My Favorite Design Ideas from My Favorite Games of 2020

It isn’t bold to say that this year sucked, but it’s equally as played out to say that video games have helped people get through things a little easier. In a year where some of the best games of the generation were released, I found my play habits changing. Games that I used to finish in days took me weeks or months, and far fewer games appealed to me enough to commit to them. Nights that used to be for continuing a single-player adventure were taken over by connecting with friends in multiplayer. I even fell in love with an open-world game; shocking, I know! But even as I grow older and the way I play shifts and reforms, I still can’t help but appreciate the decisions that go into making an experience come to fruition.

So as has become tradition, I want to discuss the pieces of design that stuck out to me in my favorite games of the year. 2020 brought a lot of the innovation from genre mixing. While there were three incredible examples of unconventional narrative structures, most of the list leaned heavily on tested ideas from new angles. While we often fixate on the groundbreaking design ideas, it’s the constant improvements and reinventions of these that push the field of game design forward. I talk about these not necessarily to sell you on them, but to allow myself to dig into why they stuck out in the first place.

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Paradise Killer and Nonlinear/Choice-Based Storytelling

I’ve spoken extensively about detective games on this blog, even going as far as to say Return of the Obra Dinn is the best detective game I’ve played. Since then, the idea of a hands-off approach to the genre has been expanded in games like Outer Wilds and Telling Lies. These games thrive when they trust the player enough to figure things out on their own, rather than the player being along for the ride. The fact that these highlights are also experimenting with nonlinear structures further expands the player freedom that fans of the genre are looking for.

Paradise Killer fits snuggly into those recent releases. The games give clear goals and are designed to get out of the player’s way, which allow their unique structures to work. However, Paradise Killer takes a step towards what I’d consider the next evolution in nonlinear and choice-based narratives by removing the fail state. The game stumbles a bit when it comes to the minute-to-minute exploration, but uncovering secrets at my own pace and letting the story play out how I believe it should shows a promising future for game narratives.

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Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Strength in Traversal

During my junior year, I took a course called Applied Ludology which required a semester-long research project into an aspect of game design that I wanted to dive deep into. What I ended up looking into over the course of four months was how unique movement options and a focus on traversal fit extremely well into the Metroidvania formula. I’m planning on eventually transcribing my three presentations to this blog in some form down the line, but I bring it up because there was a single game that was the perfect example that I’d always tie back to. Ori and the Blind Forest is one of my top Metroidvania games because its movement is satisfying and engaging in every moment of playing. The game isn’t just a showcase of animation, composing, and art direction; it gets to the core of Metroidvania design. With Ori and the Will of the Wisps, it’s clear that Moon Studios understood what made the original so enticing and capitalized upon it to yet again keep the entire Metroidvania experience cohesive.

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My Favorite Design Ideas from My Favorite Games of 2019

We’re back once again at the end of the year, and what a strange year it’s been for gaming. As a designer, I finally got the chance to put my skills on display with my production courses where I designed and programmed a VR yoyo combat adventure and a fighting game where the goal is to die instead of kill the enemy. However, that’s just a shameless plug because I’m proud of what I’ve made and what I’ve learned. In terms of the general gaming industry, though, the heavy hitters of the generation were all pushed back to the first half of 2020 and the next console generation is coming soon after. This left us with a year of great games, but no game that stood out as the clear Game of the Year like with God of War or Breath of the Wild.

While I personally didn’t play as many games as last year that blew me out of the water, I found this year to be extremely refreshing because of the innovative and risky ideas that developers presented to us. Last year, instead of just talking about my favorite games, I discussed my favorite design ideas behind them. This year, I’m continuing that trend to look deeper into why a game hit me so hard. These aren’t always going to be the most innovative or creative ideas, but they’re the aspects of each game that brought the entire experience together for me.

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Pokemon: Sword and Shield and Redefining the Player Experience

Like millions of other kids, I grew up with an obsession for Pokemon. It’s the largest media franchise out there, and it’s impossible to avoid on the playground, whether it’s a friend telling you about the anime or two kids showing of their holographics from the card game. My introduction was with a copy of Pokemon Gold that had a dead save battery, which meant I played up until the first gym of that game many times before my parents bought me Pokemon Silver. Besides generation 3, my entire life can be tracked by my interest in each generational entry in the franchise.

