I didn’t have a great game-playing year in 2022. My patience seemed limited, and a lot of games were begun and then discarded for reasons, I suspect, that had more to do with me than with them. I seem to be looking for something instantly engrossing, when of course the whole point of this medium is often the period of bewilderment as you learn not only the game’s premise and mechanics, but the habits of thought you need to adopt in order to fully sink into it. So if my reactions to most of these games seem a bit harsh, you should probably take my impatience with that process in mind. The best games I played this year were the ones that were able to very quickly convey to me how I was supposed to play them, and a lot of my criticisms in this post circle around execution issues, games that seem to put barriers in the path of player before they can be fully appreciated. A more patient player might enjoy some of these games more, but the ones that put some effort into making their gameplay experience seamless are truly worth celebrating.
Heaven’s Vault (2019)
Last year I wrote about Inkle Studio’s 2014 game 80 Days, praising, in particular, how its elegant, minimalistic interface nevertheless left space for a wide variety of stories. Inkle’s follow-up, Heaven’s Vault, is a huge, ambitious departure from this approach to game design, making great leaps forward in the complexity of both its storytelling and functionality. The result is something of a mixed bag, but nevertheless impressive for the breadth of its ambitions. You play Aliya, an archeologist and the foremost expert in the language of the Ancients. Aliya lives in a “nebula” in which moons—really chunks of rock with varying amounts of water and air—are connected by a network of rivers flowing through space. The origins of this setup are shrouded in mystery, but Aliya begins untangling them when she’s sent on the trail of a missing roboticist, discovering previously unknown moons and using the artifacts she finds there to piece together a history that includes fallen empires, lost technologies, suppressed religions, and a secret that is being kept by the robots that keep being discovered across the nebula.
Heaven’s Vault is a rare game whose focus is on topics like archeology, history, and linguistics. At every site, Aliya finds inscriptions in the Ancient language, which the player gets to try to decipher, adding more and more words to their dictionary in order to untangle increasingly complex texts. (In subsequent playthroughs, the player gets to keep their dictionary, and the inscriptions get more linguistically complex, revealing new bits of information each time.) Along the way the game gets to talk about how history can be suppressed and reinterpreted, and used to bolster existing power structures. Aliya’s society believes in “the loop”, the idea that history repeats itself endlessly, and she is constantly forced to argue for the necessity of studying the past, and the possibility of making a different future.
Against the richness of its story, however, Heaven’s Vault is depressingly clunky in its mechanics. The movement system is finicky and time-consuming. The mini-game by which Aliya navigates the rivers to get from one location to another is initially fun, but very quickly outstays its welcome. The conversation mechanics are particularly annoying, with Aliya constantly bumping up against obstructive characters who try to distract her from her quest, breaking the flow of narrative (a particularly egregious example is Aliya’s robot companion, who keeps kvelling about the danger she puts herself in and trying to convince her not to do the things that are clearly necessary for the continuation of the story). The result is a game that often feels as if it’s fighting you, trying to keep you from enjoying its story and setting. (Though, since I’m ragging on Heaven’s Vault for execution issues, it’s only fair to point out that the game’s soundtrack is absolutely stunning.) I can’t regret Inkle’s ambition with this game, because it’s still the type of story that one rarely gets to see, and deciphering the Ancient language is tremendously satisfying. But I wish they’d given as much thought to the gameplay experience as they clearly did to their worldbuilding and story.
