Midway through Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz falls to drinking moonshine and talking politics with a lefty firebrand in the sealed-off, waterlogged remnants of New Orleans. The man - a rebel general you've been sent to recruit - screams at BJ about well-heeled imperialists grinding up the proles in capitalism's war machine, and BJ roars back about good-for-nothing bohemians and bolsheviks dodging the draft. The camera circles the table unsteadily, as if waiting to cut in. To the rear, a female college professor crisply picks off Nazis in the street below while an African-American clarinet virtuoso launches into a jazz solo, accelerating the tempo as the scene unfolds. In short order BJ chugs down so much hooch that he topples over into a stupor. Impressed by his forthrightness, the general agrees to join your cause.
If there are moments of serenity in the original Assassin's Creed, which turns 10 years old next month, they are surely to be found in the act of scaling towers - a way of pacing consumption of the landscape that has shaped almost every subsequent open world escapade, from Rocksteady's Batman Arkham games to the mighty Breath of the Wild. The city is a fading murmur beneath you, the cries of beggars and traders and the jingle of guard awareness icons whisked away by the wind. The occasional frustrations of shouldering through mobs or scrambling across uneven rooftops are forgotten. There is nothing but the scuffle of toes on masonry and the rattle of Altair's sword in its sheath.
There is a certain language we too often use around video games, a particular body of criteria and expectations. You could call it the cult of smoothness. This is, I'll admit, more of a characterisation born of years spent trawling forums than it is some kind of scientific appraisal, but glance over the average review comments thread and you might know what I mean. It's the idea that an excellent game is, fundamentally, a game that knows how to get out of your way. This is the language of polish and seamless integration, of beautifully chiming ludic and narrative components, of vast realms in which you are never truly lost, and campaigns that "peak" and "trough" considerately, setting up a tempo of crises and revelations without ever seriously jolting you.
The scariest thing you'll hear in The Evil Within 2 isn't the sound of your very own daughter burning alive, or the paralysing roar of an alerted zombie, or even that witchy refrain through your PS4 controller's speaker as one, especially tenacious apparition shadows you from room to room. It is, in fact, a single dialogue line: "I'll mark its location on the map for you." Another throwback horror escapade from Shinji Mikami, albeit with DLC designer John Johanas in the director's chair, The Evil Within 2 takes cues not just from the legendary Resident Evil titles but also, rather terrifyingly, from open world tactical shooters.
Ruiner hates you. I don't mean that just in the sense that Ruiner is punishing, though it's certainly that - the game's "Normal" difficulty setting makes the average Call of Duty final stand look like a pillowfight in a nursery. I mean that Ruiner's entire universe is radioactive with spite. It's there in the lighting and palette of Rengkok South, the game's late 21st century urban hub - a quagmire of oozing red mist, tar black, toxic orange and the occasional, lonely note of blue or pink, the final moments of Alien's Nostromo blurring into the hellish racecourse of Neo Tokyo's "Running Man". It's there in your character, a pipe-wielding cyborg parody of dysfunctional machismo who communicates using a pixel-display helmet - favourite phrases include "hello darkness", "nowhere to hide" and the ever-poetic "kill you". And it's there, above all, in the shape of "Her" - the nameless geek girl in phat headcans and a Kaneda-brand capsule jacket, who frees you from another hacker's control during the prologue.
In his review of Gunpoint, the first game from former journo Tom Francis, Dan Whitehead described the protagonist as a "flea in a trenchcoat" - springing through windows to administer dainty mouse-click beatdowns. To continue the theme, Heat Signature reminds me of those horrible wasps that breed by paralysing tarantulas, laying an egg on them and leaving their larvae to burrow into the poor creature, gobbling it up from the inside out. In this case, the tarantula is one of an endless series of procedurally generated starships, made up of cunningly stitched-together sentry gun chambers, hallways, keycard doors, fuel cell rooms and treasure boxes. The wasp is an unarmed but perilously agile single-seater pod, able to swoop across a twinkling 2D starfield and snap itself cleanly over an airlock in a matter of seconds.
