Here’s some games of the decade! I probably should mention some more console and flash games from early in the decade, but… this will do, I guess. It’s not exhaustive, just some highlights I can remember.
Detention – Investigates the White Terror period of Taiwanese history through horror, thinking about Taiwan’s struggles of modernization and the ways its citizens might reflect on its history. I’ve seen a few other games dealing with similar topics, and I hope in the 2020s we see more games that can act as historical texts or reflections in some way. Also shout out to Devotion, which I haven’t played yet, but on watching a playthrough seems well-written with an interesting mechanic of recontextualizing a single space. Also I need to bring up Devotion’s relation to China, and how that game was taken down for criticizing China’s president. (The specifics are unknown, but China’s political situation is obviously one of the underlying causes, regardless of the specific machinations of how the game takedown occurred.) I can only hope Red Candle Games (the creators of these two games, based in Taiwan) are okay after. Also, the One China myth perpetuated by China and its desire to re-absorb the independent Taiwan, has resonances with that entire situation. But, moving on…
Oikospiel – A formally memorable 3D game that inspired me to think about all the strange spatial possibilities of games intertwined with novel storytelling formats. And, is a pro-unionizing story, too, on top of all the interesting sound and art design! This was inspiring for me in a lot of ways, pushing me to really try out 3D for the first time. I think a year after playing I released All Our Asias, then more recently, Anodyne 2. I also loved the camera angles and various types of 3rd person control there were.
Facets – Other than mind-diving being a favorite trope, Facets illustrates the expressive possibilities of JRPGs made with prefab assets, depicting the unraveling reaches of a mind. And its battle design is tight, showing the expressive potential of systems that often get ahistorically written off as grindy or “old”. There’s so much depth to a small kit of tools, which inspires me to really push a simple-feeling system to its limits (right now we’re designing a intimidating (for us) game with jrpg-esque mechanics.) There’s even a cool post about how these battles were made in Facets!
Subway Adventure – A grab bag of 3D spaces connected via subways, the motions of waiting, boarding, and getting off trains and wandering stations (with their evocative names), the ways they disturbingly parallel real life and the circulation of people. While playing, this game really takes me to a weird place with my relation to transit and just moving around to different zones. Bodies moving in large numbers. Makes me think about tourism and wandering – what can you actually do as a tourist other than just stare and gawk? Why travel? Why does tourism exist, what’s the history… etc. Well, other than that, formally this is just a cool 3D game, too. Each station has some unique theme to it and a mini-treasure hunt.
Mouse Corp https://thecatamites.itch.io/mouse-corp– I like a lot of thecatamites’s games but picked this because its saturated 3D environment and abstract political story and mechanical play on open world grindy games have stuck with me despite me only playing it once years ago. The way the atmosphere changes as stuff passes to night, or the strange 3D creatures lurking the overworld – there’s a lot to love here on top of the narrative aspects.
Knytt Underground – Dark, lush, calm, mysterious, memorable. In some ways, a 2D ‘open world’ platformer. Some goals, but they feel like tactile texture so you can enjoy the collaborative soundtrack and art style. A very unified feeling game, left an impression on me when I played it in 2012.
LUCAH – Extremely unified ambience to everything and I love seeing that level of control from a development team. Also the action is good. The narrative/atmosphere is just loose enough where you can still make out its themes, but also lets you involve yourself in the process of unpacking the ideas around religion, gender, etc…
Lacuna III – rook (acclaimed musical artist!) also makes videogames! Framed as an emulation of a gifted ROM from one person to another, Lacuna III has a really strong, oppressive atmosphere and intimate-feeling narrative that form a cool pairing. It’s like if Link to the Past’s Dark World was good hahahahah
Fishing Minigame 2 – Takes the twist of NieR Automata’s multiple endings, but uses a single screen and a clever re-use of JRPG name entries to let you gain layers of understanding to the game’s characters, granting depth to what’s usually a random distraction in JRPGs (the “fishing minigame”). The creator’s other works are all great ideas expressed via RPG Maker.
NieR (2010) – A multifaceted interpretation of the Ocarina of Time archetype. Its graphical/gameplay ‘shortcomings’ make it much stronger and argue against the excesses of the decade’s AAA games (despite being a bit excessive itself.) I can’t pick one great thing – the dream-like, over-exposed bloom saturating the grassy hills and shores? Song of the Ancients? Sense of hope/desolation in its overworld? “Weiss, you dumbass?” The factory and seashore town song? The Forest VN section? One thing’s for sure… if your game doesn’t have prose text on black fades, it should.
Attack of the Friday Monsters – I’m less into the slathered layers of nostalgia here, more into the light elements of fantasy imbued into a childhood community. Using a simple card game as texture, the small (and beautiful) Japanese town’s fixed locations gain a lot of life/meaning (following in footsteps of games like My Summer Vacation, love-de-lic games, etc). I always think about this game a little as a designer, but haven’t found quite the right idea to borrow from its structure yet.
Dark Souls – I did a photography project on these games! Learned a lot about 3D space and how you begin to remember it by walking across the same paths over and over. While I haven’t made any games that involve the idea of repeatedly visiting a space and seeing it change, there are still a lot of great spatial ideas you can learn from playing the slow-paced Souls series. I like Dark Souls 2 the most visually, but they’re all pretty good. (Demon’s too.)