It’s weird to be writing about a review of a 2023 yearly goal when it’s only September but I’ve surprised myself and completed this one by the end of the third quarter. While last year was the year of reading, I wanted to set my focus on something new this year and I picked gaming. It used to be one of my biggest passions until I was about 22 and the onset of schizophrenia coupled with the anhedonia-inducing antipsychotics really curbed my love of the pastime. But while there’s still a few games that have caught my focus over time (Diablo 3, Inquisitor: Martyr, the To The Moon series), I really wanted to knock off a few things in my Pile Of Shame on Steam and rediscover what I loved about the medium.
The goal I set myself was simple:
Play 24 games for at least 10 hours each or until completion and review them on Steam by the end of the year.
- Specific: Simply stated but still encapsulated exactly what I wanted to achieve.
- Measurable: The deciding factors of time played and review status could be checked in my Steam account, and I could keep a list in my Obsidian collection for games I’d played and finished.
- Achievable: While it was a lot more than I’ve played in the past each step was relatively easy and I could choose shorter/easier games and dedicate time after work and on weekends. If I got bored of a game I could swap to something else.
- Relevant: I wanted to rediscover a passion and this would push me to try a bunch of different games to see what tickled my fancy.
- Time-bound: I had to finish by the end of the year.
And now I’ve completed that goal, with three months still to go in the year. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop gaming, because the goal has had the intended second-order effect of helping me rediscover my enjoyment and passion for gaming and pushed me to branch into new genres. I want to play more and different games, complete some of those longer ones, and perhaps even do some achievement hunting.
As I discussed last month in my post on accessibility I’ve been having some issues with my hand and have trying to use my mouse less to avoid further pain. Given I’ve spent years as an FPS junkie and ARPG lover this has definitely caused some problems, but I’ve also taken it as an opportunity to work on my setup to make games more accessible to me as well as trying new games that don’t require as much heavy mouse use. This has been particularly hard for my ARPG habit as I’m a big fan of the Razer Naga series of mice with a full numpad on the side which was an absolute boon for blasting spells or swapping weapons on the fly. As an aside, if you don’t have any hand issues I strongly recommend this mouse as you can eat dinner and still play at top form.
In particular, I looked at games that would work with a trackpad and had low requirements so I could play on my 2019 MacBook Pro, as well as games that I could rig some kind of setup for use with keyboard and my X52 HOTAS or with my ancient Intuos 5 Wacom tablet and joystick. The latter I more recently excavated from my archives of tech because a bunch of games required faster and easier mouse control than my JoyToKey setup allowed.
Below you’ll find the list of games I’ve played this year, excluding ones I was already regularly playing, and the links to my reviews; I’ll update this section as the year continues. Note that the reviews aren’t necessarily detailed, but I wanted to push myself to at least leave a comment and supply a thumbs up/down because it is something that matters to game devs and by sacrificing on the altar of the algorithm gods I might help get more cool games in front of my Steam friends and random strangers who might be tempted to play the labours of love of these developers.
- Paradise Killer (finished)
- Omi Oh My AI
- Stray (finished)
- The Riftbreaker
- Unpacking (finished)
- Black Mesa (finished)
- Paradigm (finished)
- Cult Of The Lamb (finished)
- Hiveswap Act 1 and Hiveswap Act 2 (finished)
- Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
- Eastward (finished)
- Tell Me Why (finished)
- Pillars Of Eternity (finished)
- Journey To The Savage Planet (finished)
- Viscera Cleanup Detail
- Rakuen (finished)
- Red Faction: Guerilla Re-Mars-Tered
- Sky Rogue
- Super Meat Boy
- Slay The Spire
- Loop Hero
- Caves Of Qud
- Grim Dawn (finished)
- Dwarf Fortress
- Halls Of Torment
- Vampire Survivors
Keep in mind that a lack of review or finishing does not mean that I didn’t like the game, but that it wasn’t my vibe at the time, wasn’t accessible under my changed circumstances, or I just haven’t gotten around to playing more of it. Huge shout out to the Omi Oh My AI devs at EverySecond Studio who were quick to respond to my bug report (it was still in Early Access) and helped me troubleshoot and fix a broken save caused by the bug. Their game is a wonderful and cute look at AI/ML, computer vision, and machine comprehension wrapped up in an adorable companion.
