Wednesday, January 16, 2019

GTMTM '18: Honorable Mentions, Predictions, Conclusions, and Why Games Matter

Honorable Mentions

So, here it is. We've come to the end of my gaming year-in-review. Honestly, this one has been the hardest for me of the three years I've done this so far. I ended up having a lot more to say about these games than I thought. I can't believe I originally intended to review all of these games in one post!

Just to wrap up, here's the list of Games That Mattered to Me in 2018, with links to their full posts:
  1. God of War
  2. Darkness Rises
  3. Overwatch
  4. Marvel's Spider-Man
  5. Laser League
  6. Red Dead Redemption 2
  7. Celeste
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
  9. Keyforge
But before we're done, I'd like to call out just few other games that I really enjoyed in 2018, but didn't have as much to say about. These are in no particular order:
  • Rocket League still has no real direct competitor over 3 years later, and that just feels unbelievable to me in the current gaming market. It's a true testament to how perfectly Psyonix nailed it with that one. I came back this year and immediately remembered why I loved that game so much--and even placed higher in competitive ranking than I ever have before.
  • Rhino Hero is a tabletop game meant for kids that is basically what would happen if you wanted to play Jenga, but all you had were Uno cards. It has an absolutely amazing ability to make anyone on the planet love it. Plus, it produced this photo, commemorating the first time my son ever beat me at a game:

  • Slay the Spire is one of those games I've been waiting a long time for without even knowing it. It's a single-player deck-building dungeon crawler. It's the perfect game to scratch the tabletop itch without having to feel like a bunch of people are scratching my back by playing a card game with me. It's also the only rogue-like I've ever completed, I think.
  • Dead Cells. Speaking of Rogue-likes, this one got me really excited for awhile, but then the learning curve went straight up for me and I kind of lost motivation. I don't think I ever even made it passed the second boss. But it was so fun for awhile, and I respect the game and all it accomplished.


What's a year retrospective without some predictions? Here's some quick thoughts about where I think gaming is headed for 2019:

  • The PC Platform Wars Heat Up, Gamers Profit: This one's already happening but it's heating up fast. As distribution moves more toward digital, digital storefronts matter more and more. As digital storefronts matter more, big companies start pouring more into them. We've already hit a tipping point on this one on PC, as evidenced by the literally 30+ games I was gifted in 2018 by platform holders trying to make a play at my loyalty, especially Amazon (through Twitch), Humble Bundle, Discord, and Epic. Epic in particular seems like they're making a big play, with a couple very impressive wins already in 2019, and $3 billion in profit from last year to fund a very aggressive play indeed. At least in the short term, I feel like the net result of all this for gamers will be very positive. Platform holders will continue to try and entice gamers with free games and aggressive sales, and unlike console wars, PC platform wars mean everyone with a PC can enjoy every platform's benefits all at once. I predict that by the end of 2019, Valve and Steam will have unquestionably lost their monopoly on PC gaming distribution, as will be evidenced by people complaining about all the different game clients they have to juggle on their PC all of a sudden.
  • Hardcore Mobile Arrives in Undeniable Force: This trend has already been happening, but 2019 will be a tipping point. The traditional divide between "core" gaming and mobile gaming will break down more than ever in 2019. Between huge established IP making its way to the platform (Diablo Immortal, Elder Scrolls Blades), and mobile developers finding new and exciting middle ground between the two audiences (Clash Royale, Vainglory, Arena of Valor, and the new but very promising Brawl Stars), not to mention the huge success of existing ports from traditionally "core" platforms (Hearthstone, Fortnite, PUBG), this is going to be the year where walls come down, and "core" gamers find themselves doing more and more on their phones. This won't necessarily represent a loss for any of the traditional platforms, though. So far, most mobile gaming time has come from time that was usually spent doing other, non-gaming activities.
  • Streaming as a Platform to Play Games Gets Talk, But Doesn't Take Over...Yet: Google made waves near the end of 2018 with a beta of Project Stream, a service that would let you stream Assassin's Creed Odyssey to any PC as long as it had a fast enough internet connection, and promised (and delivered in most cases, from what I've read) an experience that felt just like you were playing the game natively on a high-end machine. Additionally, EA's CEO Andrew Wilson took time at E3 last year to bore gamers but please investors by saying the that streaming (combined with subscription) has been "The greatest disruption of the consumption of entertainment media over the last five years." (You see, you have to understand, while gamers listen to that and sarcastically say, "Oh, wow, take my money, Andrew...Where's the games???", investors are sitting there saying, "Yes, yes, Andrew! I missed Netflix's boom, but by Joe, I'll make my millions yet!") (Investors are old people who still say "by Joe.") My bet is that the idea of streaming gets a lot of talk in 2019, like VR did in 2016, but nothing really Earth-shattering happens quite yet. 2020, though, will be the year where gamers start to really make their decisions about jumping into streaming or sticking with hardware. What could be really interesting if 2020 is the year you have to pick between a PS5 and a Google Stream MegaGamerSuperPlus subscription. It'll be especially exciting if Google finds a way to land some exclusives on its platform and plays real ball. I have no idea what'll happen exactly, but I bet none of it really happens in 2019.

