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Our PC Games of the Year 2019

A good year for games

Featured post

Hypnospace Outlaw

Katharine: I remember when the internet looked like Hypnospace. It might be hard to fathom now if you’re a young’un who’s grown up with social media feeds throbbing through your veins, but yes, web directories like the game’s Teentopia Paradise and Goodtime Valley were indeed a thing that happened. It was how I navigated the early internet, before Google made it all so easy/terrible by accidentally birthing the ongoing general plague and specific bane of my life known as ‘search engine optimisation’. There’s a large part of me that wishes it was still like this. Just, you know, without the mind control headbands that may or may not fry your brain while you sleep.

As a museum piece alone, Hypnospace Outlaw is pitch perfect. It captures that feeling of discovering the early internet with expert precision, and rooting around its brilliantly observed user pages for naughty misdemeanours like copyright infringement, file sharing and horrible viruses was like stepping back in time. There’s such depth and personality to be found in these pages that you can almost believe this community of weirdos exists in real life, and I found myself becoming increasingly invested in the lives and emerging relationships of these imaginary internet people as the game went on.

Their lives unfold so organically, too. Her Story may have popularised the central hook of searching a database to figure out the plot, but I’d argue that Hypnospace takes it one step further, if only because there’s so much more to see and investigate than what’s required to finish the main story. By giving you free rein to browse its ever-growing sprawl of internet niches, you end up discovering some surprisingly heartfelt (and at times tragic) stories rumbling along in the background, and piecing these fragments together and seeing them evolve over time is one of Hypnospace Outlaw’s greatest triumphs. Indeed, I have never seen such fervour to protect and uphold the freedoms of a goldfish detective mascot in my life, nor did I expect to feel such anguish at the loss of a past-it ‘Coolpunk’ musician.

The way Hypnospace’s online denizens react to your own actions is another touch of genius. It’s one thing to see rivalries and relationships form between the people you’re investigating, but it’s another thing altogether to see them turn against you, the player, as you go about building your case files. It reinforces the idea that you, too, are having a tangible impact on this weird and wonderful online frontier, even though you don’t have a page to call your own.

Dave: I should preface my adoration for Hypnospace Outlaw by saying that I hated playing it at EGX. Playing such a heavily involved game, with such a specific interface, is not suited to an environment where a queue of people are staring daggers at your back because you’re “taking too long” to solve the puzzle.

When I played it in the relative quietness of my own home, this detective game set entirely within the strange Geocities websites of the late 90s and early 2000s, I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more. Stepping into the role as a Hypnospace Admin only clicked once I was able to play at my own pace. It can get obtuse at times, particularly the part that parodies the website navigation of Neopets, but at least Professor Helper is there to help. He’s always there to help.

It helps that I was one of those early nerds who tried to make a fan site in Geocities – it was based on Dragon Quest – so I, like Katharine, saw a lot of familiar things here. Sites full of cyber-bullying, pages dedicated entirely to insignificant fictional characters, and even some playing that same audio loop of Crawling by Linkin’ Park. Then there were frames. Who remembers frames? God, they were a mistake. Exploring Hypnospace was like stepping into a time machine, and one which can only transport you to swamp of teenage angst and tributes to pointless idols. It’s great

Disclosure: Xalavier Nelson Jr. does some excellent freelance writing for us sometimes, and he also did some excellent writing on Hypnospace Outlaw.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Dave: FromSoftware have always done something in their games to surprise me. In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, that thing was this mad lad in Ashina Tower. He got a lot of us, in fairness. Sekiro is a game full of surprises, some that are terrifying and others that are empowering.

Combat is very precise, more so than perhaps any other FromSoft game, with parrying and managing posture – a gauge in combat that’s roughly analogous with the poise stat in Dark Souls – making all the difference between life and death. That said, if you do die, you can get back up – provided that you have enough charge to resuscitate yourself and have another go. Does it make the game easier? No, not by a long shot.

Sekiro is exquisitely crafted. It was even pleasure to write guides for it. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about it at all is the bit where you chase an invisible monkey across rooftops.

Video Matthew: Wait, Sekiro has invisible monkeys? Reader, a confession: despite voting for Sekiro, I have yet to complete it. I’m still stuck on that motherfucker in the tower. Everyone tells me that this is the make-or-break point in Sekiro, the moment where you prove your grasp of the fundamentals and, in doing so, that you have the skills to comfortably face whatever is to come. Which, I’m now told, is an invisible monkey. This is not how I expected this story to go.

It’s an ignoble way to end (temporarily, I hope) my Sekiro journey, which is otherwise my favourite FromSoftware game to date. The ninja fantasy is more compelling than the corpse knight fantasy or the Whatever The Hell Is Going On With The Guy In The Coat In Bloodborne fantasy. And that dash of Tenchu DNA – in the grappling ropes and stealth kills – makes linking my way from boss to boss that bit more varied and exciting.

Hilariously, I’ve got a popular Sekiro tips video on YouTube, despite it ending at the precise point I’ve not yet been able to beat. That I managed to spend a very happy 30 hours in these opening areas – another fantastic FromSoft network of surprise shortcuts and interlinking cleverness – speaks to the pull of this world and its combat. Far from the sluggish stamina dance of earlier games, Sekiro asks you to push forwards and break an enemy’s spirit. Too many games pander to my timidity, and it’s refreshing to be coaxed out of my shell. Well, halfway out of my shell. Come on, don’t judge: there are invisible monkeys out there.

