itch.io
Arc Symphony is available on itch.io
Subserial Network is available on itch.io
12.) You And I And The Long Long Drive, Red Trees, and Dr. Signal’s Strange Machine
One of the neat things about the modern internet is the amount of powerful creative tools which can run within a web browser.
Bitsy (and the offshoot Bitsy HD) allow you to do all your art and coding on a single screen. Create entire 8×8 and 16×16 based sprites and tiles, place them into rooms, code everything about the room, and so on to make a nice little working game. With very limited colors. As in, like, three colors. This places a lot of importance on what one can do with what colors they pick and the engine limits. If I can give a shoutout to one developer in this space then, it would be Caramel.
You And I And The Long Long Drive and Dr. Signal’s Strange Machine can be played in a browser. I hesitate to say more than this because they can be finished in… more than a few but well less than twenty minutes. But the conversations in both were compelling and familiar. With so much intentional restriction by the Bitsy engine, every color pops. Touches like the limited stars twinkling in the distance during You And I And The Long Long Drive adds so much to a private personal talk full of hope and fear and the future in a small spaceship traveling very far.
If music does not play, click the game window after it has begun running. Some browsers may not start playing the audio otherwise.
Red Trees was developed in RPG Maker VX Ace, so unlike the other two games it requires a separate download. It also takes a bit longer to complete. Long enough to have an item inventory and save features, at least. However the limited and effective color palette choices are still in effect, featuring soft yellow, peach, and violet. An enhanced Version 1.5 edition of the game is available in English, with Spanish, Russian, and Portugese translations available for the previous release.
In the words of the developer, “For the optimal experience, please play this game in a well-lit room with a warm cup of tea at hand.”
And while this is from the Red Trees page in particular, I feel it goes for all three.
You will be in excellent care, and have a thoughtful little trip you can fit into a hectic schedule.
Your tea will not run cold.
You And I And The Long Long Drive is available on itch.io
Red Trees is available on itch.io
Dr. Signal’s Strange Machine is available on itch.io
11.) Hypnospace Outlaw
One of the odd things about the internet is how temporary so much of it is.
Established pages will, over a long enough time, receive redesigns. Previous layouts will fade away, even if you liked the old version more. Pages may lose their hosting or domain name. Server failures can destroy material if it was not backed up elsewhere. And services like Geocities, where many folks experimented with setting up an internet home for the first time, are determined to be unprofitable.
I have a nostalgia for this specific type of 1990’s internet. The one full of grainy animated GIFs. Under Construction notices around every corner. Microsoft Paint web-comics. There was a certain slapdash creative freedom to it. Not every website looked the same. Outside of spelunking down the Wayback Machine, websites in the wild just do not look like that anymore. And we so often want what we can not have.
Hypnospace Outlaw has within it an entire fictional internet network. Another time and place, where a special headband allowed you to make and explore web pages in your sleep. To let your subconscious run wild with your own personal space. But, this is also a business after all. You play as a content moderation enforcer, whose job it is to crack down on harassment, copyright violations, and so on. You even get paid for every violation you catch.
But the problems of the present are also the problems of the past. And this is so true in the information technology sector. Remember, while this story is fictional, the 1990’s also featured a massive runaway internet financial bubble. And the upper management of your company are playing very fast and loose.
Your moderation tools are limited to only a handful of buttons and criteria. You have no way of contacting people for more a human touch to a complex problem. There are people you want to help, but may lack the reach to do so. Meanwhile, you can obliterate a grade school teacher for posting a copyrighted image of a cartoon fish drawn by her class. You even see an animation of the proprietary HypnoCoins roll in for every violation. You need to save up for a new antivirus scanner, after all. The company will not upgrade your tools for free.
A great touch is the personal view counter you have for each page. This allows you to keep track of pages you have visited a lot, or see where you have yet to stick your nose. It is a great help during the more open ended investigations, and integrates something very of the era.
At set storyline points in your investigations, time will pass. This allows the narrative opportunity for users to update their pages. You will get to know these folks and their relationships. The network neighborhoods develop. See the rise and fall of fads and subcultures. And some characters will have plenty to say about you as well. To them you are a god to be prayed to, or screamed at for judgment. But from where you sit, you can feel so powerless. Your hands are tied by what your software, budget, and even your company emails allow you to do.
The ultimate enemy is the move fast and break things style capitalism rampant in the Silicon Valley tech sector.
