Kentucky Route Zero

"Your choices matter" is a refrain repeated again and again in the marketing campaigns of dozens upon dozens of narrative-driven games. Like most things with video games, it's the promise of scale and scope. The more variances that can occur, the more drastic the consequences, the more the game is seen as a success. The recently released Detroit: Become Human promoted itself on this basis, touting huge choices and variations. True enough, the game can play out with drastic differences. The problem is that no matter what way it played out, I felt nothing.



I'll wager that the most meaningful decisions you've had in these kind of games, the ones that really moved you, were the smaller choices. Not whether you saved the entire galaxy in Mass Effect but whether you rescued your good buddy Garrus from giving in to vengeful bloodlust. Not who rules the world's kingdoms by the end of The Witcher 3 but whether you took the time to bond with your adopted daughter Ciri, to help her grow as a person.


With that in mind I think Kentucky Route Zero is the game that really points the way forward on "meaningful" choices. It follows a delivery truck driver named Conway as he's pulled into an increasingly surreal world beneath Kentucky. See, it takes a completely different approach to choice. It doesn't have big branching narratives. Instead the choices you make are largely contained within a scene. Some carry on throughout the game's episodes (only four of five have been released) but don't change the direction of the plot. Take, for instance, the first choice it gives the player. What's the name of Conway's faithful canine companion? No matter what name you choose it doesn't change anything that follows. But does it change how you feel about that dog? Damn right.

Read more…

Kentucky Route Zero - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

soul-calibur-vi-guests-7

This is Brendan, broadcasting live from rumour world, where everything is made of a nebulous candy floss-like substance. The locals call it hope. Amid this sticky cloud, a figure has formed. It s Geralt of Rivia, hero of popular Gwent spin-off, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The monster-hunting swordsman will make an appearance in another game later this year, according to CD Projekt Red community lead Marcin Momot. Some have asserted that he’ll be a guest character in upcoming fighting game Soul Calibur VI. Which makes sense given the close business ties between the Polish studio and Japanese publisher Namco Bandai.

It isn’t confirmed. But it does raise the question: who else deserves a place on the stage of history? I asked the RPS treehouse who they d like to see. Here s the list we all settled on. (more…)

Kentucky Route Zero - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

kentucky-route-zero-interlude

Hopefully this is a sign that the long-awaited fifth and final episode of the incomparable, theatrical road trip adventure Kentucky Route Zero is not far away. Devs Cardboard Computer last week snuck out another of their brief, experimental ‘interludes’, free game-ettes which also act as as previews and alternate perspectives on scenes and themes in forthcoming episodes. Previously they’ve done VR theatre, mystery phone calls and installation art, and now ‘Un Pueblo De Nada‘ adds live-action TV into the beautifully unpredictable mix.

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Kentucky Route Zero

Developer Cardboard Computer has released a new Kentucky Route Zero "interlude" mini-episode ahead of the game's long-awaited fifth - and final - instalment.

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist road trip adventure focussing on the titular secret highway and its strange surrounding areas. Five episodes (or "Acts", as Cardboard Computer would have it) are planned in total, and the game's final episode is scheduled to release soon, seven years after development began.

Interlude episodes have become a bit of a tradition now for Kentucky Route Zero, and are low-key, often highly experimental, narrative experiences that loosely tie the main episodes together - and offer an excuse to explore other peculiar corners of the game's richly textured world. Previous interludes - Limits and Demonstrations, The Entertainment, and Here and There Along the Echo - are entirely free to play, if you're curious.

Read more…

Euro Truck Simulator 2 - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

non-violent-games

My nerves have been sufficiently jangled and my trigger-finger sufficiently itched by the glut of action games which landed in the closing months of last year. I crave an altogether more sedate beginning to 2018, and so my mind turns to games in which violence, reflex or any other kind of unblinking attentiveness takes a back seat.

Primarily we’re talking violence-free games here, but I wanted to drill a little deeper than that – so nothing that generally requires a competitive streak. I’m chasing a certain feel rather than a certain category. Flying, walking, puzzling, driving, building, dreaming, climbing, stretching, swinging (not like that), swimming, wondering: these are just a few of the ways in which flashing pixels can make you feel a very different sort of accomplishment.

And, of course, these are not even slightly the be-all and end-all of non-violent games on PC – please do nominate more in comments below. (more…)

Kentucky Route Zero

It's been seven years since the "magic realist adventure game" Kentucky Route Zero successfully completed its $6500 Kickstarter campaign. Four acts have been released since then, the most recent in July 2016, and in September of last year developer Cardboard Computer said it was "totally focused" on finishing the game. It appears that the work might finally be approaching completion, as the studio dropped a tweet today that leads to a surreal trip inside a tiny independent television station somewhere deep in the Bluegrass State. 

The "station" is actually broadcasting, sort of, at wevp.tv, in parallel with the events of the mini-game interlude that can be found through the above link. If you don't care for Rita's broadcast, a selection of others can be found behind the "copy-it-right" message at the bottom of the page (or here). Selections include Junebug Teaser, Aunt Connie PSA #2, A Five Minute Romp Through the IP, and WEVP Technical Difficulties. 

It all comes off as very true to the spirit of public access television, leavened with Kentucky Route Zero's supernatural undertones. And the simulation runs pleasingly deep: I don't want to spoil too much but I will suggest that if you're intrigued, you might want to try that phone number. Also, the Bureau of Secret Tourism is real. Just putting that out there. 

There's no hard release date for Kentucky Route Zero Act 5 just yet, unless it's buried somewhere in WEVP video databank. (If so, I haven't found it yet.) But it's reasonably to say that it's probably coming soon—in the meantime, find out why Joe chose it as his "Staff Pick" for our 2016 Game of the Year Awards. 

Kentucky Route Zero - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (RPS)

Nrrrrrr-nee-nurrrrrrrr!

BAM. A sound captures your headphones and holds you hostage. It’s the RPS podcast, the Electronic Wireless Show. We’ve been lying in wait for the past three weeks, consolidating our strength and preparing to kidnap you by the ear canals. “Listen up, 2018!” we shout out from atop this metaphor. “We have a list of demands and we’re not releasing this poor listener until you’ve delivered! Or until the one hour playtime is up, whichever comes first!”

