By Matt Gerardi
Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our writers dive headfirst into Valve’s big virtual-reality gamble, the history of Metal Gear and Final Fantasy, and Animal Crossing’s world domination. Plus, our young writers escape the confines of home isolation with videogame-sponsored trips to space and hell.
After more than a decade of yearning, secret false starts, and wild speculation Valve has finally returned to the Half-Life series. But it’s not with the Half-Life 3 or Episode 3 that fans spent all that time craving; it’s with Half-Life: Alyx, a prequel set five years before the events of Half-Life 2 and starring that game’s memorable sidekick, Alyx Vance. The kicker: It’s a virtual-reality exclusive. Christopher Byrd reviewed Alyx for The Washington Post, comparing its accomplishments in pushing the bounds of VR design to the innovations of earlier games in the series. “Frankly, I haven’t cared much one way or another for the game’s boilerplate sci-fi story,” he wrote. “It’s the world of Alyx, with its gameplay and its unprecedented level of detail for a VR game that have astonished me.”
This week, Heather Alexandra continued her massive deep-dive retrospective look at the Metal Gear series with a tremendous exploration of the series’ most ambitious, mind-bending entry: Metal Gear Solid 2. Heather walks us through the story, digging into its repetition and subversion of its beloved predecessor’s plot, its blurring of the line between player and game, its delight in denying players (and their in-game stand-in, Raiden) satisfaction and success, and its stunning, trippy final hours.
And Anthony John Agnello spent some time looking back at another formative Japanese series: Final Fantasy. Through the lens of the series’ oft-told origin story as the last-ditch effort of a struggling studio and his picks for the best, worst, and strangest installments in its long lineage, Anthony attempts to locate the mood and methods that makes up the constant heart of this shapeshifting saga.
In a perfect storm of the Switch’s popularity, the growth of social media and Nintendo’s embrace of it, and everyone being stuck indoors, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has emerged as the game of our moment. Imad Khan took a look at its popularity for The New York Times, talking to avid players, academics, game designers, and analysts about its appeal and the unexpected ways it’s become a social outlet for people in these trying times.
Sadly, with New York shut down, we’re not able to be working our students face-to-face at this moment, but with everyone stuck inside, our mentors thought it would be fun to ask our young critics to play games and think and write about them as trips. First up is Isaiah Soto, who took us on the absolutely wild ride of his trip to the cosmic corporate wasteland of The Outer Worlds.
Circle intern Isaac Espinosa, meanwhile, took a trip to hell with Doom: Eternal. He was floored by the game’s unrelenting intensity, brought on by its flood of combat options, onslaught of demons, and heavy-metal soundtrack. “The gruesome and destructive violence is definitely a cathartic way to let out some pent up anger and fight the negative impact the current pandemic has had on my daily life – and yours, too,” Isaac says.
From Beyond The Circle
Not only has Animal Crossing been a boon for fans of the series and so many people looking for connection and escape amid the COVID pandemic, it’s also been a springboard for so much great writing over the last weeks. That trend continues with this piece from Mahin Kesore at VideoGamer, whose family hails from the island nation of Mauritius and whose biennial trip to his second home has been derailed by the outbreak. Kesore writes about how, even without playing the game itself, he started to feel the similarities between his family’s home and Animal Crossing’s new island setting – from the geology, flora and fauna, and dodo birds to something as simple and personal as Tom Nook’s outfit.
This week, Games For Change launched a new series on its blog related to how members of its community are using games and game mechanics to adapt their lives to our new remote reality. In the first entry, game-design teacher Steve Isaacs talked about the methods he’s using to teach remotely, taking advantage of demonstrative Twitch streams with guest lecturers, a Discord server for always-live class discussion, the gamified quest/choice-based learning structure afforded by Classcraft, and simple Google forms to help track attendance and student work. “I keep saying, that the very positive unanticipated outcome of all of this is that it is forcing us to move forward with ways to connect and deliver instruction,” Isaacs wrote. “Once we are back in schools we will have new and exciting ways to enhance teaching and learning that can extend far beyond our classroom walls.”
Also in the education realm, the developer Virtual Heroes, which specializes in creating interactive instructional experiences across a host of disciplines and industries, announced this week that its game Mission Biotech will now be free to download in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The game, which simulates the tools and methods of real-world biotechnology laboratory work, was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and even includes the DNA Extraction and PCR techniques medical workers are currently using to test for the virus.
That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Stay healthy. We’ll see you next week.
Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.