I followed up Heaven’s Vault with another Inkle game, this one hewing much closer to the minimalism and restricted interface of 80 Days. This time, instead of replicating Philleas Fogg’s round the world journey, your task is to get away with murder. Set in 1939, you play socialite Veronica Villensey, who on the last night of a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage pushes her no-good husband Malcolm overboard. With the clock ticking before the ship arrives in New York, Veronica has to throw suspicion off herself and create a compelling theory of the crime, whether that means staging a suicide, framing another passenger, or killing everyone aboard. Like 80 Days, there are a lot of different directions the story can go, and the game’s restricted, minimalistic interface gives it a great deal of freedom in other respects. You can romance the handsome first officer, get blackmail material from an aging lush, or beat a British spy at cards. Along the way the game also delves into the politics of its era—the looming war, Britain’s flirtations with fascism, and racial prejudice. Pleasant as it is, however, this is probably the slightest of the three Inkle games I’ve played—it only takes a couple of hours to complete, and the constraints the premise places on the story mean that there’s a lot less urgency to discovering all the different ways that story can end. If you’re interested in what is turning out to be an intriguing, impressive studio, I’d recommend starting with either the (literally) broader world of 80 Days, or the loftier ambitions of Heaven’s Vault.
I Am Dead (2020)
I Am Dead is a quintessential Annapurna Interactive game—a bit weird in its concept, a bit woo-woo in its themes, and just this side of a walking simulator. Though it’s far from the best Annapurna game I’ve played—that would be either Gorogoa or Kentucky Route Zero—there’s a certain charm to it that is mostly down to the game’s strange but elaborately thought-out world. You play Morris Lupton, the recently-deceased curator of the local museum on the island of Shelmerston. Morris is tasked with identifying a new spirit caretaker for the island’s dormant volcano, to which end he seeks out other ghosts of prominent Shelmerstonians. This results in a tour of the island’s past and present—the lighthouse which is now a yoga retreat; the sculpture garden erected by the island’s now-defunct landowning family; the docks, where the remnants of the local fishing industry have been repurposed to power a tourism economy; there’s even a trip to prehistoric times to find out how that whole volcano caretaker situation got set up in the first place.
The worldbuilding is I Am Dead‘s main claim to fame. It’s familiar—we’ve all visited former fishing towns that have been transformed into charming tourist traps—but also full of quirks specific to this invented setting, as well as fantastical details. The island’s population, it turns out, is made up of both humans and “fish creatures”, who have their own history and mythology, and their own role in the island’s story. One of the most popular shops on the dock, for example, sells dry toast to visiting fish creatures, who are fascinated by anything dry and crunchy. But even when the details it describes are thoroughly mundane—a famous artist who visited the island, the archeological finds in Morris’s museum—there’s a specificity to them that makes them a joy to discover and piece together. There’s not much challenge to the game—and very little surprise when the identity of the island’s new caretaker is finally revealed—but the care that creators Hollow Ponds put into Shelmerston makes exploring it a sweet, charming way to spend a few hours.
I’m grouping these three games together because they’re all adventure games, they all tell stories that fall somewhere on the mystery/noir/conspiracy thriller spectrum, and they’re all a bit disappointing. I like adventure games a lot, and at their best they can be thrilling. But they also have very obvious pitfalls—”puzzles” that can only be solved by combining every item in your inventory with every other item until you hit the right combination, worlds that you have to trudge back and forth across endlessly, long stretches of dialogue with few points of interest or humor. It often seems to escape the designers of these games that they need genuinely top-notch stories and characters to make up for a type of gameplay that usually requires at least some drudgery. In the case of these three games, the assumption seems to have been that couching that gameplay in the terms of a mystery will automatically imbue it with added appeal, when in fact the opposite is often true. The tropes of these stories are so well-established that the player will sometimes be able to guess the game’s plot from the first few scenes. When the streets of your dystopian city are plastered with sinister posters of the mayor’s face, you know he’s going to end up being the villain. When a distraught wife goes to a private detective hoping for news of her missing husband, you know he’s probably caught up in something big.
