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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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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Florence and Narrative Through Gameplay

When video games began gaining traction as an entertainment medium in the 80’s, most games kept their lore and story relegated to the manual distributed with the game. Games just didn’t have the capacity to tell stories any other way than through text, and more importantly, through the gameplay itself. Nowadays, the devices we use allow us to create experiences of all different kinds, but storytelling hasn’t seemed to evolve to fully utilize the potential of games.

Games like Bioshock and Horizon incentivize exploration with audio logs that flesh out the lore of the world, while games like Telltale’s series of licensed choose-your-own adventure games have let players directly influence the narrative to feel more connected. Though these approaches do a great job at making the player feel engaged, and they certainly involve the player more than other forms of entertainment, it doesn’t feel like these games are getting the most out of the interactivity of the medium. There’s a clear disconnect at times between the gameplay and story, such as the hordes of gunned-down soldiers contrasted with the charismatic protagonist in Uncharted or the godlike strength displayed by Kratos in God of War that is relegated to quick-time events. We’ve seen some exceptions, like last year’s brilliant Nier: Automata and its interesting uses of gaming tropes like replayability, character customization, and UI, or the cult classic Shadow of the Colossus and its subversion of the hero and open-world standards, but the list is surprisingly small.

A few days ago, I played a game called Florence that changed my opinion on that. It’s a short game by the creator of Monument Valley, a popular mobile puzzle game, and it genuinely took me by surprise. Within the half an hour I spent with the game, I performed mundane tasks like rubbing the screen, adding numbers, and putting together simple puzzle pieces. But Ken Wong and the team at Mountains have made those minute activities much more than just an interaction. They are part of the experience, and they help connect the player to the story of the game more than I’ve really ever seen. So let’s talk about what makes Florence‘s story feel so personal beyond a typical love story, thanks to the interactive nature of games.

Warning: spoilers for Florence are contained in this piece. It’s a 30 minute game and it’s well worth the time to check it out.

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Persona 5 and Finding Accessibility in Complexity

I’ve always been intrigued by the worlds, characters, and stories that are brought to the table when it comes to Japanese role-playing games, or JPRGs, but the genre is often placed in tandem with turn-based combat, which I’ve very rarely been a fan of. I don’t really see the skill or appeal in battling mindlessly to raise your stats enough to beat the boss and proceed through the story. JRPGs like Kingdom Hearts and The World Ends With You have been among my favorite games ever, given that they have the narrative elements that interest me in the genre, but the combat is much more action-heavy and feels involved and skill-based. The one game series that has subverted everything I’ve said up to this point is Pokemon. I am very indifferent towards the stories of Pokemon games, but there’s something exciting, beyond the nostalgia and hype, about collecting a myriad of interesting creatures that evolve and have elemental strengths and weaknesses. Somehow, it took me until the fifth entry in the Persona series to find a game with a good story and engaging turn-based gameplay.

What I love most about Persona 5 is hard to pin down, but one thing I admire greatly is how well the game makes its complexity approachable. The game is roughly 100 hours, and there’s so much to do that it would be easy to consider it daunting in any other game. When you consider that it takes elements of dating sims, Stardew Valley, Pokemon, and many other titles and mashes them together, it’s understandable that so many are taken aback. However, I think Persona 5 is a fantastic place to jump into both the Persona series and JRPGs as a whole, if you have the time to spare.

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2017 In Review: The Best Bits of Game Design I Played

It feels like every year for the last few years, it’s been fairly easy to say, “This has been the best year in games!” With a market that’s filled to the brim with releases weekly, it’s no wonder that we see more great games coming out now than a decade or so ago. Amidst a sea of microtransactions, lootboxes, and games as services, developers have been crafting truly remarkable and innovative experiences, and it’s a great asset to look at these creative bits of design and learn from them. This isn’t a list of my favorite games of the year – that will be coming towards the end of December – but all of these games are ones I would wholeheartedly recommend.

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Designing a Good Open World

Slight spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild ahead. Please play through most of the game before reading. You will regret not playing the game whether you read this or not.

If you have been even remotely in tune with games media in the last month, you probably have seen a multitude of headlines regarding Nintendo’s latest entry in the acclaimed The Legend of Zelda series. Somehow, this series has become even more acclaimed with the latest entry, garnering the most perfect scores ever for a game on Metacritic and sitting comfortably at an average score of 97. The game features the same charm and adventure that have become attributable to the success of the series, but this game turns every staple of the series on its head while still revitalizing that feeling of wonder and excitement that made the original game on the NES so popular. However, when you look at it from the outside, Nintendo is simply years behind the industry in seeing that open-world games have value to them. So why is this game a critical success? No, it isn’t because the reviewers were paid. Zelda games clearly get a bit of a pass if we look at the scores for Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, but that’s a debate for a different day. Let’s talk about how Nintendo watched from the sidelines for years, tested the waters, and then stuck the landing on their first real open-world game, as well as why Breath of the Wild‘s Hyrule is the best open world that gaming has probably ever seen.

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