Conclusion: Why Games Matter

This is a topic that deserves a lot of words, but if you've read the rest of the posts in this series, you've read a lot of those words already. Because this post is all about bullet points, here's my bullet-point summary about why games matter, based on what I've learned while writing this series:
  • Games are a zero-stakes way to learn how to push yourself to do hard things. I don't see people talking about this enough, but I think it's a humongous benefit of gaming. Games help you learn how to put yourself in the mindset that it's up to you to stay calm, stay focused, and find solutions. Like a lot of life, videogames will often not throw you a bone. A lot of videogames are really hard, and unapologetic about how hard they are. If you choose, you can use games to take the opportunity to train yourself to push through tough stuff without the risk of actually losing anything if you fail. If you use your gamer education right, you should be able to do better in school, at a job, or even exercising. You just have to be aware enough to turn on the same mindset that got you through the summit level of Celeste, or the SigrĂșn fight in God of War, when you're studying a particularly difficult new math concept or trying to land a big deal at your sales job. Jane McGonigal talks about how games create "hopeful individuals" by teaching them that they can find solutions, but I think on top of that hope is the value of grit. Games make grit-ful individuals who learn to push through when the going gets tough. If that mindset can click on in real-life situations, it can work miracles for gamers. 
  • Games can foster empathy in ways even literature and film cannot. Reading is unquestionably Good in Western culture, and one of the top aspects of its unquestionable Goodness is how a good story can help you "walk in someone else's shoes." Good games can take that to whole new levels. Celeste is one of the best examples of all time for this. Having a hard time understanding what it's like to live with depression and anxiety? Play Celeste and pay attention, and you just might have a breakthrough that helps you empathize in whole new ways with those suffering from these conditions. Never had someone judge you just for the color of your skin? You can feel just the tiniest bit of that in Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry. The first time the police start chasing you down even though you didn't do anything wrong, that's not a bug. Make sure you take the time to think about it for a minute. It works the other way too, though. Never thought of yourself as an engineer or an interior designer or a marine biologist? Games can help you feel just a little bit what that might be like, too--maybe enough to help you decide if you want to really be one of those things after all.
  • Games can make artistic, political, social, and philosophical statements just like any other creative medium, and in some ways that all the other mediums can't. Yes, games are most often made for entertainment, as are books or movies, but by their nature, games have many of the same tools as books or movies to make statements, and many tools that other mediums don't have. I've long fostered the theory that every major method of human communication has given rise to a major art form along with it. Spoken language brought about oral histories and oral poetry and storytelling. Written language brought about written stories and books. Printed language brought about serials and novels. Television brought about TV shows. Film brought about movies. What did the computer and the internet bring about? Yes, computers display and transmit all of the previous art forms, and provide new ways to create visual, animated, and written arts, but what wholly new and unique artistic form came from the computer? Videogames. That's the only one that is truly unique to this new method of communication. As such, it deserves the best artistic talent of our day to push its boundaries and discover its true potential. If art and expression have ever mattered, then videogames matter. 
Videogames mattered in 2018, they'll matter in 2019, and they'll matter for the rest of human history.

