Random Games: Best to Worst
Batman: The Enemy Within
Batman: The Enemy Within is one of Telltale’s last games, and also one of its best. It chronicles how the Joker becomes a villain and forces Batman into lots of awkward, pressured situations along the way. One of the cool dynamics is that players can choose to shape the story such that Batman and the Joker are originally friends, which adds an interesting dimension to the relationship. Another cool feature is that it gives us a smart version of Harley Quinn, which is a thing I’ve always wanted.
The Enemy Within does everything Telltale did best, which is basically just tricking us into thinking that we have control over the story while it rockets down a set of rails – but the rocket ride is fun! The conversations are tense! The action is exciting!
I’m really going to miss Telltale, and I hope it continues to influence interactive storytelling for a long time.
Oxenfree is an adventure game released by Night School Studio in 2016. It’s about five teens who try to have a beach party and end up getting haunted by an evil triangle that bends spacetime and/or opens portals to alternate universes and/or makes a bunch of scary stuff happen. It’s partly about how the teens manage their relationships, which are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and partly about a cool, recursive design where New Game+ causes the characters to travel back in time and repeat the exact same events while being aware that that’s what they’re doing. Meaning, New Game+ is (spoilers) secretly the second half of the game, and also a commentary on how games work.
This is 99% a dialogue and conversation game in which the dialogue is really natural and well-written. But it’s also a really interesting attempt to break the fourth wall and explore the limits of video games as a medium (for more reasons than just the story repeating). The VFX are kind of intense, and it gave me a wicked migraine, but it’s a really smart, different, interesting game.
Thumper is a 2016 rhythm game about a space bug, whom I choose to believe is named Thumper, that needs to ride a psychedelic rollercoaster and kill aliens by jumping along to the beat. It’s fucking hard, but it’s also really fun to play, especially with headphones. There’s a combo of visual and audio cues to let you know which jump patterns are coming up and, if you nail your jumps, the resulting sound effects weave into the music in the background.
My main gripe is that the VFX that play when you take damage pretty much guarantee you’ll take damage again, since they block your vision, but this is otherwise a fun, addictive game with some unfortunate difficulty spikes.
Demonheart is a visual novel released in 2017 that follows the adventures of a young woman named Bright as she moves through several lose-lose situations involving witches, demons, and potential rapists. It’s not a dating sim, although there are three romance options in the story (a woman who’s basically all right, and two men who are both horrible, one of whom is a rapist).
I didn’t feel like my choices made a huge difference to the narrative, but the narrative was fascinating – dark, twisty, suspenseful, and unusually tight for a visual novel. I want it to be a series on HBO. The simple fact that I kept being asked for my opinion about who was going to betray me also made me way more invested in the betrayals, and forced me to consider whether or not I truly could predict what was going to happen. There wasn’t a ton of gameplay, but it was a good story, told in a compelling way.
Thomas was Alone
Thomas was Alone is, like, required study for people who are interested in storytelling in games. It’s a 2012 platformer in which the characters are all rectangles and their unique personalities, motives, and emotions are narrated in the style of a children’s story as players progress through the levels. It’s basically the opposite of a studio game with photorealistic human characters – it’s a game with absurdly simple graphics and mechanics that asks us to suspend our disbelief while it tells a human story.
I’m totally impressed by the concept and the voiceover narration, and I enjoyed some of the puzzles as I worked my way through the levels. There were times when I found the controls overly fussy, and I thought the ending was a little underwhelming, but I love the idea that telling a good, immersive story doesn’t have to mean rendering a lifelike simulation of reality.
Guild of Dungeoneering
Guild of Dungeoneering is an 2015 RPG that mimics tabletop setups where players build their own dungeon by turning over cards, and then move their hero through the dungeon to defeat monsters. The graphics are really cute and I like the humorous style – it just turns out that I hate this kind of game.
The main issue I have with it – with the game format, rather than this specific game – is that I found it repetitive to move through the same dungeon spaces over and over, fighting the same kinds of monsters. Half the time, when my characters died, it was because I got bored and impatient and tried to rush the quest. There’s also no real story involved, and no real character development – it’s just about trying to play a better card than the monster you’re going against.
I could see this being really fun for the right kind of player, but that player isn’t me.
The 11th Hour
The 11th Hour came out in 1995, and it’s the sequel to The 7th Guest, a game I remember enjoying. The version I was playing didn’t really run properly and crashed a whole bunch of times. But it was also boring, and it felt like it took forever to walk anywhere, and the puzzles involved repeatedly having to “solve” riddles that were so obscure there was no possible way to guess the answer. For a while, I tried just playing with a walkthrough that told me the riddle solutions, but I eventually gave up because it was so buggy and tedious. Also, I was unable to watch the FMV clips in the game, but I’m told they had gross stuff in them, so…