Video Matthew: Leaving the Moscow Metro should mean leaving behind everything that makes Metro Metro. Claustrophobia. Delays expected due to Nazis on the track. Oxygen-starved sorties above ground (outside of Moscow the open air is mostly fresh). What impresses me most about 4A’s latest, then, is the way it delivers everything I want from the great outdoors – namely choice of approach and a sense of discovery – but finds constant opportunities to plunge you back into the darkness.
The marshlands of the Volga river give you the freedom to explore its scattered islets, but in amongst the dilapidated shacks you’ll find yourself stalked through a church by a cult of fish-worshipping zealots, or creeping past mutants as the same cult’s damp deity churns the waters below. Sometimes it’s something as simple as falling into a spiderbug nest, or noseying inside a radioactive bunker, that sets your geiger counter a-clicking and transports you back to those earlier games.
And around all this, I love what a mechanical shooter it is. You’ve the returning hand-pumped delight of Artyom’s pneumatic rifle, but also a new backpack jangling with parts that reshape handguns into sniper rifles or doll up shotguns with 20-round clips. There’s something deliciously crude in the cause-and-effect of cranking air to push a ball bearing into a skull with a deadening (and endeadening) thunk. Or the crack of a sniper rifle that is so damn loud that shots I took back in February, like many of my experiences with Metro Exodus, are still reverberating now.
Astrid: Rather than waxing lyrical about every good thing about Metro Exodus, or lamenting the fact that its only recurring female characters are relegated to the roles of your girlfriend who acts as both a Strong Independent Woman™ and a damsel in distress, and a defenceless mother and child, I’m instead going to talk about the train.
The Aurora is an ancient steam locomotive that you commandeer from Hansa soldiers. It acts as your base of operations and main mode of transport in the quest to find civilisation outside of the Moscow Metro. As you progress further into the Russian wilderness, through frosty swamps and the scorched sand craters that were once the Caspian Sea, the Aurora gains more carriages, better upgrades, and new people who come to call it home. In a lot of ways, I think, it resembles the star cruiser venturing across the galaxy, a bit like the Normandy in Mass Effect.
This beaten-up behemoth of steel and soot is a constant throughout Metro Exodus. It becomes familiar, warm, and safe. Much like with the Normandy, you leave its confines to explore vast landscapes, almost alien in how they contrast against each other. Metro Exodus’s three open-world regions: The Volga, Caspian Sea, and The Valley, each feel like they exist on entirely different planets with all their differences in culture and appearance.
But you always come back to the Aurora. Between stops, you spend your time upon it maintaining your gear, smoking makeshift cigarettes, talking with the other inhabitants of the train who have become your rag-tag family. There’s something really warming about the whole thing. It’s also all a hell of a lot more palatable because the survival aspects of Metro Exodus aren’t complete arse, so irrespective of all that pretentious train stuff, which is why it has won the Least Annoying Survival Systems award.
Dave: Who knew that a goose with vandalistic tendencies would be the best new character in 2019? From vegetable larceny to scaring timid children, the nefarious antics of this foul fowl have provided some great slapstick laughs. And all the while it honks and flaps at your command, it stares ahead, unblinking.
Untitled Goose Game takes you through the key areas of a sleepy village (allotment, high street, residential street and pub), and challenges you to check off a list of gentle yet criminal activities on a notepad. It’s a virtual to do list that makes Untitled Goose Game a very hard game to put down after the first honk. The comedy inherent in being a goose waddling off with a gardener’s hat, or hiding in a box to be smuggled into a pub, had me smiling from ear to ear throughout the few hours of play time. It also adds a refreshing twist to stealth in that being spotted doesn’t result in getting shot.
Many games can be experienced vicariously through a let’s play, but Untitled Goose Game is one of those rare occasions where to understand and embrace the horrible goose, you must first become the horrible goose.
Katharine: I would like to formally apologise to ‘Boy with Glasses’. You did not deserve the things this dreadful goose handler did to you in the days leading up to the Great Golden Bell Theft of September 20th. It is with deep regret that I untied your shoelaces, honking with glee as you tumbled to the ground, falling face first into a dirty puddle, and I am full of remorse for making off with your precious glasses, thereby forcing you to buy them back off the lady in the village shop. That was uncalled for.
Never again shall such terrors be wrought in the name of banging punchlines, because that, ‘Boy with Glasses’, would be a crime against your good self, and your innate wholesomeness and purity. The goose shall be disciplined accordingly, and I only hope that you can forgive these wanton trespasses against your person.
Astrid: There’s a moment in Untitled Goose Game which filled me with a sense of existential horror. In the High Street, one of your tasks is to appear on the TVs in the telly shop. You have to coax out the lady working there by trapping Boy with Glasses in a phone box (Katharine might be sorry, but I’m not) after which you slip in, flick a switch, and waddle in front of a camera that is now broadcasting to all of those televisions.