(more…)

Kentucky Route Zero

Time was, indie developers used to be just that: indie. They'd develop games and release them themselves with complete creative freedom. OK, maybe not complete creative freedom, but the dawn of indie was an age of possibility, when suddenly anyone was able to distribute games across the globe at nominal cost. Niche games found audiences the traditional game industry overlooked; experimentation led to new game forms and expression. Halcyon days, as the cliché goes. 

"Indie dev is a minefield now," says Paul Kilduff-Taylor, co-founder of Mode 7 Games, the indie developer behind the Frozen Synapse series. "To have a chance at a good level of success, you basically have to nail everything. That's a really tall order, so devs are simply looking to stack the odds in their favour."

I haven't yet been pitched by an indie who is already doing a lot of their own press, or has a significant marketing plan in place

Paul Kilduff-Tayler, Mode 7

And many are doing that by partnering with publishers who focus on indie developers. Many of the leading indie games today are published by the likes of Devolver Digital, Curve, Raw Fury, Double Fine, Finji, Adult Swim, Team 17, Humble, PlayWay. They might seem to portend the sad end of a noble movement, of big business moving in to profit off the indie spirit, but the truth is very different. 

Tokyo 42, developed by SMAC Games and published by Mode 7.

Do indies need publishers?

The first and most obvious appeal of a publisher is as a source of funding, whether that's money that will pay a developer's rent while they finish a game or pay their collaborators. But publishers do a lot more than that. So far in 2017 over 6,800 games have been released on Steam, compared to 5,028 in 2016 and 2,991 in 2015. A lot of games are being made at the moment, and the great majority of them would self-identify as 'indie games.' So how can a developer stand out in all that noise? How do you make a trailer that shows off your game in its best possible light? How do you make a trailer at all? How do you make a game that appeals widely? These are the kinds of questions that routinely keep developers awake at night. 

"I haven't yet been pitched by an indie who is already doing a lot of their own press, or has a significant marketing plan in place," says Kilduff-Taylor, who began publishing games at Mode 7 with the release of Tokyo 42 earlier this year. 

"One of the biggest fears and unknowns is to sell and market a game," agrees Andreea Chifu, head of sales and distribution at Raw Fury, which publishes Gonner, upcoming The Last Night and most recently, Uurnog Uurnlimited. 

Uurnog Uurnlimited, developed by Nifflas Games and published by Raw Fury.

"Yeah, absolutely," agrees Uurnog's creator, Nicklas 'Nifflas' Nygren. "I don't have time for it, and it's very, very difficult. It's scary and weird. I only really like creating new games, and since I do so many things because I work on music and code and design, it's very good if someone can help me, someone who I can offload marketing stuff and getting devkits to. I don't know how all that works and I don't have time to." 

...there's something really encouraging about being sort of 'label-mates' with artists we greatly admire.

Jake Elliott, Cardboard Computer

Publishers also perform many other tasks that go into releasing a modern game: testing, localisation, porting to other platforms, developing relationships with distribution platform holders like Steam, working on branding strategy, administering store pages (this is a far bigger headache than you might imagine, with the need to create platform-specific images, write descriptions of different lengths, deal with uploading finished code and updates and associated bundles and DLC and oh my). There's also legal support, finding collaborators such as artists, music composers and writers, and managing their contracts.

In short, publishers do the crap that gets in the way of making a game. Necessary crap which requires specialized knowledge, contacts, experience and skills which are not often in line with those that go toward making a game. The way Nigel Lowrie, a cofounder of Devolver Digital, sees it, publishers are a tool that indies can use. "A developer should look at what a publisher has to offer, is it of use to them, do they think they can do it better, and will it help make their game a success? And more than that, help them make a better game?"

Hotline Miami, developed by Dennaton Games and published by Devolver Digital.

Every developer has different needs, and publishers—good publishers—must be very flexible to accommodate them. Experienced developers might simply want funding, while younger ones might want more hands-on support, with the publisher providing extensive design feedback and direction. Some just want help with marketing, others just want to offload platform porting jobs, like Cardboard Computer, which originally released Kentucky Route Zero entirely independently and only recently signed with Annapurna Interactive to port it to consoles, localizing it into new languages and drumming up attention. "All three of those tasks involve a lot of management, and are also all new territory for us, so it's great to have some help and guidance from this crew who have a lot of experience," says writer and programmer Jake Elliott.

"I think increasingly indies are looking for a publisher who really understands their particular project and can give it a lot of time, rather than one who is going to slot it in as part of a portfolio approach," says Kilduff-Taylor. As such, many indie-focused publishers have a certain style or specialty. "Devolver are outstanding with games that have a certain type of vibe and aesthetic to them," he suggests. "Team 17 are good at identifying and working with what I'd call 'mid-size' indie games and turning them into mega-hits, and so on. So really it's about the developer identifying which configuration is going to suit them best."

Even in the case of Cardboard Computer, late to getting a publisher for Kentucky Route Zero, they started talking to Annapurna all the way back in 2011 when it was originally Kickstarted. "We really appreciate Annapurna's artist-oriented focus and the other work they are publishing," says Elliott. "It's kind of an intangible, but there's something really encouraging about being sort of 'label-mates' with artists we greatly admire."

Kentucky Route Zero, developed by Cardboard Computer and now published by Annapurna Interactive.

Nygren takes a similarly human-centered approach. "I really look primarily for people who first just like the game," he says. "That's a very important thing, that they feel investment themselves in the game and don't just see it as a way to make money."

"It's people working with other people," says Devolver's Lowrie. "It has to be a tailored relationship with all sorts of variables and things that each side brings to the table, good and bad. Personalities, desires and everything like that." He's adamant that everyone should be open with what they want from the outset, so everyone understands what they want and how they see they'll get there.

There's lots of secret discussion among indies about who's good and bad, about bad deals

Nicklas Nygren, Nifflas Games

"A publisher should make you feel that you are part of a family, that you have a team, colleagues to bounce ideas off and to waive some of the stress that comes with a new release," agrees Chifu. "When we see that we've manage to build a nice community, it feels good. All our devs get to know the other teams we might work with, and most of the time they become friends and even help each other. This is sustainable because we prioritize transparency and trust."

