I have been watching too many countdowns on Youtube. Too many. So many I could probably write a Top 100 countdown of the best Youtube countdowns ever. The recommendations algorithm has me ensnared. The little load wheel between videos has become self-aware. It can see me slouched in my chair, just out of reach of my mouse. It can sense my defeat by swirling numbers and static shots of grainy gameplay. What is it? What is number one? Tell me, Youtube commentator. I must know. Maybe when I sit down to do exactly the same thing tomorrow it’ll feed me a Top 20 Countdown of People Worn Into Paste by Youtube Top 20 Countdowns, and I’ll be at number 6, gently sobbing as I watch the same footage of Aerith getting a sword through the abdomen for the thousandth time.
Aerith, again. Final Fantasy VII’s pink polygonal love interest. Her murder has been fuelling weeby Sephiroth-shaped vengeance for twenty years. She also finds her way into a disproportionate number of gaming countdowns, the same cutscene of her skewered framework pasted in at the top of every list. ‘Most Emotional Moment in Gaming History?’ That’s bullshit. Aerith’s death is bullshit and a waste of your dewy-eyed sadness. Get over it, store those emotions up and use them on some real tear-jerking, gut-socking moments in videogames. No Joel and Ellie. No John Marsden. And for God’s sake, No Call Of Duty.
The final walk in the snow – Journey
Experience games – walking simulators’ to the cynical – have come under increasing stick in recent years as the genre has grown. “Firewatch? Just a hike in the woods, mate,” they’ll say. Well, Journey could be credited with starting the indie trend of compact, stylised trips through beautiful landscapes and arguably has yet to be surpassed.
The story, as far as there is one, involves you playing a nameless, cloaked figure making their way to a bright and distant summit. That’s it. You can jump and chirrup and slide your way through the golden sands of the game world, but as for goals that’s your lot.
Journey really comes into its own with its minimalist approach to multiplayer however, which allows you to bump into other players going through the world at the same time as you. You can chirp at each other but that’s the limits of your interaction. And yet the purity of the meeting has power. There’s no way to aggravate each other; you’re just two figures in a vast, beautiful, but increasingly hostile world, and whether you choose to travel together is up to you.
In my experience I met a number of players, but it wasn’t until the final stretch of the game, climbing the snow-laden peak that had loomed unobtainable on the horizon only hours ago, that I found my final encounter, huddled among graves. Together we scaled the mountain, avoiding flying enemies as our scarves froze in the wind and the graves around us became more numerous. As chirruping to one another became laboured we trudged to the silent summit, our characters both visibly exhausted, my travelling partner just paces ahead. Gradually the unknown character fell to their knees and collapsed in the snow, an insight into the fate that would befall me in just a few steps.
It’s a weird one, going through this game with a complete stranger with no way to communicate, but the world and the mechanics are still able to forge these poignant moments, and watching someone else meet such a desperate end in wordless silence was genuinely moving. Plus, it’s cool to think that some unknown gamer out there might remember the time our journeys intersected for the final moments of our character’s lives.
The sun sets on Sunbro – Dark Souls
The world of Dark Souls is a harrowing place full of shambling monstrosities, dank sewers and danker memes. Without exception your body, mind and spirit will be hacked up, staved in and otherwise gleefully violated by the Soulsbourne series’ grind of ominous encounters and extreme difficulty.
The one bright light in all this misery is the chipper Warrior of Sunlight and probable shamed spawn of Lord Gwyn himself, Solaire of Astora. This dude will join you in jolly cooperation to take on a pair of flame-spitting Gargoyles and the leggy Demon Centipede, teach you how to Praise the Sun and hang around generally being an alpha Sunbro. If only you could be so grossly incandescent.
That is, of course, until a Sunlight Maggot latches onto his face in the fiery caverns of Lost Izalith and sends him hurtling into Hollow madness, at which point the chosen undead (you) have to cut him down. To the spoiler-dodging, walkthrough-shunning first-timer, this is an absolute injustice and near-inescapable fate (unless you bloody love the Fair Lady and have a penchant for finding specific secret doors). You had one friend in this world, and you murdered him as he lost the final shreds of his sanity in a pit of flaming despair.
Doggo goes to live on a farm – Undertale
From the off, Undertale is a game with an aim – to draw attention to the violent and unthinking nature of videogames. While Bioshock went for a brainwashing plot to make you feel like a blood-drunk pawn in a game of Randian chess, and Hotline Miami just straight-up called you out on your sadistic tendencies, Undertale assaults you with quippy dialogue and charming characters. For anyone going in with a fresh head, killing everything in sight would probably be the last thing on their minds. But for me, conditioned after a lifetime of KD ratios, BFGs and total dismemberments, the homicidal urge was too strong.
Doggo got it in the neck. Lovely semi-harmless Doggo. I told my little sprite, a child lost in a world of philosophical monsters, to stick the mutt with my toy knife. Of course, shortly after the act I realised the lessons Undertale was trying to teach me – community, family, belief in the self – and felt intense remorse. I played through the rest of the adventure a staunch pacifist, a friend to monster and skeleton alike. But still…
“This is going to be like Bioshock, isn’t it?” I thought. “I can save a whole orphanage of little sisters but wrench one sea slug from their spine and it’s the bad ending for you.” Yep. Correct. Doggo is off to the big farm in the sky and my shit sandwich is made and waiting for me at the credits. I’m no stranger to a bit of shame, but the moment King Asgore, my adoptive father and ruler of the Underground, asked me why I had massacred his people, I was genuinely upset. Peaceful players will miss this aspect of Undertale. Obey its rules, observe its lessons, and prepare to feel uplifted as you overcome the demeaning tendencies of gaming at large. Turn against Undertale for just a minute though, and prepare for a lethal injection of bad vibes. Flowey would be proud.