Even a cute virtual pet jellyfish needs to justify a profit motive to Merchantsoft.
Hypnospace Outlaw is available on Steam
10.) Blue Revolver
I will never be a “great” player of arcade shooters, by enthusiast standards.
I have never cleared one in a single life, or one credit. You will never find my name in any kind of high score race.
However, still buy plenty and I love the design limitations of the genre. How you often move in a restricted space at a predetermined pace. The timing and locations of enemy waves all set in advance. The smallness of your character, and how close you can risk danger. I often liken it to sewing. The pattern is right in front of me, and so I find a lot of relaxation in seeing how far I can thread the needle without hurting myself.
Blue Revolver has a deep love of eye catching CAVE shooters like Mushihimesama and Espgaluda baked into it, featuring ample colors and characters by Woofycakes (Pixiv, some Not Safe For Work material). It features an adaptive difficulty system, to attempt to scale encounters to your performance. The game is also proud of its Mission mode, a series of tutorials, explanations, and challenges. They can be a skills test for veterans experienced in the genre. But they are also positioned as a way to teach newcomers an increasing set of techniques to enjoy.
Arcade shooters are a niche genre. Some games triple down on that, promising more complex systems and harder difficulty. Bullet curtains which will block out the sun. Which is a dedicated market which should be served.
At the same time, this decade in games has also brought about works like Undertale and the Nier franchise. These managed to weave a love of arcade shooters into their battle systems. They demonstrated the waves of tension, relief, and even storytelling they make possible. Players who enjoyed those parts of those games may feel at a bit of a loss when exploring dedicated arcade shooters. There are a vast number of arcade classics to dig up, sure. But what about newer titles built for modern experiences?
And more important than that: Will the game welcome me? Does it even want me to be here?
Blue Revolver is what I would hand to folks wanting to take that next step.
9.) Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
If you have played enough games with monetary systems, you have hit various late game points where all of a sudden you realize you can buy anything you want. Health and magic restoration items, weapons and armor. A bulging wallet of tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions or more. Whatever currency the game asks of you, you have so much the numbers mean nothing.
You have also seen how rare it is for your purchasing habits to impact the world in any way.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor places you in a bustling travel hub city. Heroes from all around come and go on their adventures. They need gear, food, and so much more. And they have plenty to spend. They are big shot traveling heroes, after all.
Meanwhile, with gentrification and prices going out of control in response to the cash flush adventuring parties, you are stuck making do as best you can. The lower class dreams of a better life, while trying to hold on. Everyone agrees janitorial work is essential, but nobody wants to pay for it.
Diaries takes a lot of care and attention to complement and accentuate its thematic bite with sights and sounds of the fantastical. Pastel skies and a giant sword stuck in the ground. Ships like sharks and manta rays flying to and from port. Public festival days full of music and celebration. This is not, say, a more outward oppressive cyberpunk city full of rain and fog and eternal night. This universe feels like a vast and huge place just outside your reach. You want to explore its life and color. It develops and hones a sense of palpable yearning for something more.
If you just had enough money.
Going along with this, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor also finds time to present you with another core social predicament. You see, your janitor receives a regular gender therapy treatment. Go too long without it, and your ability to process the world will get jumbled up.
You may be familiar with spaces like the @genderoftheday Twitter account. In this case, a bot which can assemble statements like “The gender today is the smell of six a.m. just before it starts to rain and sound of whale calls.”
Many have embraced how this pushes back at the vile jokes of reactionary groups. The nasty and repetetive ones you hear time and again. It gives a kind of ambient, ethereal, and considerate voice to these matters. The gender treatment stations in Diaries provide a similar voice and light humor, and they are on numerous streets.
Accessibility and affordability are not the same thing however.
It is true for the spaceships you see all around you in port, and it is true for what you want for your body.
There has to be a better way.
8.) VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Customer service jobs can take a real toll on a person. You have odd hours. Your personality needs to be “On” at the drop of a hat. You are trying to get through your work during what counts as free leisure time for another person.
VA-11 HALL-A gives you a night job as Jill, tending the bar at a small place off the main drag. Your day to day life is what would amount to a passing background shot in a near future science fiction film. You have a liver enhancement (so you can do your job). You smoke a lot (because your life is stressful). You have a crush on your boss Dana (you are into girls, and she is real cool). Jill lives alone in a small apartment with her cat Fore, who she will talk to and make up conversations with while browsing the internet.