Deicide is one of gaming's more popular pastimes - not quite as popular as smashing pots for herbs but easily on par with say, fishing or amateur photography. Pretty much every JRPG worth its salt concludes with the party nobbling either a vengeful god or somebody who's on the verge of becoming one. Kratos can't get through brunch without beating some Olympian cousin to death with the waffle iron, and Bayonetta signs off by kicking the Creator squarely into the sun. Death of the Outsider is one of the subtler variations on the theme: Dishonored's take on divinity is, after all, more embroiled in the role divinity actually plays in society, a question of psychic archetypes and community bonding rituals, rather than multi-stage health bars and the ability to squirt thunder from your pinkie. To murder the Outsider, representative of the Void that yawns beneath the surface of Dishonored's tortured steampunk universe, isn't just to leave this realm without a king - it's to alter the very structure of the game's reality irrevocably, to the point of throwing the prospect of a threequel into enormous doubt.
"The empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained," George Macartney wrote of Britain's colonial territories in 1773. In the universe of Sunless Skies, an everlasting Queen Victoria has made this fond pronouncement a literal truth, replacing Earth's sun with a clockwork star, a sun that sets only because her Majesty wills it. The Empire, what's more, has come to reign over not just outer space but the very raw material of time - unearthing minutes like ore from the drifting ruins of the Reach, one of the new game's four discrete regions, and using them to accelerate construction projects or cruelly drag out prison terms, amongst other things. As a budding steamship captain, you too can get in on the trade, shipping wax-sealed casks of unseasoned hours alongside "everyday" commodities like aborted lab experiments or crates of human souls. It's both a parody of how empires construct their own realities, their own, brutal systems of measurement and definition, and something that hits a bit closer to home - a send-up of the energy-based mechanics of freemium social games like Failbetter's original text RPG Fallen London, where time is indeed money, a thing you can stockpile.
So we're fighting the Nazis again. And in the game. Call of Duty's return to the heroism-soaked beaches and foxholes of World War 2 is either providentially or unfortunately timed. Wolfenstein and Sniper Elite's fine efforts notwithstanding, I'd sort of forgotten that National Socialism was once the industry's second favourite foe (its favourite being zombies, which are both dependably noxious and, as mindless cannibals, easier to design around), and it's odd to be kicking the crap out of them, or indeed kicking crap as them, in the context of a genuine far-right resurgence.
Absolver isn't a Dark Souls game. It seems wise to state that up front, because for its first few hours Absolver manages a very good impression of a Dark Souls game, albeit one that has traded its Covenants for martial art schools, its "jolly cooperation" for Jeet Kune Do. There's the world, to begin with - the crumpled remains of a splendid civilisation, flickering eerily between timeframes and dimensions, where masked Prospects do pilgrimage in the hope of attaining the mantle of an Absolver. There are the altars that, like Dark Souls' legendary bonfires, peg down exploration of that world - geysers of glowing stone where you can meditate to access equipment and ability inventories together with arena PvP.
Slow motion in art doesn't merely slow the world down, but renders it supernatural. We comprehend objects travelling at a sliver of their usual speed differently, picking up on nuances and leaping to conclusions that might otherwise evade us. "Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride," notes the philosopher Walter Benjamin, discussing the radical potential of film in the 1930s. "The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods."
I love a game that is both as sweet as apple pie and as dark as pitch, and Monomi Park's bubbly sci-fi farming sim Slime Rancher is very much one of those. A sort of first-person Harvest Moon knock-off with a splash of Dragon Quest, it casts you as Beatrix LeBeau, a pioneer seeking her fortune on a distant planet overrun by squealing, bouncing, emoji-faced slimes. Feed a slime something and it'll squeeze out a "plort" (a frightful piece of onomatopoeia that puts me in mind of, ugh, "squanching" from Rick & Morty). Scoop up and fire that plort into your farm's market terminal using your trusty vacuum gun, and you'll earn cash. That's right, this is a game about the economics of poop, and the in-game Slimeopedia is only too happy to go into detail about what each creature's excretions are used for back on dear old Earth.
Why are Sonic's eyes green in Sonic Adventure, the franchise's first serious crack at a fully 3D polygonal platformer? It turns out there's a lovely little story behind that. Ristar creator Yuji Uekawa was the man tasked with revamping Sega's mascot for his debut on Dreamcast. Some of his decisions were practical: shrinking Sonic's enormous, swept-back skull and elongating his limbs, for instance, so that he doesn't look like a fuzzy joystick when viewed from the rear. Others were a touch more poetic. "He is always seeing these green pastures around him, like in Green Hill Zone," Uekawa explains in an interview conducted for Sega's 25th anniversary artbook. "I thought it would be nice to reflect that in his eyes."