Battle Chef Brigade, developed by Trinket Studios and published by Adult Swim.

Where the money goes

So it's all sunshine and flowers in indie publishing! Okay, maybe not at every level, but certainly, these top flight publishers know that cultivating indie talent might lead to landing the next Hotline Miami, Stardew Valley, or Firewatch. There are also gougers out there, who are outed now and then with claims of them failing to honor their part in deals or withholding funds.

"There's lots of secret discussion among indies about who's good and bad, about bad deals, about avoiding this and that," warns Nygren. There are many stories of things simply going wrong, often as a result of inexperience and breakdowns in communication. 

For those worrying about deals going south, the deal itself is often a source of confidence. Neither Raw Fury nor Devolver ask for IP rights, which is to say that developers get to keep ownership of their game, brand, code and art, so they can do anything they like with it in the future. Many indies swear by this because once signed away they've no rights to build on their work and ideas in the future. This is a big contrast to the typical practice of major publishers, who are anxious to maintain control and maximize returns on what are often vast investments in a given game.

Bomber Crew, developed by Runner Duck and published by Curve.

Devolver and Raw Fury give a revenue share to all their developers. Raw Fury gives all its developers an equal partnership in a game so each party shares the same risks. After external costs are deducted, such as paid user acquisition, events and porting, all remaining revenue is shared 50/50 between developer and Raw Fury. Internal costs, such as making trailers in-house, are not deducted. This is right up Nygren's street. "I consider that if the game does well, it puts us in the same boat," he says.

Devolver's deals are based on a period of budgeting with the developer. It starts with the developer giving Devolver a budget detailing what they feel it'd cost to release the game in a certain timeframe with a certain feature-set. Devolver then goes over that budget, working in costs for creating builds to take to PAX and other shows, for QA and a hundred little unknowables. "Inexperienced developers tend to only work out what it takes to get the game done," says Lowrie. They also don't tend to think about factoring the time it usually takes between a game launching and the money being sent by the store-owner, which can be 30-90 days of starving.

Gang Beasts, developed by Boneloaf and published by Double Fine.

Once agreed, the next step is to figure out the investment Devolver will make into the budget, and how both sides will recoup their costs once the game releases, with the aim of both Devolver and developer coming to zero. And once that's reached, what the revenue share will be. In most Devolver deals, 60-70 percent of revenue goes to the developer. (This, of course, is after the percentage taken by Steam and other storefronts.)

There's a lot to consider in all of this. Signing with a publisher is complicated and risk-laden. These relationships take trust and communication. And with it comes the cost of not getting to keep 100 percent of revenue. But indie game production is becoming ever more complex and expensive and the market is becoming ever more saturated. Self-publishing is most certainly still within reach for many savvy and hard-working developers, but many others are finding the support of people—partners—who take all the crap out of their hands and share a stake in their success is invaluable.

Dungeons of Dredmor

When we debuted our list of the best indie games in 2017, we said, "Consider this the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word." We wanted the list to spark discussion among our readers and also to be something we continued thinking about. Great new indie games are arriving every month—by the time we published it Divinity: Original Sin 2 was already becoming a favorite among our writers. There were also plenty of games we voted for that narrowly missed out on the top 25, but which we thought deserved a mention regardless.

That's why we're updating our collection of the best indie games, and will continue to do so a few times a year from now on. The original 25 are still there if you page down, but at the top you'll find some personal favorites that missed out before, and the new hotness. This is supposed to be a list of the best indie games to play right now after all, and these are the games we recommend today. 

Into the Breach

Released: 2018 | Developer: Subset Games

Jody: Turn-based games don't always respect your time—opponents who take forever, entire turns where nothing happens, animations that feel like everyone's wading through stew. Into the Breach does not waste your time, which is apt because it's about time travel.

In the future giant bugs crawl out of the ground and ravage the world, and our only hope are mech pilots from an even more distant future who travel back to save us. As a band of three pilots in vehicles that would make cool toys, you're humanity's last hope. Fortunately, you can see what the bugs plan one turn ahead, and can dodge out of their way so they attack each other or dodge into their way to protect a building full of civilians they were about to demolish. It's a mech vs. monster dance-off.

And it's conveniently bite-sized. Maps are small, load fast, and only have to be protected for a few turns, so it feels worthwhile even if you've only got minutes. With hours to spare you can play a full run, save the day, then take your favorite pilot and leap back into a different timeline to do it all again.

Enter the Gungeon

Released: 2016 | Developer: Dodge Roll

Shaun: Enter the Gungeon is an arcade roguelite about shooting bullets with bullets. In other words, the enemies are ammunition. As one of four distinct characters, you'll dodge-roll, kick furniture and, most importantly, destroy bullets with bullets. There are hundreds of distinct weapons, ranging from a bow and arrow through to guns that shoot actual bees.

Enter the Gungeon exists in an absurdly busy genre: each week I write about a new roguelite. But Enter the Gungeon is special because not only does it nail the essentials (shooting, movement, sheer variety of weapons and items), but it also doesn't complicate things too much. Other arcade-centric roguelites like Flinthook and Rogue Legacy have had a good go at mixing compelling action with a simplified approach to the genre, and while each are great they end up feeling repetitive: like a jumble of the same rooms. But it's the weaponry that keeps Enter the Gungeon fresh. It's also really charming, somewhat against the odds.

Austin: I'd also like to add that there's a gun that shoots guns that shoot bullets.  

Frostpunk

Released: 2018 | Developer: 11 Bit Studios

Chris: It feels strange to play a city-builder that's not open-ended and doesn't let you tinker with your city forever. Also strange is that no matter how efficiently you design your city, your residents may kick your ass out of it due to events that take place elsewhere. But that Frostpunk does things differently is one of the things that makes it great.

Frostpunk is both grim and beautiful, a blend of survival and crisis management that leaves you facing tough choices, sometimes unthinkable ones, as you attempt to build a city that will protect your residents from a world gone cold. You're not just trying to keep them warm and fed, but keep them hopeful, and that's no simple matter when the only thing more bleak than the present is the future. In addition to building, gathering resources, and sending expeditions into the frozen world, you have to grapple with passing laws that may save your citizens' lives but at the same time may erode their freedom. There's rarely a moment that's free of tension and worry, and rarely a choice that isn't second-guessed.