The game is a visual novel, with its conversational choice mechanics mixed up into its drink serving system. In this future, all the drinks are made up of component chemicals. Which is to say, you never just pull out a simple beer bottle to serve. There are a handful of powders and liquids, and you tap in the correct ratios to synthesize up a beer. Or a specific mixed cocktail. Or a “I dunno lady, give me something bitter.”
Meeting and even exceeding expectations will lead to extra tips and conversational paths. But you also have the option to serve things your own way as well, with their own results. Maybe you cut back on the alcohol potency, maybe you throw in a bit extra. Maybe you serve complete garbage on purpose. Maybe you got creative in a way someone loved.
With most of the game occurring either at the bar or Jill’s apartment, you have a rigid routine and a set number of days during the last month of the year. Internet and television news will flesh out parts of the world around you. But you still have to go to work to pay the bills breathing down your neck. Maybe you can scrounge up a bit extra to decorate with, or buy a little game to play at home. Jill can get distracted if she does not take time to treat herself a little.
I appreciate the drink serving system VA-11 HALL-A uses because it leverages the actions of work as conversation and connection. If you get the hint someone might want another drink than what they are asking for with their words, you can decide to go for it. You can treat your favorite regulars to a little something extra. You can scour the recipe guide to find just the right thing someone needs right now.
It never feels like a mechanical dialogue option you are pressing from a list of choices. More like something you are choosing to do for another person. To try and give someone a better day.
7.) We Know The Devil, and Heaven Will Be Mine
Fitting their titles, these two visual novels take direct opposite approaches to story and player choice mechanics.
We Know The Devil is a work I have written about before. The first game I ever wrote about for this website, in fact. This place is about anime most of the time. You can read my thoughts from years ago if you want, but a summary is still in order. Three teenagers at a Christian summer camp are having a rough time, and their unit has to spend a night in the woods. Alone. With The Devil. Together, and yet stuck in their own heads.
The player is not an active character in the story, but more like the guiding atmosphere. You are the mood surrounding them. Every choice and decision point is presented with the classical planetary symbols for Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus, the names of our cast. Choices will, time and again, present you with a problem where two people need to do something. Which, by extension, will force someone to handle something else alone. Left out. The wordless design of these choices means you are not clued in to what the characters are going to get up to talking about. They do not know themselves.
But they will talk. To reach out for closeness, to burn looking for warmth.
Heaven Will Be Mine has its own characters named after planetary bodies, but this solar system works in a quite different way. You select one of three mecha pilots to play as, to see the story from their perspective. Each assigned to their own military organization, with its own cast of support personnel and history logs to read. But mecha are often built like humans, and you can reach out to each other. There is a squishy person under all that armor.
Your choices are given an abundance of words, to convey that you very much know the impact of everything you do. Or, at least as far as your pilot can figure. Multiple sentences for how you will react to combat flirtations, what organization will gain influence based on your decisions, and so on. Have you ever made a dialogue choice in a video game based on a few word summary, only to be horrified by how mean your character acted next? This aims to prevent that. You should have informed risk analysis in your giant robot dates. To think through how to present yourself as vulnerable.
Maybe in the end someone has their feelings shot down.
But you took steps toward the future you saw with other people in it.
6.) Skullgirls 2nd Encore
Skullgirls has received so many patches, extras, and polish from Lab Zero Games over the decade. It contains a legitimate secret bonus mode called Typing of the Skullgirls. As in, you can play a competitive multiplayer fighting game like it was a keyboard typing test. A homage to Sega’s old Typing of the Dead conversion of the light-gun based House of the Dead 2 shooter.
This is the kind of extravagance that lets you know the developers enjoy messing around with their own game. A lot.
Skullgirls takes place in a modern fantasy realm with art and design based on 1940’s era post-World War II movements. Lots of Art Deco, love of classic cartooning, and so on. Every character in the game is also animated like they were intended for a television series. That is, sketched, inked, colored, etc, all by hand. The playable cast each has well over one thousand frames of traditional animation backing up their movements. Every action contains lavish attention to detail and personality. No other fighting game looks quite like it. And with a substantial amount of one-liners, puns, and other smart remarks as the cast does their worst to each other, the voice talent ensures you avoid hearing the exact same phrase each time you perform an action.