Below you’ll find my top recommendations, broken up into a few categories; the games inside each category a presented in no specific order.
Story Based Games
You can tell from my reading goal that I love a good story, so games that weave a heartfelt narrative feature heavily in my choices of play. These are some amazing works in this genre, each brilliant in different ways.
A three part game I got a a while back in a Pride special, Tell Me Why is probably one of the most visually gorgeous high-end graphics games I’ve ever played. An incredibly linear storytelling experience similar to things I’ve loved like To The Moon, this game takes full advantage of the Unreal Engine to show you a small Alaskan town in all it’s breathtaking glory. Unlike a lot of modern AAA games that aim for similar ultra-realism, Tell Me Why really gives you an environment that is perfectly suited to it along with the time to bask in it. When you’re chatting to passengers on a boat to your hometown you see pink-tinted mountains in the setting sun, the water glinting under the keel, and forests that feel alive and natural off in the distance.
While the setting alone is a great escape from reality, the story and characters really make the game. Tyler, one of the twin protagonists, is the first transgender starring character in a AAA game and they have nailed so much of the queer experience in ways that tear at and buoy your heart in equal measures. The game does an excellent job of looking at common political positions and beliefs that work well in a black and white view and then shows you the shades of grey that makes reality so much harder to easily categorise. There’s so little purely good/evil in this game because as you understand the context behind behaviours and decisions you come to understand others' motives and actions and identify even with people you initially hate.
Warning: You will cry a bunch while playing this.
Eastward balances a linear story game with an adventure component really well. The focus on story is on par with Rakuen and Tell Me Why but feels so much more interactive thanks to the missions, puzzles, and combat sections. The world it weaves slowly and steadily draws you in, confirming some suspicions and cancelling out others as you slowly learn to understand what’s going on. Even until the end of the game you’re strung along in a dimly lit labyrinth, where the walls and rooms are revealed but the purpose and full layout await for you to ascend and look at them from the end above.
This also feels like a fun game for achievements, but make sure you look up the achievements before you start because many of them are locked to specific chapters in the game that you can’t return to after completing. The adorable cooking minigame is a lot of fun and connects nicely to the characters and story. It won’t make you cry as hard as Rakuen or Tell Me Why but it’ll cement what a family is (by blood or choice) and really make you believe in its tiny world.
There’s a limited amount I can describe this game without spoiling it, but if you liked any of the Freebird Games like To The Moon, Finding Paradise, or Imposter Factory and love the absolute catharsis of sobbing with grief and understanding and resolution that they always manage to pull at the eleventh hour than you will absolutely love Rakuen as well.
The game is heartfelt and beautiful and simple to play, but with some more interactivity and puzzle solving than the aforementioned Freebird Games series. At times the controls can feel a bit janky and the game can be a bit repetitive with a lot of backtracking, but the puzzles and optional extras really add some more spice and interactivity.
Deep Systems/Read The Wiki
The three games I’ve put in this category both have a huge amount of thought and effort put into the mechanics and procedural generation in novel ways and a long (and ongoing) development with constant input from players over their existence. On top of that, all three are ones you should really have the wiki bookmarked for because you will need it to git gud.
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress
This game has been in development for over 20 years at this point and to me it feels like the EVE Online of base-building/simulation strategy games in the sense that it really ticks the following checkboxes:
- Everything you hear about people’s playthroughs online is absolutely wild.
- People either absolutely love it or just don’t really want to play it.
- It’s kinda like an advanced spreadsheet.
These are all good things too, not slights against either game (even though EVE isn’t my cup of tea)! Dwarf Fortress shows a different side of gaming from your linear story-based games and even from your traditional Civilization series of society management games. It doesn’t end unless there’s some unintended fun, there’s a myriad of ways to play, and different projects to work towards. It’s like Minecraft if instead of playing it in first person you were a non-micromanaging line manager of an evergrowing bunch of 10 year olds who were playing Minecraft and you needed them to actually survive the game.
