Alice Bee: Wiltmot’s Warehouse really is a belter. I was enchanted the moment I saw the trailer (which, disclosure, is voiced by Pip, late of this RPS parish).
In Wilmot’s Warehouse you, Wilmot, a happy little cube, zoom around to sort and store items, and delivering them to… customers? Other workers? Who knows. They want your stuff.
How you organise your inventory is entirely up to you. Sunsets in one corner, card suits in another. A whole stack of wheels. I had Food taking up about a third, with subcategories of Food, Sliced and Food, Nuts. I kept stuff to do with politics and law enforcement in the bottom right. Ho ho.
I’ve said before that playing Wilmot’s Warehouse made me think of Lyra reading the Alethiometer in His Dark Materials. I drift out of direct contact with my mind, so I can recall all the meanings I have given the blocks, and where I have put them. You can see all the different meanings each block could have, touching each other in a big ladder, all the way down.
The thing is, though, that while all the items you receive are very often to interpretation (what I saw very clearly as a dog tag Brendan thought was an aeroplane window??) they do actually have correctinterpretations. I spoke to the Richard’s Haggett and Hogg at EGX this year, and Hogg (who created all the little blocks in the game) is a walking encyclopaedia of their meanings. When he started listing off, one by one, what they actually are, I felt destabilised – on the verge of an existential crisis, almost.
Dave: I knew that Wilmot’s Warehouse was going to be a big deal as soon as I saw Graham playing a preview build for well over an hour. He has great taste.
It’s deceptively simple to get into, but getting into a rhythm that actually works can be very difficult. Do you sort by theme? Maybe background colours are the way to go? Stock Takes are welcome breathers where you can change your mind and rearrange at your own pace, but when new deliveries come in, and you have to fulfil orders, it’s a frantic dash, and you assign space for new stock via very tenuous connections.
Everyone has their own way of sorting stuff, and it’s fascinating to hear how others do it. My partner has played loads of Wilmot’s Warehouse, because she loves micromanagement games, so it is very much her jam. I thought I knew how her brain works pretty well, but as I watched her sort, in a way that undoubtedly made sense to her, I couldn’t see any system in place at all.
Ollie: Yeah, it’s a great game, yada yada. I’ve got something else to talk about. Something desperately important. Do you pronounce Wilmot as “Wilmott” (hard “T”), or “Wilmoe”, like Moe’s Tavern? My brother and I have been debating this for months, with no end in sight. Please put an end to it, one way or another. I don’t care anymore. Just let it end. [Ollie it is pronounced out loud in the first line of the trailer, this is no debate at all. – ed]
Alice Bee: I first played Ape Out at Gamescom last year, and, as it if were a puppy in a grim pet shop in a shopping centre complex, I was sad I couldn’t take it home then and there. When I saw it again at PAX South, I hung around the booth for almost an hour, exhorting other attendees to pick up the controller to have a go. So, disclosure: I accidentally did some unpaid PR-ing for Ape Out.
In Ape Out, you are an ape, and you have broken out. You rampage through a military base, a science facility, an office block (which for some reason has stored a furious gorilla on the top floor). And, to the frenetic crashes of a procedural jazz drumming track created by Matt Boch, you get… even more out.
Crash from one side of the screen to the other to escape. Splash men across the walls and floor. Evade their rockets and their machine guns. The controls are move, grab and shove – shove with your meaty, shovel-sized hands. It is a riot of colour and music, and also just a regular riot.
The simplest and best endorsement I can give Ape out is that I have never before played a game that so completely achieves everything it sets out to do.
Dave: Like a lot of the games I’ve loved this year, this is one I first saw courtesy of another member of the RPS treehouse. I watched Alice Bee shove a fella with a gun out of a window, and I knew I had to play it for myself.
But the game is so much more than drums and impromptu rage. It’s also intense in a way few games manage to be with any consistency. One wrongly timed shove is all it takes for an enemy to finally take you down. While your gorilla can take a few shots from most guns, they’re not invincible, and will soon be painting the floor with blood – the bigger the orange juice coloured trail is, the closer to death you are.
When you do eventually succumb to the gunfire, the camera zooms out to show you the progress you made in that level. It encourages that “one more turn” mentality that seasoned Civilization players know all too well.
The RPS video team played Ape Out early in the year and it’s still one of my favourite videos they’ve ever done. The absolute carnage, supplemented by the angry drum solos and with Matthew Castle pleading for a guy with a shotgun to “Get through that window, you dirty boy”. Perfection, surely?
Alice Bee: Disco Elysium is an incredibly detailed RPG made by a group of the proverbial starving artists, and it probably shouldn’t exist, but by an incredible effort it does. You play a late middle aged alcoholic cop – you know the type. He was a good detective once, but his life is in ruins around him. Except, when you take control of him, he’s partied so hardy that he can’t remember who or what he is, or even where he is. The task is twofold: put yourself back together, and also find out who done a horrible murder.