Don't Starve / Don't Starve Together

Released: 2013 / 2016 | Developer: Klei

Jody: Klei's 2013 survival game is a playable Edward Gorey book where you'll probably get eaten by dogs or starve during the long winter—a possibility the name does warn you about, to be fair—while learning how the ecosystem of its unusual world works. You discover the importance of the wild beefalo herd, and the value of dealing with the Pig King. 

And then you do it again, with friends.

The survival games that followed Don't Starve filled their servers with desperate lummoxes all flailing at trees and rocks and each other. Don't Starve Together made multiplayer survival into something that's not as easy to make memes of, but a lot more fun. Sure, you can play it competitively but it's best as a co-operative village simulator where you start by pooling your rocks to make a firepit and eventually you're taking down bosses then crafting statues to commemorate your victory in the town square.

Celeste

Released: 2018 | Developer: Matt Makes Games

Shaun: Celeste is a tough 2D platformer with a 16-bit retro aesthetic. If I had a pixel for every time I’ve written about a game with those descriptors, I’d maybe have enough to render Crysis. So what makes Celeste special? The reasons are many and varied: firstly, it carries itself differently to other deliberately hard platformers like Super Meat Boy and N++. Studio Matt Makes Games wants everyone to finish this game, not just Kaizo Mario World speedrunners, so its pacing is careful and its attitude encouraging. While protagonist Madeline doesn’t have the most novel moveset in a platformer (she can grab certain walls and dash through the air), the action is precise, smooth, and unusually, you’ll actually care about her journey. 

Perhaps the variety is what really elevates Celeste: this is a game with set pieces that aren’t just saved for the boss battles, and while it is fundamentally a series of platform challenge rooms, it does feel like you’re navigating a world (in this case, the mountain Celeste). Not since Shovel Knight have we had a game that manages to cater for players who might not enjoy the irreverent, punishing veneer of most modern twitch platformers.

Rain World

Released: 2017 | Developer: Videocult

Shaun: You're going to hate Rain World if you approach it with the wrong attitude. Firstly, it looks like a platformer, but it's not: it's a punishing survival game. The first hour or so spent in the game also lacks promise: the controls are slightly fiddly because (by necessity—this is a survival game) they aren't as intuitive as most 2D games. You have to learn them (Rain World is all about learning, but you'll still sometimes get unlucky).

Once you surmount these prickly beginnings, Rain World is remarkable. You play as a slugcat one tier above the bottom of the food chain, and you must negotiate a labyrinthine and hideously broken open world in order to survive. Rain World is cryptic, uncompromising, and once given the chance one of the tensest and most atmospheric 2D games I've ever played. If you must make it easier, there have since been options added to the game to allow that. But I wouldn't if I were you. Rain World is determined to wrest empowerment from the player, determined to eschew any shred of the power fantasy so dominant in its medium. And yet it is logical, it's not "unfair", it’s not "poorly designed". It just doesn’t care about you.

Divinity: Original Sin 2

Released: 2017 | Developer: Larian Studios

Jody: My party includes a skeleton who has mastered poison magic, a dwarf pirate, and a fire-breathing lizard prince. By the end of the game, one of them will be a god. 

Plenty of developers have resurrected the bones of the isometric RPG and added modern skin to it, but only a couple of those games really work as both reminders of the old days and great RPGs worth recommending to people who don't have nostalgia goggles near at hand. 

Divinity: Original Sin 2 takes the traditional map-hopping fantasy quest structure and adds a mindbending array of abilities to fill multiple hotbars, sidequests that feel like tonal breaks from the storyline but also seem like they matter on their own, and a degree of characterization we expect from big-budget RPGs. Every party member has their own thing going on, their own plot to follow and life to live, and can replace your character if they die. They can even be selected to take the lead in conversations, although saying hi to people as the skeleton without a disguise on will raise some eyebrows.

Wes: Original Sin 2 has great writing, clever and creative quests, and strong characters with arcs that span a near-hundred hour quest, all substantial improvements over the first game, which was already a hell of an RPG. What I really love about Original Sin 2 is that anytime you ask yourself the question "Can I do this?" you probably can. Savescum to your heart's content to see what happens when you kill an NPC, or sneak somewhere you aren't supposed to be, or figure out how to jump over a wall instead of solving a puzzle. Larian built an insanely open-ended RPG that encourages you to play however the hell you want, and then had the audacity to put a great story and combat system in it, too. 

Devil Daggers

Released: 2016 | Developer: Sorath 

Jody: A one-level first-person shooter where the level is a hellish arena, and the enemies are skulls and flying snakes and other escapees from heavy metal album art. Devil Daggers takes the speed and circle-strafing of Quake and distills it into one perfect minute, or longer if you're better at it than I am. It almost takes longer to describe than it does to play—almost. 

Steamworld Dig 2

Released: 2017 | Developer: Image & Form 

Austin: SteamWorld Dig 2 is a 2D Metroidvania-style platformer about digging tunnels in a fully destructible world. You collect resources, haul them up to the surface, upgrade your gear, and dive back down. As you rack up upgrades, from your pickaxe to gadgets like the grappling hook, jackhammer and steam-powered grenade launcher, you unlock new areas to explore and new ways to explore them. 

It's this magical mix of Metroidvania exploration and the resource collecting that makes survival games so cathartic, and it works because it lets you go at your own pace. You don't just go a little deeper each time you upgrade your stuff; you get a little more adventurous. You start to experiment with different gadgets and use them in new ways, and this changes the way you dig tunnels, which act like scaffolding for getting around levels. And no matter what you do, you're always making progress. Everything feeds into everything else, so you're constantly motivated to dive deeper and discover new temples to ransack. 

Subnautica

Released: 2018 | Developer: Unknown Worlds

Jody: Depending how you feel about diving, Subnautica can be either a wonderful opportunity to explore an alien aquarium or a straight-up horrorshow. Even with the survival stuff turned off so you don't have to regularly grab fish and eat them as you swim past, its depths contain claustrophobic tunnels and beasts big enough to swallow you whole. The thing is, Subnautica works as both a tense survival game about making it day by day in a hostile alien ocean and a way to drift around meeting strange sea creatures (and eating them).

