This article was originally published on my Patreon, patreon.com/hannahnicklin
As we crawl squinting out of the cave of the end of 2016, 2017 glares at us, shining all up in our faces. Late (as usual) to the party, I grab my laptop and write for you my GOTY (Games of the Year) list. It’s only loosely ‘2016’ – they don’t have to have been released this year, just things I played for the first time this year. And my GOTY has a theme, of sorts (with one outlier I shall tie in because of its diametric opposite to the theme). The theme is non-multiplayer multiplaying – that is, a way of exploring how the best experiences I’ve had with games this year have all been with people, in some way, even though the games weren’t designed that way.
One of the things a game designer can rarely design for (except in an exhibition or installation context) is the layer of play that happens in the place of play. There’s the layer of the game in the console or PC, then the layer of the interface with that game – those things are set and/or within the control of the game designer. But there’s also the layer/context of the place the play happens; a lounge, a bedroom, a party, an evening with the family, after the kids have gone to bed, with your housemate, on a train, your girlfriend’s house, by a bus stop, while you’re supposed to be working, while dinner cooks, with the windows open and a summer thunderstorm outside, etc. Smells, sights, stress, relative comfort, company. In the article on Tony Hawk published recently I talked about the theatre of the game – without an explicit multiplayer format and yet with short free-play levels that connected to the theatre of the sport; ‘look what I can do!’.
The games that stuck with me most this year were played by, with, or around others. Except the last one. And I therefore write this GOTY article in consideration of how that Other Layer of gameplay affects us, that layer designers typically have no control over. Let’s go:
I played this on my own first. Well, not on my own, with my housemate Pat in the room, but he was doing something else mostly. I’m not very good with FPS controls so as soon as I pick up a game on a console I’m nervous – do I need to be able to orient myself and react quickly? I felt this especially ABZU, which is about water; swimming.Did you know that I was a competitive swimmer? Did you know that for 10 years of my life I swam everyday except Saturdays? Did you know that there was a time when I felt more at home in water than I did in the air? When I dream about flying, I dream that I am swimming, I dream that I swim strong and powerfully through the air, sculling to stay up when I stop. I was 8 years old when I realised for the first time that swimming was a small kind of superpower. My brother and I went on holiday to Center Parcs – and under the huge ‘Tropical’ dome set against Sherwood forest me and my brother discovered that we had a small kind of superpower, surrounded by people who didn’t know how to move through water, who fought it, who would crick their necks afraid they could not breathe and turn themselves into shapes that sink, make it harder. My brother and I moved through the water… thoughtlessly.
I pick up the PS4 controller and think of the double insult that the game will throw at me if I can not just ‘not control it well’, but not control a swimming game well. But they catch it, they catch it just right, the thrill of the speed, but also the thickness of it, how it slows you, how you scull and slip and slice your way through. Diving! The thrill of power behind acceleration, the slower-than-air grace of a spin or somersault, a rip, a clean entry. The tasks are there because it’s a game and it has to move you about a bit. Show you progress. They’re not all tasks I don’t want to do, the most alive bits are when I chase a shark, or gasp at blue whales, I do a lot of noodling around. I make friends with fish.
My favourite thing about ABZU, though, is showing it to my brother. My brother visits my house for the first time since I moved in. In the day we look at some huge pieces of metal in a gallery near King’s Cross. In the evening I make us dinner and we play ABZU and Virginia. ABZU is a thrill to watch him play; what he discovers that I don’t. I remember how he would swim differently to me. I remember that my brother was long and tall, always a head above boys his age. I remember how his stroke almost seemed lazy, the way he would have to move his arms through such a long path. I remember how I was always a sprinter, punchy, backstroke was my best, I loved the rush of a perfectly executed backstroke start: good grip on the wall with your feet, tensing at ‘take your marks’, the gun, the arc, the rush, cutting into the water, dolphin kick to the surface, first breath and knowing that you already found a second on your nearest competitor. He plays ABZU dramatically differently to me, the way he would swim, it’s methodical almost.
One Way Trip playstation.com/en-us/games/one-way-trip-ps4
A large number of the games I know about are games I do not play. There’s a great article by Robert Yang about games as thought experiments – there’s a few ways to take that sentiment, and one of them is that understanding the premise and rules of a game are in some ways a way of playing it. Of playing it out in our heads. I mean it more literally here, though. I’m talking about Pat. I have a super great housemate who amongst being clean, tolerant of bike stuff, and nice to be around (best housemate traits) is also an incredible curator of games and collector of games-things. It’s pretty easy to say that the majority of the games I experience are ones I don’t play, but ones I’m around when they’re being played by Pat. As I work on my laptop, emails, or articles, or research, Pat will be sat on the PS4 playing something. Most of the time this feels like a thing I can happily put out of my mind as I work, occasionally glancing up and asking half-interestedly about a monster, character or plot point. This year, however, there’s one game I just couldn’t stop looking at. And in fact, that I specifically asked Pat to play, because I just wanted to be around it.
One Way Trip is a game ported to the US PlayStation Store (it’s v easy to get a US account to play it with in case you’re wondering). It’s a piece of interactive-graphic fiction with the best goddam soundtrack I ever heard. The plot is summarised online as “You, your brother, and much of the rest of the Nation have been poisoned. You have six hours left to live, and you will spend them hallucinating as you die” and has the most inexplicably low review score I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of aesthetics and low-fi hip hop, it’s hilarious, it’s ridiculous, the animation and illustration is vibrant and hallucinatory and could cover a record or a punk zine, and the music I could listen to all day. Each bit of animation hops in and around the beats and adds in layer after layer to the almost incomprehensible story which as both form and content perfectly represents its premise. I have written to Michael Frauenhofer to ask him to make the Bandcamp albums Pay-what-you-want rather than free so I can give him some money for them. In the meantime, I ask Pat if he can play some more of the game. The tracks seem better in the game than out, somehow.
