I’ve been rather quiet the past week as I’ve been enjoying — and enduring — the holidays with my family. But the end of the year is approaching, and I thought I should do some sort of year-end wrap up. Why not, I thought, talk about some of the fun and quirky videogames I’ve played over the past year? Lots of unusual games have been coming out with unconventional art, game mechanics, and themes, a nice complement to the impressive but familiar AAA games that we see every year. So here’s a rundown on some of the games that caught my attention in 2022. Images are taken from the Steam pages of the games.
Immortality. This has been one of the highest-rated games of the entire year, and with good reason. It was developed by Sam Barlow, building on the design concepts of his earlier interactive film video game, Her Story (2015).
The starting premise is simple enough. An actress, Marissa Marcel, starred in three movies, made in 1968, 1970, and 1999, none of which were ever released, and Marcel’s fate is also unknown. Your task is to figure out what happened to Marcel and why her movies were never released. You have what amounts to a film spooler, and starting with just one movie clip, which you can move through forward and backward at will, you click on interesting objects in a scene, which unlocks new scenes that have some sort of symbolic connection. In this way, you can slowly piece together the tangled story.
At some point very soon in beginning the game, however, something very unexpected happens, and I was totally blown away when it did. Suddenly you find that there is a lot more to the story than you could possibly imagine, and that you, the viewer, may also be becoming part of the story.
The film clips are incredibly well-acted and filmed, and include scenes from the 3 fictional movies themselves as well as behind the scenes shots, screen tests, and more. As the game unfolds, you find that you are unraveling multiple stories layered on top of each other: the plots of the 3 movies, the story of Marissa Marcel, and a deeper, more sinister story that underlies it all.
The two leads Manon Gage and Charlotta Mohlin give excellent performances. The different scenes discovered range from unsettling, or even frightening, to deeply and profoundly moving.
Immortality has an “end game,” but it is likely that you won’t have exposed the full story by the time you reach it. Fortunately, you can keep searching, looking for that hidden clip that will make everything come together. I played 11 hours total.
Choo-Choo Charles. This game went viral before release when its single developer released video clips of the gameplay, a first-person shooter where the player uses weapons on a train to fight Choo-Choo Charles, a terrifying spider-legged monster train.
This game is quite short — only 3 hours, at most — and has rather limited game mechanics, but it is a surprisingly good time! Most of the game involves traveling around the island by train, doing chores for islanders in exchange for weapons and train upgrades, while fighting off Charles’ unpredictable attacks. There are some very crude stealth sections that could have been improved, but the game is gorgeous and the train driving and the shooting are very satisfying. Basically, if you’ve watched the trailer of the game and it looks fun, you’ll probably enjoy it!
Excavation of Hob’s Barrow. This retro-styled point-and-click adventure game captures the spirit of those classics like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle, but with a grim cosmic horror twist!
The player controls antiquarian Thomasina Bateman, who is writing a book on the barrows of England. She is called to the village of Bewlay by a strange letter that invites her to investigate Hob’s Barrow, but when she arrives, she finds the letter-writer nowhere to be found and the locals decidedly hostile to her investigations. Through the solving of various puzzles — ingenious, but not too hard — Thomasina is drawn closer and closer to Hob’s Barrow and the horrifying secrets within.
There is a feeling of doom throughout the game, as it is made clear in the beginning that things will end very badly. The game captures an atmosphere of cosmic horror well, and the pixel art is well done. This game took me a bit over 5 hours to finish, and I found the experience and the conclusion very rewarding.
Night at the Gates of Hell. Speaking of retro experiences, Night at the Gates of Hell is a quite unusual one! A 90s-style shooter with low-polygon graphics, NatGoH is inspired by Italian supernatural horror films like the zombie films of Lucio Fulci.