The list continues on page two.

Gone Home

Released: 2013 | Developer: Fullbright

Shaun: Video games aren’t always about mowing down aliens and nazis and trolls in fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic settings. But most of the time they are. Gone Home wasn’t the first meditative, narrative-driven game, but it arrived at a time when people were more receptive to their possibilities than ever before. Crucial to Gone Home’s success is that, rather than resting on the delivery tactics of film, Fullbright uses the more tactile nature of the videogame medium. Sure, it’s interactive in the sense that you’re wandering through a home and discovering its inhabitants’ stories, but it also asks of the player that they mull over the lives that they’re eavesdropping on. While there are plenty of “walking simulators” nowadays, Gone Home endures because the story it tells is enduringly affecting and important.

Proteus

Released: 2013 | Developer: David Kanaga

Jody: I like walking simulators, and I use the term affectionately, but sometimes I find it hard to get caught up in their stories. They can feel anticlimactic. Proteus doesn't because its story is one I tell myself. It dumps me on a procedurally generated island and lets me explore, climbing hills and chasing frogs. There is another story in it though, in the sense that there's a sequence of events that you can experience, but it's a subtle one. (I'll give you a hint: it involves the standing stones.) If you want it there's a build-up and climax there, but even without that the relaxing strolls over its islands gave me all the satisfaction I needed.

Papers, Please

Released: 2013 | Developer: Lucas Pope

Jody: Games are amazing at letting you experience someone else's life. To pick an extreme example, just like the wriggly controls of Snake Pass give you an insight into what it would be like to be a snake, the rubber stamps and bureaucracy of Papers, Please make you feel like a border guard under a totalitarian regime.Morality's a thing games don't often do well, but by letting you master increasingly complex regulations—Papers, Please has a great difficulty curve, which indie games sometimes struggle with—it gives you power over the hapless citizens who line up to present their documentation. It motivates you to judge them harshly because if you don't, the pay you need to support your family will be docked, but also because the detective work of uncovering fraud is shockingly fun. You discover a contradiction in someone's papers and feel great, then realize what that will mean for the human on the other side of the counter trying to get home and feel awful. Yeah, it's a game about paperwork, but it's so intense that when I was rewarded for my paper-pushing by being given the key to the gun cabinet I wanted to hand it back. I wanted to tell a video game I wasn't interested in its gun.

Austin: I still remember one of the many would-be citizens I turned away in Papers, Please—the old man who repeatedly submits ridiculously inaccurate papers. Sometimes his ID shows the wrong gender or expiration date, sometimes he even has a photo of someone else on ‘his’ passport. His errors get more and more obvious and egregious, but his cheery attitude never changes. Every time I turned him away, he’d just smile and say he’d be back, like I was a server at his favorite local restaurant. Papers, Please is a game about hard choices, but nothing in it made me feel guiltier than denying that old man so many times. 

N++

Released: 2016 | Developer: Metanet Software

Shaun: During my first ecstatic weeks spent with N++, I thought it might be the last platformer I’d ever need to play. The slippery, floaty physics are so expertly tuned, and the level design so varied (despite having upwards of 5,000) that I thought it could keep me busy forever. And while I’ve played probably dozens of different platformers since, N++ is the only one I feel compelled to regularly return to.

Even when you’re not winning, N++ just feels good, and its focus on precision and reflexes isn’t as potentially frustrating as it can be in, for example, Super Meat Boy. The whole game has a zen-like quality, from its austere minimalistic art style through to the experimental electronic soundtrack (one of the few, in a platformer, that I’ve never turned the volume down on). This is simply the best pure platformer you can get on PC, a museum-worthy distillation of the genre’s strengths.

West of Loathing

Released: 2017 | Developer: Asymmetric Publications

Chris: West of Loathing is just so wonderfully jam-packed with humor, clever writing, and charming characters that it's hard to stop playing even when you've finished the main story, solved all of the (sometimes quite devious) puzzles, and collected every hat (there are more than 50) in the game. Everywhere you turn there's some little bit of descriptive text that will make you smile, chuckle, or laugh, even the the settings menu. It's one of the only games that drove me to explore not for loot or experience, but for words.

Crypt of the Necrodancer

Released: 2015 | Developer: Brace Yourself Games

Bo: Crypt of the Necrodancer is a rhythm-based roguelike—a DDR-dungeon crawler, if you will. A head-scratching combination, to be sure, but that's exactly what it is. Dance your way through pixelated depths to the beat of an awesome, rhythmically complex soundtrack. Stay on beat to slay the dungeon's dancing denizens, and don't forget to spend some time with the opera-singing shopkeeper. 

Evan: Definitely give the metal version of the soundtrack by YouTuber FamilyJules (composed by Danny Baranowsky) a listen. It's right up there with the Doom 2016 soundtrack. 

Bastion

Released: 2011 | Developer: Supergiant Games

Jody: There's no game I've had better luck recommending to people than Bastion. Everybody loves its narration and its music, which would be cool independently but become truly outstanding because of how they're integrated. You think you're hearing a beautiful soundtrack and then you discover the musician in the level you're exploring. You think the narrator is a guy with a deep voice telling a story and then he reacts to how you play.

Bastion is an action RPG about a ruined sky-city that rebuilds itself under your feet, nothing beyond the screen existing until you walk toward it. Instead of playing inventory Tetris you choose two weapons from a growing catalogue, and are rewarded for choosing strange pairings with narration snippets and radically altered play. And if you don't like the combat then go into the options and pick a different control scheme. I'm not normally the kind of critic to sing the praises of an options menu but you can turn Bastion into Diablo if you want. Come on, that's awesome.

Her Story

Released: 2015 | Developer: Sam Barlow

Jody: I used to watch an English cop show called The Bill. Back when it was good they'd sometimes dedicate half an episode to an interrogation, a guest star stamping their mark on the show. That's Her Story, only instead of cops it's you, years after the recorded interview, searching through video clips by entering keywords. Her Story plays out in those videos and that search bar, but it's also played on note paper you inevitably fill with conspiracy scribbles like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I didn't bother making notes during Fez (I probably should have), but for Her Story I scrawled pages. 

