Immortality (Half Mermaid)
Half Mermaid’s Immortality is a masterclass in narrative design, weaving game mechanics into a compelling story to elevate the strengths of video games as a narrative medium. At first blush, Immortality plays out in a smiliar way to many of the FMV games for which writer and director Sam Barlow is known. You as a player have come into possession of a collection of footage and are tasked with uncovering the core mystery at the center of it all. Immortality loops that premise within itself, burying mystery within mystery to tell five stories all at once and leave its players with a sense of dread and curiosity that lingers long after the footage rolls.
At the center of it all is one mystery: What happened to actress Marissa Marcel? Players seek to answer this question and the others surrounding it by using archived footage across three of Marcel’s unreleased films, capturing rehearsals, final scenes, and moments between cast and crew. New footage is uncovered by pausing playback and selecting an object of note like an actor’s face or a distinctive prop, causing the game to snap to another scene where the selection is present.
Every new search can jump to any place on the timeline or within one of the three key films, and every jump is paired with a mental pause as you work out where in the story you’ve just landed and if the scene you’ve stumbled upon is reality, fiction, or something in between.
Immortality hands you very little, leaving players the responsibility of coming to their own conclusions and discovering how all of the pieces of the puzzle come together. The game shines through moments in which you, as a player, start to notice small hints along the way that not all is as it seems; a change in fashion from movie to movie, a curious date on a film slate, or a barely-noticed vibration of the controller all slowly seed the idea that there’s more to the story lurking just beneath the surface. And once players start to see those cracks, the game itself truly transforms into an unique experience that makes the most of what both its mediums have to offer.
Read how writer and director Sam Barlow pulled off this exemplary immersive puzzle game our interview with him here.
-Alissa Macaloon, Publisher
Elden Ring (FromSoftware)
Opining about FromSoftware’s latest without retreading old ground is tough. When the game launched way back in February, you couldn’t move without bumping into someone ready to gush about the long-awaited RPG, and we suspect you’ll struggle to find a single end of year list that doesn’t feature the punishing, beautiful, often absurd title.
But there’s a very good reason for that. Elden Ring is as close to a masterpiece as you’ll ever find. It iterates on the tried-and-tested FromSoft formula while making it infinitely more accessible thanks to a sprawling open world that allows players to explore and battle at their own pace, giving them the time and space to hone their skills before confronting bosses and other foes on their own terms.
The landscape is a tantalizing treasure trove of secrets and vivid detail that implores players to stray from the beaten track and lose themselves in the feral wilds. The creatures are putrid, beautiful, ethereal, and everything else you could possible imagine, showcasing the full range of FromSoft’s design sensibilities. Combat shares more in common with ballet than brawling, teaching players to be deliberate and precise with their actions and approach while still allowing room for experimentation. Traversal is a joy thanks to a spectral steed that can defy gravity. Then there’s the dogs. Oh, how we miss beholding the dogs.
Ah, we’re gushing again. But what can we say about Elden Ring that hasn’t already been said? It’s an experience that became an industry moment, cutting through the genre divide to become (dare we say it) an instant all-timer.
-Chris Kerr, News Editor
Citizen Sleeper (Jump Over the Age)
In a year positively filthy with interesting, well-made narrative-driven adventure games (several of which are on this list, and will be on our personal lists), Citizen Sleeper stands out with its deeply humanist vision of cyberpunk and innovative, deceptively simple dice-rolling mechanics. The game presents itself plainly: you have a limited number of actions each day for your runaway-AI-in-a-robot-body seeking freedom on a down-and-out space station, and a die to roll for each of them. The visuals are crisp and attractive, yet pared down, and the game seems, on its face, to be a competent attempt at TTRPG-style storytelling for a single player.
Yet it offers so many compelling choices and branches (and even features a hacking interface useful for lower dice rolls) and interesting design ideas that it soars beyond “just” that. I found myself playing “one more cycle” again and again, putting just a little more progress into the branches that most intrigued me, looking for a few more details about this world and its characters, wanting another dice roll (or three) to get me closer to my objectives (“drives,” in the game’s parlance). I found myself thinking about it idly, the way great games (and well-told stories) often like to worm their way into my brain, and wondering, always, how those other branches go. I’ll probably be giving this one a few playthroughs in the new year.
-Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-chief
Roadwarden (Moral Anxiety Studio)
Roadwarden was one of the more gratifying gaming experiences of the year, taking the elements of a visual novel and combining them with fantasy RPG conventions to create a complex fantasy experience that varies wildly by playstyle. As the roadwarden, you are tasked (by a merchant’s guild) with tracking down your missing predecessor and finding out where, why and how they disappeared in the remote wilderness of a mysterious peninsula. From there, the game is something of a choose-your-own-adventure, one influenced by character stats and player decisions, with light elements of resource management and combat.
These offer not just additional solutions to puzzles or lines of dialogue but also differing observations as you travel from town to town, questioning locals, running errands, and fending off fantastical beasts and haunted shades that plague the surrounding lands. It also affects how you tell your story to others, the details with which you imbue your character, and how you come to define them on their journey.
The writer of Roadwarden, its solo developer Aureus Morale, has a talent for setting a scene. Most of the game’s action is chained together, screen by screen, like pages in a book, and the prose within is both lush and unhurried. Meanwhile, the complex differences between each individual playthrough are not an accident, but, rather, purposefully designed to support the player’s choices while enriching dialogue and adding variance to each experience. Blissfully, that variance also adds to the irresistible impulse to start the game over and see how it plays out from a different angle, tackling conversations and obstacles with a new perspective or other tools, making mistakes and seeing them through, or correcting those from a past file. Overall, the effect of Roadwarden is that of an interactive fantasy novel, one you’ll want to read over and over again.
-Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator
Neon White (Angel Matrix)
A puzzle parkour platformer evoking the style of Paradise Killer mixed with the high-speed rails of Sonic the Hedgehog, Neon White struck gold early in 2022. This game was notable not just for its vaporwave vibes but also its impressive ability to create an appeasing sense of flow despite the disruption inherent in its design. The story follows that of Neon White, a demon hunter from Hell tasked with eliminating celestial demon infestations for a chance at remaining in Heaven.
As White, players speed along an obstacle course in the sky, collecting single-use Soul Cards that grant temporary abilities, like an extra jump or a machine gun, to assist in completing the run. The challenge lies not only in completing the course quickly, but in figuring out how and when to use those cards to chain key actions together and keep the level going. A scoreboard, showing how fast your friends have finished a course, also offers a competitive incentive, softening the game’s baked-in repetition. And however hard the gameplay is, Neon White has a fine sense of incremental challenge, making even the least skilled players feel like an assassin-acrobat. Never has shaving fractions from a finish time been so much fun.
-Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator
Beacon Pines (Hiding Spot)
Beacon Pines feels like a timeless video game. We previously praised it for its great twist on the branching narrative format, but that’s not all the game excelled at.
The game’s storybook art direction is eye-catching and compelling—a semi-saccharine style that’s deftly subverted by witty writing and dense themes. This a game that does the most with almost entirely the least. It’s a game that builds on the successes of so many great narrative titles before it, then casts a spell that will hopefully inspire developers lucky enough to stumble on it.
-Bryant Francis, Senior Editor
Marvel Snap (Second Dinner)
Marvel Snap is the freshest mobile game we’ve seen in eons. The mechanics are fluid, the card design is thematic and yet easy-to-grasp, and you can feel the contributions of every team member from the animations up to the haptic feedback features.
The Second Dinner team managed to make a mobile collectible card game that shoots past the biggest players in the field. Even with PC compatibility, this game feels made for mobile in the same way Angry Birds did back in the early days of the App Store. The brutal competitiveness of the mobile market has made fewer and fewer of these games stand out every year. Marvel Snap does more than stand out—it reinvigorates the whole medium.
-Bryant Francis, Senior Editor
Half murder-mystery, half living Wikipedia article, Pentiment won our hearts this year by being a commanding tale of medieval intrigue blended with interesting experiments in expressive typography. In it, an artist in training called Andreas unravels the secrets of a monastery and the local village at its mercy, offering a light history of the customs and culture of 16th-century Europe as he investigates a brutal murder.
