Kerbal Space Program
When I reviewed Kerbal Space Program in 2015, I called it “the embodiment of everything that’s noteworthy and valuable about PC gaming.” High praise, and I stand by it.
Kerbal Space Program is the kind of niche experiment that only ever thrives on the PC. Putting you in charge of your own NASA, it asks players to learn actual rocket science in order to thrive. Do you know how to airbrake? Or how to feather the throttle to optimize fuel usage during takeoff? Maybe not—but if you want to get off the planet Kerbin, you’re going to have to learn. I spent many nights with Kerbal Space Program open on one monitor and Wikipedia open on the other.
It’s entertaining though! That’s the best part. “Edutainment” is a dirty word in video games, and for good reason. A lot of edutainment is thin, like a layer of chocolate over green beans. But with Kerbal Space Program, you learn not because you’re being force-fed rocketry facts, but because you want to build something better. That’s so rare, and it’s so rewarding when you overcome your previous failures and finally land on Mun or orbit Eeloo—or even just parachute back to Kerbin without exploding.
And to think that Kerbal Space Program began with a single employee, Felipe Falanghe, at Mexican marketing firm Squad. The story of Kerbal Space Program’s development is just as strange and surprising as the game itself. I can’t wait to see what 2K does with Kerbal Space Program 2, nor can I wait to play more of Falanghe’s Balsa Model Flight Simulator.
There are games I struggle to describe because they’re so strange or complex. Then there’s Celeste, which I struggle with because laying out what it is in prose oversimplifies and cheapens the experience.
Celeste isn’t all that complicated. On its face, it’s a precision platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy—and a great one, I might add. A lot of people have tried to imitate Super Meat Boy over the past decade, but Celeste is one of the few that managed to give me sweaty palms and aching thumbs.
That’s the surface level. Then there’s the subtext, but again, it’s not that complicated or even that hidden. As I wrote when we bequeathed Celeste our Game of the Year prize in 2018:
“Celeste Mountain is a metaphor—for depression, for anxiety, for self-loathing, for all the various demons people fight day-to-day, often behind the scenes. That’s the ‘reveal.’ It’s not particularly subtle or unique, the mountain-as-metaphor-for-struggle, but Celeste perfectly weds its mechanics with its themes. Celeste believes in your ability to keep fighting, to keep trying even when the world seems arrayed against you or when you fall down further than you’ve ever been before. Celeste believes in you.”
Simple, and thus hard to convey why it’s so special in words. Celeste resonated with me though. It was the perfect game for me at the perfect time, releasing when I was struggling with my own mental health. Celeste said keep going, don’t worry, you can make it up the mountain—and it did so while repeatedly kicking my ass with some of the best platforming this decade.
Nier: Automata asks a lot of its players—but mostly patience. The talk of Nier: Automata having “five endings” is a bit overblown. It doesn’t. It has one proper ending, broken up into five acts. That said, the misconception is understandable because the second act is almost a carbon copy of the first (but from a different character’s perspective) and it’s a drag.
Push through though. Persevere, because Nier: Automata still has a lot to say.
To some extent, Nier: Automata is the same old “What does it mean to be human?” story about robots. It’s well-trod territory, both in games (i.e. Detroit: Become Human) and in other mediums. But Nier: Automata’s take is fresh and weird, from the way it uses perspective to manipulate the player, to the way it transitions between action-brawler and shoot-em-up and a half-dozen other different genres, to its discussions of Nietzsche and Pascal and other philosophers.
It looks like a sad anime game and it is a sad anime game, one wherein blindfolded androids work to rid the world of machines. Over-the-top doesn’t begin to describe it. There’s a truth to Nier: Automata as well though, an emotional weight. Flashy fighting is just a vehicle for tragedy, for a treatise on cycles of violence and those who participate in them, knowingly or unknowingly. And then...hope, when events are at their darkest. Love.
As I said, Nier: Automata takes a while to get going, and as someone who reviews games, I know that’s a cop-out. It’s tough to hear a game “gets better” at the 15-hour mark. Nier: Automata wouldn’t work without that slow burn though, because what’s actually happening is it’s conditioning you to accept the world as it is, all while preparing to rip the blindfold from your eyes.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Three years on, I still struggle to put words to What Remains of Edith Finch, our favorite game of 2017. Broken up into vignettes, Edith Finch is about the ill-fated Finch family. There’s a rather fanciful conceit, in that each family member has a room, and upon their death that room is sealed off. It’s left the Finch home a labyrinth of rickety extensions, turrets, and secret passages.
You explore this maze and, one by one, explore the lives of the Finch family. Or rather, you explore the deaths of the Finch family. Each vignette covers someone’s last moments, and I know that makes it sound like a grim snuff film. It’s not though. Some are sad, yes, but others are humorous, or surprising, or optimistic, or so fantastical that you don’t really know what to believe.
Moreover, they’re unique. Each vignette in Edith Finch centers on a different type of interaction, be it snapping Polaroids of wildlife, playing through a comic book, relaxing on a rope swing, or splashing around in the bathtub. It’s a wealth of experiences—some better than others, but all of them contributing to the overarching mythology of the Finch family.
None compare to Lewis Finch’s story though. I’m loathe to spoil it, in case this is the first you’re hearing about Edith Finch. But if you’ve played it...well, you know. It’s one of the cleverest 10-minute sequences I’ve ever witnessed, and one of the most harrowing. There’s a moment where you realize where it’s headed, and it’s like plunging into an ice bath. Just gut-wrenching.
And it only works because it’s a video game. I think that’s part of what makes Edith Finch so important and impressive. Interactivity is key, not just to Lewis’s story but to the entirety.
Return of the Obra Dinn
A mystery on the high seas, Return of the Obra Dinn casts you as an insurance assessor trying to figure out what went wrong on the titular merchant ship, the Obra Dinn. You need to apply a name, a face, and a cause of death to every person on the ship’s manifest—and you do so by traveling back in time to the moments where everything went wrong.
These vignettes start simple enough, figuring out the captain based on his hat and the fact he’s mentioned by name. Before long you’re forced to use your best inductive reasoning though, piecing together people’s names and relationships based on clothing, responsibilities, or even body language.
There have been many “detective” games over the years, but Return of the Obra Dinn is the one of the only ones that feels like a proper mystery. All the clues are there, and it’s up to you to piece them together and crack the case. I wish I could wipe Return of the Obra Dinn from my head and experience it again. It’s that good.
I hope Lucas Pope keeps getting to make exactly what he wants, with no interference. It’s rare, the developer who creates a game with no obvious progenitor. Even rarer, the developer who makes multiple games like that, but between Papers Please and Obra Dinn I think it’s safe to say Lucas Pope is one of the most innovative designers in the industry.
Next page: The best games of this generation continues