I sat there, staring at this goose, honking away into a camera lens, showing the whole world its beady eyes and nefarious beak. I sat there. Staring. Wondering. Is this all I am? Just some narcissistic goose, honking at people against their will through a screen, all in a desperate bid for attention? Some pompous bird with a vast collection of bells I know nought to do with? Is this my life now? Chilling.
Alice Bee: That meme about people chanting at the dentist, but “GOOSE!” instead of “TEETH!” I don’t want to undercut Astrid’s extremely specific moment of spine-tingling fear, but I think that the largest and nicest cultural impact the goose had this year was one of joy. Everyone played Untitled Goose Game and just indulged in play. All of us, at some point in the goose game, forgot about ‘winning’ the game and did something just because it was funny – because it was fun to hide and startle someone by honking, because the slappy feet and squat waddle delighted us.
It’s the sort of pure, giggling playfulness that children have when you get them a big expensive behemoth of a plastic race track, and they spend the whole day having fun with the box it came in. Yes, Untitled Goose Game does have objectives. It’s a stealth game where you are inconveniencing people. It says: please steal this apple.
But it also says: if you want to pull up all of the carrots in the garden and hide them in different places, you may do that too.
Alice Bee: Heaven’s Vault is supposedly an archaeological science fiction adventure game. You, the archaeologist Aliya, uncover the secrets of the ancient Empire that existed years ago, aided by a robot friend called Six. But really it is a language game, because the language of the Empire influences how Aliya understands it.
Languages are secret and amazing things. It’s wonderful to see the similarities and differences between European languages influenced by Latin, where you can trace common root meanings, and languages like Irish. Ireland was never successfully invaded by the Romans, so Irish has very different grammatical structure and vowel sounds to, e.g., English, which is why a lot of British news readers plump for “the Irish Prime Minister” rather than learning how to say Taoiseach properly.
But languages are also evolving, amazing puzzles (charted by people like Mark Forsyth). Imagine a non-native speaker having to figure out that the noise “iuno”, which can be hummed without even opening your mouth, means “I do not know.”
It’s logical, then, that a game that contains an entire fictional language to decipher, even become semi-fluent in, must be a delight. The ancient, partly pictorial language in Heaven’s Vault is only part of the mystery of its universe, but it is the key to understanding it – which makes it quite an important part. It’s intimately tied to the context and history of the culture that spoke it. So, because all the little cities and worlds are connected by rivers that flow through the sky, the world for river is, sort of, “water that is up”.
Stars are “things that give off light from up”. An eye is a “thing that receives light”. “But” is “not and”. And this is based on my interpretation of the meanings! Other people read and understand it slightly differently! Brendy and I both had physical note books where we wrote down our interpretations of words and meanings.
There is a plot – a mystery, involving the rivers, and the empire, and robot. But the language engrossed me for hours.
Katharine: I, too, got lost in the words and language of Heaven’s Vault this year. I didn’t make a physical notebook like Alice and Brendy, but the meanings and interpretations of this strange, mysterious dialect occupied my thoughts day and night. It’s one of the only games I’ve played this year where I’ve been actively thinking about it every moment I get. The kind of game you itch to get back to, sneaking in a quick bit before work, half an hour at lunch, before descending wholeheartedly into it for the rest of the evening.
It’s also probably the first game where I’ve wanted to start a New Game+ almost immediately. Normally I have to put a bit of distance between multiple playthroughs of games I really like, if only so I can half forget all the big spoilers and enjoy it afresh the next time I come to play it. But Heaven’s Vault doesn’t need that, because it’s already (sort of) built-in.
I thought, for instance, that with all the newfound knowledge I’d accrued by the end of what I thought was a pretty extensive playthrough I’d be able to breeze through the early parts of my New Game+, but no. The language in Heaven’s Vault evolves every time you play it, with sentences becoming more complex and more meaningful to give you even greater insight into its rich and wonderfully realised history. In fact, I recently found out that you can play it four times and still not see everything. That’s incredible, and considerably more generous than it has any right to be.
The mystery sitting at the heart of its ancient past is an immensely satisfying knot to unpick in its own right, too. As your understanding of certain words, objects and locations change and adapt to new information over time, you do end up feeling like a proper archaeologist by the end of it, peeling and brushing back the layers of a world that’s been meticulously crafted but whose ultimate aim and purpose is always just beyond your grasp.
There’s never a “wrong” answer in Heaven’s Vault. Sure, Aliya will sometimes revise her makeshift dictionary to include the “correct” interpretation of a word, but it’s all done in a very natural and organic way that never makes you feel like a fool for thinking otherwise. Instead, it put me in the same of detective boots as Return Of The Obra Dinn did last year. Rather than the game giving you a nudge or a wink or a stern raised eyebrow about which dots you should be connecting on your giant metaphorical cork board of mysteries to solve, it’s all down to what you, the player, make of it based on your own experiences of it. It gives you the space to draw your own conclusions about this curious set of planets you inhabit, and for me, that’s all I could ever really ask for.