The game is also super flexible, with several ways to play. You can decide to use one singular but powerful character with high health. You could choose to have two characters, to cover weaknesses and in exchange have medium tier statistics. Or you may select three characters, opting to have even larger utility at the expense of yet more fragility. If you choose to have a second or third character, you may assign any move the character can perform as a helpful assist to summon. Your opponent can select to use a different number of characters than you, leading to interesting power dynamics. You can both even pick the same characters, but choose to use different assist moves to suit your own style. The final cast of fourteen characters may not be as large as some other fighting games. But, they are balanced so well around each other and the adaptable team sizes.
When the original game launched in 2012, there was a lot of buzz around the Tutorial mode. At the time, I felt it was indeed the best fighting game tutorial around. And not just myself, but many other people would sell the game on the strength of its lessons as well. The fundamentals of which players could take to other fighting games. This little indie game had done so much more than numerous heavy hitting fighting game franchises had managed to include in their home releases for years.
Skullgirls 2nd Encore received its final patches in 2018, after years of care. It rests for now, though according to its own lore the Skull Heart can return after seven years…
5.) Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]
I remember playing the first version of French Bread’s Melty Blood on the family computer in the early 2000’s. I believe it may have been some kind of sample demo, as I remember it having few characters. Either way, it was very much something I probably should not have had. While I was familiar with the existence of Type Moon, Tsukihime, and later the Fate/ franchise, this fighting game spinoff was the only place I interacted with any of that material for years.
It is odd to think about how long after Capcom (Street Fighter), Arc System Works (Guilty Gear), and even SNK (The King of Fighters) have transitioned their lead fighters to 3D polygon models, French Bread is one of the only pixel art fighting game groups left. Under Night In-Birth has been French Bread’s baby for the decade, developing a franchise all their own. Exe:Late[st] is the most recent major title revision and expansion.
Under Night centers itself around a unique mechanic in the lower middle of the screen: the GRD Gauge. This system amounts to a special tug of war mini-game, with a meter for each player. Advancing forward and making successful attacks will build up your side of the meter. Successful blocking will also build meter, and missing attacks will drain it. After just over sixteen seconds, the timer around the meter will award the tug of war winner a blue visual aura and 10% damage buff.
The system has further quirks than this of course. But what I enjoy is how it breaks the game state into small digestible chunks. The classic but nebulous 99 second timer at the top a fighting game screen can feel so vauge to many folks, so you have another guiding focus. Take things 16 seconds at a time. Did you receive the blue damage buff? Great, it is your “Turn,” keep up whatever you are doing! Did your opponent win the blue damage buff? Slow down. Press fewer buttons. Play defense. It is a constant conversation. You are engaged and present in the moment in new ways. The tug of war for the blue buff is an additional tool beyond your general health bar for seeing who has momentum.
The game complements this with an extensive number of learning resources. The general Tutorial with one hundred and seventy nine available lessons was a jaw dropping sight when I first saw it. These are presented in a conversational tone and divided into five areas, from Beginner to Veteran. So it aims to be as granular as it can manage. This is supplemented further with separate dedicated character Missions. These feature not just a few dozen combos for each character, but also special care taken to show you lessons on singular moves and where they are most useful. Your chosen character’s best Anti-Air attacks if someone jumps at them, and from what distance, that sort of thing.
French Bread has poured years of love into this title, and has been doing so much to make it a welcoming fighting game you can learn and grow with.
Also, as a side note: since the fights happen at night, this leads to great high contrast color space between the backgrounds and characters. I never feel lost, and it allows the labor intensive character sprites to shine even more.
A further revision and expansion, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], is due in literal weeks.
But I can still tell you this game, right now, is the best it has ever been.
4.) Gravity Rush, Gravity Rush: Remastered, and Gravity Rush 2
An elevator sales pitch for the Gravity Rush series could read as follows:
“The original director of Silent Hill and the Siren series (Keiichirō Toyama) leverages decades of experience with world atmosphere and character building into a game about superhero women, class struggle, and climate change featuring an art style inspired by Moebius.”
You play as Kat, a Gravity Shifter who can manipulate the direction gravity pulls around her.
To put this another way: Kat can not fly, but she can fall. Upwards and sideways.
She can tumble through the air in any direction she wants. Land on the walls of a skyscraper and walk around like it was normal ground. Change the pull of gravity towards an airship, then stand on the bottom as it travels the skies. And so on. In a world of floating islands, she can get around town and explore in ways few can even dream.
While you have a health meter, there is no fall damage. You can bumble around and slam into things to your hearts content. Or, if need be, change momentum to make a daring cannonball face plant emergency escape from a bad situation.
