Four strangers strike up a conversation at a masquerade ball on a luxurious train travelling through the icy night. The one thing they seem to have in common is that none of them can quite remember how they ended up here. However, as it turns out, that's not quite the only commonality they share.
Through this framing device, we jump back into each stranger's past to the moment that lead them to this spot. This kind of horror anthology is surprisingly rare in video games and as a fan of the format, I think Winter's Night... does a remarkable job initially of telling several seemingly disparate stories that stand on their own but become stronger through their thematic connections.
I say "initially" because I think the game botches the landing with an incredibly out-of-place tonal shift in literally the last minute of the story. Winter's Night is a dark game, dealing with just about every rotten aspect of humanity in gory detail. Homophobia, jealousy, grief, murder, suicide, addiction, torture, war, cowardice. In the short run-time, the story is unflinching in how macabre its willing to get to truly plumb the depth of its protagonists' suffering.
Which is why it's so jarring when the story suddenly swerves off the tracks and becomes a comedy, albeit still with a dark twist. I want to emphasise that nothing leading up to the very final moments have been anything like a dark comedy, so to have the framing device shift into this mode at the very end feels like if Hereditary suddenly ended like an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Abrupt, incongruous, and almost a little tasteless, given the subject matters that precedes it.
I genuinely am not happy to focus on the negative here. If On A Winter's Night, Four Travelers is a genuinely haunting and memorable experience. It's well-written and constantly surprising, even once you start to figure out how the stories tie together, and the art is truly spectacular. I want to see more of this kind of game, and I'm especially excited to see more from Dead Idle Games.
I want to make it very clear that I recommend it to anybody who might enjoy a unique, gruesome interactive narrative - not to mention that it's free! Which makes it all the sadder that I walked away from that ghastly train on that cold night with a bad taste in my mouth.

The Lion's Song made me want to create. I want to write and draw, I want to start learning the piano again, I want to sing and explore and express.
Even though it's hard and it hurts and it sucks.
Rather than romanticising the art or artists themselves, The Lion's Song focused more on the pain and exhaustion that goes into creation. And yet, it does this without succumbing to the "tortured genius" myth - at least , most of the time.
It makes you linger in the moments before and during creation rather than the glamorous aftermath. You stay with these characters as they struggle to pull something out from within themselves and make it into art, as they search for inspiration and are pained with self-doubt.
We get to follow as they use all of that ache to pull through and actually make something. A haunting symphony, a beautiful portrait, a ground-breaking theory.
So much media revolves around creators without actually bothering with the act of creation itself, but that's exactly what The Lion's Song is interested in exploring. And it's one of the most artistically rich and inspiring games because of it.
Also, that moment when SPOILERS Em uses math to prove that non-binary gender identities are real was so gay and wonderful.

