My Game Pile is my stack of videogames that I’ve been working my way through over the course of the years, and writing about them. The plan is pretty simple: I talk about the game and I talk about the things that that game inspire. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long – and always, I try to give you an idea of who the game might be fore, or why they might want to buy it.
Two things before we start. One, I backed this game on kickstarter, because a friend of mine, Calvin Wong Tze Loon, talked about doing work for it on his twitter. I followed that, thought it looked good, and backed it. I have, therefore, a clear connection, socially, to the making of this game. As it happens, Calvin’s main job was editing the rulebook, and the rulebook is pretty stellar, but I would say that, wouldn’t I.
The other thing, before I talk about this game, I need to get one thing out of the way, up front. The kickstarter for this game, the reason I own this game, the access point for this game, describes it as:
A wondrous world of plants, potions and familiars await in Familiar Alchemy, a semi-cooperative game rooted in Scottish folklore.
For those of you not familiar, Raven Software were-slash-are a Wisconsin-based videogame development company founded in 1990. They were responsible, most famously to nerds like me, for the games Heretic, Hexen, and Hexen 2, a set of first-person fantasy shooters that used id game engines to tell you the story of multiple fantasy realms being assaulted by dreadful Serpent Riders.
The first story, the story I know I’m part of telling, is as an understudy company that stands next to id software and waits for them to be done with an engine before they make a game. This is a history that tends to happen when you work backwards; id software made Quake, which Raven turned into Hexen 2. id made Doom 2, which Raven used to make Hexen. id made Doom, which Raven used to make Heretic. When I spoke about Heretic earlier this year, I said this, even!
Disclosure:I backed this book on kickstarter, and contributed art to it. I designed the flag of Grand Cross. I was not paid for this work, and asked for my payment to instead be given to charity. I’m friends with the developers – like, we know what kind of anime one another likes.
First, I backed the game on kickstarter because it had some very modest targets, and a nice aesthetic, and stated it was using Gamecrafter. I thought it looked like a very good early effort for a game designer, backed it, and forgot about it for a few months.
Then it arrived.
What arrived was, as a game, a really robust little draft-position-play kind of game, with a thematic space I can only describe as ‘excellently obtuse.’ I had a look, I considered how I was going to approach talking about this game, and I put together a little list of thoughts that I laid out in the template for this article. As part of doing that, then, I went to get my due diligance and the links to people’s works, and places where you can buy the game, and found, to my surprise…
The rain rattles down against endless shimmering towers of silver and glass, black sludgy water, stinging on the way down, even the treatments making it ‘safe’ leaving it bitter, acrid, and faintly radioactive. No-one who knows better would be about in weather like this.
But nobody knows better.
The people mill around you, chips on their necks keeping them docile. What are they seeing? Do they even see the rain and the lines it leaves on the glass around them? Probably not. Every city runs its own sim, its own explanation for the world around them as the citizens move about, processing information and doing jobs and not noticing the world as it really is.
Imagine keeping a labor force like this in pods.
A world sized prison for humans, plugged into a vast wireless network of perception manipulators? Unnecessary. After all, if there’s ever a serious problem, they solve it with agents. Heavy, boot-and-coat wearing walking battle platforms, with no personality and big scary fuckin’ guns.
Agents from one corp, agents from another corp, they clash, and everyone else is left dead. More now we got the cult weirdoes, and the gangers who fell out of the network trying to stage an uprising.
This is the world now.
You fell out of the system, after that virus hit. And you get to see the world, as it is – as it tears itself apart.
Last year, I did a video about Ai: The Somnium Files. That video was mostly about the game as a top-down experience, and what you can learn from making that kind of game, and how it was deliberately unsubtle. I didn’t spend much time just talking about how much I love it and the things in it. Because I like it so much, I wanted to spend some time talking about it again and also platforming a beloved friend, Nixie!
Oh hey, it’s Talen a PC gamer who didn’t have a console through the 90s talking about a classic of the form in a genre he’s normally pretty condescending towards and it’s an iconic masterwork of the genre so there’s a checklist of things you kind of have to talk about on the way through before you get to talk about whatever it is you want to talk about well guess that means we gotta blaze through the outline.
Lively cast of interesting characters
Innovative MODE SEVENING
What’s the DEAL with how the first half of the game was a JRPG and the back half, a WESTERN RPG?
Did U Kno The American Release Was III?
Other Girl Hot
Other Other Girl Hot
Boy…? Hot? Maybe?
Playstation port bad!
Steam port bad!
GBA port okay, really!
Suplexing A Train
With that list of the key and important details that are necessary to cover I have hopefully cut down a chunk of the mandatory word count for this article. After all, where will we be if I treat Final Fantasy 6 as something that you may already know about, or as some subject that you already probably can find other sources to explain?