Bloober Team's Layers of Fear gave you a 19th century mansion in a state of continual, terrible reassembly, its furnishings switching places behind your back, its rooms expanding and contracting like the chambers of a heart. Observer gives you an entire apartment block, lifted from contemporary Krakow and teleported into a cyberpunk dystopia unabashedly pilfered from Blade Runner. It, too, delights in how the familiar might be rendered horrible, with certain objects and layouts reappearing in ever more nightmarish guises as you progress through its seven hour plot, but it also casts its net a little wider, to encompass a world in which the digital has displaced and eroded the physical - a world that isn't so much the grim future as present-day neglect, alienation and torment fed through an amplifier. In Observer, surfaces don't merely shapeshift when out of view but fester visibly with computational ephemera, lines of green code crawling across doorframes and wallpaper, asserting the geometry of rooms, corridors and tunnels even where the brickwork beneath has rotted away.
From around 2009 to 2011 I edited a Flash gaming blog called Flytrap for AOL. A belated effort to expand the company's then-considerable downloadable games business, Flytrap was a tawdry, clumsy little thing, all celebrity plugs and clunky-to-implement gallery modules plus the odd dollop of tabloid sleaze. We had daily knock-knock jokes, FarmVille diaries and a section entitled "Hot Manly Action", though no outright softcore content, thank god. I didn't think too much of my work on Flytrap at the time - it was just there to fill gaps between articles on Real Games like Dead Space 2 or Uncharted. In hindsight, though, it's clear that I had my heart in the wrong place. Games like Uncharted may be the industry's obvious peaks, but the ocean they're poking out of - the bubbling creative firmament without which this artform would be truly impoverished - is Adobe Flash.
A terrible force stalks the wilds of Peregrin, unseen but inescapable, its shadow falling across every beautifully weathered nugget of wasteland art. No, I'm not talking about the demonic Guardians you'll face as you sift through the wreckage of yet another extinguished civilisation. No, I'm not talking about the playable character, Abi - a young woman with a long scarf, a big stick and the ability to possess other creatures, on a mission to appease the gods responsible for the devastation. I'm talking about the script. It just won't leave you alone. To enter an area, approach any striking object, or even just cross the middle of the screen in Peregrin is to risk attracting the attention of either the narrator or a radio contact back home.
There's an area in Sonic 2's Chemical Plant Zone that still has me clutching my chest when I think of it. Tucked towards the end of the second act is a shaft filled with moving blocks, sliding around in clumps of four to create a precarious series of stairways. Nothing too horrendous in itself, but as you climb to the top the zone's underlying ocean of toxic purple goop surges abruptly, flooding the shaft even as the door slams shut behind you. Is there any track in all of video game music more nightmarish than Sonic's drowning countdown? And is there anything more dreadful, when you're in the teeth of that music, than having to wrestle with the game's underwater physics - wilting in horror as you graze a block by a pixel, precious seconds squandered as the blue blur drifts lazily to the platform beneath?
The nuke is always less than 10 hours away. The debut release from inbetweengames, a studio made up of Yager veterans, All Walls Must Fall transforms the concept of the Doomsday Clock into a grid-based tactical action experience with procedurally generated missions and a focus on time travel - a techno medley of Syndicate, XCOM and Crypt of the Necrodancer. It unfolds in 2089, following an alternate 1980s in which Germany's Peaceful Revolution never occurred and the East and West remain violently polarised. Somebody, somewhere in Berlin is about to set off an atomic bomb, and your task, as one of several cyborg agents, is to comb nightclubs for clues about the culprit while undertaking various missions, using a combination of persuasion, hacking, brutality and good old-fashioned temporal manipulation to work your way into the city's criminal underground.
