We're at the last monthly summary of this year! I've discovered so many amazing things this year, and going through the previous articles blows my mind with the amount of good things I've discovered. I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep this pace after this pandemic ends, but let's see.
If you haven't checked the previous articles in this series, I highly recommend you check them out. A quick refresher, just in case - I’m recording the new (and old) stuff I’m watching, playing or listening to, and I’m doing it in a series of monthly articles. I’ll write some quick notes about the old stuff I went back to in the first section (Repeat Value), before getting into the new stuff (...The New Stuff).
This month has a bunch of games and an album - I decided to find a bunch of small stuff to finish up, and it's been a fantastic experience. There's no Repeat Value this time, because all the stuff I went through this month was new.
The New Stuff
I've been watching a lot of videos by this very nice YouTube channel belonging to a guy called Jacob Geller, and in one of his videos, he recommended the games of an indie developer named Cosmo D. I played two of his games, and the first one, which is a free half-hour experience, is called Off-Peak.
Cosmo D's games are generally surrealist explorations of specific areas, with musical motifs for each corner of those areas, a bunch of interesting artwork shown either through in-game paintings or in-game 3D models, and some sort of overarching theme that's usually about people eking out ways to live under some sort of capitalist oppression (and yes, you can't really have an indie game without anti-capitalist sentiment expressed in some way or the other - if you've caught up with this series of articles, you already know this by now).
Off-Peak takes place in a small train station that's absolutely bursting with character, with interesting people, amazing artwork, bizarre dialogue and scenery, and a general sense of playfulness that makes this short ride fun. It's free, so I'd highly recommend you check it out - if its special brand of bizarre surrealism appeals to you, I know the rest of his games will, too.
8. VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a 2016 visual novel where you play a bartender in a technocratic dystopian city. It actually reminds me of The Red Strings Club quite a bit (which I played in September) with its comparatively simpler bartending mechanics and a wide array of supporting characters, including lots of LGBTQ+ people. It's not an exact 1:1 match, though - the game is simultaneously far longer and far smaller in scope. You aren't part of any rebel group here, you're just a bartender that serves drinks and listens to people. You don't even really have dialogue choices, the only choices you make are when customers occasionally need you to give them your choice of drink.
The story is... Well, it's simultaneously good, emotional and kind of clunky. It's got the Life Is Strange problem (from the first season anyway) where a huge part of the cast is comprised of women, but it feels like a man's impression of what women talk about (which in this case is lots of relationship talk and angsting about breast size). There's still a lot of good stuff, however, and I'm sure their next game should be all the better for it.
7. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice feels like it's an old game. It's not because of the graphics, which are absolutely beautiful - it's a three year old game, and three years feel like such a long time ago right now.
Hellblade is a fantasy action-adventure game that takes place in a Norse mythology setting... maybe. You play Senua, a Celtic warrior who is making her way through the Norse-equivalent of hell, Helheim, to rescue the soul of her dead lover from the gods. It's also, well, not that - Senua is very heavily implied to be suffering from a form of schizophrenia, with voices echoing in her ears (and your headphones) at every turn, some expressing confidence, some doubt and some ridicule at her journey.
The game takes this abstract storyline and does a lot of interesting things with it, leading to a very nice ending - but I have to give a bunch of content warnings for this story upfront. A lot of it deals with potentially triggering stuff ranging from physical (people being burned alive) to emotional (parental abuse and neglect, a harrowing and well-researched depiction of mental illness, suicidal ideation), and the experience as a whole can be very emotionally draining.
It's a good game, but it did take me a while to complete it. If you think it's an experience you're interested in, go for it.
6. Her Story
Her Story is a nice little investigation game with some cool twists. You're provided with a retro computer interface, a whole series of video clips, and some search functionality based on the dialogue in those video clips, all coming together to allow us to trawl through interrogation videos and find out more about the story's central mystery, which revolves around a woman reporting the disappearance of her husband.
An interesting thing about this game - while you go through a bunch of interrogation videos split off by questions and answers, the clips are only of the central character of this story answering questions. You have to figure out the questions she's answering, and you have to use key terms in her answers to search further and find answers to the mysteries that quickly pile up from this simple conceit.
I almost feel bad for the fact that, two hours in, I found a way to game the interface and basically watch every video in chronological order, bypassing the search feature altogether. This isn't because of a cheat, just an exploit of the tools that's very easy to figure out - though the effect still feels like cheating. I still like this game a lot, it's just that I wish I could spend time with the experience the game clearly wanted me to have, rather than the experience I ended up giving myself.
5. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
This is the other breakout game of 2020, and was actually considered the indie hit of this year before Among Us blew up.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is a battle royale game with up to 60 players playing cute mascot-like figures, where the players go through a series of challenges reminiscent of Takeshi's Castle and are eliminated every round, with one person emerging as the winner after all the challenges. This is a game with microtransactions, where you earn coins and crowns to spend on costumes after every challenge, and you can also spend money on those currencies to get access to those costumes faster. So far, it doesn't seem to be that egregious, and losses also give a fair amount of coins. The gameplay is also pretty addictive - there are a lot of challenges added to the game by now, and it's going through a Season 3 event with new Christmas-themed contests and costumes.
I'm having a lot of fun so far. Let's see how it goes.
4. Among Us
This is kind of a cheat entry this month - I've been playing Among Us for quite a while now, and it's simultaneously given me a lot of entertainment and emotional upheaval.
If you're reading this in the far future and don't remember what it's about, Among Us is a social deception game with a thin layer of game mechanics on top. You and up to nine other friends play as crewmates on some sort of station, and your goals are to either complete all your menial tasks, or to find out if there are any imposters among you all - because there are up to three people, randomly selected at the beginning of each game, whose goals are to kill everyone else.