To everyone who's read this whole series--and even to those who just read this post--thank you so much for reading. I love writing about games, but I love it even more when someone reads it and responds. Your support means a ton to me. Thank you so much. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

GTMTM '18: Keyforge, a Whole New Card Game


Do you know who Richard Garfield is? I honestly have no idea how famous he is by name, but he's like a god to me. A lot of fields--especially young fields--seem to have a figure emerge that just produces an impossibly large amount of extremely high quality work. Think Michael Phelps or LeBron James--just the absolute stars of the stars. For videogames, that figure is Shigeru Miyamoto. It's just not fair to the rest of the industry that one guy was able to create Mario and Zelda and Donkey Kong and Pikmin, and that he has consistently produced content of the highest quality in all of those franchises at an impressive clip for decades on end. For card games, though, that figure is undoubtedly Richard Garfield. 

I read in a chemistry book in high school that if Einstein hadn't come up with the theory of relativity, he'd still probably be the most accomplished scientist of his generation, if not all time, for all the other work he did. That's how I feel about Richard Garfield and card games. Even if Richard Garfield hadn't created Magic: The Gathering, the undisputed king of card games, he'd still probably be one of the greatest designers in tabletop gaming history for Netrunner, King of Tokyo, The Great Dalmuti, and more. He just has an astoundingly great output of top-tier games.

But I've always had to learn about Garfield's games after the fact. I've had to play them after they've risen to the top, and had to read about their history in the past tense. I've never had the privilege of being there on day 1 for a Richard Garfield masterpiece. Not until 2018, anyway.

Monday, January 14, 2019

GTMTM '18: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Norton Anthology of Videogames

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

In my experience, if you were born before 1989,  you played Mario Kart on SNES and Nintendo 64 growing up, and had intense Mario Kart tournaments with your roommates in college. If you were born in 1989 or later, however, the most important Nintendo party game of your life was Super Smash Bros., and in college you either played the original again or crossed over to Super Smash Bro. Melee (or Brawl if you were less competitive).

However, as I said in my last post, I didn't grow up with videogames like most people my age, so while I played my fair share of Super Smash Bros. at friends' houses, the first version I actually owned myself and could play regularly was Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, which I bought in 2015 after I finally gave up and traded in my PlayStation Vita to GameStop.

I was so excited to finally own a Smash Bros. for myself and be able to sink real time into it so I could actually compete with my friends when we got together. I dove in and ran through all the single-player content the game had to offer, ready to learn and finally get it so that I could really compete.

Didn't happen. Even after putting a good number of hours in, when we got a group of friends together and booted up Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I would still get destroyed, to a level that clearly showed that I still didn't really get the basics of actual PvP Smash. It was extremely frustrating, and when I bought a Wii U, I passed on Smash Bros. entirely because I was resigned to just never understanding it.

So, fast-forward to 2018, and Ultimate is releasing. I pre-ordered the game, but almost out of obligation. I didn't expect to love it, but I knew more of my friends would be playing this than almost any other game out there on any platform, and I wanted to play along. So I didn't even really pay attention to the announcements or anything, just placed my pre-order and waited for the cartridge to show up so I could try it out.

The day finally came, and all I can say is wow, was I wrong about this one.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

GTMTM '18: Celeste, the Best Coach I've Ever Had


I played a lot of basketball in jr. high and high school, and I had a lot of different coaches. All of them tried in their different ways to push me to be my best, but I felt like most of them cared more about their own ego than the success of our team or the individual players on it. By my junior year of high school, I decided I'd had enough, and didn't even try out. 

Years later, I've finally found a coach that I feel like cares about me even while pushing me to my absolute limits. That coach is Celeste.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

GTMTM '18: Red Dead Redemption 2, Isn't Existence Enough?

Red Dead Redemption 2

And so one of the villains of our last story becomes the hero of a new one. That's a fitting fate for Red Dead Redemption 2, though. It's a game that loves its moral ambiguity.

In fact, it's a game that seems to just love ambiguity in general. Maybe too much. It's a game that's so open-ended that a lot of ink (well, pixels really) has been spilled complaining that the game never justifies its existence, and the majority of it doesn't even matter. To be honest, I think that's entirely on purpose, and even more, that's the whole point of the game.

**Some spoilers, and also a disclaimer that I have not finished the main story, so I'm only writing about my experience that I've had with about 40 hours of playtime, up to chapter 4.**

Friday, January 11, 2019

GTMTM '18: Laser League, *Almost* One of the Big "League"s

Laser League

In 2009, a startup game studio calling itself Riot Games released a little game called League of Legends. It was relatively well received at the time, but with constant game updates and canny business strategy, LoL grew to become one of the biggest games in the world.

