Graham: I first played Celeste a few years ago via the free Pico-8 release. I enjoyed it, but I confess that I was a little disappointed when TowerFall-developer Matt Thorson announced that he and a team of people were making a fuller, polished version of the same idea. The best it could be, I thought, was an exceptionally well-made version of something conceptually ordinary. The kind of game I’d enjoy playing but never be truly excited by.
I’m an idiot, obviously – and kind of a dick – because Celeste proved me wrong in two ways. The first is that it’s conceptually exceptional too, thanks mainly to its idea-packed level design. That your moveset remains the same throughout – run, jump, a depletable air-dash – doesn’t matter when each area you visit introduces environments which use those abilities in radically new ways. My favourite introduces floating, solid blocks that can be passed through when you dash into them, forming funnels you can enter to launch yourself into new areas if you can find the right angle of approach. That each of these areas is used to tell a story about mental health via mechanics makes it all the better.
The second way it proved me wrong is: there’s no limit to how excited I can be about something this exceptionally well-made. To be clear, I always knew that making something this polished was hard, and I also always knew that it was rare. There’s surprisingly few platformers that are as focused on movement as Celeste is. But across its level design, its art, its music, and the feel of the simple actions you can perform in it, Celeste is a masterclass.
Katharine: What is there left to say about Celeste? We gave it our old-school Recommended badge when it came out back in January, and by the time July rolled round we’d already pegged this most excellent platformer as one of our Bestest and Most Top PC Games of 2018 so far. In the intervening months, it’s (quite rightly) won a ton of awards, both for its incredible jumping and how it tackles its themes of mental health, anxiety and depression, and it’s remained there, high up on our ever-growing mountain of bestest PC games, ever since.
That’s partly because Celeste’s dash is so gosh-darned superb – the tightest and most satisfying of any PC platformer that’s come out this year in my books – but what really elevates Celeste from all your other jumpy PC games is the way Madeline’s movement is so intimately entwined with the environment and the things she’s trying to escape and get away from.
It’s a game about overcoming challenges, both physically in the game’s design, and mentally inside Madeline’s own head, each setback giving you more determination to try again and give it another go. And even if that proves too much, Celeste isn’t a game that tells you to simply pull your socks up and ‘cope’. Instead, its clever Assist Mode says it’s all right to not be very good at jumping, and that asking for a little help sometimes is perfectly fine (take note, Dark Souls).
Ultimately, though, it’s the jumping that carries Celeste up that mountain o’ games, and I suspect it will be quite a while before another platformer even comes close to matching its sweet, sweet dash.
Katharine: When I arrived at university in the mid 00s, phone photo filters were just starting to become a thing. The newest and most popular was one that rendered an entire picture in black and white, save for a few things highlighted in red. If your phone was really fancy, you could even choose which bits to turn red, too. A cool trick, I thought at the time, if only because my measly Nokia 3210 could barely make and receive calls and texts, let alone take actual photos. Then everyone started doing it to every photo they ever took. It got boring real fast, and I was quietly glad when it finally became uncool about two months later.
Fortunately, FAR: Lone Sails has resurrected that idea with timeless style. With its moody, grey landscapes punctuated by the bright, auburn nose of its tremendous car-boat-train contraption and the hooded coat of its tiny wanderer man, this is one of the most achingly bleak yet beautiful games I’ve played all year – and a heck of a strong debut from Swiss developers Okomotive, too.
The star of the game is your giant land boat, which you lovingly tend to and care for as you whisk your way across a damaged and war-torn stretch of countryside. It’s a huge great thing, taking up almost half the screen when you’re pumping its valves and pushing switches inside it, and its cavernous innards make you feel small and powerless as you scurry across each of its three floors in order to keep everything moving.
However, when you switch over to using its titular sails for a spell and the camera pulls back even further, you realise just how insignificant your thumb-sized speck of a human really is in this monstrous, industrial landscape. This is a world where powerful machinery rules the roost; humans are merely there to keep the lights on and hide inside.