"You're going to make it." I've heard people say some variation of that to me a few times. Sometimes when the line between hope and hopelessness is so thin it may as well not even exist, it's hard to imagine any future, let alone a positive one. The sentiment of that phrase is also core to what Citizen Sleeper is all about. It's a game that asks you not only to "make it", but what "making it" even means.
At first, it means "survive". You have to do it one day at a time, excruciatingly and with very little to show for your efforts. It means begging for scraps, suffering with a body that is constantly on the verge of collapse. It means doing anything you can to keep yourself going with no luxuries or goal in sight. It means being alone and far from any home you've known. Why bother?
Your body isn't even really yours, neither is your mind. You're a "sleeper", a robotic replica containing a copy of the consciousness belonging to someone who was once equally as desperate as you, whose body is currently in stasis light years from where you are now. You've escaped the job they doomed you to in order to pay off their debts, and now there's no turning back.
Survival is the obvious motivator, but in the course of finding your feet and learning more about The Eye - the ring-shaped station you've crashed on - something starts to change. Your goals slowly start to evolve as you make connections, as you learn about yourself, and start to realise that you have nothing else beyond what's ahead of you. You're a long way from home, so you better make a new one.
It's a terrifying freedom, and one still encumbered with danger. But that shift from merely getting through each day and having enough strength to wake up the next, to actually starting to see a possible life in your future, that's the moment Citizen Sleeper is building towards.
When it comes will be different for every player. You'll find one person who you don't want to give up on, or a community you feel at home in, a job that makes more sense to you than anything else ever has. Maybe it'll happen when you're feeding a stray cat in the derelict apartment you've just spent days cleaning out.
Through the many stories and intrigues you get involved in, you meet a lot of vivid, lovable characters and you start to connect. The incredible writing made me sink deep into each new corner of The Eye and its many fascinating inhabitants. It's a delight to explore and become a part of its often bizarre ecosystem, as the game subtly holds a mirror up to yourself
While this is a very mechanics driven rpg where you level up your attributes, the main progression is internal and subjective. It's in understanding where you want your story to go and how you'd like it to end. Many of the storylines in Citizen Sleeper left me with a bittersweet, sometimes even hollow, feeling. It's a brutally heart-wrenching experience at times, but it's also such a living one. It knows that the struggles of life are painfully real and can't always be overcome with the power of friendship. But it also knows that without friendships, without connections, and without hope, why bother? If we have those things, or at least work towards gaining them, that's when we have a chance of making it. Whatever that means to you.

2022

I played The Cat Game and loved it. Not exactly a surprise, really. It's a project I've followed with anticipation since it was quietly announced as "HK Project" years ago, at which point the only promise it made was "there's a cat in the game". That alone was enough to make me wait eagerly for 7 years to play it.
So I ask myself: would I have loved Stray if it had not been The Cat Game? What is the cat was a robot? Or an animal that appeals less to me personally, like a scorpion? Or a featureless box?
And I answer myself: yeah, actually, I probably would. Not quite as much perhaps, but still. For as authentic and lovable as the titular stray is, how amazing its perfectly cat-like personality comes across in its body language and meows and mrrs and chirps, the cat aspect is mostly flavour that makes the rest of the game's already stellar design and themes shine brighter. A narrative edge that sharpens the already strong narrative into something more relatable and affecting.
Stray isn't really a game about cats or robots, but about humans - specifically, what legacy humans will leave after we're gone. Cats serve as a link to humanity that anchors us into this unfamiliar world after our demise, same as the game's robots are a reflection of our mistakes and achievements.
Seeing the world from a cat's perspective allows for both distance and closeness to the world. You're always slightly removed, slightly different from those around you. But you're also smaller, more flexible, able to hide and explore and see what others can't. Everything seems so big on the ground floor, but so endlessly small from the rooftops.
This idea that humanity is both not the be-all-end-all of the planet and civilisation, while also having such a powerfully positive and destructive effect on it, is woven into every fiber of Stray. It shows a mirror of all our mistakes and reminisces about our successes. Refreshingly, it does this not with tepid both-sides:ing or sentimentality, but with a real bite to its commentary. It also taught me how to say ACAB in cat.
So, cat or no cat, Stray would have most likely resonated with me and I would still have enjoyed the gorgeously detailed worlds it allowed me to traverse. But not as much, and the ending might not have had the same bittersweet sting. It just goes to show that anything is made ever so slightly better if you just add a cat.

It was only a few hours into Going Under that the thought "okay, I get it now" crossed my mind. It wasn't the moment I gave up on the game, but it was the moment I understood that I had seen every trick it had to offer. Going Under makes its mechanical and thematic intentions clear right away and sticks to them until the very end. What you see in the first hour is largely what you'll get for the remainder.
For a good while, that's not a bad thing either. I'm an easy lay for pointed satire on startup culture, complete with sharp pokes at both office culture, "self-made entrepreneurs", as well as the complacency and they foster in their target audience - as well as their contempt for their employees and customers alike. It's very well sketched to the point that it becomes genuinely frustrating in how authentic it feels. Subtext is for cowards, after all, and this is not a game made by cowards, and I appreciate its sharpness.
However, after a while I—well—got it. The game keeps treading the same ground over and over, with very little substance added over time. Appropriately, this is also the case with the gameplay, which is a goofier take on the standard roguelike dungeon crawler formula, but with more office supplies and wacky toys as lethal weaponry. It remains charming for a decent amount of time, but as I stood at the gates of the final dungeon, I didn't have it in me to carry on going through with the same button mashing that the previous 8 hours had offered.
I don't regret a minute I spent with Going Under, but I also don't really desire to experience any more. Perhaps it's appropriate for a game about the hollow nature of corporate culture to itself devolve into a repetitive grind that doesn't really fulfil its lofty promises. Either way, as we're all dancing to the bittersweet tunes accompanying the beginning of the end of late day capitalism, there are certainly worse distractions to be had.

