this space intentionally left blank

December 27, 2022

Filed under: gaming»impressions

2022, Mediated: Games

This year, I kept a log in a spreadsheet of the media I took in: books I read, movies I watched, and games I played. As 2022 wraps up, I want to take a moment and look back. I don't do this kind of record-keeping every year — it has the downside of making enjoyment into homework of a kind — but it can be an interesting view into something that might otherwise blur together.

I'm going to start with games, because they're the longest experience of the three. As a result, while I only wrote down books and movies if I finished them (or came very close), I wrote down games when I started them. I was more likely to abandon a game if it turned out I wasn't actually having a good time, and while I may add some titles to my book and movie lists before January 1, I feel pretty confident that I can write now about the shape of the year with relative accuracy.

At the time of this writing, I played about 90 games in 2022. That sounds like a lot, but I finished less than half of them (a metric that's complicated by "evergreen" games like Devil Daggers or roguelike games like Atomicrops or Risk of Rain 2. A number of these were also short, or I just dipped into them and then dipped back out: Landlord of the Woods is about 45 minutes long, and I loaded Rez Infinite up just long enough to run through the new levels again on a whim. I'd estimate half of them were actually serious time investments.

Roughly two-thirds of what I played was new to me, although rarely new releases. However, there's a fun correlation here: I actually completed 2/3 of games I replayed, while those proportions are reversed for new games. I suspect this is because I was more likely to get back into something that I already knew I enjoyed, whereas a lot of the new titles are "browsing": trying out GBA games that I missed during the console's lifetime, wandering through my Steam back catalog, or impulse purchases during sales.

The Year of Souls

In retrospect, soulslikes loomed prominently over my habits this year (as, indeed, they've become pretty influential across the industry). It started in January, when I replayed Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that I thought was fine in 2019 and grew to strongly appreciate through a second run.

High off the Sekiro experience, I tried Bloodborne again, and I also gave Dark Souls Remastered a sustained attempt. In both cases, I got through a significant portion of the game (up to Vicar Amelia in the former, and most of Anor Londo in the latter) before admitting that while I am sure I could get farther, I just wasn't having fun. I just don't think these games are very good, personally — they feel sluggish (the parries in both are trash), and Dark Souls in particular has not aged well visually, with a real "asset pack" AA-budget vibe to it.

Unfortunately, what I've realized is that the stuff I really like about Sekiro — its mechanical purity, responsive combat with (limited) action cancels, an explicit narrative — are mostly outliers in Fromsoft's catalog. Simultaneously, the things that I find infuriating, like its befuddling and opaque quest chains or cheap encounter design, are in fact the aspects that draw in their most devoted fans.

Still, many of my favorite titles this year were non-Fromsoft soulslikes. The Surge 2 tries a high-risk-high-reward mechanic for parries that's initially frustrating but ultimately feels rewarding to master. Remnant: From the Ashes is a semi-procedural shooter with some great environment design. Tunic is playing more in the adventure space, but there are elements there in its combat and narrative design that are clearly evoking Miyazaki.

There were also some missteps. Ashen is probably the closest to a Fromsoft game (and has at least one dungeon that almost drove me away) but the art direction and writing kept me interested, as each victory builds out your hometown. Darksiders III is a cash grab in a franchise whose brawler roots don't mesh particularly well with punishing checkpoints, but it managed to eke out a few last drops of charm. Neither of these was bad enough to stop playing, but I also can't see myself revisiting them, or recommending either to other people.

(From last year, but also illuminating: Jedi: Fallen Order is blatantly pulling from Sekiro for its lightsaber combat (no complaints here), and its late-game character reveal had me cackling. Death's Door was in many ways a precursor to Tunic, with its Metroidvania progression and isometric combat, and I would argue it's a better game even if it doesn't have the latter's clever manual gimmick.)

As a genre experiment, this year was clarifying. I think I've got a better grasp now on what works for me, and what doesn't. I also feel freshly inoculated against, for example, Elden Ring, which should save me the frustration of playing 30% of a 120-hour game. We'll see whether that lasts.

Other noteworthies, in chronological order

Don't be too put off by the weird, swollen art style of Atomicrops. The underlying combination of light farming sim and bullet-hell twinstick shooter ate up a lot of hours in January. I played it on Switch, and while it's beatable (and fun) there it also feels like it wasn't optimized for the platform — the final boss turns into a slideshow. I'd recommend it, but probably on PC.

Halo Infinite took a lot of criticism for effectively being "what if we made the whole game out of Silent Cartographer," and parts of it do wear thin when it turns into an Ubisoft Map Game. But as the Master Chief Collection rolled the games out on PC, I'd played through all of them fairly recently, and I think you could do a lot worse than an entire game made out of Silent Cartographer (you could, for example, play Halo 4). I would argue this is the game they've been aiming toward for two decades.