ENCODYA, the weakest of the bunch, is set in Neo Berlin, in a cyberpunk-ish near future. Tina, a nine-year-old orphan, lives on the streets with her nanny robot, the hulking-but-sweet SAM-53. Their daily scrounging after the necessities of survival is interrupted when Tina receives a message from her long-lost father about a secret code hidden in SAM, which is also of interest to the city’s corrupt mayor. There are some clever gameplay and worldbuilding notes here. SAM is bigger and more physically able than Tina, but has ethical subroutines that she’s not burdened by, so solving a puzzle is often a matter of figuring out which one of them can carry out a specific task. And while the details of Neo-Berlin’s futuristic urban squalor are familiar tropes of the genre, they gain a certain edge when it’s an apple-cheeked moppet explaining to you that much of the city’s population is addicted to VR, or that homeless orphans like her are a common sight. Still, on the whole ENCODYA‘s storytelling is rote and predictable, and its puzzles feel almost random—all the more so when Tina and SAM enter VR, which apparently made the game’s writers think they could throw all internal consistency and story logic out the window. Estonian developers Chaosmonger Studio apparently based ENCODYA on their own animated short “Robot Will Protect You”. That origin tells in the final result, which feels thin and cobbled-together, clinging to the adorable image of a tiny tyke with a big robot, but never finding an interesting story to tell about it.
Backbone, by Canadian studio EggNut, is the least adventure-y of the three, and by far the biggest swing. Its premise can best be described as “Zootopia noir”, and it’s animated in beautiful pixel art, with an equally lush soundtrack (including several original songs). The protagonist is Howard, a raccoon private detective in a far-future Vancouver populated by anthropomorphic animals, where social class is determined by species. When a search for a missing husband uncovers a secretive club where the elite dine on the flesh of the lower classes (because it’s a class war, but also they’re animals, get it?), Howard goes down a rabbit hole that ends up involving mob bosses, missing girls, and secret genetic experiments. For all these sensationalistic tropes, however, Backbone is surprisingly putdownable, with neither the plot nor the characters exerting much grip. Partly this is the predictability of the noir plot I mentioned, but really I think the issue is that the game doesn’t know what story it wants to tell, or even what kind of game it wants to be. Around the halfway point it seems to give up on its adventure game aspects (the puzzles, which were pretty thin to begin with, disappear almost entirely) in favor of bizarre psychedelia, sudden body horror, melancholy philosophical musings, and a weird, abrupt ending. I don’t know if the timing works out, but it really feels as if Backbone wanted to be Disco Elysium—several dialogue and storytelling choices feel lifted directly from that game. But without the depth of writing that made that game’s setting so fascinating to explore, and its main character human and lovable despite being a walking jumble of hardboiled clichés, the only reaction one can have to Backbone‘s conclusion is “huh?”
The earliest of the three games, Unforeseen Incidents, is also the best—not least because of its gorgeous hand-drawn animation, which is simple but always interesting to look at, managing to make lovely the game’s dilapidated exurban, post-industrial settings. You play Harper, a handyman in a small town in the Pacific Northwest (the game’s developers, Backwoods Entertainment, are German, but have nevertheless chosen this quintessential game setting for their story). When his home becomes the epicenter of a new disease outbreak, Harper joins forces with an independent reporter who is investigating the source of the virus. What’s most compelling about the gameplay here is that a lot of the puzzles involve Harper trying to perform a mechanical task—fix a car, develop a photo, light a fire—and having to improvise his materials and tools. This adds a layer of internal and thematic consistency to the game that makes playing it a lot more pleasurable—it’s not so much that the puzzles are easier, but that they make sense in a way that other adventure game puzzles often don’t. That cleverness, however, only draws more attention to how thin the story, characters, and relationships are—even the presence of an apocalyptic cult can’t rescue the story from its utter predictability. Also, while this is hardly the developers’ fault, a game in which an evil pharmaceutical company spreads a disease so they can make money off the vaccine, at the behest of a power-hungry female politician who wants to use the outbreak as a foundation for a new world government, reads a bit differently in 2022 than in 2018. If you’re going to play only one of these three games, Unforeseen Incidents should be it, but bear in mind that its story will alternately bore and infuriate you.