In 2015, a different independent developer released their second attempt at an idea so simple it's amazing no one else did it first: car soccer. Thanks in part to a hyped beta period and a free download for PlayStation Plus members, Rocket League exploded out of the gate, and rose to also be one of the biggest games in the world.

In an alternate 2018, yet another indie studio released the final, worthy conclusion to the League trilogy: Laser League. In that 2018--one that looks very much like ours but with just 3 key differences--Laser League found success on the same level as the first two games in this smash hit trilogy, with huge player numbers, constant press coverage, and countless stream views. But we didn't get that 2018. Instead, we got one of the saddest Steam charts I've ever seen:

Thursday, January 10, 2019

GTMTM '18: Marvel's Spider-Man, The Friendly Neighborhood Videogame

Marvel's Spider-Man

If Overwatch is the world I want to live in, Spider-Man is the man I want to be in that world. Never has that been more true than after playing this game. I knew I was excited for Marvel's Spider-Man, but as launch drew closer, I realized Spider-Man means more to me than I'd ever admitted to anyone--including myself. Marvel's Spider-Man is a game that's meant to be as much about Peter Parker at it is about Spider-Man; similarly, my story of Marvel's Spider-Man is as much about life without a controller as it is about playing the game itself.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

GTMTM '18: Overwatch, the Party Cannon of Video Games


I've hitched my hype cart to a lot of games over the years, gushing my enthusiasm to everyone around me to try and get them on board. Some have worked out (Witcher 3, Metal Gear V), and others not so much (No Man's Sky, Fallout 4). After all of that, though, I think Overwatch is still my proudest bet. Right from the first time I saw that Pixar-looking trailer and explored the whole website that went up all at once in November 2014, I could feel that something special was happening. And from that first reveal all the way through launch in May 2016 to today, Overwatch has only grown more important to me. It became an even bigger deal in my life this year because of the launch of the Overwatch League, in more ways than I could have ever expected.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

GTMTM '18: Darkness Rises, a Truly 21st-Century Fantasy

pobbles, my main Darkness Rises character.

Darkness Rises

What if a free-to-play mobile game was designed to make you feel like a rich whale playing a free-to-play mobile game, and it was crazy generous with premium currency, made the grind feel like you were always progressing in huge leaps and bounds, and told you all over the place, all the time just how powerful and awesome you are? For people who pre-registered at least, that's exactly what Darkness Rises turned out to be.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Games That Mattered to Me in 2018

You've seen me list every game I've played in a year before, and even keep track of how much time and money I spent playing every game, but this year I wanted to do something different. After last year, I was tired of keeping track of every little thing and felt like it was distracting me from the experiences I wanted to have with games. So this year, you're getting a much shorter list: the games I played in 2018 that actually mattered to me (GTMTM).

These are the games that made an actual impact on my life--the ones I thought about even when I wasn't playing them, the ones that made me feel something strongly, the ones I talked to people about and shared and loved. There's not real scientific or consistent criteria for what made this list, and that's the whole point. Each for its own reasons, these are the 9 games that actually mattered to me in 2018, in chronological order of when I decided they were going to be on this list:
  1. God of War
  2. Darkness Rises
  3. Overwatch
  4. Marvel's Spider-Man
  5. Laser League
  6. Red Dead Redemption 2
  7. Celeste
  8. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
  9. Keyforge
And that's it. I'm sure I played 100+ games again this year, just like previous years, but these are the ones that really meant something to me.

But what do these games mean to me, exactly? Let's discuss. Over the next 10 days, I'll publish a new post every day about the next game on the list, ending with an "Honorary Mentions" and conclusions post. I'll come back and update this post with links each day. As you can see, you can start right now with God of War. Enjoy, and let me know which games mattered to you in 2018!

GTMTM '18: God of War, the Best Play I've Ever Gamed

The infamous SigrĂșn. Screenshot: Kotaku

God of War

This is the only God of War game I have played, and to be honest, I never thought I would touch any game in this franchise. I always thought these games looked gross, and then when I watched Anita Sarkeesian's videos, I was beyond repulsed.

But right from the first reveal, this game was different. In particular, I was continually impressed by the game's new director, Cory Barlog. He seemed to have a very different concept for this franchise, and to be a genuine, passionate, and creative guy, and it showed in every trailer and clip released before launch. Finally, when the reviews came in and were almost universally gushing, I decided to give it a shot.