The charm of Pentiment lies in the complexity of its narrative system and the cleverness of its visual presentation. Each speech bubble of dialogue is represented by the hand-drawn text of a medieval manuscript, reflecting the protagonist’s profession at the monastery’s scriptorium and conveying key character traits, particularly about education and class, or rather, Andreas’ perception of them. A laborer, for example, has a casual everyday font, while a nobleman writes more formally, reflecting the wealth and time afforded to a person of rank. Many details also have highlighted terms that can be clicked for additional information, allowing players to make sense of the historical events, locations, and people that shaped daily conversation. If the old tomes of that era could come to life, perhaps they would look something like Pentiment.
The game is something of a departure from Obisidian’s usual modus operandi: while the decisions and possible outcomes in Pentiment are many, in the end, the player has little impact on each chapter’s conclusion (no matter how hard they save scum. Believe me, I tried). While this strays somewhat from the studio’s narrative philosophy, ultimately, it also reflects one of the game’s many messages about class and social hierarchy, echoing the words of one early character, a Bavarian nun, who laments that for some people, life has very few options. When it comes to the murders in Tassing, there is no guarantee of clarity or immediate justice. In that sense, Obsidian avoids eulogizing the past, supporting a theme seen throughout Pentiment as women, peasants, and religious clergy reveal the realities of their station.
-Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator
Marvel’s Midnight Suns (Firaxis Games)
I’m an easy mark for Marvel console games, and I spent some time falling hard for Firaxis’ XCOM reboot games back in the day. When it was revealed that Firaxis was working on a Marvel strategy game, one that was primarily influenced by the adventures of a team of supernatural B-listers from the Marvel universe, it was hard not to be curious about the end result.
No, Marvel’s Midnight Suns isn’t “XCOM meets Marvel” as it may seem at first glance, but that doesn’t diminish how much of a winning combination it is on its own merits. Both the card and movement mechanics are easy to wrap one’s head around, and new tactics come into play as the campaign continues and the roster grows. The cards themselves all feel true to their specific characters; it can be immensely satisfying pulling a card for a particular hero that comes in at just the right time or stacks the battlefield in your favor right from the jump. As it turns out, watching Ghost Rider jump on his flaming Hell Charger that plows right through enemies and also disables an escaping helicopter never really loses its luster.
But the standout mechanic of Midnight Suns is its relationship system. In just a few hours, it really does feel like Hunter is forging strong bonds with the Marvel heroes on hand. Whether it’s through chatting with them around the house, training in the morning or joining various clubs made up of the titular group, the game succeeds in making the team feel like, well, an actual team. More than I expected, Midnight Suns succeeds in making the characters feel true to their comic versions while offering a little extra energy.
Coming out so close to year’s end, it’s possible that Midnight Suns may not be fully appreciated until the brief respite of new releases in early 2023. There’s an excellent mashup here on behalf of Firaxis that deserves to shine brightly.
– Justin Carter, Contributing Editor
Stray (BlueTwelve Studio)
Everybody wants to be a cat, but how often are we actually gifted the chance to unleash our inner feline? We hear you. Not nearly often enough. But that’s where Stray comes in.
BlueTwelve Studio’s charming jaunt about an adorable mouser swept up in a cyberpunk mystery exceeds expectations by pushing past its initial gimmick and delivering an emotional, engaging adventure that’s paced to perfection. On a technical level, there’s plenty to love about Stray. The futuristic world itself is realized in a way that belies the title’s indie origins, with neon-smattered alleyways and overgrown facades providing the perfect playground for our spritely tabby.
It sounds obvious, but for a game that lives or dies on its ability to sell players on the notion of being a cat, Stray hits it out of the park. The game’s furry protagonist is a bundle of joyful, smile-inducing animations, expressions, and chirps that make falling in love with them a forgone conclusion. Stray would probably make this list on that basis alone, because it’s evident that BlueTwelve went above and beyond to create what’s probably one of the most realistic depictions of a moggie in a video game. It’s nothing short of a marvel.
Stray, though, goes even further, weaving a compelling, whimsical, and touching tale about companionship and humanity without ever overstaying its welcome. Simply put, it’s the cat’s pawjamas.
-Chris Kerr, News Editor