Return to Monkey Island (2022)
Of course, if you’re talking about adventure games, the Monkey Island series has to be part of the conversation. Not only for being good games in their own right, but for so quickly and effectively establishing the internal rules of the series, and the guiding principles that shape most of its puzzles. A good Monkey Island puzzle embodies a zany, improvisational spirit—the solution often hinges on what’s funniest, or what’s most embarrassing to the series’s protagonist, the seemingly hapless but surprisingly resilient wannabe pirate, Guybrush Threepwood. In fairness, this is a rule that is often honored in the breach rather than the observation—one reason I’m not a fan of the second game in the series, 1991’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, is that it prioritizes confounding puzzles over ones that hew to the spirit of the original game. But the best Monkey Island games deliver their storytelling as much through their puzzles as anything else.
All of which brings us to Return to Monkey Island, in which the return is more metafictional than literal. Series creator Ron Gilbert, who parted ways with publishers LucasArts after the second game, is back at the helm, 32 years after the first Monkey Island game, and 13 years after the most recent one. Unlike that other series associated with George Lucas, it can’t exactly be said that the games have floundered in Gilbert’s absence—1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island and 2009’s Tales of Monkey Island are both excellent, and the latter in particular is not only the best game in the series but just a fantastic game all around. (Of the fourth game in the series, 2000’s Escape From Monkey Island, the less said the better.) So I think that like a lot of people, my attitude when I started playing Return, beyond feeling happy that this beloved series was back for another chapter, was wondering what new thing Gilbert could bring to the table. Instead, his choice seems to have been to deliver a nostalgia exercise—literally, since the game takes place in the same locations as the first one, and once more sees Guybrush attempting to travel to Monkey Island to discover its secrets, while struggling with a pirating world that has moved on from him. The word I keep wanting to use when describing it is “sweet”.
It’s not that there aren’t innovations here. The stylized art—which caused some uproar among fans when the game’s first trailer was released—is gorgeous and will, I suspect, age a great deal better than the other games’ looks. And the talk-look-take interface has been streamlined in a way that is a profound relief, especially if you’ve been replaying the older games and groaning at how cumbersome their gameplay sometimes is. (Taken together, these improvements give the game significant replayability value, which is nice because it contains a side-puzzle in which you collect trivia cards with questions about the series, and it will probably take 3-4 playthroughs to get them all.) But in terms of the story and the puzzles, everything here feels like something we’ve seen before. Inasmuch as Return hews to the spirit of the series, it’s in the most literal-minded way, by recycling puzzles and plot points from earlier games (albeit usually in simplified form—I say this not as a critique, because I’m far from a hardcore gamer, but this is probably the easiest of the six games). In an afterword, Gilbert writes that he wanted this game to be more contemplative than previous ones, as befitting a series that vaulted him to stardom as a young man, and to which he is returning in middle age. And indeed, a running thread through the game is a sly needling at Guybrush’s heedless pursuit of adventure, and the damage he does along the way. But this feels like something that previous games—especially Tales—handled more successfully and with greater depth. The result is by no means bad—it’s a fun adventure that has the irreverent humor of the series down pat, and Guybrush remains a winning and delightful protagonist—but it feels more like a victory lap than a triumphant return.
The Longing (2020)
A weird, delightful twist on survival/crafting games, The Longing, by German-based Studio Seufz, has you playing an adorable troll-like creature known only as The Shade. Created by an ancient king moments before he enters a long slumber, Shade’s task is to watch over the king and wake him up after 400 days. In the meantime, he can explore the underground cave system that stretches out, maze-like, around him, decorate his home, or distract himself by reading books or drawing pictures. The first major twist the game offers to its genre is that you don’t have to do any of these things. Shade doesn’t need to eat or sleep, there is nothing in the caves that can hurt him, and he’s so phlegmatic that his reaction to everything he experiences—extreme isolation, mind-numbing boredom, the weird discoveries he makes during his explorations—is merely polite interest and philosophical musing. (In this way and several others, Shade reminded me of the narrator of Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi, which continues to feel like an unheralded video game novel.) The second twist is that the game’s clock proceeds in real time, though it continues ticking even when the game is turned off. In theory, you could “win” The Longing by turning it on, immediately shutting it down for thirteen months and five days, and then turning it back on again.
