By Justin Sanders
By Justin Sanders
There are flickers of light at the end of our long, dark pandemic tunnel – but, for now, we are still stumbling through it, groping for purchase as we try to find our way out.
Fortunately, there are moments of illumination along this journey, blazing moments of creative inspiration that give us hope and inspire us even when times are tough. Previously, we have chronicled some of these moments from the worlds of visual art and music. Now, we turn our gaze toward video games, perhaps the most pandemic-friendly medium of them all.
Here are eight great video games notable for breaking new ground, implementing innovative new storytelling methods, or simply sparking some of the joy that has been missing for so many of us.
Untitled Goose Game (House House)
Despite their associations with golden eggs and elegant V formations, geese are in fact crude, crass, mean-spirited creatures whose hammer-strong beaks pose a blunt-force threat to anyone who strays too close. Yes, they’re a menace all right – which must be why it’s such a joy to play one in the unexpectedly delightful puzzler, Untitled Goose Game. Set in a quaint British town, the game sets our honking hero loose to do nothing more noble than waddle hilariously through a series of challenges involving the harassment and humiliation of a bumbling populace of peaceful denizens. There is no story, no higher purpose, and no trace of commentary or intellectual discourse – it is simply, as the game’s developer House House puts it, “a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” After a long, hard year of being cooped up, we all could stand to get up to some virtual mischief.
On the flipside from Untitled Goose Game’s story-free unruliness, The Life and Suffering of Sir Brante is nothing but story, a meticulously crafted “narrative-driven RPG” fueled by the choices you make and the ramifications they have. Essentially a visual novel with status bars, the game presents the epic saga of your character’s life, beginning as a toddler growing up in a world where a person’s lot is determined at birth and the gods preside over the fates of humans. Will you opt for a path of complacency and self-enrichment in this cruel and oppressive society? Or are you the rebellious type, preferring to fight against the cosmic order that governs your people? Yes, Sir Brante has the DNA of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, but we’ve come a long way from that series’ 1970s origins. In terms of both plotting and philosophical implication, the scope of this literary adventure is astonishing, heightened by a rich and evocative sound design. There are no snap judgements here – you must consider who and what will be affected by every narrative fork you take, and the way your choices come back to haunt you makes for an endlessly fraught yet gripping experience.
Bring to Light (Red Meat Games)
Released in 2018, the horror game Bring to Light is relatively ancient in terms of video game chronology, but its core technology remains startlingly innovative – and, for some reason, rarely replicated. Available as a virtual reality experience, its VR mode includes the option to hook up to a heart monitor as you wander through a deserted subway tunnel, solving treacherous puzzles and evading creepy creatures. The game processes your heartrate and amplifies the terror based on your data, ratcheting up the horrors when it determines you aren’t scared enough. Ultimately, Bring to Light is an engaging yet imperfect gaming experience – but its usage of biometrics hints at a tantalizing future where gameplay can use physical sensation to calibrate our emotional states.
One of the coolest things about video games is how the medium has evolved to encompass the full scope of human experience. Amidst the big-budget first-person shooters, RPGs, and sports franchises lie fascinating departures into dating, property management, the processing of grief, and just about everything else from between the folds of life’s rich tapestry. Sunlight might just represent the apex of this evolution, simulating nothing more than a walk through the woods – a brief and meditative respite from a relentless and toxic world. You pick a few flowers, the trees whisper tales to you as strains of Tchaikovsky waft in the breeze, and 30 minutes later, it’s over. If you seek more action during your precious gaming time, that’s understandable. But then you will be missing, as one reviewer on the game’s Steam page put it, a sensation “like someone was there to hug me through all the darkness.” These days, a video game might just be a feeling, a fleeting moment to help you transition from one moment to the next. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus)
A self-described “cozy management game about dying,” Spiritfarer turns what sounds like a dour and somber experience into an uplifting, vibrantly colored adventure across both land and sea. As Stella the spiritfarer, you play a ferrymaster to the deceased, befriending and caring for an array of spirit passengers as you aide their transition to the afterlife. Sailing an ocean full of fantastical islands and cities, you will collect resources to upgrade your ship and complete tasks for the spirits that help them move on from their earthly lives. The gameplay is challenging without being stressful, the world is rich and satisfying, and each new spirit offers a beautifully written and moving backstory. You might even be moved to the point that you miss them when they’re gone. At the very least, you’ll be sad when Spiritfarer is over.
Half-Life: Alyx (Valve)
VR games are still finding their footing in the mainstream, but Half-Life: Alyx was a big step in the right direction. The Steam Awards’ 2020 VR Game of the Year, it marked game developer Valve’s return to its popular Half-Life series more than 13 years after the last sequel, bringing back the titular hero Alyx Vance for another incredible extended battle against the vicious alien race known as the Combine. The immersive world is beautifully realized, loaded with mesmerizing puzzles to solve, visceral combat sequences against relentless foes, and deep environmental interactions. Behold as your virtual hands curl around bottles, clasp iron railings, and roll discarded cigarette butts between their fingertips. Just the exploration of physical space in Half-Life: Alyx feels like a tremendous leap forward in what video games can do – and that’s before the monsters arrive.
7th Sector (Sergey Sergeich)
This ingeniously conceived cyberpunk puzzle game will spark your imagination – literally. As in, you begin the game as a literal spark, traveling down a wire from a staticky television set and into an intriguing dystopian future. Your ability to animate machines with energy propels the action forward as you progress through countless, increasingly difficult puzzles that toy with physics and perspective. The game offers no help at all with any of it, leaving it entirely up to you to piece together what you are supposed to do and how. For some, this will be an impediment to fun; but others will rise to it and take tremendous satisfaction in solving each new challenge. Any frustration is well worth it, as your persistence reveals a deep and powerful sci-fi tale with the wordless power of a great silent film – and you will be amazed just how much personality a single spark can convey.
Umurangi Generation (ORIGAME DIGITAL)
A thrilling contribution from the Maori science-fiction storytelling genre, Umurangi Generation tasks you with completing photography tasks across a series of near-futuristic levels. There are specific images you need to capture to earn money, but the game also encourages creativity, unlocking different lenses and other features as you complete new objectives. The evocative atmosphere, packed with huia feathers and other details from Maori culture, is fun to shoot and curating your images after the fact is a joy – but what’s really impressive about Umurangi Generation is the way your photo-fueled exploration reveals the very real-world problems saturating its neon-soaked metropolis. From poverty to climate disaster to rising authoritarianism, Maori developer Naphtali Faulkner has much to say about, as the game’s own marketing materials put it, the “sh**ty future” we have wrought. The ultimate effect of his endlessly engaging game is to give the player, as a creative just trying to make a living in a hellish urban landscape, a new perspective on the slow-building existential crisis facing us all.
And that’s our round-up of some of the most innovative, enthralling video games available in the pandemic era. We hope you enjoyed it – and we intend to keep on providing more recommendations in the coming weeks to keep you motivated on the slow but steady journey out of this mess.
We’ll explore a new category of inspiring works each time out – dance, theater, TikTok, or even decorative pillow making!
Until next time, find some creativity wherever you can, stay safe, and be well. #StandCreative