Disco Elysium’s skill system is a complex one, where each ability is represented by an aspect of yourself. Imagine it as all the little internal voices you have, and putting skill points into them determines how loudly they can shout. Occasionally they can override what you actually want to do. The classic example is Electrochemisty, which likes fags and booze and drugs, and can make you take them if you give it too much sway.
I played as a high intelligence cop, who could use Visual Calculus to reconstruct crime scenes, and noticed small details. He hoovered up information and spat it back out at sometimes inconvenient times using the Encyclopaedia skill. But he had little emotional intelligence – his lack of Empathy meant that he could tell if someone was lying but not why they might be, unless he could cross check facts to find a logical reason. He stalked the poverty-wracked streets of Revachol with a plastic bag, so he could collect bottles and sell them and hopefully earn enough for room and board.
(I imagine he was very lonely, so I worked extra hard at making friends with Lt. Kitsuragi, the partner assigned to help you on the case.)
Because of this skill system, you end up being what you think is important, in a way that no other RPG really achieves. It has a real effect on how and why you have conversations. But, at the same time, your character does have a defined past. He has a name, and he has a story, that brought him to this point of a complete and total breakdown. He is intensely masculine, and intensely middle aged, and that is perhaps why I didn’t relate to him like our Alec did.
It is destined to be one of those games – the ones with 20 thousand word essays written about them on subreddits, the ones that are part of the PC canon, the 25 games you must play if you’re a real PC gamer. It’s an extraordinary achievement, really.
Astrid: As a self-aware Communist, Disco Elysium makes me feel simultaneously mocked and emboldened. I’ve never played an RPG where I’m able to comment on every instance of worker oppression or societal injustice in the same way that I do in real life. Equally, I’ve never played an RPG where these words were then called out for what they often regrettably are in the first world of the 21st century: empty.
Throughout your investigation, you encounter ruins left behind when the Communards of Revachol were slaughtered, and the remnants of those who still carry the ideology, and if you explore them enough you can internalise it all and decide to become the (self-described) Last Communist. The world has truly gone to the dogs in Disco Elysium, though, and rarely do you feel hope as the Last Communist. But at the very least, the Communists in the world of Disco Elysium had an absolutely banging logo, with an inverted star that represented the toppling of the old order, and antlers as a natural crown. It’s cool as hell.
Video Matthew: Not enough credit is given to Disco Elysium as a detective game. The crimes that set events in motion won’t necessarily wow genre fans, but the underpinning RPG gubbins provide a surprisingly sturdy skeleton for a procedural. The cycle of beefing up your character to return to (and pass) failed skilled checks gives each location more layers than an onion, peeling back vague assumptions as you get ever closer to the truth of the matter. A bedroom can be a bedroom the first time you visit, a crime scene the second time and a very different crime scene the third or fourth, all based on the wits of the detective who walks through the door.
I’m also dazzled at how the game’s side quests, an initially daunting web of baffling asides and nuisance detours, gradually coalese into the central mystery. A journey into a haunted basement becomes a vital step in maintaining crime scene integrity. A mysterious blue door reveals a dramatic new perspective on well-trodden ground. Two aging soldiers argue over a game of boules, and maybe identify a murder weapon in the process. Everything exists on its own terms, painting a vast, detailed portrait of the city of Martinaise, but it all comes back to the body in the tree. In this town of a thousand stories, everyone has blood on their hands.
Astrid: Control is like if SCP (a community-driven fictional archive of anomalous entities) and Twin Peaks (a David Lynch-directed television show about a strange and supernatural town) had an incredibly weird and wonderful baby. You’re Jesse Faden, victim of the unusual Federal Bureau of Control’s obscure meddling, and now its new Director. Your mission is to eradicate a sinister and existential force called The Hiss from the walls of the Bureau’s headquarters, an ever-shifting, dimension-bending building called The Oldest House.
The FBC is an organisation with tenuous ties to the Government which is dedicated entirely to identifying and containing Altered World Events (AWEs) and Objects Of Power, all paranormal in nature. Control’s world seems to operate on the logic that everything analytical psychologist Carl Jung said about the collective unconscious, para-psychic phenomena, and synchronicity is literally correct, and the way the game plays out is as bizarre as you’d expect of such a concept. You don’t need to dive into the deep end in order to enjoy Control, but the option for you to do so is welcome.
That’s what I’m doing, in fact. As well as thinking about hypnagogic film-making and colour theory, I’m also reading Jung’s works, taking that research into my experience with the game, and using it to pull on any pretentious threads left dangling about the Brutalist halls of The Oldest House by Remedy Entertainment.
Alice0: It’s nice, this. A big silly sci-fi story with fun superpowers, some lovely characters, and delightful live-action video bits. It’s not a great shooter and the game goes to hell with every rubbo boss battle, and especially when there’s a lengthy run between the boss and the checkpoint, but that’s not why I’m here anyway. I have come for spooky spectacle, neat-o architecture, flying, and Dr Darling’s educational videos, and Control has provided.
