It’s the last day of 2021, and it’s time to finally talk about my game of the year. There’s no one way to choose what makes a game my favorite, and I’ve had a whole bunch of positive and interesting experiences with games of all sort this year. The ones that stood out most this year were games that had a lot to say with not only their writing and art, but with their mechanical design.
I don’t like to spend too much time playing any one thing anymore, so the games that stand out the most to me are the ones that provide a dense experience, not a long one. Most of my favorite games this year were ones I spent less than twenty hours playing, but had me thinking about them for days or weeks afterward.
As with all of my previous posts, I have two games to talk about. Both are games that meant a lot to me, and both were games that gave me so much to think about that I felt compelled to write about them earlier this year. So without further ado…
…It’s a Tie!
That’s right, I’m cheating at my own game. No runner up today. Just two games that I couldn’t decide between. In a strange way, they actually complement each other extraordinarily well.
Sable is about a young girl (named Sable) exploring a beautiful cel-shaded world on her hoverbike. It’s a journey of self-discovery and exploration, aided by the “gliding stone” that Sable’s community has lent her while she finds her calling. The gliding stone lets her safely float to the ground from any height, protecting her from the world while she learns trades, helps people, and wanders wherever her curiosity takes her.
Unsighted is about fighting through the ruins of a collapsed city, saving who you can, and rebuilding a community whose time is running out. Every character you meet has limited time remaining before they lose themselves and go “unsighted”, becoming a violent and unthinking zombie. Characters can be given a residual dust that lets them survive a bit longer, but the dust isn’t easy to find. Every moment and resource is precious, and there won’t be enough time to save everyone.
Stakes in Games
It’s hard to explain exactly why I couldn’t choose between these two, but a major reason is just how wildly different they are. Sable takes familiar adventure game concepts and boils them down to basics, removing any combat and making climbing and platforming very forgiving. It’s a game that, to my knowledge, does not have a fail state, something I found to be a breath of fresh air*. Unsighted* is the polar opposite: it’s constantly reminding the player how little time each character has left, and that every moment wasted risks losing more members of the community. I think most folks today are accustomed to big, open games, that have no problem letting us finish sidequests before getting on with saving the world. Unisghted rebukes this structure, and demonstrates an audacious conviction to the narrative truth of its world.
Looking back, I think moving between these two games made both of them leave stronger impressions. The story of Sable is simple: Sable embarks on a coming-of-age ritual in which she journeys into the world, bringing with her a relic safeguarded by her community that will protect her from danger as she explores. It’s a story about pursuing what interests you and deciding who you want to become. And it follows through with this sense of security by being approachable and kind, without ever letting the world itself seem devoid of danger or conflict.
After I put it down, I picked up Unsighted. In other words, after enjoying a peaceful journey of discovery and self-reflection in a pretty desert, I jumped straight into an infested city in the aftermath of revolution and war, with loss and strife looming large around every corner. In some ways, I think the shift gave me some confidence to leave Unisghted’s timer mechanics enabled (even though it offers players a chance to effectively disable them). The sense of urgency affects every aspect of the game, including its quieter moments and small respites, many of which feel even stronger for it. Narrative and mechanical stakes are, of course, very intentional game design choices that can change the way a story feels just as much as they can change how it unfolds. Maybe Sable’s calm gave me the energy to buy into Unsighted’s intensity.
As usual, writing about games has been both a fun and tiring experience. It’s maybe not always such a great idea to saddle myself with a bunch of blogging goals when I’m supposed to be unwinding and relaxing before going back to work in January.
But it’s still a useful exercise to help me focus my thoughts. In a year where I spent a lot of time preparing for and running tabletop RPGs, thinking about narrative and mechanical stakes has been a useful storytelling lens. The threat of loss or consequence can make a story weightier, but it can also darken the tone or shift the pace in undesired ways. All of that is useful to keep in mind when telling my own stories.
If you’d like to read more, check out my earlier writing about Sable and Unsighted. If you’ve been reading these posts so far, then… gosh, thanks! I hope you’ve enjoyed them. And I hope we have an exciting year of games ahead of us in 2022!