Despite the game’s cold, hard exterior, though, there is so much life to be found right on your doorstep. Your land boat is a wonderfully tactile and dynamic breed of vessel. As you strain to lock its power switch into place, carefully making sure to expel any excess steam building up that might inadvertently cause a fire, you can really feel the heft and might of this grey-red beast start whirring to life as its gears and cogs groan and splutter in the engine. It’s a wondrous bit of design, aided in no small part by its clever soundtrack, and it helps to make this hulking collection of nuts and bolts feel alive and homely.
You start getting so attached to it, in fact, that every knock, graze and bump fills you with dread, like it’s some kind of colossal robot toddler that has no control over its own limbs. This sense of parental responsibility is further reinforced by the fact you’ve got to constantly keep feeding its bright blue core with barrels of fuel or whatever bits of trash you can scavenge from outside, too, as you can only coast on its sails when the wind’s strong enough. In the moment, it’s not unlike the frantic plate-spinning of Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, but here the game’s sense of urgency comes not from the constant threat of total and utter destruction, but from the need to keep this mecha-baby alive so you can see what’s left of the world around you. After all, it’s only you keeping it all together here, and without careful management everything – you, your ship, your journey ever eastward – will coming to a slow, grinding halt.
FAR isn’t simply about poking and prodding a bunch of levers and switches, though. It’s also brilliantly paced, regularly making you venture beyond the walls of your makeshift stronghold to investigate the battered and broken world around you. Sometimes it’s simply to clear an obstacle blocking your path, other times it’s booting up other old machines to give your boat a new lease of life – and the more meticulous among you will almost always be rewarded with signs of life from previous travellers if you take the time to look. Despite everything pointing to the contrary, there is plenty of life to be found in this forsaken desert, and you are the one who’s slowly but surely rousing it from its slumber.
What lies at the end of your journey? That would be telling, but I can wholeheartedly say it is absolutely a trip worth taking. It’s a game of quiet wonder with a warm and tender core, and I guarantee you’ll never look at a car-boat-train the same way again.
Graham: Katharine has already wonderfully encapsulated FAR’s strengths, but I wanted to add, in modern parlance, that this is the game I think the most people slept on in 2018. It’s not my favourite game of the year, but the ratio of how much I like it versus how many people I see playing or talking about it is the most out of whack. And that’s a real shame, because it’s one of only a handful of games in this year’s calendar that I’m confident anyone would get something out of. Heed what Katharine has written above and add it to your pile to catch up on over the Christmas break.
Alice O: You know when you fall asleep at 2am during the credits of an artsy 70s horror or sci-fi film where the synth soundtrack warbles over slow shots of landscapes blown out in unearthly colours with lens filters, then your dreams trap you inside a seemingly endless version of that unreal landscape and the synth warbles on and you feel curiosity and unease but not quite fear? And you walk and you walk and you run and you run and you glide and leap and the landscape very slowly reveals anomalous objects like buildings that aren’t buildings and elevated highways that aren’t highways and incomprehensibly large crystals and citrine shards that glide through the sky like angular goldfish and it’s just you and the music and the landscape possibly forever and sometimes you move with such terrible speed that you fear you have become something terrible? Connor Sherlock’s walking simulators often make me feel that.
Zones is a compilation of five stroll ’em ups Sherlock originally made for his ‘Walking Simulator A Month’ Patreon, collected and sold separately so non-subscribers can explore them too.
My favourite is Witch Of Agnesi, visiting a purple-tinted foggy forest. Trees, grass, rocks, hills, stone circles… you get it. But! Unlike many walk ’em ups, here we can sprint at great speed and leap over trees. The name, the movement, the music, and having recently seen films like The VVitch and Hereditary made this a strange sort of liberation, a feeling of great power but also horror. Whatever I am, I must be a terror to behold – but I’m free.