In other words, The Longing is a game about waiting, even in places where other games of its type have trained us to expect instant gratification. Shade can open up new parts of the caves for exploration, but doing so always takes time—a pair of heavy doors takes two hours to open; a deep pit might fill up with water from a dripping stalactite, but you’ll have to wait a month before you can swim across it. Crafting activities that in a game like Don’t Starve take a moment so long as you have the requisite materials here also demand that you sit and watch as Shade patiently digs through a wall, or builds some furniture for his den. Even walking takes time—the game will let you memorize certain locations and walk there automatically, but you’ll still have to wait as Shade gently ambles towards his destination, since there is, after all, no cause to hurry. It’s possible to speed up the clock, but again, only at a cost. Reading a book, for example, will accelerate the clock threefold, but is still a matter of watching as Shade patiently turns each page of The Iliad or Moby Dick.
The Longing is thus a great game to have on while you’re doing something else, or just something to check into periodically to see if anything has changed or if the clock has advanced far enough (some reviews have likened it to a Tamagotchi). And while I realize this might not sound like a recommendation, there’s something very sweet and soothing about that, an extremely low-stakes adventure that only demands a bit of your attention, whose story is about the joy of exploring, not in the hopes of finding something amazing, but simply for the pleasure of filling your time with new experiences. Coupled with the game’s charming animation, evocative soundtrack, and delightfully weird setting, this makes it one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I had in a year where very few games seemed able to deliver that.
Minute of Islands (2021)
The initial vibe one gets from Minute of Islands, from German designers Studio Fizbit, is very kid-oriented. The animation is cartoony. The game’s heroine, Mo, is a young girl whose character design, with just her eyes and nose peeking out from under under a shock of hair and a voluminous yellow poncho, is cutesy and stylized. Most of all, the game’s premise—Mo is the caretaker of an ancient network of underground biomechanical technology, powered by four giants, which is the only thing keeping her island chain home from being overrun by an invasive fungus—is reminiscent of a whole host of YA stories in multiple mediums. As the game starts, the technology has failed, and Mo must travel from one island to another to repair it, before the giants suffocate and all hope is lost. Almost at once, however, the game introduces discordant elements to its story. Mo’s internal monologue—delivered, along with the rest of the game’s storytelling, in a voiceover by actress Megan Day—is snippy and impatient. When she arrives on the surface, it is abandoned, most of the islands’ inhabitants having already fled. The only people left behind are members of Mo’s own family, and they view her status as their savior with skepticism and even disdain.
As a game, Minute of Islands is a very mild platformer, with “puzzles” that are barely worthy of the name. What makes the game interesting is the story it spins around these puzzles, and how it uses its deceptively soothing style to create a dissonance with what’s showing up on screen. The animation may be adorable, but it’s used to depict collapsing structures, piled-up detritus, rotting animal carcasses, and, eventually, Mo’s hallucinations of death and decay. As the game progresses, Day’s even-toned narration grows increasingly fevered, conveying Mo’s contempt for the surface dwellers and their “primitive” technology, her mingled self-importance and self-loathing, and her unwillingness to consider that her task may no longer be worth carrying out. It’s an impressively dark direction for the story to take, or it would be if the game didn’t end up flinching from that darkness. At its end, Minute of Islands‘s story feels patchy and incomplete, with many questions left unanswered—because, I suspect, the only possible answers would make Mo look even worse than she already does. As a result, the note of hope the game ends on can’t help feeling simplistic and unearned. The game is still worth playing, simply for the enjoyable disconnect between style and subject matter. But I can’t help but feel that there was a deeper, more interesting story to be told here that we missed out on.