The Gravity Rush games taking this loose approach means overshooting your destination is never a bother. This ends up making them one of the only times I have really enjoyed playing a character so centered on aerial maneuverability. The game world and encounters are not built for demanding precision. Plus, you have a generous lock-on function to help direct you towards enemies. Environments are instead built for having interesting things to see from all kinds of directions. The dense layers of urban buildup, the more surreal Rift Plains, and sprawling mansion estates in a world with limited land.
Land and the people on it are at a huge premium in this world. The environment design works in conjunction with the political and social themes of the story. Everyone has a vague sense that everything is sinking. The disasters and monsters from the depths of the world are more and more frequent. More land will be lost. Urban centers will fall. Over a long enough timescale this is an apocalyptic scenario for humanity. But how close and dangerous that reality is held in different regard among different groups, and some seek to capitalize on their own selfish agendas.
Gravity Rush and Gravity Rush 2 are very much two halves to one story, so I do feel it is important to play them in order. The original Playstation Vita game has been remastered for Playstation 4 by Bluepoint Games, who you may know from similar handiwork on titles like Shadow of the Colossus. I recommend playing it that way, as a large screen does a great service to the Franco-Belgian comic art direction.
While I would love for a hypothetical Gravity Rush 3 to get yet another crack to aim for mascot level franchise success, I can tell you this:
As the story goes, Keiichirō Toyama has been thinking of what would become Gravity Rush since before Silent Hill. By the conclusion of Gravity Rush 2, nothing is left on the table.
We do not have unlimited time. If this is where the story ends, I will always appreciate the foresight and kindness taken to wrap things up. And down. And sideways.
Gravity Rush is available on Playstation Vita
Gravity Rush: Remastered is available on Playstation 4
Gravity Rush 2 is available on Playstation 4
3.) Tetris Effect
My brain has a difficult time “connecting” to music in a vacuum.
Yet, I have well over eight thousand songs in my digital music library. I listen to over an hour of music every day for my work commutes. If you take a good look at it however, a trend emerges: almost every album is a soundtrack. Movies. Television Shows. Video Games. Musicals. I need to “see” music with a visual component, I need to “feel” music by interacting with something.
Tetris Effect was produced by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. His music-influenced games, like Space Channel 5 and Rez, I became quite familiar with during his Sega days. Among other titles, he also later produced Lumines, a block based puzzle game with a heavy musical focus.
“It would be great if he got to work on a Tetris game.”
Tetris Effect takes the puzzle game champion of the world on a whirlwind tour of sights and sounds embracing the globe. In the “Journey” mode, over two dozen themed stages will meet you. As you play, the visuals behind the stages will transition. It will set Tetris against desert camels which shift toward moonscapes. The music will progress as you clear lines, and speed or slow to change your flow. Clearing lines will also build up a Zone meter, a kind of emergency brake you can pull to bring a deep slowness to everything to help clear as many lines as you can. And no matter where you are: every rotating block, every piece slotting into place, every line clear, will have its own sound. All of them chosen just for this song, just for this moment.
This may all sound familiar if you played Rez, which deployed some similar tricks to a rail shooter in the Sega Dreamcast era. Even so, the evolution and raw amount of audio engineering feedback work here is staggering. Every movement, every button felt so satisfying. And you push so many buttons over the course of an average Tetris game.
Tetris Effect ran electricity through my nerves and lit my brain on fire.
Tetris Effect has, on multiple occasions, put tears in my eyes and made me cry.
I have played plenty of Tetris over the years. There have been so many flavors and variations. On just about every console generation since 1984.
But for me, it never once felt like this.
Tetris Effect is available on Playstation 4
2.) Off-Peak, and The Norwood Suite
These are games about the pulse of a place.
Transient spaces have an inherent weirdness. A lot of culture happens within them, while at the same time for most folks it is a temporary place they are moving through. Those who work there see the time come and go.
Cosmo D is a musician and game developer who has been poking around with these ideas in ways I have found a lot of resonance with this decade. Off-Peak is centered on exploring an urban train station filled with the finest distractions on quest to reassemble a torn up ticket. The Norwood Suite takes you to an estate-turned-hotel of a long lost famous musician, on the night of the last concert of an underground DJ. They take place in the same world, around the same city.