It spread even further after that, into an argument with friends about what really happened which I remain convinced I'm right about. Maybe I got obsessed? It's one of a handful of games I 100-percented on Steam and I don't regret it.

Wes: In tech, skeuomorphic design—making your music player in the form of a cassette tape, for example—is now quaint and frowned upon. But it's a rarely used concept in games, and Her Story uses it to great effect. I'd go so far to say that its dusty CRT computer interface is the best marriage of aesthetic and game design in anything I've ever played. It's immersive in a subtle, well-earned way that makes Her Story enrapturing from its first few moments.

Dungeons of Dredmor

Released: 2011 | Developer: Gaslamp Games

Chris: I'm not typically one for turn-based games, and roguelike RPGs often break my heart when I'm forced to start over from scratch, but Dungeons of Dredmor immediately drew me in with its style and comedy. I've never won a game, never beat or even met Lord Dredmor, never even gotten more than a few levels deep. It's still a joy to play for its writing, humor and surprisingly deep and amusing lore.

Evan: The absurdity goes so far to soften the blows of its difficulty. You can build a Vampire Communist who wields Egyptian Magic, Fungal Arts, or Emomancy to fight hordes of weird robots, carrots, genies, and whatever the hell diggles are.

Austin: I keep coming back to Dungeons of Dredmor because it’s a gamble I don’t mind losing. I’ve never beaten Dredmor either, but generating a random character and pushing the usefulness of absurd skills like Fleshsmithing, Killer Vegan and Paranormal Investigator is always a thrill, even when I die on the first or second floor. It’s a system that rewards inventiveness. You can manually select your skills, but rolling the die and making the best of random skills is far more satisfying, and like the optional but actually totally necessary permadeath, makes every round feel genuinely different.

Lovely Planet

Released: 2014 | Developer: QuickTequila

Shaun: You don’t need blood and exploding heads in a first-person shooter. Case in point: Lovely Planet, a first-person shooter where you run increasingly complex gauntlets while shooting cute pastel shapes in a floating pastel land. But how, you ask. How can a game about shooting cute pastel shapes (that don’t bleed!) be fun? Because this is basically a platformer—a more-ish precision-oriented runner combining the fluidity of a Quake speedrun with the one-more-try quick respawn loop of Super Meat Boy. 

DEFCON

Released: 2006 | Developer: Introversion Software

Tyler: DEFCON is one of those games I could play forever. It's a simple, morbid real-time strategy game in which global nuclear war is inevitable and 'winning' means losing fewer people than everyone else. In the early stages it's about placing missile silos (which double as missile defense systems), airfields, radar stations, and fleets of submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. As the war turns hot, the only option is to manage losses and inflict your own genocide, to make paranoid alliances and break them with bombs—ignoring that the fallout will kill everyone anyway. The brutality is rendered with War Games-style vectors, turning cities to dots and people to casualty numbers, emulating the calculated viciousness of modern drone wars.

Oikospiel

Released: 2017 | Developer: David Kanaga

James: Oikospiel is a dog opera game about dogs making an opera game. I think. Here’s the plot synopsis according to developer, composer, everything-er David Kanaga: “The Oikospielen Opera is developing an epic global-gaming festival called THE GEOSPIEL, scheduled for the year 2100. The opera's employees, organized by the Union of Animal Workers, are trying to integrate the game dev dogs of Koch Games into their group, but these loyal pups love their jobs and boss Donkey Koch too much! Will there be Unity, or will Multiplicity prevail?” 

It’s as strange as it sounds, and it sounds strange—literally—too. With a soundtrack that mimics its frenzied landscapes, Oikospiel is a touching, psychedelic trip through videogame history with a meaningful message about labor.

The Stanley Parable

Released: 2011 / 2013 | Developer: Galactic Cafe, William Pugh, Davey Wreden

Shaun: Are you playing the game, or is the game playing you? So much of our agency in modern games is illusory, or, more gratingly, reductive and binary. Are you going to go the nice path or the bad-arse path? The Stanley Parable is a meta-critique of gaming as a medium, but it’s also a trojan horse existential crisis (and we all love having those). When we don’t take the critical path, the one prescribed to us, what could possibly go wrong? And given the actual opportunity to do so—given the opportunity to deliberately stray from what a game (or The Stanley Parable’s narrator) is telling us to do, is there any point in playing the game at all? Hmmm. Makes you think.

Jody: First time I played The Stanley Parable I did everything I was told to. Knowing it would be meta-commentary, I rebelled by not rebelling. That’s a dumb way to experience The Stanley Parable for the first time. Don’t do that. Sabotage it, go the wrong way, hide in a closet and refuse to leave. It’s a better game if you break the rules other games have taught you rather than the first rule of The Stanley Parable, which is: don’t do what you’re told.

SOMA

Released: 2015 | Developer: Frictional Games

Shaun: Survival horror too often devolves into repetitive efforts to fend off undead with unwieldy weaponry, but Soma is different. There’s no combat on this underwater research facility, and enemy encounters are few and far between. Most of the time you’re just looking at stuff, but that’s ok in the hands of studio Frictional. They manage to wring an overwhelming sense of dread and despair from a mere dark corridor, not to mention the sprawling sub-aquatic outdoor areas peppered throughout. And the ending of Soma—even if you’re usually ambivalent towards low action horror—is worth the trip alone. It may be more contemplative and less jump scare-oriented than Amnesia, but it’s all the better for it.

James: I’d even recommend those typically averse to horror give SOMA a try. Install the teasingly named “Wuss Mode” mod from the Steam Workshop to make the monsters harmless without losing much horror in the process. Sure, you won’t have to hide, but that doesn’t make their appearance and origins any less terrifying. 

Thumper

Released: 2016 | Developer: Drool

Shaun: Thumper is like an ugly, loathsome, despair-inducing industrial techno song come to life. And that's a very good thing. In our Top 100 Evan described it as "a documentary about the path you take to heaven or hell when you die" which is just about the most alluring description for a video game I've ever read. Yes, it's a tough, precision-oriented rhythm game, but it's a precision-oriented rhythm game that feels like a collaboration between Gaspar Noe and Laibach.

