Ten years ago I turned 18 and was halfway through completing my final year of high school. I looked like a slightly deflated version of my present self with a small army of zits occupying my face and chest, but I’ve done so much growing since then. I feel better about myself and others, and have become simultaneously more loving of the important people in my life and cynical about the political systems I cannot control.
The fleeting quality of memory means for every strikingly clear image I have in my head of growing up, there’s at least a thousand moments lost in the cloud. But if there is one thing I latch onto throughout the years like roadside objects in the rear-view mirror, it’s video games. Games give me a foothold on my backwards climb, offering a brief respite as a I grasp for distant emotions, allowing me to re-inhabit a person who I hope would be infinitely proud of me.
Ten years ago today I was probably piloting predator missiles onto the multiplayer battlefields of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, unlocking a myriad of gun attachments and camouflages to corny electric guitar riffs rising above the action. I was probably using the limiting quality of reflex sights and radar blips to avoid thinking of the stress of graduation and the next big step. I was probably playing alongside a close personal friend who I don’t talk to anymore.
But the double-sided joy and anxiety of games is that they keep coming. There’s more memories to experience alone or with people I care about, even if that means it’s impossible to play every single one. So in the second installment of a series I want to make a year-end tradition, let’s reflect on some, but not all, of the games I played in 2019.
This piece was originally written for Haywire Magazine, go check them out!
For me, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, Mad Max was not a thinking game. At least, not at first: what I wanted most from Avalanche Studios’ 2015 open-world action title was a pretty pastime with dopamine-inducing resource collecting and vehicular combat. Mad Max‘s solid gameplay loop of driving, bashing, punching, searching, gathering, and upgrading meant the violence easily lulled me into a flow state, but instead of stacking tetrominos I was attaching a monstrous bullbar to increase my car’s attack stat.
I wrote recently about the power and perils of wasteland photography in Mad Max, and it got me thinking on death and the immortality of images. I can’t help but think of the slow march of climate change and wondering how our planet will be remembered. How will Earth be photographed? What, as Susan Sontag puts it in On Photography, will “testify to time’s relentless melt”? I can imagine a flotilla of cumulus clouds over stretching plains, a pair of crumpled sedans wrecked in the middle of an intersection, and an aerial shot of the Amazon all hidden away in some wasteland bandit’s glove compartment.
I began writing that piece without a clear sense of direction, only re-positioning towards interesting landmarks after cresting over dunes and circumventing jagged rocks breaching the ground like enormous teeth. I never expected an essay on the video game world of Mad Max would bring me to such an introspective place.
This story was originally published in issue #16 of Unwinnable’s Exploits. If you want to support more writing like this, consider subscribing!
The staccato violins rise, the camera cuts wildly between flustered red faces, and Noel Fielding is buzzing around the tent dressed as a bumble bee. Every round of The Great British Baking Show ends with a montage of finishing touches on a ciabatta loaf, genoise sponge, or the lime-green dome of a princess cake before the contestants perilously tiptoe their creations to a pair of grim-faced judges. The entries are sampled, a verdict is reached, and then this thing, this object of hard work and meticulous planning and research, is disappeared to be presumably passed around the cast and crew before being spirited to a confectionery compost pile.
My oldest memory, true or not, is the rattling ceiling of an ambulance. I was pretty young at the time, still clutching my sister’s hand-me-down teddy bear, and I was running an extremely high fever. I don’t know what the doctors did, or what they used, but I got better. So, whatever happened, it’s probably safe to say technology has always played a significant role in my life.
This story is based in the universe of the strategy game Into the Breach and was originally published for the online journal Capsule Crit. Please check them out!
A temporal rift in the clouds expelled a Time Pod that displaced flurries of snow. The Leader positioned her Prime Combat Mech between the crash site and a charging Vek Beetle. She died on impact.
Kratos is a Spartan warrior turned god who’s fled the Greek Isles after enacting a destructive revenge quest. Seeking refuge in the Nordic tundra, he falls for Faye, a woman with a hidden origin, and fathers a boy named Atreus in a secluded cabin. Kratos barks orders at him, but not much else, and the pair are forced into reckoning their distant relationship when Faye dies. The story opens with Kratos assembling a funeral pyre, from which he bags and attaches Faye’s ashes to his belt. Father and son set out to complete Faye’s final request, to be scattered from the highest peak in all the realms. Not long into the journey, however, Kratos finds he’s merely traded one adversarial pantheon for another, and their ritualistic journey is caught in the crossfire between wrathful figures of Norse mythology.
December has always been a reflective month for me. In the opening third, I turned another year older. Twenty-seven. Then the new year approaches. Twenty-nine-teen.
Twenty-eight-teen was a strange one. I became really sad, but then got a little better. I learned a lot about myself. I changed careers. I wrote some things, read some things, and played some things too.
With bellies full of french toast and coffee, Stephanie and I opted to lounge away the hours until Thanksgiving dinner with a mobile game called Florence. It’s a series of bright, colorful vignettes about finding, exploring, and re-defining love. Playing Florence is like eating a bag of Skittles, with each panel a sudden burst of an ambiguously colorful flavor. Green apple meet cute. Strawberry move-in day. Citrus growth in opposite directions. Lemon move-out day.
It’s a lovely and genuine experience about the work that goes into relationships. We discussed out loud the minutia of unpacking. Will he ever use that cricket bat? Well, the stuffed elephant has to have the top shelf. He needs space for his record collection. This made the reverse that much more bittersweet, stuffing away the objects we so lovingly placed.
Florence will only take an hour of your time, if that, and costs less than a latte. It’s available on iOS and Android. Check it out!
Content warning: violence, suicide
Amorphous grayscale blobs populate the grid. The blobs are cut, whittled, and colored. Shapes become forms and inherit meaning. A prism learns to become a building and is then cloned into a city. Laws and limitations are applied. Simulated gravity comes alive and light appears.
The Grand Machinist installs deadly flechette cannons to a row of bipedal Centurion-class mechs the size of sequoias. Armor plating descends from cranes onto broad shoulders, shielding the tender circuitry. The polygons on her brow bend to make an expression to make an emotion to make a character. Heavy with worry and unyielding in duty. She takes pride in her craft, and deludes herself into believing her hands are clean.
Civil unrest is personified in the Plague Wards. The city is rotting under corrupt leadership and outdated tradition. The Hallowed still dominate a public consciousness seeking answers to their suffering. Cells of a rogue faction enlist disillusioned veterans to take up arms with what little life they have left. War wages far beyond the stars, and the Emperor wouldn’t expect an attack from within.
This piece was originally published on Into the Spine. Check them out!
Content warning: depression, suicide, anxiety
I played Life Is Strange when I was at my most vulnerable. I was stuck in The Dark Room, the twisted subterranean photography studio in Dontnod’s 2015 episodic adventure game. Like Max Caulfield, the thoughtful protagonist, my life choices, insecurities, and fears were laid out in scrambled polaroids and I was forced to confront them. The camera was turned on me, the lone subject of a self-portrait, and I felt ugly.
I was powerless and deep underground. I felt a storm approaching, one that would destroy everything I loved, and I couldn’t escape. If by some miracle I resurfaced, I started doubting if anyone would even listen. My spirit was in heavy fragments and I would need to carry the weight or let it crush me.
Life Is Strange brought introspective thinking that I wasn’t expecting but desperately needed. Through playing the story, stepping alongside Max and feeling her choices, I was able to externalize struggles I previously only experienced internally. I could crystallize what I needed to carry on.