When I finished my fourth and final playthrough of Ascension something occurred to me. I thought: this is why the queers will ultimately win. Because queer lives, even the darkest and most uncomfortable parts of them, inspire such beautiful art. You can never make something this resonant, beautiful, and empowering from hate or bigotry. It can only come from a place of truth, as jagged and uncomfortable as those truths may sometimes be.
Ascension reimagines one of my favourite science-fiction novels Roadside Picnic (and Stalker - the Tarkovsky film loosely based on it) but through a queer lens. The broad strokes of the story are the same, with a group of people entering a cordoned off forbidden zone in which reality shifts and breaks apart in unpredictable ways. In the game, as in the novel and film, their goal is to reach a mysterious room at the center, which supposedly has the ability to grant literally any wish to those who enter.
Taking this premise and applying it to an LGBTQ perspective is frankly genius, because in so many ways being queer means desiring something that can seem unobtainable, even impossible. The game's three characters all have very different reasons for entering the zone, while their relationships to their identities and bodies are just as disparate. Their backstories are vague at best and we learn everything we need through their interactions, with some spectacularly efficient writing. The characters are not defined by their pasts, but their nows, and it makes their journeys more powerful than if the story wallowed in their former trauma.
The game uses the zone in several interesting ways but I primarily read it as an analogy for living in a queerphobic world when you don't fit into its rigid boundaries. The zone is frightening in how unpredictable and different from the outside world it is, but it's also amazingly beautiful. What initially seems terrifying and outlandish soon becomes familiar, even comforting. It feels real. At times this parallell is very explicitly stated, which I honestly appreciate. When the game has something to say, it says it clearly.
Change is absolutely terrifying, but stagnation is infinitely worse. While self-loathing can be a big part of being queer, it doesn't mean that's all there is. Nor does it have to mean that what happens on the road to finding yourself or any decisions you make are final. The zone is there to be explored, you can carve out your own spot there, you can even find love. You can make a home, you can change yourself and the world. In fact, change is inevitable and constant and you are powerful enough to take charge of it.
When I finished Ascension, I felt all of this. It all seems so obvious and real. We change, we grow, we love, we die, we're reborn, and we carry on as something different but the same. If change is art then surely transitioning is the ultimate change and most beautiful art. An art where you're both the creator and the canvas. It's a scary journey into the unknown but there's also nothing more gloriously, unfathomably beautiful.

Video games as a whole aren't good at tragedy. Tragedies can be featured as a plot device or to serve as narrative motivation, but it's not often that they stick with me beyond those purposes. I'm sad Character died but at least it propelled the story or made Other Character's arc more emotionally rich and satisfying.
In contrast, Eastward is honestly kind of mean in how deeply dark it's willing to go. Not in a cheap or exploitative sense, but in a way that makes you feel the true depth of sadness when the last thing you want to happen happens.
There's a moment a few hours in where the story takes a turn that isn't uncommon in games, but feels so much more powerful here. And once that had occurred, I spent the rest of the game with a hole in my stomach, constantly on edge, knowing to take nothing for granted. The game, like life, carries on but also doesn't because you end up irrevocably changed in some way and everything you experience from that point forward is through a prism of guilt and fear.
Eastward is so cute and fun and offers such a rich variety of moods and gameplay styles, so it feels unfair to speak about it in terms of tragedy, but I can't shake those moments where it went for my heart. I suppose because it felt more genuine that I'm used from in games. Its horror felt distressingly normal, like similarly heart-wrenching moments from To the Moon or Undertale. Not fuel for plot momentum, but as moments of actual loss and emptiness.
It also has so many cute and fun moments, made all the cuter and funner when contrasted with the brief moments of heartbreak.

