If my 2018 was the year “of” anything, it was surely the year of knowing your place. The games I’ve picked out in hindsight are united by the idea of understanding how you fit into a complex world – appreciating the intricacy of the variables and relationships that surround every given moment, whether your overall aim be to subdue them or just survive them. That and a fondness for long words and creative sci-fantasy concepts, anyway. Read on, adventurer, for much talk of gods, spiders and spaceships.
You don’t know “eldritch” till you’ve thwarted a detective by introducing him to a concept of light that scorches all reason from his brain, then traded his stupefied body for a minion which resembles the offspring of a disco dancer and a threshing machine. You don’t know “cosmic” till you’ve sailed a sea that is also a painting, or ascended to godhood by removing your own skin. Cultist Simulator is the slowest of slowburners, and as in love with mundanity as mystery – you’ll fail more often due to not eating or sleeping properly than because a summoned creature has bitten your face off. Persist, though, and you’ll discover a card sim of decadent breadth and at its murky bottom, the best-written and most enticing pantheon ever to grace a videogame.
I’ve written about it this month already, but permit me another spin on my favourite hobby seahorse. Though laced with the generic – the core of the game is gathering blueprints and materials for stuff that makes you a more able, resilient explorer and harvester – Subnautica is the one game this year which has truly transported me to an alien world, inasmuch as it’s a homage to the one that already exists (despite humanity’s best efforts) on this planet. I have lost many happy hours gazing at the game’s sunlit ocean surface from beneath, or into the entirely-too-peaceful abyss between my flippers. The lure of new kit notwithstanding, it’s a setting that inspires humility rather than covetousness – this strange, half-familiar sea was here before I arrived and it will be here long after I’m gone.
I grew up reading Brian Jacques’ Redwall books – cosy medieval epics in which anthropomorphic animals wage massive pitched battles before tucking into equally massive banquets. Ghost Of A Tale is that rustic universe wrapped around the spiralling architecture of the original Dark Souls: it sees you trying to escape a clifftop prison as the doughty mouse minstrel Tilo. Except that calling this a children’s fable risks overlooking how cleverly it portrays and questions prejudice within a small but lively cast, drawn from the far corners of its world. And comparing it to Souls suggests that it’s based on combat, as opposed to a muddy but charming mix of one-note stealth, conversation puzzles and fetchquests. There have been more elegant games (the bugs at launch were spectacular) but this is one of a kind.
In a genre where the spectacle of hundreds warring over a shrinking map has become as ubiquitous as aiming down the sights, god bless Hunt: Showdown for being a game where you roam a massive stretch of swampland in mortal fear of just nine other players, all questing to exorcise one and the same demon butcher or hideously oversized spider. Hunt’s balance of PvP and PvE won’t be to everybody’s tastes (not least because, last I checked, you have to buy characters and gear with in-game dollars, so a losing stint can severely disempower you) but those who get their kicks from debilitating paranoia rather than open-air free-for-alls shouldn’t miss out. It’s a world of tacit alarm systems – flocks of carrion birds, patches of broken glass, the splashing of boots in water – which makes the slightest movement feel like swinging from a guillotine. And my goodness, that spider: indecently fast, horribly agile, always heard, seldom seen.
An open world space sim for those who like their cockpits devoid of curves or chrome finish, their heads-up displays packed with obscure icons or acronyms, their starlanes pregnant with ambush and their poorly armed freighters prone to running out of power at the worst possible time. Objects takes as much inspiration from the lumbering claustrophobia of ’90s submarine films as the likes of Elite, and the result is a sim in which your vehicle never feels like a clean extension of your will but a half-tamed beast of burden, requiring careful oversight. Treat that beast with the respect it deserves, and you’ll find that it’s also a very cunning game – there are ever so many tricks you can deploy to outwit pirate ships or engage in a little piracy yourself.