A concept beloved of H.P. Lovecraft - one of the games industry's most enduring influences - is impossible geometry. His tales of cosmic entities meddling in human affairs are strewn with rooms, temples and cities that unnerve not (just) because they're works of palpable malevolence, but because they are inherently wrong, curving and connecting in ways the narrator struggles to follow. In one story, an attic's odd contours give rise to dreams of a repulsively angled void. In another, an unfortunate sailor is swallowed by a knot of unreal architecture. In practice, much of this proves camouflage for the author's racism - "arabesques" and "Hindoo idols" crop up frequently in descriptions of these supposedly "alien" artefacts. But the essential idea is a fascinating one, and it has inspired generations of artists in every medium - amongst them Thunder Lotus Games, the creators of wonderful new 2D action-platformer Sundered.
I can't decide whether to murder Yaromir Efferson. On the surface he's a model zealot, never sparing the lash in pursuit of sin, but I look at how repulsively literate our village has become under his eye, and I worry that beneath that righteous facade lurks the mind of a Scholar. Were this any other season he'd make a perfect sacrifice, but I butchered a member of the Efferson clan in the spring and they're threatening revolt if I do it again too soon. Ludmila Kegnni would be a solid alternative - she's been stealing from the altar fund, a capital offence, but on the other hand her Sadistic tendencies are an inspiration to us all. Who else, then? Ah yes, young Marya Cadwell. Of course, you could argue that being a Teenager isn't all that grave a sin, but fewer adolescents on our streets equals a more biddable populace. Besides, the Cadwells are pretty well-disposed toward me right now. Let's see how deep their loyalty goes.
It could be any other throwback 16-bit adventure. I'm standing near low trees on the far side of a corrugated iron shack, waiting for a guard to turn around so I can break for the road at the top of the screen. The furnishings are the stuff of Final Fantasy 4, albeit passed through the guts of Fallout - chubby oil drums, wide-eyed chibi sprites, some nicely chiselled ruins. Only the black Islamic State flag draped across one wall gives it away. Created with the aid of German developer Causa Creations, Path Out is based on designer Abdullah Karam's experiences as a refugee, fleeing the war in Syria - a real-life survival story dressed up as an episodic Japanese role-playing game.
Tacoma doesn't require your input, only your patience. Set a few thousand miles above the Moon's surface in the late 21st century, it casts you as Amy Ferrier, a network technician contracted to recover an advanced AI, ODIN, from an abandoned space station. The setup recalls any number of sci-fi horror yarns, from Alien to Arkane's recent Prey, but there are no failing ship systems or abyssal monsters to wrestle with in Tacoma - indeed, no animate entities at all, save for the trash disposal drone that buzzes around the facility's zero-gravity core. Rather, Amy's task boils down to reaching a handful of access points found at junctions throughout the station, plugging in her pleasingly scruffy fold-out terminal and waiting for portions of ODIN's enormous brain to download. I haven't gone back to check, but I suspect you can complete the whole game - an evening's play, at most - without doing anything other than watching percentage points accrue.
There's only so much excitement you can build into the act of grinding materials or opening loot crates, but Fortnite tries its damnedest. Thwack an abandoned car with your pickaxe and it'll quiver like a punch bag, tempting you to take another swing in much the same way that cats can't help reaching for a dangling cable. Smack it repeatedly and you'll hear musical notes, rising irresistibly to a crescendo; freed resources also hover before you flirtatiously before squirting away into your inventory. There's an unlockable subsystem which coats stricken objects with blue bullseyes - take aim at these, and you'll be rewarded with a bassier crunch and bonus damage, an incentive to be precise which makes farming the game's procedural landscapes a tiny bit less monotonous.
If you have any interest in the problem of accessibility in art, you owe it to yourself to consider the Golden Record. A gold-plated phonograph disc packed full of Earthly imagery and audio, from Peruvian wedding songs through genetic formulae to pictures of US supermarkets, it was launched into space aboard the Voyager probes in the late Seventies. You could call it "a message in a bottle" about Earth to hypothetical star-faring civilisations, in the words of leonine celebrity scientist Carl Sagan. You could compare it, a little less kindly, to the "cabinets of curiosities" owned by European oligarchs and aristocrats during the Renaissance - Earth's riches bagged and tagged by the reigning superpower for extraterrestrial appreciation. But the more appropriate term, perhaps, is "puzzle".