Slice of Sea (2021)
Slice of Sea is a very weird game. It’s technically an adventure game, but one whose story is vague to the point of surrealism, and whose puzzles are so difficult and abstruse that I don’t see how anyone could work them out without copious hints. (To be fair, I am very much a lightweight when it comes to solving puzzles, and creator Mateusz Skutnik is known for writing devilishly difficult games. So maybe his target audience found Slice of Sea right up their alley.) You play a sea creature moving through the world on a pair of mechanical legs. There’s a purpose to your movement, but it doesn’t become clear until the very end of the game, and for most of its length you’re just trying to get past any locked door and into any new location, simply because they’re there. The world of the game is simultaneously its main attraction—a gorgeous, hand-drawn setting of crumbling buildings, mysterious artifacts, and floating creatures—and its most opaque aspect, constantly suggesting an elaborate mythology, but revealing so little that you’re eventually forced to conclude that everything in it exists primarily because it looks cool. The mechanics are thoroughly inconsistent—for some puzzles, you need to be able to stand somewhere to trigger a pressure sensor or flip a switch; whereas in other cases you can just click somewhere on the screen to activate an element, regardless of where the player character is.
It sounds like I’m calling Slice of Sea a bad game, when really it’s just aggressively not for me—too difficult in some ways, too indifferent to its story and setting in others. And for all that, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy playing it, because there’s always something enjoyable about a work that is so fully developed, and so clearly exactly what its creator intended. If you’re into fiendishly difficult puzzles and don’t care very much about plot or internal consistency, you will probably want to check out this game. But if you’re fine with using hint guides and just want to experience a very weird world that doesn’t really make sense but is still a pleasure to run around in, you might also enjoy it.
Strange Horticulture (2022)
In Strange Horticulture, you play the new owner of an occult plant shop. Every day, customers come in asking for things as mundane as a hangover cure, and as sinister as a zombie-making potion. You need to identify which of the plants in your shop can help them, which in turn earns you more identifying information, and clues that help you find new samples. In the background, a story is unfolding involving a witches’ coven, some dismembered bodies, and a mysterious creature that can only be banished using—how else?—certain plants. Despite its fantastical setting, the games I found myself thinking about while playing Strange Horticulture were the Lucas Pope games I was so impressed with a few years ago. Like Return of the Obra Dinn, it is fundamentally a logic puzzle, with the player using clues from both the customers’ requests and a plant guide to correlate a description to an actual sample. When the guide says that a certain plant only blooms in very cold climates, for example, that’s a hint to select the one specimen on your shelves that isn’t flowering. And like Papers, Please, the key to success in the game is organizing your workspace in a way that makes it easy to retrieve information, to correlate between the guide, a map, the letters you receive from contacts and customers, and the plants themselves.
What that comparison reveals, however, is how much the success of Pope’s games comes down to the seamlessness and near-invisibility of their mechanics. By comparison, Strange Horticulture‘s creators, UK-based Bad Viking, seem to have constantly cut corners when it comes to gameplay, expecting the player to extend themselves to compensate. There’s too much text in the game’s many documents, so the player either has to squint or change the font to something much less presentable. The map of the game’s world is very busy, forcing you to repeatedly hunt for locations. And even once you identify a plant, you sometimes need to track it down again and again among the nearly eighty specimens you eventually end up with (there’s an option to automatically label the plants you’ve identified, but you need to search through the settings to activate it).
It was only on a second playthrough that I realized I needed to separate the plants I’d identified from the unknown ones, and alphabetize the former so they’d be easier to retrieve. But—leaving aside the question of whether alphabetizing is a thing you want to be doing while playing a computer game about secretive cults and murderous monsters—Strange Horticulture doesn’t have that much replayability value. The order of customers, and the plants they need, are strictly fixed, all building up to the game’s overarching story. That story has several possible endings, and there are a few points throughout the game where you get to make choices—to give an abusive customer a cure for his skin condition, or something that will make it worse, for example. But ultimately, once you’ve played the game once, you already have all the answers to its questions. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I enjoy repetition in gameplay, so I’ve gotten some pleasure out of Strange Horticulture even in playthroughs where I knew every turn of the story. But I can’t help but regret the better experience I would have had if the creators had put more effort into smoother, less obstructive gameplay mechanics.