Katharine: Control also has the best ray tracing of any game so far. More like this, please, developers!
Alice L: I think my favourite bit about it is the cinematography and typography, which I love in Control like in no other game. I enjoy the stuff you actually do too, of course – the shape shifting gun, the weird shit going on in the Bureau and why it exists, and I’m looking forward to actually getting to the bottom of it all. Remedy have just released a big free update that adds more stuff to the game, so I look forward to finishing Control it by the end of 2021, probably.
Alice Bee: We seem to have zeroed in on different things. I, like Alice0, really loved the little video lectures on different objects, delivered by the terminally affable Dr. Darling. In fact, I really enjoyed all the, ahem, environmental storytelling. As years have gone by, it’s started to get annoying finding the pages of a diary scattered, in the wrong order, around a spaceship or a haunted house or whatever. It usually crosses from ‘show, don’t tell’ into ‘I am directly telling you.’
But in Control there’s a weird mix of things. You can find episodes of a grim and terrifying children’s puppet show playing on CRT TV screens, and you don’t find out why they exist until near the end of the game. You can find emails about a book club, just the incidental jibber jabber of office workers, still just regular deskies even if they work for a secret paranormal bureau.
Other files tell you about Objects Of Power that you don’t interact with or find. Some documents have large parts heavily redacted. They’re not essential to understanding the bureau, but they’re there if you want to find them and look. And they make sense! Security documents are in the security area. Lost letters are kept with lost letters. Not a diary amongst them. And almost everything in Control is as carefully thought out. You have to give it to ’em.
Nate: Planet Zoo is a lot of things. It’s a surprisingly challenging management game, if you want it to be. It’s even a darkly comprehensive lesson in the function of free markets, should you venture into the harrowing depths of the player-driven economy, and its legions of enfeebled, disease-ridden warthogs.
But that’s by no means necessary. If sprawling yards full of rutting, brittle hogs are not your thing, or even if you want to free yourself from the shackles of commerce entirely, you can do as Alice does and play in the post-scarcity utopia of sandbox mode. At this point, it becomes a sort of highly sophisticated, maximalist take on tamagotchi.
But you don’t have to stop there. In a sort of reversal of God’s decision to bin Eden, you can release your animals from the tyrannies of hunger, of disease, and even of mortality itself, absolving you from all responsibility and leaving you free just to stare at Frontier’s jaw-dropping simulated brutes.
The one thing you can’t release the animals from, is the zoo. Well, you can – in fact, the game makes a big point of rewarding the release of captive-bred animals into the wild. But if you released them all, you wouldn’t have any animals left. And even though I can already hear the heated tapping of keys down in the catacombs of the comment section, as people race to thunder the word “Good” in stern condemnation of the concept of zoos, I think it’s fair to say that if you are going to play a zoo simulation, there’s not a lot of point in, y’know, not housing any actual animals.
Or is there? Maybe Planet Zoo can be a game for zoo abolitionists, now I think about it. In my review, I mentioned that I spent hours and hours playing without any animals at all, lost in the simple joy of building hills, gardens, lakes and caves, and an endless array of structures. For all it can be painstaking, I’ve never encountered a landscaping and construction system as granular or satisfying as PZ’s, and it achieves all this without a panda in site. So yeah, it’s almost feasible for me to sell it to you as a sort of abstract… park design game? I just like my parks best with crocodiles in.
Finally, Planet Zoo is also a mystery game. Because even now, I lose minutes every week contemplating the mysterious “Chief Beef”, the shadowy figure after whom the game universe’s (apparently police-themed) burger franchise is named. Who is the Chief? What laws does he uphold? And what is his business in the world of public zoological collections? Chief Beef troubles me. I must study him further; a reckoning is due.
Alice L: Plaaaaaaa-neeeeeeet Zoo Zoo Zoo,
Push pineapple, shake the tree,
Planet Zoo Zoo Zoo,
Why are all my red pandas inbreeding?
I might not be a very good lyricist, but joke’s on you cos I’m also very bad at stopping my animals from inbreeding, or from fighting because there’s a gender imbalance. I just, I don’t want to give any up, you know? I love them all. They’re all so cute. Who cares how many lads there are in one enclosure? Why can’t my Thompson’s Gazelles just get over it and let me have one massive paradise? STOP FIGHTING.
The way I play Planet Zoo is, I focus on the building side of things more than animal bit of running a zoo. Sandbox is my best friend, and once I’ve got my animals to maximum happiness in their enclosure, I move onto the next thing, be that a viewing area at the top of a very, very steep hill, or trying to make my entrance look as welcoming as possible. I really love making my animal’s enclosures look pretty too, and I get really annoyed when they don’t want any plants. I like plants. You shall have plants.