End of Year Favourites

My Favourite Video Game of 2022 – Immortality

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. As soon as I played it, I was desperate to talk to everyone about Immortality. The issue was, I didn’t want to be the person to spoil Immortality for people who haven’t played it. I did what anyone rational would do and made my girlfriend play it, who in turn made her friend play it and then we had a little video game reading club. Anyway, the point being, I was considering writing a post about the game around the time it first came out, but felt it needed time. Time we have given it and time it has endured. I’ll talk about the game in non-spoiler terms first and then do a bit of spoiling later. If you want to, feel free to skip it and go down to the honourable mentions. With all that said, let us finally discover Immortality.

The first main question; what is Immortality? Let me answer that question with another question; who is Marissa Marcel? That’s the question that opens Immortality and it’s what powers the first part of your investigation. We do have some knowledge to get us started. She was an actress who starred in three films, all of which were never released. We have clips (presented as full motion video, meaning these feel like true film clips) from these films, including behind the scenes clips such as rehearsal or audition clips, and we have to click through them for clues. Again though, not as simple as it seems. You will click on objects or faces in the clip and the in-game system will take you to another clip with that same object or face, usually a new clip. Viewing all of these clips will hopefully give you answers into who Marissa Marcel is (or was) and what happened (or didn’t happen) to her. It’s a delicious setup and one that never failed to compel me.

What also compelled me was the unconventional gameplay loop. If you played Her Story, a previous knockout from creator Sam Barlow, you’ll know the kind of thing to expect. You are hunting for and then sorting through clips, trying to piece together a story out of what you have already seen and attempting to work out what is still hiding. You don’t really know how many clips there are left, or what you’re looking for. You just know you’ll know when you see it. Adding to this loop is the ability to rewind and fast forward through footage. At first it feels a little pointless, but rewinding can help bring more out of the clips and allow you to pull deeper meaning than what initially appears on the surface. These things combined allow for truly original storytelling. You discover the path through the narrative and the order you discover things may change the final conclusions you come to. That is so thrilling and nothing apart from Her Story has ever done that for me (once I play it, I’m sure I’ll say the same about Telling Lies.) Playing a game and filling two sides of A4 while making notes is the kind of nerdy delight that not enough games offer me.

You only buy into the narrative through because absolutely everything stands up to inspection. The film clips we’re seeing are from three very different genres, three quite different periods and encompass plenty of forms, and not once do you question their validity. The team at Half Mermaid worked their asses off to create hours of footage that you are able to fast forward through or completely disregard. It’s also important to note that because of the object-matching mechanic that is inherent to the gameplay, the smallest thing in frame has to matter. Writing objects and themes across a novel or a screenplay is one thing, but having these exist across scenes that you could click through at random and still work takes talent. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s difficult to praise a game like Immortality for its graphics in the same way you would God of War, but the game is nonetheless designed perfectly. The score is amazing too, adding an air of mystery to the simple act of clicking through scenes. Somehow, tension appears! And then there’s the decision to make the controller rumble and add an ominous sound effect when rewinding certain scenes, which… Well, it’s time to get into spoilers, isn’t it?

Please, if you haven’t played Immortality, skip ahead now. What I’m about to reveal is one of the greatest discoveries I’ve ever had in a video game. While I was rewinding through a scene, a second scene started to appear through the first. This was not a scene I had seen before, and it didn’t seem to have any of the actors I’d seen before. There was also the matter of the dialogue being strangely cryptic, about becoming another or about survival through generations. I was hooked. What other clips had this sort of thing hiding in them? The moment where I found a clip that, upon rewinding, snapped into the scene with what I referred to as “the shadow people”, my jaw hit the floor and my heart started racing. There was a whole other story happening under my nose in Immortality, featuring characters called The One and The Other. I didn’t yet know who they were but discovering their story felt like the key to uncovering Marissa’s fate. Discovering each of these clips filled me with dread, as they stared through the screen into my eyes, but I was always hungry for even more.

Once you discover The One, the thematic breadth of the game becomes startling. When you begin Immortality, you take the title to be some kind of gesture towards the nature of film as immortalising and capturing the images of people to be preserved forever. To say the game isn’t about that would be wrong, but it soon reveals itself to be this in tandem with the stories of immortal beings. “Becoming another” no longer refers to just acting, but to the act of literally possessing a humans body. Thinking about the levels that the themes exist and thrive on it impressive, but you become even more impressed when you remember that these scenes have appeared to you in a different order than to other players. Certain scenes have to be watched before other scenes can be triggered in the timeline, but you’re largely left in the wild. All of these things lead to an outstandingly chilling ending. It becomes established that if an immortal immolates themselves, anyone who watches this act will become their next host. This knowledge however, occurs after you have witnessed exactly this act. Without realising it, you moved from the role of observer into the role of participant and now you are trapped. As the final film cells melt away, the face of The One fills the screen and chills ran up my spine. It is a superb way of using the form of the game itself to enhance the final sting in the narratives tail.

If I am to recommend anything about Immortality to you, I recommend that you play it at the same time as a friend. You can exchange notes, work out where the story is heading and cryptically dance around revealing a scene that the other has not yet discovered. It was what I did with my girlfriend and we had a giddy nerdy time with it. In a time where video games trend towards homogeny, Immortality is a gift. It feels special and unique. Please, play it and spend money on it if you can. Otherwise, it is (at time of writing) on Xbox Game Pass and, unbelievably, on Netflix. If its existence on that platform doesn’t convince you of the strange hybridity and unique categorisation at play, nothing will.

