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The right game at the right time

So, The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog was pretty good. But playing it also awoke my long-dormant Sonic fixation and made me want to spend more time with those characters.

The problem is that as a rule, Sonic games are not the kind of game I want to play these days. They tend to be built around mastery challenges, which was great for me when I was learning perseverance but not so much now at a time when I’m uninterested in friction and failure. I just want to chill with Sonic and friends, but Sonic games have no chill. (Yes, there was one RPG, but it was terrible.)

But! It just so happens that the latest mainline Sonic game, Sonic Frontiers, is an open-world game apparently taking some cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It has tons of chill!

So I picked it up and am loving it. I’d expect it to be divisive - games that branch out from the formula in crazy experimental ways are normal for the Sonic franchise, but this feels like a more radical departure than usual. And it certainly has flaws, as expected for the first installment with a new structure and gameplay approach, but it hits me in just the right way for what I’m looking for. Some reviewers call the open world empty and desolate; I find it peaceful and calm. Some complain that the platforming segments are isolated and decontextualized; I like that I can approach them on my own pace and schedule. Some complain that the most-traditional elements of the game, the cyber space levels, are so short; I like that they are so manageable and I can generally achieve all of their objectives after just a few tries and then switch to whatever other kind of gameplay I’m in the mood for.

I think this is yet another reason why it’s borderline meaningless to try to assign review scores to games as though their quality and enjoyability are objectively quantifiable, instead of just clarifying what kind of experience they provide. Frontiers is not an objectively great game, but it’s great to me, today. If I’d tried it some years back or even when I was just in the wrong mood maybe I would have dropped it quickly.

What games did I correctly dismiss years ago that I’d actually really enjoy today?

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NFT discourse isn’t about NFTs

Here’s what frustrates me about the discourse around NFTs in games: it’s not actually about NFTs.

We’ve already had, for a long time, digital marketplaces for artificially-scarce virtual goods. There are many games where players can buy, sell, and trade their in-game goods, but to prevent counterfeiting and fraud the players need to go through a central server to do so. If the server is down or inaccessible you can’t do any of this, and if there’s real money involved the publisher-or-whoever takes a cut to pay for that server. Moving a system like this to an NFT-backed one would allow players to trade directly with each other regardless of central server availability and without needing to subsidize its maintenance.

This was a decently-well-known possibility for years, but no big publisher implemented it, because while it would have improved the player experience, it would have cut off a revenue stream. Taking a cut of every transaction pays far more than just the associated maintenance costs and can actually be the main way these games make money. No publisher is going to just give that away.

So when NFTs did catch on with publishers, it wasn’t for valid and player-friendly use cases in games where it made sense. It was for illegitimate cash-grab bullshit forced into games where it didn’t fit at all, or as the basis of a scam or pyramid scheme. And when those started getting big is when most people first heard the term “NFT”, and so it’s what they associate it with.

Players rightly deride these schemes, but this derision is now associated with terms like “NFT” and “blockchain” because the bad use cases are the only ones most people have encountered. So now if a game comes along with a good NFT use case (such as a digital trading card game that uses NFTs to make cards into unique and distinct entities that can be upgraded, traded, and sold player-to-player), it has an uphill battle because for most players it will be lumped in with the bad use cases and dismissed as just another scummy NFT game.

The problem was never the NFTs. The problem was the short-sighted player-hostile money-grabbing. But since that’s how a lot of people were introduced to NFTs, the conceptual well was poisoned. Once it gets in that state, the problem is self-reinforcing, because player-friendly publishers will mostly want to avoid tarnishing their games with this reputation, while player-hostile ones with nothing to lose will keep pushing for the player-hostile revenue streams.

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I played a game with zombies in it

I never owned an Xbox. But for several years I maintained a list of games I wanted to try if I ever got one. The list grew and shrank over time as new interesting games came and eventually got ported to other platforms, but for basically its entire lifetime the list’s top game was I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1

Released in 2009, Z0MBIES was a quirky and bite-sized twin-stick shooter (at a time when I was very into those). The game was small and mechanically simple, but this was the start of the indie games boom and the game was downloadable for a single dollar. Plus it had a personality that catered to what was popular on the internet at the time, with an irreverent and self-referential soundtrack, references to other popular games, and of course a leetspeak title. It was one of the most successful indie console games of 2009, and though it wasn’t enough to persuade me to buy a Microsoft console when I already had Sony and Nintendo ones plus a gaming PC, I always wanted to try it and be part of the moment.

The game isn’t talked about much anymore, but I recently found out that in 2021, it was ported to Steam. This would make me happy on grounds of games preservation and art history regardless, not to mention the generosity of releasing the game for free–but I was also just really excited that I was finally going to be able to play this game. I could hardly believe it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been into arcadey twin-stick shooters. My gaming in general has slowed down considerably and I’m particularly uninterested in chasing high scores. But I was so happy to install this game onto my Steam Deck and finally give it a whirl. For a few minutes there, it was 2009 again. A very different time in the life of the games industry, and in mine.

I still don’t plan to buy an Xbox. But I guess I can finally take this game off the list.

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My Top Five Games of 2022

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. Kirby and the Forgotten Land
  2. Vampire Survivors (which according to my Steam Replay accounted for fully 50% of my Steam play time this year)
  3. Star Trek Prodigy: Supernova
  4. Shadows Over Loathing
  5. The Last Campfire

(I spent so much less time playing games this year that I didn’t really have enough to fill out the usual ten.)

Honorable mentions to Inscryption and The Fall as other games I finished and didn’t hate.

Most anticipated game for 2023:

  1. Star Trek: Resurgence

Special award for joy that comes less from the game itself and more from the shared daily habit of playing with Allie, plus what the game means and enables:

  1. Wordle
  2. dordle
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