By Matt Gerardi
Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. In this installment, our writers head to samurai-era Japan for the PlayStation 4’s swan song, get a glimpse at Ubisoft’s future lineup, get lost in the surreal world of Amanita Design’s Creaks, and argue against the common gamer instinct to fight to keep things the way they were.
The last few weeks have seen the industry ramping back up, with a number of big releases and much-hyped preview events from major publishers. Sony, for its part, launched what will likely be its last first-party game for the PlayStation 4: Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima. Daniel Howley reviewed the game for Yahoo!, writing that this samurai-era open-world adventure, while not without its problems, “is a fitting farewell for the PS4.” The sword-fighting, Daniel argues, suffers from some repetition and an unruly camera, but “The game world is so vast and beautiful that I regularly found myself taking random detours to explore new Shinto shrines or bathe in a nearby hot spring,” he said. “Every path you take seems to open up to a previously undiscovered location.”
While it’s surely not going to be Nintendo’s last big release of the year, Paper Mario: The Origami King was, at least right now, the last major game on the company’s 2020 schedule. It has proven to be yet another divisive game in the Paper Mario series, with many longtime fans missing the unique characters and traditional JRPG elements of the older games. At PC Gamer, Jordan Minor wrote about how this is a needlessly dogmatic, backward-looking way of thinking, for all of games, not just Nintendo. Evolving and innovating, Jordan argues, is what Nintendo does and a large part, if an underrated, of why so many people love its games. Just because it sticks to its core cast of characters, doesn’t mean it needs to stick to the same ideas over and over again. “How many people would’ve even played a JRPG like the original Paper Mario with its action-tinged, turned-based battles and funny, but wordy, script if not for the plumber’s familiar face?” he asked. “Refusal to change is how we end up with rote, boring, plastic New Super Mario Bros. games.”
Meanwhile, without an E3 to lay out their plans for the holiday season and beyond, publishers have taken to preparing their own digital presentations of upcoming games—and even figuring out new ways to deliver hands-on demos to journalists around the world. Ubisoft, for instance, put together playable streams of a few of its upcoming game to coincide with its Ubisoft Forward event. This is how Sherri Smith went hands-on with both Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla to give us some early impressions. In the former, Sherri was impressed with the sprawl of Legion’s digital London and the variety its central conceit of recruitable NPCs brings to the table. As for Valhalla, Sherri was loved the updated combat, heftier and more brutal to match its Viking protagonists, and the new raiding system, which lets players lead their Viking clan on epic sieges.
But, as always, it’s not all big-budget, thousand-developer games that our critics are playing and talking about these days. Samit Sarkar reviewed the latest game from Amanita Design, the cult favorite developer of offbeat adventure games like Samorost and Machinarium. The Czech studio’s newest is called Creaks, and it’s another ornately drawn puzzle game, only this time Amanita is leaning into horror and surrealism. Samit loved the game’s world and lauded the logic, consistency, and sheer creativity the studio brought to building Creaks’ beguiling underground. “From the individual puzzles to the world’s staggering scale, from the trinkets strewn about each room to the entire mansion’s ramshackle construction, Creaks is a dazzling work of imagination,” he said.
Harold Goldberg wrote about Creaks as well in an Apple Arcade overview for The Washington Post, saying the horror works and “offer(s) the same kind of fear that I witnessed in “The Last of Us Part II.” Yes, they’re less bloody demises. But the tenacious fear and shock is similar to being attacked by a Clicker hiding behind a door.” Also in the review are looks at the visual novel Necrobarista and the Peggle-inspired Roundguard.
In a different kind of Roundup, Danny Castillo, one of the Circle’s students from the Bronx’s Ellis Prep Academy, watched through the presentations from Games for Change’s online festival (replacing the 2020 edition of its annual in-person festival due to the pandemic) and wrote about a few of the games and talks he found the most interesting. Danny was especially struck, for example, by Microsoft’s presentation on accessibility and the talk from Ziba Scott of Popcannibal, who discussed the studio’s quietly brilliant 2019 game Kind Words.
Also on the Circle site this week, our stalwart Senior Intern Ronald Gordon took his first steps into the vast library of Itch.io, reporting back with a look at five notable visual novels he found himself playing as he tries to dull the boredom of summer quarantine. The games he encountered were equal parts silly, horrifying (on several levels), and powerfully contemplative, but they all had the effect of whetting his appetite for more lo-fi storytelling.
From Beyond The Circle
In our last Roundup, we talked about the flood of stories of sexual abuse and harassment coming from survivors in every corner of the games industry. Ubisoft had emerged as an epicenter of allegations, with multiple reports of high-level employees engaging in abusive behavior and the company doing little to stop it. Later, Jason Schreier, now at Bloomberg, published an investigation into the Ubisoft claims, the publisher’s toxic “frat house” culture, and its seeming unwillingness to address these problems. He interviewed “more than three dozen current or former Ubisoft employees,” who corroborated the public claims made against the company and spoke of many others that have yet to come to light.
In the wake of all these stories coming out of Ubisoft, Solidaires Informatique, a French labor union, announced that it is attempting to assemble a collective lawsuit against the company over the abuse allegations, its culture, and the impunity for abusers that was so seemingly built into the publisher’s corporate fabric. The organization put out a call for survivors to reach out and assist in building its case, saying “These are not isolated cases and failures from the Human Resources department, when it seems that there is a company policy that values its profits before the health and safety of its employees” and that “The Ubisoft group must be able to answer for its actions before a court of law.”
A lot has been written about the death of Adobe Flash and the huge legacy of games that has been lost as this technology disappeared from the internet. But few articles have been able to convey that loss and the influence of Flash like this new interactive piece written and developed by Jonas Richner. Richner, a former Flash developer, devoted an entire website to his scrollable, pokable history of Flash games, which mixes interviews with Flash developers and the creator of Flash along with clever art and data visualization to illustrate just how popular and important Flash was—and what we’re losing with its death.
This weekend, we’ll see another annual gaming showcase head online for a pandemic-friendly edition. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has moved its SAAM Arcade program online and will be making the games in its indie showcase available to play for free throughout this upcoming weekend, August 1 and August 2. In a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, all of the games were either developed by women or tell stories about women, and include Ava, an award-winning, tarot-based puzzle game; Half, a Twine narrative from journalist and designer Emma Kidwell about the experience and complexities of being mixed-race; and When Rivers Were Trails, a 2019 point-and-click game about an Anishinaabeg who is displaced from the territory in 1890s Minnesota and forced to head west to California. In addition to these and other games, the SAAM Arcade will include screenings of Indie Game: The Movie and Not for Resale. Free registration for viewing is required.
That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading, and 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.