As treasured as Blade Runner is among game developers, I've yet to play a cyberpunk game that captures the thrill of the film's initial flight through near-future Los Angeles - Detective Gaff's cruiser spinning upwards past the whirring fungus of satellite arrays, cinder-black apartment blocks and the big blank grins slapped across video billboards. It's a slick yet self-conscious sequence, the camera jumping around like a player hunting for the right POV: you see the city by turns "directly", as though perched on the bonnet, then from behind Deckard's shoulder, reflected in the windshield and diminished, finally, to a neon wireframe on the dashboard display.
I've picked a hell of a time to pen a love letter to Mercy. As these words are being written, the Overwatch-playing internet is having kittens over the long-awaited arrival of Doomfist - Talon elder, social Darwinist and a pugilist whose right hooks show up on a seismograph. Doomfist is yet another damnably cool addition to a line-up of damnably cool characters, all of them worthy of a game by themselves. His most terrifying facet may be his passive ability, which applies a fresh layer of overshield for every punch that connects, allowing a rampaging player to weather the concentrated wrath of the other team. But he's still going to need a medic at some stage, particularly if he falls into Sombra's clutches, and who better to supply the juice than a cybernetic valkyrie from Switzerland.
Call of Duty has finally washed its hands of the far future, ejecting from Infinite Warfare's glistening cockpit and plunging headlong into the barbed wire thickets and bullet-churned foxholes of the 1940s. But given that Call of Duty is already the War To End All Wars, reshaping periods and places to fit its own, ageless and perpetually revisited strain of corridor shoot-out, what does a return to World War 2 actually mean in practice? The resumed brownification of video game visuals aside, it means the end of the series' brief, torrid love affair with powered exoskeletons and cybernetic enhancements, initiated by Advanced Warfare in 2014. Exosuits remain the fashion elsewhere - consider BioWare's Anthem, in which mechs surge like dolphins through the foliage of a collapsed Earth - and it's possible that 2018's Call of Duty (Black Ops 4, presumably) will bring them back into play. But Sledgehammer's decision to clear the table of cybernetic enhancements is a pivotal moment for a trope that has given rise to some powerful experiments.
All stories involve a degree of misdirection by definition, but it often feels like misdirection is the only card Get Even has to play. Even the game's cast seem frustrated by its taste for obfuscation. Following one particular breakthrough, Cole Black, the (yes, ironically named) ex-military roughneck who serves as protagonist for most of the tale, asks his enigmatic associate "Red" why he couldn't have just given everything away upfront. Red and developer The Farm 51's answer is that you have to experience some events as they unfold in order to grasp their import - and there are times, during the game's final moments, especially, when this hoary old maxim rings true. But Get Even's twists and turns are more often evasive and defensive than tantalising or engaging. It has the mildly frantic air of an emperor who's just noticed a bit of a draught around his nether regions.
Uplifting as it is to lose yourself within them, video game worlds are often most enthralling when you're aware of the tricks and contrivances that knit them together. Wolfenstein 3D's labyrinth is all the eerier when you know that it's a Pac-Man level masquerading as "true" polygonal 3D, its walls and columns projecting upward from sets of horizontal coordinates, like volcanic gas from a vent. And how about the Mode 7 landscapes of SNES role-playing games, glowing carpets spun and panned across to convey the impression of distant 3D geometry, or the bejewelled pop-up backdrops of the Sonic games? These realms would be nothing without their obvious, delightful artificiality - to wander through them is to revel both in the illusion itself and how it has been crafted.
Tucked between shelves at the headquarters of Romero Games, Ltd in Galway, Ireland is a two-by-two-foot cube of black Plexiglass, mounted on a platform and lit from below. I picture it as a miniature of the alien monolith that appears during the prologue to 2001: Space Odyssey, looming over the bustle of a designer's office. This is Black Box, a game conceived by Brenda Romero as part of her board game series, "The Mechanic is the Message", following what she will describe only as an "unbelievably difficult" period in 2006. On top of the cube is a vintage hand-cranked adding machine, from which, when the device is in use, paper spills to the floor. The machine dates back to 1909, but has been extensively cleaned and remade; when Romero first opened it, she was startled to discover her own initials carved on the mechanism within, a moment of eerie closeness with the (presumably, long-dead) manufacturer.