I keep coming back to Cloud Gardens. I'll probably be coming back to Cloud Gardens for years to come. If I'm so lucky, I hope to be returning to Cloud Gardens when I'm old and lonely and what can generously be described as my "best days" are long behind me.
In Cloud Garden, you are placed in various desolate landscapes. In each one it's obvious that any life that once roamed here has been long gone and the signs of civilisations past are crumbling. So you plant. You toss seeds on the destruction. You revive each and every one. When you're done, snaking vines grow over rusty cars. Palm trees hang over abandoned rail tracks. Purple flowers cover previously barren patches of soil. Empty high rises are clothed in a dozen shades of green.
There's something fundamentally hopefully in all that melancholy. It presents you a puzzle where the problem is lifelessness and the solution is, simply, life. It demands creativity and cunning, then rewards you with a gorgeous scene, previously grey and empty, now utterly exploding with colours. Each one feels like a phenomenal triumph.

Games about childhood are a dime a dozen but they tend to be focused on approaching childhood from a distinctly adult perspective. They're often ponderous, melancholic affairs about looking back at ages lost to time. It's a valid perspective and one I like to indulge in myself as a reasonably aged raisin.
Knights and Bikes takes a different approach and instead portrays growing up from the ground floor. Because when you're there, which is rarely ponderous or sombre, even in the darkest times. It's a game truly about play in a sense that feels oddly uncommon in video games. Not about playing to win or reach a conclusion, but play as a purely social activity.
You know when you were little and with your friends and someone suddenly shouts "first one to that lamp post wins!" and you all instinctly dart towards it like your life depended on it. That's the kind of play Knights and Bikes is built on.
I'm having a hard time thinking of any game that has managed to capture that exact friendship dynamic as well. Nor any game that so accurately portrays how enormous every aspect of life seems when you're that young, and how isolated you are from the adult world and the many terrifying unadventures it contains. At least we can always look back, remember, and relive.

I played Gorogoa two days after Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Gorogoa is a game that imagines war through the eyes of a child, with the invading army visualised as a giant monster destroying their city. In the game, the monster is beaten and the child grows up to see their city rebuilt.

2020

Puzzle games should ideally make you feel more clever than you actually are. If you were really that clever, you'd be the one designing the puzzle, after all. But a clever puzzle designer can somehow imprint their own puzzle designey cleverness into the fabric of the game and pass it on to you.
Carto does that. It's incredibly well-designed, with a deviously simple core mechanic that the designers get squeeze every ounce of mileage out of before the end. In short, each level is made up of parts of a map, which you can reconfigure at any time to access new areas and even construct new landmarks.
It works amazingly well, and there are a lot of clever ways the game plays around with this simple idea. It's honestly not very unlike Portal in how it teaches you to think spatially, and consider how to manipulate your surroundings to progress. I can't think of much higher praise for a puzzle game.