The list concludes over the page.

Nidhogg 2

Released: 2017 | Developer: Messhof Games

Bo: I'm a sucker for local multiplayer games, and Nidhogg is one of the best. Somewhat of a cross between fencing and tug-of-war, Nidhogg's 1v1 matches play out over the course of many brief but violent clashes, resulting in a tense back-and-forth that's every bit a battle of wits as it is one of skill. And like all good local multiplayer games, it's easy to pick up and play but has a well of strategic depth that makes it difficult to master.

The recently-released Nidhogg 2 builds on its predecessor with a new grotesque claymation art style as well as a handful of new weapon types that mix combat up just enough to make things exciting without hampering the original's simplistic greatness. The result is a fantastic fighter we keep coming back to—especially if an office bet needs to be settled. 

Fez

Released: 2012 | Developer: Polytron Corp 

Shaun: Fez accumulates more poignancy with age. It’s a puzzle platformer tightly stuck between two dimensions, and harried by each of them. The protagonist is tasked with investigating and hopefully fixing the scourge of a newly arrived third dimension in a happily two-dimensional world, and this could read, from a fairly one-dimensional point of view, as an indictment on progress, a kind of luddite’s journey. 

But as time passes—as the world becomes more overtly hostile—Fez’s innocent take on the loss of innocence rings true. As time passes, each of us will realise that certain uncomfortable truths have always lingered just out of our sight, waiting to pounce. And others will persevere, dig deeper (whether wisely or otherwise), for conspiracies and better buried secrets (and boy does Fez have secrets). Fez is a game about the hidden regions of our world that are always there, always mysterious, usually forbidding. It’s a beautiful and serene and sad game, but also, as an aside, really fun to play too. Fez is timeless in the way it can convey a wealth of emotion and contemplation through its systems alone.

Wes: After its fairly simple introductory hours, every discovery and deduction I made in Fez felt like a hard earned victory, or the unraveling of an impossibly complex puzzle. I love the sensation of "this can't possibly be the solution" in a videogame, only to discover that my crazy hypothesis was correct. That's what Fez is all about. And I love how clearly you can feel the immense amount of thought and polish that went into it; it feels every bit the intricate, perfectly tuned puzzle someone spent half a decade slotting together, piece by piece, until everything was just so.

Night in the Woods

Released: 2017 | Developer: Infinite Fall

Shaun: Some of the most noteworthy indies from the last decade have been adventure games, but it took until 2017 for one of the highlights, Night in the Woods, to emerge. As endearing feline Mae Borowski, you’re returning to the sleepy rural town of your childhood after an unsuccessful college stint. The town is on the decline, and so too, it seems, is Mae’s future. Things haven’t quite turned out the way she (or her family) had hoped, and much of Night in the Woods is about dealing with this mild disappointment. Exploring the township of Possum Springs is a joy in itself, but it’s the way Night in the Woods weaves a universal coming of age tale around an otherwise straightforward puzzle-laden adventure game that is remarkable. 

Kentucky Route Zero

Released: 2013-ongoing | Developer: Cardboard Computer

Jody: I wanted to wait. I wanted all five episodes of Kentucky Route Zero to be complete before I climbed into it and drove off. That's how I played The Walking Dead, and rumbling through that in one week contributed to its effect. I caved in and played Kentucky Route Zero though because a poet recommended it to me, and that's not something that happens every day. It’s obvious why she thought I had to try it, unfinished as it was (and still is). Kentucky Route Zero’s writing is gorgeous, ornamental but also able to get right at the meat of a thing. It's there when someone calls an office bureaucracy "the paperclip labyrinth" or describes topology as "the science of continuous space".

Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game of the modern kind, where decisions and dialogue rather than puzzles pace your progress. It's about finding a lost highway, but it quickly buries you in a kind of American mythology where mystery roads are the least strange thing. I'd hate to spoil what you'll find, but if you get in an elevator, see a button that says "third floor (bears)" and aren't tempted to press it, then I don't even know you.

Though it feels like being in a novel, Kentucky Route Zero pays homage to games. That explanation of topology takes place in "a twisty maze of passages", a reference to the classic text game Colossal Cave Adventure. So is the fact that the first item you pick up is a lamp. Some of the earliest PC games were about manipulating words because that was all they had. Kentucky Route Zero is about manipulating words because that's a fascinating thing to do. It's hard to explain why encountering its word-hoard has such a potent effect, but I'm just a journalist. They should have sent a poet.

Stardew Valley

Released: 2016 | Developer: Eric Barone

Bo: There are few games that delight me in the way that Stardew Valley does. I grew up loving the Harvest Moon series, and Stardew takes that formula and applies it to the PC space. Stardew strips away many of Nintendo's puritanical hangups—same-sex marriage and sexual innuendo aren't taboo inclusions, for example—but maintains the charm of tilling fields, planting seeds, and growing crops. There's also a vibrant town to get to know, mines to explore, and tons and tons of fish to fish. I've spent more than 80 hours in Stardew Valley, and I'm looking forward to my next trip to the country. 

James: Do you see me now, dad? You didn’t think my mayonnaise dreams would get me anywhere and look at me now.

Jody: Thank goodness I am not the only person making bank off mayonnaise. The quality eggs provided by my hens, Chickity and Nug, are the secret of my success.

Undertale

Released: 2015 | Developer: Toby Fox

Wes: A friend and I played Undertale in a single sitting. It first inspires curiosity at its quirkiness, then determination to solve its challenging combat without taking the easy way out, then admiration for the delivery of its jokes and the tight meshing of themes and RPG mechanics twisted sideways. Comparisons to Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound, while apt, don't do Undertale justice: it's incredibly smart in how it thinks about the way we play videogames and challenges and surprises with new ideas at every step.

It's a game I genuinely think everyone should play. You'll either appreciate the humor, or the challenge, or the freedom to play through in many different ways, or the painstaking one-off moments, or the ways creator Toby Fox bent engine Game Maker to his will, or the prospect of a "true" ending to earn. It looks simple, but there's so much under the surface.

