Caitlin Galiz-Rowe’s Top Ten Moments in Games of 2018

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Hey humans! If you don’t know me, I’m Caitlin, your friendly neighborhood Stupid Gay Superstar. I run a little gaming blog called Your Geeky Gal Pal, where I post writing, occasional videos, and two of my besties and I do a rad podcast called Palin’ Around (which you should definitely check out). Said blog is also running end of the year content, so once you finish this list, if you found you liked it, you should head over there to see what else we’ve got cooking. Now, onto what you’re really here for.

This year was not a good one for me in terms of games (or just like… generally tbh). That’s not to say that there weren’t some really great games this year, but none of them really grabbed me the way titles from last year did. I’m still not even sure what I’d pick as my game of the year. That being said, I did have some really rad, distinct experiences in games this year, so that’s what I’ll be listing, in no particular order.

Vampyr

One of the things I love most about Vampyr is how it deals with its NPCs. Through its use of the hint system, it gives NPCs personality and agency that they often lack in similar RPGs. I didn’t realize how committed to this system the game was until I reached the second big character decision moment. Each time you progress through a main story-line, all of which seem to be driven by characters who are the “pillar” of their respective neighborhood, you come to a point where you have to decide that character’s fate. In typical branching storyline fashion, there are three options to choose from: spare, embrace, and if you’ve gotten the right amount of hints about this character, charm. But this is where Vampyr diverges from its RPG brethren. There is no one universal “good” choice that works across the board.

I didn’t realize this until I played through the second pillar character’s choice moment and saw the results. I had spared the first pillar, and that turned out to be the best choice for them. But sparing the second character ended up being disastrous. A huge section of their neighborhood was completely abandoned by other NPCs, some having fled, and others being turned into monstrosities that attack you on sight. After doing some research, I discovered that charming this character was apparently the least damaging way to go. That wasn’t the case for the first pillar. Had I charmed them, they would have eventually lost their mind and become a super high level skal, which would have destroyed their community, and taken away my best source for buying medicinal ingredients cheaply.

The moment I realized this, I was ecstatic. A pet peeve of mine with RPGs with branching stories and “big decisions” has always been that NPCs never really get to be agents. They always circle around the player. And while their fates still hang in your hands, I love that Vampyr’s NPCs are still recognized as independent actors who have different ideologies, temperaments, and personal stakes.

Battle Chef Brigade

Though this game came out late last year, I didn’t get around to it until the beginning of this one. I fell in love almost immediately, and have poured tens of hours into it throughout 2018. After spending so much time with it, I decided it was time to fire up a play-through on the hard difficulty.

Having practiced so much already, I breezed through most of the game, right up until the first cook-off to gain entry to the Brigade. No matter how I approached the battle, I just couldn’t seem to win. Frustrated, I decided to take a break and ended up walking away for about a month. When I came back to it, I was worried I would still be stuck on this one match, but I managed to beat it on my second or third try. Very few other moments in my gaming history have been as exciting and satisfying.

I’m not much of a mechanics or systems person. It’s just not how my brain works. Instead, I tend to bash my way through games with the bare minimum of strategy. But I couldn’t do that with this fight. There were only five minutes on the clock, and the star ingredient, a dragon, is an incredibly difficult kill. I had to take the time to perfect my combat and cooking strategy if I wanted to win. Since I’m not usually that person, actually being able to figure out a plan that would work and then executing on it was absolutely wild to me. On the one hand, it probably proves what my friends have all been screaming at me for the past few months: I’ve spent waaaaay too much time with this game. On the other though, it shows that I’m growing a little. I’m able to try things I normally wouldn’t, and succeed if I put in the time. Knowing that a proverbial old dog can still learn new trick is a comforting in 2018.

Lost Wage Rampage

I got to play as two women of color who realize they’re being screwed over by capitalism and get to actually do something about it by driving through a mall in a stolen sweepstakes car and snagging every valuable in sight. What else is there to say?

Secret Little Haven

Secret Little Haven is a visual novel that takes place entirely on the display of an old Mac. To solve puzzles and progress, you have to dig around through files on the computer and sites that Alex, the player character, frequents. I wasn’t sure how deep this mechanic would actually go when it was introduced, and was delighted when I realized how detailed it actually was. Going through the Pretty Guardians (a Sailor Moon-esque anime) forum, I discovered that it was set up like a real life fan forum, complete with actual posts you can read including fan-fiction, fan art, and discussion posts.

As someone who grew up on forums for various properties, I was so excited to have found a game that was relentlessly loyal to what they look and feel like to be on. Though the era Secret Little Haven is calling back to is a little before my time, I was still hit with a wave of nostalgia and fond memories as I dug through forum posts.

Dead Cells

I’ve never been all that good at platformers or rogue-likes, so I was fairly nervous going into Dead Cells, but I wanted to try and expand my horizons more this year. Though I did really suck at the game, and made pretty marginal progress, I did find myself enjoying the loop enough to keep playing, even if I was still basically getting nowhere fast. It became the game equivalent of a fidget cube for me; something to keep my hands busy while doing something else. And that would’ve been enough, honestly. I don’t have too many games I feel comfortable playing in the background, so to speak, so this was a welcome change.

But then I had my good run. I don’t know why, but something clicked, and I managed to beat the first boss. I had gotten to it a few times before, but kept making mistakes or being too low on health by the time I reached it and would die. This time was different though, Through some miracle, I managed to hang on and killed the boss, basically on accident. My health was as low as it could possibly be, and I was sure I was done for. But I managed to jump at just the right time as my turret took out the last of the boss’ health, and just like that I had won. My hands were shaking so hard I could barely hold my Switch as I steered my character into the following safe room, and I immediately put it into sleep mode because I needed to walk away after all the excitement.