Others visit a dark mountain range where neon squiggles swirl through the air and collect in great columns like lightning blasting up into the sky, plains dotted with ruined stone buildings and crossed with vast roads which look like elevated highways but have rocky outcroppings growing through them and are definitely not highways, a barren blood-red world of glistening rock and jagged stones almost like hairs beneath aurora, and a landscape with a strange futuristic industrial(?) installation beneath a vast yellow crystal. In some we have some sort of jetpack and can boost on high, in others we’re just a regular person.
These places are big. Very big. I’ve sprinted for many minutes in a straight line and not reached the end of any. They may be infinite. You’ll see the same objects repeated, old parts in new arrangements or new places, but that’s fine. The hypersaturated colours blowing out detail combined with the scale make them dream spaces which give me that feeling of being in those movie credits panning over a scale model. And the music is key to this.
Primarily retro-sounding synth with occasional tinklings of piano and bashing of drums, it’s always a little alien and often melancholy, music for the experience of one person. It’s a huge part of the moods I feel in these places, and of the journey. Even if I’m passing through a long barren stretch, the music creates a rich texture.
These walks are unguided. Pick a direction to head in or a distant landmark to investigate, and off you go. Cresting a hill might reveal a distant glimmer, a new goal, which you eventually discover is an irregular rockpube arcing with electricity, or a glowing stone circle, or something which triggers a change in the music, or… I don’t know. I do not know the inner workings of these Zones, and I don’t want to.
I’ve been enjoying Sherlock’s work for years and it’s exciting to see him still try new things. Days and nights and suns and stars and boiling clouds rolling through the sky lead to dramatic moments in parts of Zones, dawn breaking behind a skyline of neon crystal spires or darkness falling when I’ve somehow found myself deep down a chasm.
“It’s not really a place,” Twin Peaks fan-favourite character James Hurley once growled about where he rides his cool hog to, “its a feeling.” The same with me and Zones.
Sometimes, at night, I find myself back in these places.
Alice L: QUBE 2 is the Portal 3 we never had (yet, I’m still holding out hope for a Portal 3). It brings you mind-bending puzzles in a sci-fi environment full of different rooms filled with new challenges.
Your name is Millie Cross, you find yourself stranded on a vast, open, alien planet and the last contact you have with earth is a phone call from your husband and dog. You make your way through a sandy storm and you black out. When you wake you find yourself waking up in a building filled with cubes. Now, I know you’re probably thinking this doesn’t sound much like Portal, but this is only the beginning. Once Millie gets her bearings inside the building she is met by the voice of Emma Sutcliffe, who tells you to remain calm. You’re apparently suffering from cryogenic induced amnesia, she thinks you were tasked with destroying “the Cube,” (see, more cubes) and you’re in a suit that will give you the ability to manipulate your surroundings (which are specific white squares… or 2D cubes). Your task is to reach a human distress signal in this weird, blocky, stark, environment.
I dunno why I don’t trust Emma, but I have a sneaky suspicion it’s because of a certain Bristolian personality core from Portal 2. She helps guide you through the strange planet which means using some special gloves to get to your end goal. The gloves let you create different coloured squares – green generates a cube, orange a platform, and blue makes you bounce. Your job is to get through each progressively more difficult chamber by smashing through doors and pressing buttons, using oil, fire, magnets, fans, massive ball bearings, and your roster of different coloured cubes. It’s not a gun, and it’s not all physics based, but the same ideas behind Portal are present.
It’s the restrictions on your abilities that make it so challenging – and satisfying – to work out the solutions. You can only have one cube of one colour at one time, and you can’t change the colour of squares beneath cubes already in position. That means you need to twist your brain into cube-shapes to work out the order and timings of puzzle solutions. When there is an element introduced that feels more powerful, such as the magnets, these only serve to make it feel like you’re breaking the system in some way by discovering methods the designers never intended. You’re not – these are the only available solutions to the puzzles – but it still feels fantastic.
I just adore puzzle games, and figuring out a particularly tricky room in QUBE 2 gives me a sense of joy that I struggle to replicate in real life.
Also, it reminded me of Portal. A lot. Did that come across?