The game is chock full of jump scares and the plot makes very little sense, but this is completely in keeping with the movies it homages! There is a mix of silly humor thrown in, and some low-resolution nudity that made me chuckle. It is a quirky game, and somewhat clunky at times — in the final battle at the end of the game, the number of zombies on screen caused significant game lag. But I was hooked on its weird twists and turns and changes of location, and ended up wrapping things up in 4.5 hours.
Dorfromantik. For something completely different, there’s Dorfromantik, a very placid tile-laying and landscape-building game!
The premise is simple: you have a finite number of tiles, and you place them one at a time, in order, to build up the countryside. Certain tiles will have objectives associated with them, like putting together 7 connected water tiles, and achieving these objectives gives you extra tiles to continue.
There is a score to the game, but it is designed to be very peaceful and non-competitive! It even avoids giving you a standard “game over” screen, giving you instead a “session completed” message. You can build outwards towards certain special locations, which will unlock new colorful tiles to make the perfect little world. The game has a lovely soundtrack, and it is a perfect diversion when you need a little escape time. I’ve played 15 hours so far.
Strange Horticulture. This contemplative game places you as the new proprietor of a horticulture shop, where you must attend to the needs of customers who come in with a variety of ailments and troubles.
Using your horticulture guide, you not only have to figure out what plant will help a customer, you need to identify the various plants in your collection from the often limited information in the guide! As the game progresses, you will have the opportunity to wander away from your shop and find more plants, adventures that are described as simple text adventures.
There are more sinister workings at hand, as well; you learn that there are forces of good and evil in the community, and each of them needs your services! Depending on the choices you make, you can save the world — or possibly end it.
Nothing in the game is timed, so it is a great game for those nights when you want something to ponder with the TV on in the background. The story, and the game mechanics, have plenty of twists and turns and clever puzzles to keep it entertaining for its full run time, which was almost 7 hours for me.
Vampire Survivors. The most surprising game of the year was Vampire Survivors, thrown together by a single developer using purchased assets. He released it in early access in 2021 for only $4, and it became so successful that it turned into a full-time project that entered full release this October.
Vampire Survivors basically introduced an entirely new type of gameplay, which I have heard referred to as “bullet heaven.” In “bullet hell” games, the entire screen ends up filled with enemy bullets, which must be continuously dodged. In Vampire Survivors, this is reversed: the player builds up an arsenal of ever more powerful weapons, which eventually turns them into a tornado of death, mowing down endless hordes.
The innovative aspect of Vampire Survivors is that you do not aim your weapon. Your only active control is motion, dodging and weaving amongst scores of enemies. Your weapons, that you collect as you level up, fire automatically and each with their own unique pattern. At each level, you get a choice of upgrades, and eventually you learn what types of weapons and their upgrades work well together. Occasional treasure chests from killing more advanced enemies give additional upgrades, and if you survive long enough you can become literally unstoppable. It is actually a great feeling the first time you realize that you’ve chosen your tools so well that you can stand still and just watch the death unfold. Every round lasts only 30 minutes at most, and you start anew after that.
There are numerous characters that can be unlocked through play, new weapons, new tools, new levels and many unlabeled secrets. The game rewards exploration and repeat play, and thanks to the fixed time limit, it is a perfect game to play to kill a few minutes between meetings or whatever.
I’ve played 33 hours, and haven’t even gotten close to unlocking everything yet! And haven’t even purchased the new DLC for it!
Dwarf Fortress. Speaking of games made by small teams, Dwarf Fortress finally got its Steam release, with a Tutorial and updated graphics!
For those not familiar, Dwarf Fortress is considered the most insanely detailed colony sim ever created. It has been in development since 2002, and its Alpha build was released in 2006. It is the passion project of Tarn and Zach Adams, and the original version used ascii characters to represent various people, items, features, and monsters.
The whole idea of Dwarf Fortress is to found and grow a colony of dwarves that have moved to a new land. You have to build your underground fortress from scratch and worry about every detail of keeping your colony alive: food, drink, shelter, defense, crafting, trade, happiness, and all sorts of other stuff I haven’t thought of. The world is procedurally generated, giving it a history before your dwarves arrived, and every dwarf has their own personality, likes, dislikes, aptitudes, and flaws.