Speed Dating for Ghosts

This one is going to contain some light spoilers for how this game works, you’ve been warned!!!

Speed Dating for Ghosts is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You play as a ghost who goes to a speed dating night, for ghosts. There are three different rooms to choose from, and there are three different ghosts in each to chat with during the dating rounds. After talking with each of the three twice, you get to choose who you want to go on a date with.

So far, this is all pretty standard dating sim fare, right? But this is where Speed Dating for Ghosts starts to play with those expectations. I completed my first round of speed dating and chose which ghost I wanted to go out with. We went on our date, and then I was taken to a new screen, called the graveyard. There are a bunch of blank tombstones on this screen, or so I thought until I realized that one had been filled in with the name of the ghost I had just gone on the date with. I went back to the main screen, started up speed dating again, and that was it. There was no further path for that ghost. It was a one and done situation. And I loved it. Dating sims usually have fairly long paths you have to follow to romance whichever character you decide on, but Speed Dating for Ghosts subverts this trope to stay true to its concept and themes. You’re sharing a moment, a vignette, but not a life, because you already had one of those.

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Light spoilers for this game too.

There’s a sequence towards the endgame where Peter has gotten his ass completely handed to him, but he’s still trying to be the strong, lone wolf who works on his own to protect the people he loves. And he almost dies for it. The only reason he lives is because MJ and Miles show up to save him at the last possible second.

I loved this moment because too often in superhero media we see the hero get hurt terribly, but still manage to save the day on their own, or be nursed back to health by the people (read women, usually) in their lives to go on to save the day by themselves. It’s a played out and boring trope, so I was surprised and happy to see that Spider-Man didn’t end up using it. Peter has a sobering moment, and instead of getting defensive and leaning into his solo bullshit, he accepts that he needs help and brings MJ and Miles into the fold because he finally recognizes that they’re as competent and necessary as he is and they’re exactly what he needs if he’s going to stop the villains from destroying New York.

You Are Jeff Bezos

Honestly just finding out that this game existed was really enough for me. In a year I’ve become more educated on all of the awful things Jeff Bezos and Amazon do, getting a game that’s basically a big ‘fuck you’ to him in a way that embraces generosity and kindness towards others was exciting in a way that no other game announcement has been for me.

But finishing the game made me fall absolutely in love. Spoilers for my neutral ending: Elon Musk picked me up in a Tesla, yelled at me about being an idiot on a bender, and ended by saying they could start a GoFundMe. It’s a scathing social commentary and I absolutely adored it.

Super Mario Party

There are only two board games I’ve genuinely loved: The Game of Life, and the Command Board from Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Super Mario Party is much closer to the latter than the former, which is why it worked for me almost immediately.

I played a few rounds with some friends soon after buying it, and was worried about how I’d feel as we started. There were so many menu options, and it really seemed like the game wanted you to know and fondly remember its history. This is my first Mario Party though, so I couldn’t fulfill that wish. But once we started playing, I realized it was close enough Birth By Sleep’s Command Board that I could deploy some of those same tricks. Using what I had learned from that game, I was able to win two out of the three games we played with relative ease.

If you’re not familiar, the Command Board is an in-game board game you can play in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep to level up commands, which are the different moves and magic spells your character can use in combat, or collect entirely new ones. You win by collecting the goal amount of points before the people or NPCs you’re playing and circling back to the square you started on. The key to winning is understanding the layout of the board, having enough points to buy squares on the board (similar to Monopoly) strategically, and knowing when to use items to boost your chances of success or hurt your opponents’ chances. Sound familiar?

A lot of people really didn’t like the Command Board in Birth By Sleep, but I’ve heard dozens of direct comparisons to Mario Party, which is hugely popular. I always enjoyed it myself, probably because I found I was good at it pretty immediately, but also because it was something I played with two of my high school friends pretty much constantly when we were together. I guess some of those happy memories carried over while those same friends and I were playing Super Mario Party. The PSP is long dead now, and I don’t think the Birth By Sleep ports support local online multiplayer for the Command Board or other arena events. Nonetheless, Super Mario Party will do nicely in its place.

Heaven Will Be Mine

A character has never been more relatable to me than Saturn, one of the three playable characters you can choose between in Heaven Will Be Mine. She’s simultaneously got  superiority and inferiority complexes, is fueled by her desire to prove her worth, loves her friends and despises those she sees as unjust, and is EXTREMELY queer. She elicits both “same” and “goals” in me. I don’t know what that says about me, but here we are.

If I’m being honest, every moment with Saturn was perfect. But there is one in particular that stood out to me. SOME SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. Saturn has just stolen an experimental mech from her faction as a final act of retaliation against a commanding officer who doesn’t respect her, or her best friend Mercury. Mercury is screaming at her about how reckless she’s being and about the danger of what could happen, since she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. Sure, she’s trained and run simulations, but she was kicked out of the pilot program so she isn’t fully versed in how the mech works.

But it doesn’t matter. Saturn knows that piloting this mech is what she was meant to do, and now she has a chip on her shoulder too. She’ll figure out how to pilot this mech not just because she has to if she wants to survive, but because she knows it’s what she wants to do, no matter what the odds look like. While I’ve never been in this dire of a situation, I know what it’s like to jump into the unknown for something you care about and have to just figure out as you go. That’s pretty much what every creative endeavor I’ve pursued in the past two years has been like for me. But since I’m here on this lovely site writing this, and you’re here reading it, I have to say I think it’s been worth it.

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