However, the tedium of Pokemon Sun and Moon in 2016 burned me and kept my interest in the newest entries, Pokemon Sword and Shield, fairly low. I used to scour the internet for every bit of information about the games, from the gym types to the differences between the games, but this time I largely ignored the buildup. I even told myself I was going to wait a few months to play the games. However, I purchased Pokemon Shield on a whim the night of release after my friends had said they were getting together to play it. What I was shocked to find, amidst the sea of online hate for the game’s cut roster and graphics, was a game that really hooked me from the get-go.

Throughout its history, Pokemon has really been about mastery. The games had players set lofty aspirations, asking them to catch every Pokemon in the region and become the champion. For all of its missteps (and there are many) the most interesting force behind Sword and Shield is its interest in shifting away from mastery into more of a focus on experimentation and player stories. Previous games in the series had players’ minds on the destination, but removing major frustrations through small quality of life improvements, the Wild Area, and Max Raids put the journey itself on full display.

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My Favorite Design Ideas from My Favorite Games of 2018

The year of 2018 felt strange for me as a gamer and a designer. This year was undeniably great in terms of the games that came out, but I for some reason felt like I was not as wowed by the games I anticipated as I thought I would be. However, when writing this list, I found that this year gave me tons to pick apart design-wise, as well as many games that gave experiences unlike anything I’d had before. I was blown away while playing some, actually thinking to myself about how much I loved the design.

Last year, I made two separate posts about my favorite aspects of design of that year, followed by my actual favorite games of the year. However, this year I wanted to unify things and dig deep into why I chose to put these games on my list. I’m definitely going to be overlooking some amazing ideas, but I feel like this list encompasses a lot about what I loved about 2018, so I’m sticking to it. I hope you give these games a try, and I hope you were able to appreciate the games you played this year as much as I did.

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Hades and Incentivizing Death

I’ve made it clear to everyone who knows me, but Supergiant Games are quite easily my favorite indie developers out there. Their games have consistently surprised and engaged me with their eye-catching visual direction, masterful and diverse soundtracks, intriguing stories, and exciting gameplay. Something I’ve written about before is my love of the company’s ability to meld their gameplay and narrative together to create experiences that really couldn’t be made in other mediums. This month, the studio released their latest offering, Hades, on early access, so I’ve been taking breaks from the new Smash Bros to get some runs in. I was worried that Supergiant’s fantastic storytelling was going to take a backseat this time around when I saw the game was a roguelike, but of course that was naive of me. Hades, even in its early stages, impresses as a roguelike that not only guides the player into that “just one more run” mentality, but also finds the rare treasure of making me slightly excited about dying.

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Return of the Obra Dinn: A Lesson on Detective Games and Hands-Off Design

A YouTube creator I often like to watch is Mark Brown, who posts extremely insightful and well-produced videos about game design, and last year he put out a video about what makes a good detective video game. As I went back to watch it to research for this piece, I laughed when at the end he mentioned the genius behind the very game I was looking to write about, before the game had even officially come out.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the newest game from Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope, and I felt a lot of similarities between the two games when I started it up. The low-res graphics gave off a muted and distinct flair, and the design behind the games felt like it was focused on analyzing people and circumstances to understand the bigger picture. My suspicions were true, and I began to gain a real sense that Obra Dinn was the best detective game I’d ever played, and possibly the best one out there.

The core principles that Mark Brown pinpoints as important to a detective game are that the game stays out of the player’s way so that they can understand the answers and also the questions that need to be asked. Return of the Obra Dinn is almost as hands-off in its design as possible and it places a lot of trust in its players, but the game never leaves them in the dark and ends up leaving the player feeling satisfied and intelligent.

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Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Hitman, and Episodic Releases

Four and a half years ago, I began writing about games through a series called “Why Story Matters” where I’d analyze the story or storytelling devices that a game used in an interesting way. One entry I wrote focused on the episodic release structure of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and how it made for a different type of game experience. However, as episodic releases have persisted with the late Telltale and even with other games, I think it’s important to reevaluate the episodic release structure and see in what areas it works and what areas it fails. So before reading further, make sure you look here for my 2014 post, and then come back and see how things have changed.

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Why Story Matters – The Walking Dead

In light of the recent Telltale layoffs, I have been thinking a lot about my history with this company. My third post ever for my little IGN-based WordPress blog, I decided to write a quick thing about the game I was really into at the time. Little did I know that this piece would end up being featured on the front page of IGN, and it was what really kept me going as a writer even 5 years later. However, IGN Blogs have been shut down, and I managed to recover this piece and subsequently see just how much I’ve evolved as a writer since those high school days. I really wanted to edit all of its little flaws, but instead I wrote a new piece quickly looking at episodic releases in the modern day that you can find here when you finish this one. So, in all of its unedited glory, is this very old piece.

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