Part of the fun of the game is that such a complex colony with so many variables is inevitably going to go disastrously wrong at some point, be it from raiders, starvation, or just digging in the wrong place! Each game, and each failure, tells a unique story.
The brothers had been working on Dwarf Fortress for years with donations optional. More recently, they decided to make it more user friendly with proper graphics and a tutorial, and charge for it on Steam, because they have bills to pay like all of us. It’s actually heartwarming that there was such a positive response, and sales have been so good, that they’ve been able to get themselves the health insurance coverage that they needed. Someone on Steam asked, “are people going to pay $30 for a game that’s been free for years?” and there are thousands of responses simply saying “yes.”
I haven’t delved too deeply in the game yet, as it is intimidating, even with the tutorial! But I’m eager to tell some tragic and hilarious stories.
The Wandering Village. Another unusual colony simulator came out this year, and the twist is that the colony has been built on the top of a massive wandering colossus!
The villagers form a symbiotic relationship with the colossus, helping to take care of it while it in turn keeps them safely above the poisonous post-apocalyptic world.
The graphics are great, the management is detailed but not overwhelming like Dwarf Fortress. I’ve only sunk a couple of hours into this game so far, but looking forward to more.
Stray. How did I overlook Stray when I first wrote this post??? A game where you basically and primarily play a cat doing cat-like things!
There has never been a better simulator that lets you experience the purity of being a cat, from knocking over piles of books to scratching on carpets. There is a story, too: you are a feline that has accidentally fallen into the post-apocalyptic remains of a city populated by robots. With the aid of a robot companion you pick up, you solve puzzles and help other robots with their problems with the overall goal of escaping and returning to the surface. There are some minor complaints about some extended combat-type sequences and an ending that is too abrupt, but this was one of the most charming games of the year. I finished it in 6 hours.
Let me close out with a couple of suggestions that are games that I have started, but haven’t fully finished yet but am enjoying!
Pentiment. A game by Obsidian Entertainment, Pentiment is a narrative adventure and mystery set in 16th century Europe at a time of great religious and societal upheaval. You play as Andreas, an artist working at an Abbey in the Bavarian Alps. When a murder is committed at the Abbey, Andreas finds himself drawn into the investigation and the intrigue around it.
I haven’t played very far yet (I’m basically up to the murder), but can attest to the amazing art style of the game, which is patterned after the literary art drawn by monks at the time.
One of the really neat things, even early on in the game, is realizing how much you have to watch what you say! Free expression wasn’t really a thing back then and the game lets you know when you have chosen a statement that will be remembered (and possibly come back to bite you).
I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes…
Impasto. Finally, let me give a shoutout to Impasto, a horror game inspired by the late works of the great painter Francisco Goya! You are almost certainly familiar with his terrifying Saturn Devouring His Son.
In the game, which is free, you play as a descendant of Goya, coming to the home of the artist to collect your inheritance. Soon you find yourself drawn into the world of Goya’s paintings, representing his fraying sanity.
This game was an undergraduate student project, and it is quite amazingly lovely and creepy. Another game I’m looking to delve into fully.
So those are some of the unusual games I’ve played this year! Feel free to leave your own discoveries in the comments! And Happy New Year!
Hi there. Just coming by to say that this awesome post made it to the Top Stories list on feedle (https://feedle.world/top-stories). By the time you check the page, this may no longer be the case, but don’t worry. We have added your blog to our index, so you may end up on the list again. Cheers, and best of luck in 2023! Happy blogging!
Nice! Thank you!
I’ve been away from video games for many years but stopped by as I always enjoy your stuff. Wow. That Choo-Choo Charles looks like a hoot. That’s a pretty original idea. Happy New Year!
Thank you, and Happy New Year!