Part of the appeal for me was seeing some of the bugs come up on the infamous Twitter account and then learning about how much effort went into the hydrogeology, meteorology, biogeography, and civilisation development algorithms to give the game such depth and procedurally generated variability. As stated, the game has been in development for over 20 years and you can really see how much of that time has been well spent on crafting a vehicle for the wildest emergent gameplay you can get your hands on.
This game has been in development since around 2007 and once again features incredibly detailed and amazing procedural generation systems as part of it’s world creation system. Unlike Dwarf Fortress, the focus here is on the social fabric across the world and the history of the inhabitants and rulers. While there are a lot of preset pieces, even more is generated on the fly at world creation and playing this game feels like being an archaeologist and piecing together the histories of a world long gone, survived by only a few broken remainders.
The gameplay for this is punishing and brutal, I played for about six (6) hours and went through about fifteen (15) characters before I even managed to finish the first quest. At that point I got the Steam achievement “What’s Eating the Watervine?” (the name of the quest) and discovered less than 20% of players had achieved it. So if you want to play this, get ready to die a lot until you get the hang of it, always run rather than stay if you’re worried, and definitely follow the tutorials on the wiki.
Beyond the history and gameplay, the character customisation and opportunity to do whatever the hell you want really sets this game apart. I’d been playing for about 20 hours before I realised that I could just dig through walls to get where I needed. There was nothing stopping me making my own paths to hard to reach areas except cowardice and my own lack of lateral thinking! I could also just abandon the questline and spend days wandering around discovering new areas and hopefully finding the cure to my glotrot.
This is the game I’m still getting into so I haven’t had the same time to ruminate on it but I can really see how this game tickles so many brains. My start was ignominious; I got bored of the tutorial after about 20 minutes and on my first playthrough got bored after about 2 hours, tired of how much walking around refuelling bloody smelters and boilers seemed to be in my future. But once I followed my own advice and read the wiki tutorial I quickly had my automated empire building up and am keen to see how far I can take this adventure.
Similar to Dwarf Fortress and Caves Of Qud, there’s a myriad different ways you can play this game and tweak the settings and config for it and you can probably also lose days and weeks of your time optimising setups and just pushing for one more step of efficient automation. After all, the game is about you, a descendant of the great Rube Goldberg who was sent to go trap mice1 but crash landed their spaceship and now needs to escape this world and is too lazy to do a decent day of work in the coal mines themself.
These are games that tickled the part of me that likes some off-the-beaten-path weird stuff.
A simple concept: all of those games and movies with horrible bloody gunfights and monster rampages eventually need to get cleaned up right? Well in this game, that’s your job.
I have a feeling this is the game that later spawned countless numbers of pedestrian-activity-simulators like PowerWash Simulator, Lawn Mowing Simulator, etc. Unlike some of the later editions in this category, this game definitely has the jank and feel of a “made for a joke” game that became a smash hit. And you can see why when you play it; there’s something infinitely relaxing about just buffing out bullet holes and mopping up blood, making sure to empty your buckets and get fresh boxes to fill up with gibs for the incinerator. There’s also the inherent challenge of not accidentally dropping a full container of assorted viscera onto your freshly mopped floor, forcing you to go back to cleaning that entire section.
Lastly, this is an amazing game for co-op. It works well in a co-play sense; you’re both cleaning your own sections and occasionally helping each other out or chatting about your lives while you work, a really mindful and relaxing way to pass time.
We know I’m a fan of Choose Your Own Adventure games, but also most simple interactive storytelling experiences make me happy, including point and click adventure games. Paradigm is a beautiful new(-ish, it’s from 2017?) take on the genre with beautiful art and an excellent and surreal setting and story. It’s incredibly silly and knows it, but is also a ripper of an Aussie game and a great way to spend a couple of evenings chortling away while saving the world so you can get back to making da phat beatsies.
Question, did anyone actually play this board game or did they just set up the mechanism and let it run over and over? ↩︎