A Year, Give Or Take, In Video Game Feelings

Here's my 2019, from Outer Wilds to Just Shapes and Beats to Apex Legends.

The unspoken assumption at the end of 2019 is that everyone is connected all the time. The stream of personal information up and content down flows uninterrupted, without caveats. There are no bottlenecks or data caps. Playing video games is frictionless.

This is not the reality for many people, both in the US and worldwide. As of moving into an RV full-time in 2018, it was no longer the reality for me. Even with two gaudy, tethering-enabled mobile plans and the intermittent blessing of sketchy campground wifi, the Internet no longer gave the illusion of a reliably unlimited resource.

The minor personal inconveniences — multiplayer sessions dropped due to lag, mandatory patch downloads I couldn’t possibly absorb —made it more difficult to ignore the larger potential disparities. I noticed the growing size of titles, the precedent of Google Stadia, and net neutrality stories with a new eye. For all the problems with ubiquitous connectivity, there are just as many with leaving people behind.

The additional hurdles also made it harder for me to take video games for granted. They forced me to consider why I was expending the time and effort to play games in the first place, to think a little more carefully about what I get out of playing. The not-quite-affect-theory answers helped me form this list. This was my 2019* in video game feelings.

Dead Cells

This is cheating, as I finished Dead Cells just before the calendar New Year. Previous to traveling for the holidays, I’d gotten good enough to reach the roguelike’s final boss. When I returned to try to finish the job, I was greeted with a significant 1.1 update.

dead cells sunset

On my first run through the new patch I beat the game. Rather than accomplishment or relief, I was struck by the realization that video games are largely no longer static objects. Increasingly, it makes sense to treat them as fleeting, ever-changing experiences rather than singularies. You can never step in that same river-as-a-service twice.

In October, it was announced that original creators, egalitarian co-op Motion Twin, would hand off future development on Dead Cells to a new, more traditionally corporate studio named Evil Empire.

Outer Wilds

For all its flaws and frustrations, Outer Wild’s discovery-focused gameplay was one of the most unique, rewarding experiences that I’ve ever had with a game. To avoid blunting that thrill for anyone who hasn’t played yet, here is a truncated, spoiler-free list of times that Outer Wilds made me gasp in awe of what the game was doing.

outer wilds giants deep

  • Punching through the atmosphere to witness Giant’s Deep’s climate
  • The Interloper
  • Realizing that the tutorial, the lore, and even the design of my spaceship were all communicating something meaningful
  • The view from Sun Station
  • Each time I thought “Can I fly there?” or “Do physics affect that (and will it kill me)?” and the game answering “Yes” every time
  • Abruptly learning what’s inside Dark Bramble
  • Figuring out how to climb the Tower of Quantum Knowledge
  • That music

Pyre and Invisible, Inc.

I don’t really like most things. I’m a peculiar person who’s plagued with anxiety and anhedonia, which is not the fault of those things but does not change that fact. People whose opinions I value recommended Pyre and Invisible, Inc. but I bounced off of both aggressively.

I had hoped that Invisible, Inc. might scratch an itch similar to Into the Breach, but though I refuse to accept this truth, I just don’t love most stealth games. Pyre might have been going interesting places, but the mechanics of its core ball game did nothing for me.

pyre opening

I’ve come to appreciate that this is fine. They were both on sale, helpfully, and it is okay to not like things. The world is on fire and we only have so much time on it regardless. There’s no reason to spend it feeling obliged to entertainment we aren’t enjoying.

Gris

Above and beyond anything else, Gris is gorgeous. It’s an unexplained, side-scrolling meditation on grief, with no enemies and no failstates, just aesthetically stunning environmental puzzles—calling them “puzzles” feels like a disservice; maybe “obstacles to navigate.” It’s all watercolors, silky animations, and breathtaking camera zooms. Any given frame makes for a screenshot that most other games would covet.

gris hands

I never figured out if I even “liked” Gris or if it succeeded in whatever it was trying to do. At some point I decided to stop worrying about it entirely. Sometimes it feels good to just let something beautiful overtake you.

Robotron 2084

Arcade bars have plenty of downsides: they can be crowded, the bad pun drinks are overpriced, and half the buttons are jammed by sour mix. But they have old games and old games can take you places.

My body is in an arcade bar in the present playing Robotron 2084, but the physical act of transferring my weight into those dual sticks has transported my mind to a company Christmas party, thirty-some years ago. At my Dad’s plant they have a Joust and a Robotron 2084 machine, where I am uncoordinatedly churning those dual sticks. I am terrible and the older kids playing know it. I’m uncomfortable because I’m always uncomfortable at parties but at least there are video games, thank god.

Any game can leave an impression, but games that do something different, that give our bodies and minds new sensations, can etch themselves on our brains. Between slamming those two joysticks askew, slaloming one way through robots and while shooting the other, I take a sip of my beer and almost spill it. I am back now but I am smiling. I am still uncomfortable and still bad at this, but I’ve gotten a little better.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Nostalgia has its limits, though. When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released in 2007 I was living with my youngest brother. We spent a good portion of the next few years passing a controller back and forth, playing it and its descendants. They were slickly-designed games and racking up team deathmatch kills made for a fun time.

call of duty modern warfare stealth

While I was staying at his house, my brother and I fell back into our old routine with this year’s reboot. It is still fun. The graphics have been updated, there are more customization options, and now you can slide, I guess, but fundamentally very little about the game has changed.