I'm as surprised as anyone that in 2022 there would be a game that is A) based on a Marvel property, B) specifically Guardians of the Galaxy, and C) actually pretty good. Eidos Montreal's 2021 title is chatty, irreverent, and pulls a lot of the touchstones of the James Gunn films (a non-stop commentary from the team, Quill's tape deck, the Bautista take on Drax) while ditching their more obnoxious tics (some needlessly fatphobic humor, Chris Pratt). I think the combat does often feel weightless — my advice is to set it to easy so you can get through it faster and get back to the writing and performances.

Immortality is one of those games that's going to have a big influence conceptually but not mechically. It's an FMV title where you're essentially handed a big box of isolated clips from the career of a b-movie actress, roughly grouped into three films: a giallo-style religious tale, a noir in the style of Basic Instinct, and an extremely 90's thriller that wouldn't be out of place on the Lifetime Movie Network. As you scrub through and build connections between the clips (linked by clicking on objects in a paused frame), a second, more sinister narrative emerges. As a film buff, this felt like it was aimed right at me, and while it can drag a bit when you find yourself hunting the last few segments, I think it achieves exactly what it set out to do.

Off the Hook

Finally, I don't think I can wrap up without mentioning Splatoon 3, a game that was only released in September and probably has more hours in it than anything else I've played. I was S+ rank in Splatoon 2, meaning fairly high-level but not elite (I believe the rank roughly translates into the lower end of the top 10% of players). So I was really looking forward to this.

In design, Splatoon 3 is pure Nintendo. It feels good play, with varied weapons and precise motion controls. It's brightly colored and fashionable, and has a non-toxic and notoriously LGBT-friendly community with lots of in-game creativity on display. The game's lore is weird and surprisingly grim. Taking team shooter concepts like map control/movement and translating them into literal painted areas is brilliant. Also, the soundtrack is fantastic.

The other classic Nintendo move is the networking stack, which is one of the most atrocious technical foundations for a multiplayer game that I've ever seen. It's barely dysfunctional: connections drop regularly, which completely cancels matches and counts as a loss for the disconnecting player, and the matchmaking is laughably bad in the regular ranked mode. It's a tribute to how good everything else is that it can be addictive despite a glaring central flaw.

Splatoon 3 adds a bunch of things that are different from its predecessor, but not always better. For example, the end game poses are no longer gendered and the clothing options are massively more flexible, but to work around that they've added a "catalog" season pass system that unlocks new ending poses or nametags as you play. Since players need to show those off, the game now only shows the winners at the end of the match, which means they cut the adorable tantrum/sulk animations and the more distinctive music after a loss. I do miss it, even while I do enjoy the new variety (and the vastly improved lobby area).

Gripes aside, at the end of the day, if you want a Splatoon experience (and I do), this is where you have to go for it. Nobody else makes anything like this. There's no "splatoonlike" genre, as inconceivable as that seems. It's Nintendo's way or the highway.

There was a lot of noise in 2022 about how the Switch hardware is aging. This isn't wrong! The Tegra chip that the console is based on was not really cutting-edge when it launched, and it's certainly not competing with other consoles — or even phones — at this point. Even so, the Switch is probably at least 50% of my gaming time, and although I have a PS4 hooked up to the same TV, it's almost always used as a DVD player instead.

If you think back to the PS3/360 era, there was a lot of noise made about the first real "HD" consoles. This was, to be fair, a real shift, one that meant games looked sharper but were also radically more expensive. But there were also changes in the kinds of games that became possible at that level of power. This is the time when we first started seeing open-world games like Assassin's Creed or Oblivion, which were not only very big, but also had bustling populations of NPCs and emergent behavior. There's a real case here of new kinds of game design being unlocked by the new generation of hardware.

In the Switch's case, these are often the same kinds of games that it struggles to run at full fidelity (Breath of the Wild excepted, and even there, it's a full world but not a busy one). But when the developer takes more control over the camera or the gameplay, it can return really good results. And in some cases, it can be pretty incredible — the Neir Automata port this year is certainly not as detailed as it is on a PC, but it's shockingly good.

It may be that there are some designs that are unlocked by the PS5/XB1 consoles, just as the open-world genre only really hit its stride a couple of generations back. But it's not clear to me what those are, and in the meantime, I do kind of wish the treadmill would slow down a little. Obviously there's an incentive for them, but Splatoon is a reminder that the Switch can be plenty compelling when developers target the hardware they have, and not what they wish they had.

Past - Present