Off-Peak’s train station is a privatized business operation. A curated space ran almost like a hobby by a man of incredible wealth. The kind of guy who includes his own premium balcony seating featuring exotic animals and whatnot to look over his domain. A train station with premium and separate store spaces selling vinyl records and sheet music. A board game bar. One of the finest pizza chefs from one the finest pizzerias.
Meanwhile, the ramen shop owner will be glad to tell you about how he used to play a mean viola. But running the restaurant makes more money and keeps a roof over his head, and he has needed to adapt his mindset and find fulfillment where he can. The record seller recognizes that there is not much of a market for selling LP’s to people trying to get through their day to day commutes. But the shop looks good to the station owner. The train station is an impressive curated monument, it seems to be bursting with culture. Yet in its corners and conversations there is also recognition of what is lacking.
The Norwood Suite’s hotel has its main quest of trying to get into the basement DJ party. But, there is also the background story of how the property will be sold off soon for redevelopment. The current owner can be found having phone conversations well into the night. The lawyers representing the potential next owners are in a lounge, studying up for tomorrow. The front desk and kitchen staff have their own concerns and worries about what happens next. A music teaching seminar is being held in a side room. And more. The space is packed with small stories, and as you move through the game these stories will interact with each other.
Each game embraces and runs with powerful surrealist imagery, befitting the characters trying to make sense of the world around them. But an interesting facet of transient spaces is also included as a grounding mechanism: an information desk. The world recognized built-in help feature. Which keeps the experiences tight and impactful if you find yourself off track.
The attendant may not be able to tell you what to do with your life. But they can mention the interesting places and people nearby you should get to know next. Before the beat changes.
1.) Nier, Drakengard 3, and Nier: Automata
The original Drakengard released several years before the arrival of mainstream video sharing sites like YouTube. But if you ever did hear about it, it was the kind of game you would see on a list of Wildest Game Endings.
Drakengard has five endings, requiring repeated loops through the game, each time featuring evolving story elements. The final finale, Ending E, was and remains the most infamous. Your player character and dragon companion chase their greatest antagonist through an interdimensional portal, arriving in a modern Tokyo. Your last boss fight is to engage in a magical rhythm game. No sooner is victory achieved, their world threat defeated, before scrambled air force fighter jets shoot you out of the sky. There are no slow motion last thoughts of your characters before life fades from their eyes. No sad music plays. Heck, there is no music at all. The player only hears the hiss of radio static, and a pilot confirming neutralization of their target.
A good tragedy never stopped folks from going to the theatre.
In the immediate aftermath of Neir: Automata, the latest entry in this unexpected series, I went on a long and winding reflective brain dump. I devoured its bones, Platinum Trophy and all. But that was then and this is now, and a list like this needs a tighter approach to get my feelings across. So let me tell you this:
These games give me the old joy of playing with my favorite toys.
You must have had something you played pretend with. Dolls or figures or plastic block people. You would run a scenario with them. On another day, maybe you ran a similar setting again with many of the same characters. Some small tweaks here and there, as well as some huge departures from what came before. A different hero or villain rose up, because the situation changed. You had a meta narrative in your head, and you sometimes ended up in different places. Even when you traveled the same spaces, you had a new idea to try and flesh it out after being here once before.
The Nier and Drakengard games have a winding timeline taking place over thousands and thousands of years. I have come to own the art and lore books over the years, but they are not required. The games are in conversation with each other, and they reinforce each other. The waves ripple out. But they are also quite singular, as they are so distant in time. A Modern European History class will not expect you to backtrack all the way before the Roman Empire. But there are interesting connections there, if you want to pursue it. Places, themes, symbols. This is overall a kind move, to allow for any of the games to be your first.
I never had a full playset of any toy series I can remember. I cobbled together situations. I mixed fantasy and science fiction together. I would find ways to include a new toy into an adventure I ran before. I never gave any of this a second thought. These acts of play felt natural.
A video game should have the power to engage with similar play. Build in trap doors and water-slides. Break your genre several times over. Drop multiple title cards. Enjoy using Tex Avery style cartoon sound effects one moment, and dire silence another. We are on a journey with these characters, in every sense of the word.
The long, long arc of the series stories feature, at various points, gods, magic, androids, aliens, dragons, and more. Seaside lighthouse towns and machine factories running endless manufacturing. It all sounds like the babbling excited ramblings of a child.
I remember having such love.
I am relieved to know I still do.
Nier is available on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (Physical Disk Only)
Drakengard 3 is available on Playstation 3