But it’s not 2007 anymore. This is, give or take, the twelfth major Call of Duty title released since. What little evolution there has been in the formula — innovating the violence with tech or taking the forever war into space — hasn’t always been well-received, and so it’s returned to its roots. The industry has slowly been crushing itself under the weight of blockbuster AAA franchises, inimical to risk-taking. I’ve now written about gaming’s conservative tendencies and specifically about the imperialist propaganda of the series. There is no putting Pandora back in the box.

Still, it was good to see my brother. I’m not sure what the bounds of my hypocrisy are, but we will probably play some more the next time I visit.

Apex Legends and Warhammer: Vermintide 2

There are levels to things and as with getting dunked on in a pickup basketball game, online matchmaking occasionally gives you a chance to fathom that gulf.

I queued into a Warhammer: Vermintide 2 map where a Victor Saltzpyre promptly ignored me and the two bots in our crew and dove directly into mobs of marauders. He danced through the crowds untouched, kiting them like the Pied Piper, decimating them with a rapier and no need of my help.

In Apex Legends, a teammate correctly identified myself and our comrade as dead weight off the drop, left us behind, and ran headfirst into other squads. When I could keep up, I watched them dismantle fireteams outnumbered 3 to 1, opponents missing shots wildly and then dying unceremoniously like extras in a Predator sequel.

apex legends crypto

Games are capable of opening our minds to possibilities, one of those being that it’s possible to get unthinkably good at those games. If not though, there’s nothing wrong with just enjoying the show.

Rayman Legends

There is very little remarkable about Rayman Legends. It’s a platformer and not a particularly complex one. It is also meticulously crafted, charming, and very pretty to look at. My spouse and I took turns playing it after dinner and the whole process was a small, ordinary joy. Rayman Legends is nice. Sometimes nice is more than enough.

Stellaris

I had never played a Paradox title and I went into Stellaris unprepared, which turned out to be ideal. Initially, I was riveted. The universe seemed vast and the uncertainty was intoxicating. As my civilization grew, everything from random geological finds to my first contact with alien life had me on the edge of my seat.

stellaris ships

But the more I uncovered, the more those feelings faded. The bounds and constraints of the map took shape. Novelty was slowly replaced by routine and a burgeoning grasp of the min/max possibilities. It was still an enormous, impressive game, but after those introductory moments of giddy unfamiliarity and surprise, settling for playing Risk in space felt like a letdown. I gradually sped up the gameplay clocks, skimmed the flavor text, and rode out my first playthrough. I haven’t gone back, but I’d already gotten everything out of it that I was hoping for.

StarCraft II

It’s been several years since I actually played StarCraft II. I was never any good at it, but neither are the majority of people who take up an RTS with an astronomical skill ceiling. This has not stopped me from following a pro scene that is now almost a decade old but still very much alive.

When I started watching I was already in my 30s and relatively ancient, but outside of an occasional article or highlight I had never followed esports. Twitch had not yet spun off from Justin.tv. League of Legends was just starting to explode and the ubiquitous popularity of Fortnite within the decade would have been hard to believe.

I paid for access to watch the GSL in Korea at unreasonable hours or caught up on replays after work the next day. I lay in bed watching tournaments on Justin.tv’s buggy phone app. The game became my comfort television. So much of my life has changed since then, but it’s still a background constant. Some people read James Patterson or binge Real Housewives; I fall asleep to WCS VoDs, wondering if the zerg player pulled enough drones to defend a cannon rush. Comfort comes in strange packages and I’ll take it where I can find it.

Just Shapes & Beats

Again, I am fudging the calendar, because by December of last year I had already watched the first Just Shapes & Beats boss reveal itself and muttered, “Oh my god.” I didn’t complete the pulsating, pink bullet (and-whatever-that-thing-is) hell until January, though, and the game more than earns the exemption.

just shapes and beats ship

Just Shapes & Beats is preposterous. It’s the unhinged chiptune mutation of a rhythm game the name promises but it’s also sharply subversive: there are false endings upon false endings, the world map itself becomes a game, and a cast of anthropomorphized geometry shows more heart than most of the video game cannon. It tells an entire hallucinatory narrative with only a handful of words. It gamifies sensory overload and bores into the base of your skull to commune directly with your nervous system. It does so much with so little that it feels miraculous.

Other than a little less flashing, what more could you want out of a video game than a small miracle of feelings?

A previous version of this article referred to an arcade bar as a Barcade®, which, of course, is a registered trademark of Barcade®. The writer did not go to a Barcade® in this case, which has locations in Brooklyn, Jersey City, Philadelphia, New York, St. Mark’s, New Haven, Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit. We regret the error as much as we regret knowing this much about Barcade®.

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