I intend to spoil things about this game but I don’t imagine I actually will? Like, you may view it as a spoiler to mention ‘there’s a character named Effuzio in the story’ and that’s fine, but I don’t particularly plan on talking about the main thrust of the plot. Besides, if it helps you at all, the story of Final Fantasy 6 isn’t really that important, or even that interesting. Not the single, big, core narrative that runs from instigating incident to attention arrival to conclusion to denoument, no, that isn’t important. What’s important to me is the sequences of smaller stories that make up the whole of experience of this multi-hour JRPG mammoth of a story, the characters that are Final Fantasy VI.
Genewars is a 1996 videogame release from games industry innovator and technology boundary pusher Bullfrog, at the height of their heady, genre-establishing, world-shaking PC gaming juggernaut status, overseen by the pandimensional fish-hoarding gamer genius explorer boy and repeated game revolutionary Peter Molyneux. After inventing the God Game genre with Populous, the RTS genre with Powermonger, perfecting the spatial management game with Theme Park, redefining flight simulator games with Magic Carpet and creating the fantastically engaging real-time squad based strategy dystopian cyberpunk offend-em-up Syndicate, but just before all-purpose warm-fuzzy-feelings inspiring Dungeon Keeper, Bullfrog announced a new RTS game called Genewars.
The premise of Genewars up front was that you weren’t going to buy units from a list, like some kind of plebian, Commanding and Crafting. You were going to create your own units, based on stitching together the DNA of species on the planet, and the possibilities were endless.
And from this perfected and extremely shiny forehead of Peter Molyneux, what could spring, but excellence?
In 2018, the board game Root was released by Leder games, to a sort of confused, but very enthusiastic ‘hooray!’ Based on earlier successes by the same developers (and some weird, contentious ‘hey, you copied my notes’ complaints), Root is an asymmetrical war game, where in the base box, you have four factions competing with one another to try and take control of a nonspecific woodland glade. Each faction, the game promised – and delivered – are different; not the same rules with a few different units, but entirely, meaningfully, complicatedly different in how they relate to one another.
Lauded for its emergent complexity and its charming aesthetic, Root is one of those games that quickly became institutional; multiple expansions, fan merchandise, an RPG in the setting, all that stuff that signalled people are into your game, the base board game Root is probably one of those recent classics.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos is a 1986 text adventure videogame, produced by Infocom, written by Steven Meretzky, and it exists entirely because of a whiteboard joke that nobody in the room said ‘hey, maybe let’s just not?’ to enough times. In this 1930s schlock sci-fi inspired ‘sex farce’ game, you get to explore locations like Mars, Venus, and Cleveland.
It was, ostensibly, one of a small number of sexy text adventure games from that period of time, produced by Infocom. It boasted a scratch-and-sniff feely, and a setting for its content ranging from ‘tame’ to ‘lewd.’
It’s also a sex comedy written by a couple of dudes that dates back to 1986.
Jenga’s a pretty solid game. I mean, it’s going on fifty years old, it’s simple, it’s really cheap because every company can make their own version easily. It’s one of those games you’ll see in a dollar store as some company makes their own version of it. Jenga is definitely a success and I think it’s reasonable to say, if you like having a board game collection, it’s a good idea to have a Jenga-like game there.
I don’t own Jenga. And now, I don’t think I’m going to.
I am not going to be able to tell you anything comprehensive about Wingspan. This game was a phenomenon when it launched, it was so successful it spawned conspiracy theories and it defined the conversation about games, their distribution, kickstarter and things like ‘elasticity’. There is no reason, in particular, to want my opinion of Wingspan, per se.
For this game, I thought rather than just put my thoughts out there about the game (I didn’t like it until I suddenly really liked it, it has an interesting vision of the future as experientially procedural, it’s cyberpunk as hell), I should take this opportunity to bring forward Corey, who has thoughts on games where perception, world experience, and communication are important.
And that is, by the way, pretty much all of them.
Anyway, so we talked for twenty minutes or so about Katana Zero and how it metaphorises hyperfocus.
If you’d like a full-sized version of that thumbnail, here:
You should go check out Corey, on Twitter, and encourage him to get a website or blog of his own to talk about stuff in a way that isn’t Heck Birdsite.
Hypothetically, you could run a list of all the Game Pile Articles and know everything I’ve covered, already.
Which I do.
The original purpose of the Game Pile was to serve as a direct accounting of every game I played from my at the time unmanageably large Steam collection. I didn’t look at that collection for years, and now, over the starting on eight years of this blog, I have been using the Game Pile as a category to talk about games, and things, and things about games, and using games to talk about things. Part of getting this pile under control was playing a lot of them, and part of it was building familiarity with Steam’s tools.
I have a category I put games in when I’m done with them: ‘Completed.’ At the moment, on Steam, I have 324 games outside of that category, and 434 games in that category, meaning that in the context of Steam, I have more than half completed my Game Pile. It has obviously grown in this time, and I’m sure it will grow a little by the time the Steam Winter sale ends. This isn’t accounting for my Itch collections, or the physical boardgames that are also sometimes included, or just random flash games or folk games I talk about too.