Honourable Mentions

Vampire Survivors – I adore a little game I can pick up and play, which is exactly what Vampire Survivors offers. No game lasts more than half an hour and it has a deceptively deep well of content. I only regret playing it when I look up and realise that two hours have passed in my “one quick run” session.

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga – I was sceptical of a new Lego Star Wars, especially after the fatigue that I’ve felt for the film franchise these past few years. But, here is Lego Star Wars updated for the modern age, meaning it has all the filler you dread but also crave. One day I will try and 100% this game and it will kill me.

Pentiment – Despite consisting of almost entirely text and being about 16th century politics and religion (or perhaps exactly because of those things), Pentiment stole my heart. It’s the rare RPG where I felt like my decisions really mattered, especially the ones I didn’t want to make.

Escape Academy – Do you like escape rooms? Yes? Then Escape Academy is for you. The overarching story is nice but not needed, because I could have just played hour after hour of wacky and wild virtual escape rooms.

Lapin – We’ve had super hard platformers about blocks of meat, we’ve had super hard platformers about transgender women with depression, we now finally have Lapin, the super hard platformer about rabbits. The bits I played charmed and my girlfriend was absolutely head over heels for it.

Disc Room – I still feel nostalgic for the simplicity of games like Super Hexagon and Disc Room feels like a return to those kind of games. All you have to do is dodge spinning blades, but it’s the way the enemies develop and the game rewards your effort that makes Disc Room so much fun.

Trombone Champ – Toot toot! I love a rhythm game and it turns out that ones I’m terrible at are really really funny to play. Proper giggle inducing stuff, toot!

End of Year Favourites

My Favourite Video Game of 2021 – Inscryption

I’ve warmed to card games as a genre recently. For a long time it felt like there wasn’t much middle ground between the exploitative whirlpool of games like Hearthstone or the absurd depth that leads to total inaccessibility that I found in things like The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game. Then I discovered Slay the Spire and fell in love with the possibilities of the genre. Much as I like its open ended and endless nature though, it means that there isn’t really room in my life for another endless card battler. Which is why Inscryption is so great.

Before I say another word about Inscryption, it’s worth knowing that this is one of those games that is best experienced when you don’t know anything about it. I’m going to try not to give away any of its secrets, but I played it fairly blind and would recommend you try the same too. For those who want to know more though, it is a card battling game based in the lodge of a being whose identity is mysterious. He narrates your journey and asks you to play his game so that he may do something nefarious with you. Between matches, you are allowed to explore his cabin and find what he is hiding, which may aid you in your future battles. But something here is wrong. When you started the game, why did it only let you click continue? What are all these greyed out buttons on the pause menu? Is this card talking to me?

(Spoiler alert, he probably is)

All of this fun meta storytelling would be totally worthless if the game itself wasn’t actually fun to play. Fortunately, the card battling in Inscryption is built on rock solid foundations and feels strangely fresh. There’s a central mechanic which requires you to sacrifice cards you already have on the table in order to place strong cards, a mechanic I’ve never seen before. It took a little while for me to work it out, as well as work out the further mechanics the game later adds on top, but once it clicks it feels properly satisfying. Sometimes I found the learning curve a little steep, like a section in the third act that I had to grind away at for over an hour to make any progress on, but it was otherwise a take on a tired genre that plays in fresh ways as well as subverting the old ways narratively.

Inscryption is the break from formula you need.

I’m also totally in love with the audio and visual design of the game. The tone feels a bit like it’s in the horror genre, almost entirely because of the weird noises of the world. It is the kind of game that is best suited to playing late at night, in the dark, with your headphones turned loud. The cabin creaks, the wind howls, the knives sound like they really hurt. Pair that with minimal but chilling visuals, it works immaculately. There’s a clear understanding from Daniel Mullins (the creator of the game) of what this genre needs to be satisfying at a fundamental level, which allows for playful visual subversion throughout. Again, I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but as the game changes, the visuals also change and set the tone for what’s to come. It never feels like an attempt to be weird just to be unpredictable, but always a natural continuation of the previous events.

So if you, like me, also remain tired of games that takes weeks to finish through hours of unrewarding grinding, Inscryption is the break from formula you need. It’s got a cool story to explore, feels great to be spending time with and has damn good gameplay to boot. Quite honestly, if you’re not already interested it’s not for you. It certainly is for me though.

Honourable Mentions

Overboard! – A video game adaptation of the “good for her” film genre, Overboard! (yes, the exclamation mark is in the title) asks you to help a new widow get away with the murder of her husband while on board a boat. How you do it is up to you, whether it involves seduction, sabotage or further acts of murder. Whatever you choose, great writing keeps each new attempt fresh.

Genesis Noir – A jazzy noir thriller about the life of the universe as imagined through the metaphor of a breakup. Explaining the plot of Genesis Noir gets us nowhere, but it looks great, sounds awesome and has an ending to drool over.

Maquette – It’s the requisite Annapurna game! Some of the puzzles in Maquette felt frustratingly oblique to me, but it is all based on this genuinely great hook of transferring items between spaces in which size is all relative.

Before Your Eyes – For the second year in a row, a video game made me cry. It feels a little like cheating that Before Your Eyes did it, because it relies on the player resisting blinking for as long as possible, but this gimmick is used in a way that never actually feels like a gimmick and is festooned with a narrative that would still probably have made me cry even if my eyes were experiencing normal function.