2022

When people who love Dark Souls talk about those games, it makes me wish I could love them too. What seems to make that series so great is the sense of genuine discovery, where there doesn't seem to be an invisible developer's hand dragging you along the world, but rather you exploring it and finding everything entirely by your own volition.
That's why I'm grateful for Tunic. I'm struggling to remember when a game made my smack my head in astonishment like this. I can't remember what other game has made feel such sincere achievement at uncovering its secrets. Maybe Fez?
The game is always withholding information from you, just enough that you stay curious and motivated to learn more. Occasionally, it will reveal some sliver of knowledge - whether its about the story or even basic gameplay mechanics - and it always feels like a bombshell. In most other games this would be infuriating, but Tunic manages to turn "learning about how the game works" into a puzzle that's somehow consistently rewarding.
Solving a puzzle or finding a secret in Tunic made me go "oh. ooooh! whoa!!" every time.
Actually, Fez is the most fitting comparison, even if the game much more closely resembles early Zelda games with Dark Souls mechanics at first glance. To put it simply; Tunic does for Zelda what Fez did for Mario. Like Fez, the story is vague but alluring, told mostly through a fictional alphabet that is possible - but not mandatory - to learn.
It's also equally understated and charming, which makes it paradoxically feel more epic. The puzzles require you to take notes and scribble your own maps in a notepad. It's a bit like what if Jonathan Blow made a Zelda and also wasn't an arsehole.
For a game that so closely ties itself to iconic franchises from multiple decades of gaming history, Tunic is a singular thing. A truly one-of-a-kind, phenomenal experience that remixes old gaming tropes and make them better.

There needs to be a name for games that provide the fantasy of being very good in a chill retail job. Coffee Talk did it for baristas, VA-11 Hall-A did it for bartenders, and Strange Horticulture does it for florists - in a vaguely lovecraftian Victorian rural hellscape.
It never, ever stops raining. There are witches in the woods, who are mostly chill, but there's also a cult hanging around, who are mostly not very chill. Meanwhile, you collect plants and sell them.
Above all, Strange Horticulture is a puzzle game about deduction. Customers come in and ask for plants matching a certain description or with specific qualities, and you go rooting through your ever-growing collection and your big, dusty botany book to find the right specimen. You will also stumble across clues for where to find more plants, or other interesting characters whose motivations grow clearer over time. It's all very dreary and foreboding but in a way that's immensely calming. There are no time limits whatsoever, so you can literally explore the map even though someone is waiting at the counter for their flora.
I will admit that I made good use of the game's hint system because it does tend to get obtuse at times. I wasn't after proving how smart I am for figuring out the solutions with the least amount of information, or memorising every plant and their properties. No, I liked carefully labelling each of them individually. Flicking through my books to compare the descriptions with my collection. The serotonin rush of finally finding exactly the right spot on the map based on nearly impenetrable hints.
You have a black cat that purrs when you pet them, so that's a GOTY right there.

2022

I love how grotty and grimy and angry point-and-click games are getting. Forerunners like Disco Elysium and Backbone have laid the groundwork for the genre to linger in filth, zoom in on misery, and scrape a glimmer of something resembling hope from the muck.
Few games are as grotty and grimy and angry as Norco. It's a game for the tired and the fed up, for people who are getting too exhausted to care but somehow can't stop themselves. It's a cynical adventure and one that certainly resonates.
Turns out that Norco is not a real place in South Louisiana. It's actually a brand name for a type of painkiller.
Norco is a very uncomfortable game. It never feels quite right, and the majority of the time it's totally intentional. The art style is striking and conveys a constant sense of moisture, sludge, and mould. You know that icky layer of grease you find on all the surfaces in a chainsmoker's house? Characters in Norco often come so close to the camera. It feels more in-your-face than most jumpscares. You can practically smell them.
As pure atmosphere and world-building, Norco sometimes manages to come close to Kentucky Route Zero's poetry, but the narrative as a whole never manages to come together. A story like this needs a main character to anchor us, that we can empathise with, and even with the limited role-playing, I never felt any kinship with the faceless protagonist or her mostly unseen brother, who her quest revolves around.
Also, the fight sequences feel laughably out of place. They're not bad in isolation but they're from an entirely different game.

2021

Despite being barely longer than an hour, Adios might be the game I've thought about the most this year. It's a solemn, quiet story that plucks on the most sensitive emotional strings with impressive ease.
I can't say for sure what you'll take away from Adios, but for me it was primarily a story of acceptance. About reckoning with your past and accepting the consequences of your choices, about making peace on your own terms.
Adios is admirably restrained, and when it erupts in short dramatic bursts, it feels like an explosion in your chest. I'm going to carry it with me for a while, and I cannot recommend it enough.