Kerbal Space Program

Released: 2015 | Developer: Squad

Chris: Whether you're seriously into the science and simulation, or just looking for some fun sending adorable astronauts into space (or watching their rockets explode before they get there), Kerbal is a near-perfect physics sandbox. One of the reasons it's such a joy to play is that there's immense satisfaction in the successes, like the first time you reach orbit, or land on the Mun, or safely bring your astronauts home from a mission, but there's also pleasure to be had (as well as lessons to be learned) from your failures.

KSP is both easy and immensely challenging: rockets can be snapped together quickly, and tweaked or rebuilt in mere moments, but conquering the solar system requires precision and know-how. Its charming looks and its detailed physics simulation make it a game for just about anyone, from casual rocket tinkerers to passionate rocket scientists.

Hollow Knight

Released: 2017 | Developer: Team Cherry

Wes: The best Metroidvania in years, perhaps because developers Team Cherry didn't explicitly set out to make a game in the image of Metroid. They were making a 2D action game, sure, set in a gorgeous hand-drawn decaying bug civilization, but they were mainly concerned with building out an intricate and interesting world, and the rest followed. "The rest," in this case, is a game that feels fantastic to play, with a character who moves exactly as you want and a weapon that hits with a fast and brutal crack. Combat and traversal stay rooted in the basics of jump, dodge, hit, never scaling too far beyond the capabilities you have from the very beginning. It always favors skill over power-ups.

Hollow Knight rarely tells you where to go or what to do, making palpable the satisfaction and wonder of discovering new parts of the world and new abilities. And it just keeps going. The world is huge, more detailed than you ever expect it to be, and suddenly you're two dozen hours deep and wondering how much you still have to find. The Super Nintendo had Super Metroid; PlayStation had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Hollow Knight may not be spoken of in the same breath, just yet, but before long I think its place in that lineage will be clear: the PC had Hollow Knight.

Darkest Dungeon

Released: 2016 | Developer: Red Hook Studios

Shaun: Ah, dread. It’s what you generally try to avoid in an RPG rogue-like: you want to try to mitigate dread, manage it out of existence. But dread is Darkest Dungeon’s default state. In vague terms it’s a dungeon crawler, but the dungeons aren’t miraculously swept chasms with the odd cobweb and exhumed grave—they’re dank and gross. Add to that, the need to manage your entourage’s sanity (not easy in a game that takes some small inspiration from Lovecraft) and you have an RPG that rarely offers respite. That could sound punishing, but Darkest Dungeon’s mood, and the way that you can invest your emotions in its variables, rather than just your brain and its ability to parse bigger and better numbers, makes for a gripping and bleak RPG.

Evan: I love how martial, not magical, most of the character archetypes are. Apart from the Vestal, there aren't true spellcasters—Darkest Dungeon is acted out in blood, iron, poison, bones, and crossbow bolts. That grounds the game as a whole and adds to its grittiness. The fights that play out, with the help of great 2D camera effects and sound design, feel physical and jarring as a result. It also creates good contrast with DD's monsters, a gang of blood-sucking, spore-sneezing, tentacle-having, spinal column-collecting abominations.

Spelunky

Released: 2008, 2013 | Developer: Mossmouth

Shaun: The first time I played Spelunky I deleted it off my hard drive within ten minutes. Then, later, at the behest of then-PC Gamer scribe Graham Smith’s review, I begrudgingly reinstalled it. I can still remember what hooked me this second time: I picked up a gold mask, a rumble filled the air, and then a massive boulder collapsed through the ceiling and crushed a nearby vendor to death. I laughed, it was funny, I woke my partner up. That’s when I became addicted to Spelunky. 

A lot has been written about the beauty of Spelunky’s interlocking systems, its propensity for creating stories, and its tough-but-fair difficulty. That’s all been said and written a hundred times before, and while Spelunky is still a relatively new game in the wide scheme of things, it feels like a classic. I often boot it up just to be inside of it, just to soak up its mood. It’s weird to seek the comfort of familiarity in a game that’s always throwing curveballs, but aside from the glory of its systems and stories, Spelunky is a really beautiful, heartwarming game. It also was the first to demonstrate to me, personally, that a small game that originated as freeware could contain so much: so many stories, so many events, so many countless, frankly embarrassing, hours.

Evan: I'm gonna use this opportunity to share this great cover of the Mines theme.

Wes: Even years later, Spelunky's spot on this list is well deserved. The way its hero and items and traps and enemies and random generation interact with one another is still peerless. Just as brilliant, though, is Spelunky's daily challenge, the perfect combination of old school arcade leaderboard and infinitely replayable randomized roguelike. The daily challenge added structure and permanence to a genre that prided itself on not having any, and it works; it's become a must-have feature in any similar roguelike ever since.

Kentucky Route Zero

After teasing a string of weird art house videos earlier this year, Kentucky Route Zero unveiled its TV Edition last week—an "enhanced" console edition that's due alongside its fifth and final act. Cardboard Computer now wants to assure would be players that the console port will not stand in the way of Act 5's development. 

Having launched KRZ's first act in 2013, the series will conclude in "early 2018"—a steady-paced development arc that's upset some players, against the modest size of each chapter. To this end, the fact Act 5's launch on PC won't be compromised but its coinciding TV Edition is good news, then. 

"We’ll release [the TV Edition] at the same time as we update the PC version with Act 5, which we’re planning to do in the early part of 2018," says Cardboard Computer via a blog post. "There are some nice enhancements to the game that are coming as part of this TV Edition, and all of these will be ported back to the PC version also—the two versions are basically identical other than the platforms they run on. Wanted to make sure we were clear with you all about that!"

The developer explains that Nathan Gray from the console port's publisher, Annapurna, was one of the PC entry's first Kickstarter backers. Gray is in charge of the porting process so that Cardboard Computer can direct its attention on finishing Act 5. 

The post continues: "It’s important to us to be clear with you all about that as well—we’re totally focused on finishing Act 5! Working with Annapurna on this allows us to finish the game while console work happens in parallel."

Annapurna is also helping the developer localise KRZ in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Japanese, and Korean. 

Kentucky Route Zero's fifth and final act is without a hard release date, however is expected in early 2018. 

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