Oxygen Not Included

Ollie: Stinky is a dupe, one of Oxygen Not Included’s cute and almost entirely expendable worker drones. And he has a death wish. From the moment the Printing Pod schloops him out into our lonely asteroid, he takes one look at his drab, algae-covered surroundings; at his mindless clone comrades running to and fro, stuck in their daily subterranean grind; at the frankly bewildering arrays of leaky toilet-water pipes and chunky gas pipes pumping stale, recycled oxygen throughout his new home. And he decides the most sensible thing to do is to do himself in, as quickly and efficiently as he can.

Which I suppose is a fairly appropriate response. But it makes my job extremely difficult. Because it means that while I’m busy trying to play Oxygen Not Included, Stinky is playing Untitled Goose Game. Or some macabre twist on it, where the goose’s eventual aim is to take its own life, and wants to cause as much irritation and disruption as possible on the way out.

It’ll go like this. I’ll load up the game, pan around viewing the state of my dear and dedicated dupes, assign a few new tasks, and unpause the game. As the cycles pass, I’ll watch my workforce toil away tirelessly: let’s say they’re creating a new coal generator array, in the dark and dangerous ice biome below our base. After a while, satisfied with progress, I’ll pan upwards to check on the habitation levels, only to find Stinky standing at the very bottom of our clean water reservoir, seconds from drowning and looking extremely happy with himself. I’ll set the base to red alert and order a ladder to be built, but it will, of course, be too late. Stinky will keel over, eyes crossed, his mission accomplished.

I will sigh and reload, like a weary skynet hitting the time travel button once again. This time, I will avert Stinky’s drowning. Within a few cycles, however, Stinky will have pissed in that very same water reservoir (despite the toilets being right fucking there next to him), and gotten his head stuck in the ceiling. His body will jerk and his limbs flail like a demented puppet, as he asphyxiates inside the roof. Red Alert! Someone dig out that block! But it will, once again, be too late. Stinky will always be one step ahead of me. He’s smart. He’s resourceful. And he’ll always find a way to die.

Gas!

Nate: Hi, my name is Nate, and today I would like to talk to you about gas, if you’re not too busy. Please may I come in? Thank you.

I learned loads about gas at school. Mostly from smashing back dozens upon dozens of hard-boiled eggs, then wrenching out non-stop, face-purpling arsebarks in the grim confines of the changing rooms. Only joking! I was actually very fragrant at school, and only did a guff for the very first time when it became legal to do so at the age of 21.

No, silly billy. I’m talking about chemistry, of course, where I learned that there are three big laws governing the behaviour of gases – Boyle’s law, Charles’ law and… the other one. That’s the problem, you see. I spent most of my chemistry lessons chatting with my mates Chris and Greg, and surreptitiously drawing images of our teacher’s head on the body of an enormous brute with a minigun instead of an arm. We did whole comic strips about him, which I seem to remember culminated in him hurling the entire universe at his son (whom he had constructed from pure potassium), in rage over the fact his creation wanted to live a peaceful life.

There was one amazing time where we didn’t realise he was standing right behind us as we drew, until he asked us – perfectly affably – what we were doing. Deciding honesty was the best policy, we went ahead and explained the whole plot to him. “Well, sir, that’s your enemy – a giant bear with army medals – and as you can see, you’re assaulting him using the planet Saturn as a weapon.” In a move that gained our unending respect, he responded with a mild, carefree laugh, and told us that if we didn’t get on with the work that had been set, he would throw us into the sun.

So yeah, I remember that, but not really the gas stuff – like eighty percent of my chemistry knowledge, it was crammed into my head during a sleepless week in order to pass my A-levels, and then fell out of my head again immediately afterwards. I think it was something about pressure and temperature and volume and that? Anyway, once I’d left school and it became clear I wasn’t going to end up working in the sciences, I didn’t feel too bad about having forgotten it all. I mean, really, the laws governing the behaviour of gases weren’t really going to come up much in non-gas-related professional life, were they? And certainly not during leisure time, unless I developed some really exotic hobbies.

In 2017, however, it seemed I was about to be proved wrong. Space colony simulator Oxygen Not Included had just arrived in early access, and what was it about? Non. Stop. Gas. Carbon dioxide, chlorine, steam, hydrogen, methane: gas for days, mate. It even included oxygen, despite the assurances of its title. The game modelled everything about them, including – to my horror – their pressure, their temperature and their volume. Looks like my youthful hubris had finally come back to bite me on the arse, and I was going to suffer for my lack of gas knowledge at last.

Luckily, like any good Christmas tale (gaseous or otherwise), this story has a happy ending. Because it turns out that while Oxygen Not Included boasts an extremely deep, internally consistent simulation of materials, it’s one that runs almost entirely at odds with the real behaviour of these substances. I would not, it turns out, have to know my Boyles from my Charleses to be able to build a functioning asteroid settlement after all.

Nevertheless, I would have to learn an entire new set of physical laws, invented by a Canadian game development studio, and which could never prove usable outside the context of playing Oxygen Not Included. There is a certain irony, then, to my dismissal of A-level gas knowledge as something I would never need, given that I would end up putting more work into learning and memorising an entirely pretend version of the same thing, which was somehow even more useless. Video games!

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