The Maxis Game Club letters are a short series of letters I wrote back and forth with fellow designer Matt Yang about our video game experiences in 2019. Read the previous letter here.
2020 is here and I am terrified (for a multitude of reasons that are boring and not-game-related so I will spare you). 2019 was also crazy but some cool games came out so let’s talk about that.
I had a personal reconfiguring moment mid-year where I decided I wanted to focus my brain on fewer things and avoid the endless distraction of our media-saturated world (less pretentiously, I uninstalled my social media apps and started reading more books). This had the side-effect of me playing fewer games, but actually finishing some of them, which was nice.
Because of that, I don’t really have a top 10 list, so I’m just gonna talk about a few games that pulled me in and made me forget about the swirling whirlwind of madness that was 2019.
Telling Lies is Her Story 2. It doesn’t continue the story of the first game, but it continues exploring that original genius concept: searching for and watching videos of people talking. It’s also a sequel that leaves the original mechanic exactly the same, adds no new ones, and yet still feels like a totally fresh experience.
The magic lies in the content. Having more than one character to investigate has an exponential effect as I try to unravel how they all relate to each other. Switching from clinical interviews to intimate phone conversations feels thrilling and creepy and voyeuristic. The story lacks the twisting mystery of Her Story, but replaces it with emotional depth as I discover how much these people have lied to each other and themselves.
Is it better than Her Story? In the same way Portal 2 is better than Portal, yeah, I think so. It’s not as original, but when I finished Her Story, I remember saying, “Man, I wish there was just more of this.” And from Telling Lies, that’s what I got.
I am hard-pressed to think of another game in recent memory that creates so much gameplay out of so few mechanics. This is the trick Wilmot’s Warehouse pulls. The only real thing the game tells me to do is pick up packages and put them somewhere else, leaving everything else up to me.
“Where the hell did I put those bananas??” is a question I legitimately said out loud while playing this game. The enemies in Wilmot’s Warehouse are packages I left in a hallway when I didn’t know where to put them. The final bosses are my own memory and my past self.
The game ended up becoming a bit too stressful and frantic at the end, but up until then, it gave me that wonderful zen feeling of tidying up.
This game wedged itself so fiercely into my heart that I don’t think I can actually analyze it in any objective way at this point, so I’ll probably just gush about it.
The universe of Outer Wilds is space like I imagined it as a kid. I can fly from one end of the solar system to the other in a matter of minutes. I can circle a planet in even less time. Everything feels close and cozy, lived in and warm. It is the exact opposite of the cold, lifeless, or boring worlds in a game like Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky.
Like those games, though, it gives me the freedom to go wherever I want. Unlike those games, there’s actually something to find when I get there. There’s no trading, no fighting, no upgrading… just the pure joy of exploration. The only thing moving me through the game is my inherent human curiosity.
I loved everything about this game and it is unquestionably my favorite of 2019, and firmly in my top 10 of all time.
More and more, I feel overwhelmed by the constant flood of distractions that our online world has become. A lot of games have fallen into the same patterns, desperately trying to grab and hold our attention with goals to complete, and task lists to finish.
When a game (like the three mentioned above) comes along and says, “Hey, we’re not gonna tell you want to do. Just go wherever you want and do whatever interests you.” it feels like a revelation. I hope it becomes a trend, because we’ve got enough things to worry about than another list of stuff to do.
Looking at your list, Scott, I realize there were some other games this year that did this brilliantly, too, like A Short Hike and Untitled Goose Game (and Heaven’s Vault, even though I kinda hated that one).
Anyway, this is super long, so I’ll sign off for now. If I take away anything from these experiences and apply it to design, it would be to try taking my hands off the reins and let the player lead themselves for a while.
Also a real babbler,
Read the next letter here.