Duck gets put down – The Walking Dead Season One
Admit it, Walking Dead Season One players. As soon as you coaxed tiny Clementine out of that tree house you knew you weren’t making it out alive. Lee, a killer looking for redemption in a world of shambling corpses, now tasked with the safety of a sheltered suburban child? Times are going to be tough. As affecting as the final chapter of the game is, the spectre of death was always hanging over Lee, and the gun was always in Clementine’s hands.
Not so with Kenny ‘Duck’ Jr. Sure, he was just a kid and ‘dumb as a bag of hammers’ but he had a heart of gold, and administered a much-needed dose of levity into the bleakness of Telltales’ Walking Dead portrayal. His parents, Kenny and Katjaa, are voices of reason throughout the game, too, filling the everyman role for the audience. Together they’re a sweet, blue collar family making their way through the apocalypse. What could go wrong? Of course, this being an early Telltale roleplaying game in their now-familiar mould, we were yet to learn how cruel the creators could be.
Through candlelit cannibalism, near misses with the hungry undead and a load of downtime drawing, playing and generally being an oblivious kid, we grow attached to Duck. Right up until a fateful bandit attack sees him bitten by a walker in the chaos, and from here Duck is pretty much cooked. Katjaa is the pragmatic parent who sees the situation for what it is, wishing only a peaceful death for her son, while Kenny fights fate all the way. The result is a sickeningly awful scene in the sun-dappled woodland surrounding a derelict trainyard, Duck fading, and Lee and Kenny deciding how to handle his final moments.
Who should fire the shot? Lee? Kenny? Should Duck be left to transform? It’s a tasty three-cheese omelette, only the Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan are actually Pain, Suffering and Despair, with a side salad of Child Mercy Killing.
After long moments standing under those trees watching Duck grey out, I left Kenny to end things. His son, his choice. For me, this was the toughest decision in a game filled with impossible choices. But the result, whichever way you go, is always genuine sympathy for the game characters, and that’s a feat in itself. Alive or dead, everything’s all a bit fucked in the Walking Dead, and Duck’s death is the worst of it all. Oh, and then Katjaa shoots herself in the head. Thanks, Telltale.
‘This is a very sad story about the death of a man named Stanley’ – The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is an amazing game, but it delights in messing you around. The titular Stanley is your typical cubicle-bound office drone who awakes to find a disembodied voice narrating his every action. Gradually the mundanity of his life is first revealed and then distorted in increasingly unusual ways, depending on your choices throughout the game. I imagine that some people with different personalities to mine will have a wild ride with The Stanley Parable. I’ve heard great things about twists on established game tropes, deft parody and industry in-jokes for those forging their own mischievous path. For me, The Stanley Parable was an unnerving limbo of self-doubt and unrelenting personal reflection, which everyone knows is the worst.
This game hits home like a Manilla file hitting coffee-stained Formica. The office where I work, the office where I am sitting right now, might be breezy and open-plan with free food on Fridays, but the corridors, the routines and Kevan Brighting’s sardonic commentary in The Stanley Parable so effectively illuminated every wrinkle and flaw in my comfortable salaryman existence that I found myself getting gradually more and more unnerved. One decision where Stanley has to pick between two different doorways had me yelling at the screen in the end, trapped in a feedback loop of choices that took me nowhere.
Stanley started screaming.
Life is a series of closing doors. I have burrowed, steadfast, into failure; a stalemate with the game design, with myself, with Kevan Fucking Brighting. Fuck the meeting room. Fuck the employee lounge. You can tell me a hundred times that I’m ‘eager to get back to business,’ but it won’t make it so. That playthrough eventually ended (twice) with the disorientating Dream Ending, compounding a sense of confusion and dread that had been growing since the first loop.
My life is normal. I am normal. Everything will be fine.
I am okay.
I have no doubt that things can be ‘okay’ in The Stanley Parable, but I never experienced this. Even when I achieved the Happy Ending after hours of circle-running and stumped silence, the achievement felt like a pity win. ‘Open the door for him,’ Kevan Brighting thought, ‘just let him out, he’s had enough.’ As my iteration of Stanley stepped into the light, a sunny skybox of fields and distant mountains, I felt more defeated by the facility than free from it. It’s difficult to define a win-state for The Stanley Parable, and in that way it’s probably the most sociopathic game I’ve ever played. Entire genres have been established on the premise of playing the rat in a maze, the downtrodden, the underling, looking for a way to bite the hand of the master. But the Stanley Parable ignores the boundaries of narrative, of character, of gameplay, and gets straight in the player’s head. What is disguised as a throwaway title nabbed at a budget price in a Steam sale is actually a precision-engineered mindfuck.
In a final act of violence against myself I managed to generate the Wife Ending. After a string of defiant decisions to try and out-manoeuvre the game I found my Stanley forced into the grimmest confrontation yet, deconstructing once more the artifice of 9 to 5 living, the hollow promise of office culture, the sick fantasy of the pion. If you think having a strange game hold up an uncanny reflection of your daily life sounds like a fun gimmick, I can tell you you’re dead wrong. Line by line the pillars of hope fall: romantic love, exotic escape; even the idea of meaningful existence is utterly nullified. It’s admirable and awful all at once, but as the final button prompt appears, along with the capitalised text ‘PLEASE DIE’, it’s hard not to feel relief that the existential angst may finally be coming to an end. ‘Press LT to question nothing’ indeed.