Still, the Steam list is a large volume of things, and at the end of each year, I do run through some games and look at the stuff I moved to the Completed category that I haven’t written about, and have in fact, committed to not bothering to write about.
I haven’t done any full-blown revisits yet. I used to do ‘Deeper in the Pile,’ back when I was interested in parleying this blog into a journalism job. The idea was that the Game Pile posts would be entertaining reviews, then the Deeper in the Pile posts would examine things in the game in greater depth. Sometimes I use a remastered edition as an excuse to go back on a game, but otherwise, it’s pretty much that if I didn’t talk about a game and moved it into completed, there was a reason.
Well, it’s the end of the year (oh no, writing forward into the future revealed) and I’m tired, so let’s talk about some games that weren’t interesting enough to merit a full article. As with all of these, though, once I put the thoughts out there, I may come around to a new idea and realise that hey, no, here’s an academic concept or a game design idea I can totally use, and they’ll get pulled out of storage. Who knows!
Obviously, of all the articles I wrote this year in the Game Pile, they are all good. You should read all of them. Still, there are some that stand out as I think super cuts of the kinds of writing I like to do. Rather than just reiterate the entire category, because I trust you to be able to press navigation buttons, here are some highlights that may make it easier for you to find some stuff to read.
First of all there are some Game Piles that deserved special mention because they were about games I really enjoyed. It’s hard sometimes to write about great games because my typical methods for game analysis is to nag at something the game does that’s interesting, and I feel that lens is best set to give games that didn’t get attention the first time around a shot.
Still, there are a handful of games where I was just flummoxed by how great they were, and so the writing was about writing around them, or about their interface, or about the experiences of watching other people play them. For those, check out my articles on Lanterns, Spaceshipped, and Purrlock Holmes.
Halloween Forever was one of my game videos this year, and the game itself kicks ass and it was a good avenue to talk about something weird from my childhood that is, in a way, super weird. The thing about this one that I love in hindsight is just how charming the game was, and how, when I played it, I just had a simple thread of something weird to talk about. I played it, then recorded the audio, then stitched them together. It was a really great little gem to find in the Black Lives Matter Itch bundle.
I also got to use this year as a chance to talk about the Ur-Quan from Star Control 2. That’s something I want to do more of, with the Game Pile being a platform for some in-depth examinations of game lore of games I really love.
Volume, I learned about this year. I mean I bought it years ago and got around to playing it now and holy crap this game got to be really timely considering. It’s such an excellent stealth game, it deserves special attention. It has such wonderful voice acting, great characters, and also it’s about actual corporate fascism and stagnation of upward mobility.
There was and an expansion to a card game I love, Star Realms Frontiers. This was a really interesting one because I committed to buying all the expansions for the phone game – because hey, I knew I loved Frontiers – and then came to realise that I had hit the wall on how much Star Realms I wanted. Frontiers is great, get it and the base game, it’ll do you fine – but the rest? Just get them on the phone game, and let it handle storing them.
So yeah, there’s a bonus review: Star Realms? Two great box products… the rest probably just a great app.
There are some articles where I think they serve as examples of things that are deeply important to the conversation about games. One example is my article about Overwhelm. That article is about a game that just whips ass, which is great, then it brought in a friend’s advice about how players relate to games, and then it got to show how good its accessibility tools are when you actually use them to make the game more accessible. It was a valuable lesson to me about how I approach games, and how I let my ego waste my time.
I also had a bit of a weird thing with Metroidvania games this year, of open world exploration games that keep you engaged and build on your skillset, where I tried Hollow Knight, but simply didn’t get attached enough to the game to finish what, the third, or fourth boss? Which was a shame, and I thought at first I had just lost something of myself that works for Metroidvanias.
Then I played Carrion.
Carrion was excellent. I at first thought I wasn’t going to even play it, because everyone I knew had already played it, I had limited time and energy, and like, what am I going to say that beats Cass’ oh no now they’re going to eat meeee post over on Polygon?
Then my sister Rachel told me to play it, and I played it and I kept playing it, and I went to bed at 5 am and I woke up and played it and then I put it down and wrote one of my favourite articles about the way this game encourages you to relate your body to the world of it, and the philosophy of meat.
There’s a special mention in all of this of Ai: The Somnium Files, which also followed a pattern for this year where a friend asked me to play it. It was particularly important in this case, though, because she wanted to talk to someone about it, and was stymied by her problem with the extreme level of content warning problems it had. I checked it out, thought ‘oh a visual novel? don’t expect to like that,’ but I could see a chance to play it, so I played it.
And I loved it.
I loved it so much that I redid my schedule to play the game and make a video about it and promote it. I loved it so much that I made fan merchandise of the characters. I loved it so much that there’s someone who uses a character from it as their twitter avatar and it just makes me more inclined to check that they’re doing okay which is patently silly.
It isn’t a game I’m going to replay a lot, because it’s very good about making sure you get most of the content on one thorough play through. But it’s such a good game I’m going to recommend it, and look to games by the same people for the same kind of wonderful experiences.