Playing as an impostor is simultaneously nerve wracking and hilarious, and requires you to be able to lie to your friends without any issues. You REALLY need to play this with trusted friends, unless you want broken friendships and disastrous breakups. Honestly, I ended up hoping for normal crewmate roles most of the time. I'm not a great liar and I don't like having to hide what I'm doing, and it's easier for me if I'm just doing drudgery and looking out for other killers.
Still, I've spent close to twenty-five hours with this game, with each game session ranging from five to ten minutes, and I've had a lot of fun. I had to stop playing eventually though, though by no choice of my own - it's extremely hard to get a bunch of adults to schedule a game session together without life coming in the way.
3. Paradise Killer
I've just realized that I've played a whole bunch of investigation games this year, and when done well, they're usually my favourite games to play and explore. Anyway, Paradise Killer is an investigation game set in a truly fantastical setting, and a HUGE part of it feels very, very anime. I'll try summarizing the premise in a single paragraph so you can get a feel of how bizarre and interesting this setting can get - although, of course, it's better if you encounter it at the game's own pacing.
In an alternate history of the world, giant and powerful celestial aliens called themselves Gods and influenced and manipulated a bunch of civilizations on different planets to gain their worship and psychic energy. During an event called the Great Betrayal, the human beings of Earth rebelled against these Gods and overthrew them, choosing to make their own history - but a section of human beings, called the Syndicate, stayed loyal to the gods and crafted an alternate dimension where they started ritualistically kidnapping other human beings, using them to populate islands they created in these dimensions, then periodically sacrificing the abductees en masse to provide psychic energy to bring the gods back into reality. During the 24th such island's end, the Council overseeing the island was suddenly murdered, and your character, an exiled investigator named Lady Love Dies (yes, really), needs to uncover the conspiracies being hatched from within this island and craft the truth from the facts you uncover.
That was a doozy of a paragraph, so let's simplify it to the core premise. You need to solve a mass-murder by investigating clues, interrogating people, and the game sets up the fact that you won't really have an ending you'll unlock - instead, whenever you feel like you've discovered enough, you'll present your facts in court and craft a story of truth around them, and what matters is making your truth sound plausible enough to be accepted by the judge.
This is interesting, and also slightly misleading at first - it's not like uncovering the facts means nothing. With a little perseverance and problem-solving, it's not hard to find everything there is to learn, and you can be fairly sure of your suspicions being accurate. The thing is, a lot of the people implicated have understandable and sympathetic motives, and everyone you implicate in court will be executed at the end of the trial. So the facts don't matter as much as the truth you present - do you feel that there are people whose roles were minor enough to not bring up? Are there people whose ideas you agree with? Are there people you want to protect, or others you want to implicate or scapegoat? What's great about the game is that it gives you room for a lot of these possibilities, and also accounts for incomplete investigations by letting new facts come about as a result of your accusations.
The art style and the soundtrack are both fantastic, although I do have some criticism towards the former - while the characters are all visually dazzling and memorable, and there are quite a few landmarks in the game that convey a bizarre sense of cool otherworldliness, a majority of the places you'll visit feel very mundane by comparison, like the farms or apartment complexes you'll visit. I get that there's a sense of contrast that can be accomplished, but it still didn't work as well for me as I wanted it to.
Ultimately, though, this is a great game I highly recommend.
2. Dead Beats
For the first time in months, I'm adding some new music I've discovered to these series of articles.
There's this new phenomenon of Virtual Youtubers, commonly called V-Tubers, who are idols, usually female, with virtual 3D avatars that track their face and expressions off a webcam and replicate it in their animations. This allows people to livestream without having to feel self conscious about their face, and allows for artistic expression through the model's design. In practice, you usually see a lot of people that end up following and falling for the virtual model designs (much like animation fans who proclaim their attraction towards their """waifus""", but that's to be expected. Plus, it's a nice way to keep a level of privacy between the viewers and the streamers, who, again, are mostly women, and often have trouble with creepy stalkers and online harassment and uncomfortable ogling based on their looks.
Japan's got a good lock on the industry since the beginning, with the Japanese company Hololive acting as management for these V-Tuber idols and their careers, and they started a new Hololive EN wing for English streamers to join their platform. And the first of them, Calliope Mori, released a bunch of songs over the span of a week that formed an EP, and it's honestly shocking how much of it is a banger.
Calliope Mori is a V-Tuber I discovered off of a podcast, and her virtual avatar is that of a reaper of death that has ascended from the underworld for a V-Tuber career (which reminds me a lot of wrestling storylines and how charmingly ridiculous those can be, too). She's also a rapper and writes her own lyrics, and her songs feature a mix of Japanese and English lyrics that show her alternating between nervousness and bravado.
I'd highly recommend y'all check her debut EP out, it's really catchy and nice. You can start with the song I've linked above, see if it's something you're into, and take it from there.
1. The Norwood Suite
This is the second game by Cosmo D, an indie surrealist experience similar to Off-Peak that takes around two hours to finish. I think this is a masterpiece.
The Norwood Suite is an indie adventure game that takes all the strengths of its predecessor and combining surrealism with strong world-building to immerse you in an environment that simultaneously feels bizarre and comfy, weird and lived-in, and rewards your curiosity with more interesting sights and musical themes. Everything comes together to provide an experience that's more than the sum of its parts, and culminates in an ending I've probably seen 20 times on YouTube ever since finishing the game.
Please, please play this game. I promise it's worth it.
And that’s it for this month! Let's see how 2021 goes - and check back next month for more!