Lieve Oma vltmn.itch.io/lieve-oma
I’m on a date. It’s not really a date. I’m with someone I’m dating. We’re not really dating. It’s that bit. We’re in Berlin. There’s a room of games and queues in front of many of them. I’m laughing. There’s an excitement in my stomach which is often the thing I miss the most when I think that maybe I should get out there again – the feeling in your stomach like laughter and whisky and GCSEs. There are people around who know us both and we don’t know if this is a thing and can’t really be bothered to get teased or gossiped about. It feels like they’re always looking at us. Even when they’re not in the room. Even though no one has noticed this feeling in my stomach and our attention to one another.
We find this game open. No one’s standing in front of it. I put my glass of ‘it comes in two colours’ wine down, and we spend a few moments playing Leive Oma. The colours are beautiful. I like controlling the camera like I’m shooting the movie. The dialogue which feels a little stilted or in-translation at the beginning begins to feel like ‘actually this is not how my grandma talked to me, but how someone’s specific grandma talked’. Northern English grandmas don’t go in for ‘sweetie’ epithets, but this isn’t a northern England grandma. The game shifts subtly and I know I am not this character, though I could be, as the character I speak as is pleasingly un-gendered. I pause for a second and think about how I’d feel to play this game and ‘control’ the dialogue of the grandma and not the the child.
We move on. I’ll play the game again on my own a couple of months later. This time I’ll play it long enough for the season change and the heron reveal. It captures most that feeling I recognise of seeing a beautiful thing from nature in front of me, suddenly, ordinary and extraordinary simultaneously.
This year I became friends again with someone who I used to date. We didn’t talk for a couple of years, but last year we met by accident and remembered that we’re good together. Just not that kind of together. We’re still at the bit where we don’t talk too much about our boyfriends or girlfriends, where we have the occasional moment or hug where we have to suddenly readjust; it’s not feelings, but the space where feelings used to be. It’s not sad, but… you know what I mean?
One weekend, Pat’s away at some festival in Texas, I cook dinner and my friend and I hang out, we’d planned to watch some cycling on the telly but when he arrives I’m playing the first bit of Inside. Instead, we get steadily drunker and solve puzzles together. Our brains function perfectly together, anything I can’t see instantly he can right away. I love the lighting, and the controls, which are light-touch and never make me feel on the edge of my capability. The puzzles are well-balanced, pleasing to tangle with and the animation tactile, the fiction behind the world lightly delivered, if broadly painted. In the space of the evening we get about 3/4 of the way through. We don’t finish it. We get too drunk and laugh too much, and he gets an Uber home. We hug before he goes and he kisses me on the cheek. I still haven’t finished it, it feels wrong, to see how it ends without him.
Cribbage with Grandpas cribbagewithgrandpas.com
This is the game I have played most this year. This is a game I have played with an array of Grandpas. At the beginning I design my own. The Grandpa designer is perfect, just the right mix of colour matching/blocking, and options, just the right selection of skin colours, features, gestures towards characterisation, and personality, that leave room for you to infer much more. I design 3 grandpas to begin with, each of them a grandpa of colour. I have had no grandpas in my life that I would wish to play cribbage with so my instinct is to design fictional grandpas, it never even occurs for me to build my own. And because I feel like there’s probably a low representation of grandpas of colour in my life, I create three fictional grandpas of colour to play with, something which Pat describes as ‘one of the most Hannah Nicklin things I ever heard’.
I get a lot better at cribbage. I love the characterisations and quips the grandpas add to the game. It isn’t until I describe the game to my friend Alice that I think of real-grandpa grandpa design. I invite her to make a grandpa for me to play with, and her instinct is to make her own. We carefully construct him, she laughs at how weirdly accurate it looks and feels by the end. We set him as a hard-difficulty and for a couple of weeks he is my biggest adversary. Grumpy and largely silent he destroys me game after game. My first victory against him is the biggest rush I feel that whole month (a month in which I am performing daily in front of audiences of 80-100 people).
The month following I drop my phone in a toilet bowl while bleaching it. The phone dies. ‘That’s fine’ I think, I forgive myself, because life is too short to get het up about this kind of thing. I get another phone off eBay. It’s fine, I backed my phone up pretty recently. When I reinstall my new phone, I discover I have only one grandpa. The first; Sanjit. I feel sadder about losing those 3 later-made grandpas than I do about losing a whole month of pictures. I still haven’t made new grandpas and I feel bad about losing Alice’s especially. There’s just me and Sanjit now. 49 wins to his 50.
The Long Dark hinterlandgames.com
I am alone, mostly it doesn’t matter I’m a bit slow on FPS controls, the only time it’s hard is when the wolves come, and really, hard and panicky and not knowing if I can get away feels appropriate. I start to play it at dinner. Pat goes to bed. I play it until the early hours, my eyes scritched open as I wonder if I can make it to the next settlement, supplies are running low here and I’ve managed to craft fishing materials, mended all my clothes, maybe if I find enough food here to move on I can investigate further, learn more, survive better. I’m so tired I press the wrong button. Instead of stashing the fish, for cooking later, I accidentally eat it. I’m tired, and a stupid mistake gives me food poisoning. I was exhausted and a stupid mistake killed me.
That’s how most of us die, if we’re honest, come the apocalypse. With not enough drinking water. Or too cold. Or a small cut and no antibiotics. Not enough knowledge about medicinal herbs. A bit of fish that’s gone off. Cold, alone, and mundane. This is the game I play the second most in 2016. I think most of all I need the fiction that I can have another go.