In the world of video games, it was a minor year for releases and a major year for accounts. In July, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a complaint alleging that Activision Blizzard, the US publisher of the Call of Duty series, fostered a “frat boy” culture in the workplace that allowed gender discrimination and sexual harassment throughout the company. Then, in November, a investigation by the the Wall Street newspaper reported that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick was not only aware of the allegations, which include rape, but also denied them to the company’s board of directors. The report claimed that Kotick himself was the subject of complaints and had left a former assistant with a voicemail message threatening to have her killed. A brief employee walkout turned into an indefinite walkout; the board has vowed to stand by Kotick, who, if fired, risks receiving a vast severance pay of two hundred and fifty million dollars.
New York writers reflect on the ups and downs of the year.
The Activision case was not unusual. It follows a trade union investigation in Singapore by the French giant Ubisoft, after reports of sexual harassment, racial disparities in pay and bullying from managers. In January, the CEO of Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends, was accused of creating a “hostile work environment”, often by making sexual advances to his employees. (In March, the company’s board of directors determined there was no evidence of wrongdoing and exonerated him.) Such incidents reignite the old question of whether we can or should separate the artist’s art. In video games, where art is typically made by battalions of developers, the question is reframed into collective terms: can we separate a game from the culture in which it was created? Are the abuses of power in this culture manifested in the ideas of the game? And how should a player support work without tolerating wrongdoing?
These issues have cast a shadow over the industry, which would otherwise be well placed for a pandemic in which everyone is spending time indoors. There are also the challenges of building vast and complex worlds, in conditions of confinement, with multidisciplinary, often international teams. Many big budget versions have faces delays, and the void has been filled with smaller, more manageable indie games. But fresh, surprising and brilliant titles continue to be produced. Without a special order, here are some of the best of the year.
Radiohead Exhibition: Kid A Mnesia (PC, PlayStation 5)
When you enter this virtual museum, which celebrates the re-release of the group’s classic albums “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”, you come across a sign near the door: “This is not a game”. A disclaimer that manages expectations? Snobbish cultural distancing? Or an ironic jibe at the questions of what constitutes a video game? No matter. The museum – a Brutalist cathedral full of Byzantine corridors, majestic halls, buzzing CRT TV benches, and carpets of floating sketchbook pages – is a wonder of twilight interactivity. Strangely drawn men roam beside you, and the musical roots of the original recordings drift in and out of the soundscape, depending on your actions. There are no levels to complete or scores to set. But this elegant device, which inspires exploration, reflection and a new way of listening, is inert without human engagement. In other words, it’s a game.
Unpacking (Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox)
Unboxing is about what we choose to take with us and how we adapt these things – and the memories they represent – to the changing circumstances of our lives. The game unfolds through the light and mundane drudgery of unpacking boxes at different times in the life of the invisible protagonist. You have her soft toys and pencils in her childhood bedroom; in the next chapter, you try to install his gigantic PC under the desk in his university dormitory. When you move in with a wealthy bachelor, you struggle to find a place for your shoes among his meticulously placed items. Does he have room to welcome you into his life? The game shows how, in the long term, our goods help foster a sense of belonging. It is a story of tremendous power, told in a wonderfully non-traditional way.
At the sea! (iOS, Nintendo Switch, PC)
It starts with a murder. On a clear moonlit night, on a cruise ship bound for New York, a man rocks over the top deck railing and plunges into the sea. Your goal, as woman and man killer , is to land a free woman, ideally with a big life insurance check in the mail. Every conversation you have moved the clock forward; if you make things right such, someone else will be responsible for it. At the sea! is a sophisticated textual adventure, written in a tense and tonic conciseness, and success stems from your ability to maintain the consistency of your deception. (Fail, and you can use the information you learned on your next attempt.) A devilishly tempting chance to get away with it.
Wildermyth (Mac, PC)
Wildermyth’s web-based comic aesthetic (dotted eyes, quill mouths) and straightforward board game perspective belies a rich fantasy adventure. The setup is the stuff of Tolkien’s cliché: a group of young warriors resist the Eldritch horde threatening their farmland. But the game uses unorthodox narrative vignettes to conjure up a story that’s entirely personal to you. Battles take place on chess grid maps, where your team’s triumphs – and the scars endured – empower each character in new ways. Each seemingly inconsequential decision contributes to a unique narrative tapestry. As the game progresses, your beloved teammates turn gray and stooped, and their children step into the breach. In the end, the tale turned into a Homeric soap opera.
Lake (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox)
In Lake, you play as Meredith Weiss, an MIT graduate and computer engineer who returns to her childhood home in Providence Oaks, a lakeside town, to become a postman and recover from burnout. While delivering letters and parcels, she enjoys brief encounters with the townspeople, spotting their domestic dramas. The change in vocation (and location) places a slower pace on Meredith’s life, and you too must adapt. The initial exasperation at Meredith’s leisurely pace, or cumbersome handling of her truck, dissipates as you begin to learn the names of the roads, enjoy the rustle of pines, and cherish the ringing of a letterbox. freshly fed. Banality is the point. An aerial routine allows Meredith to once again feel involved and connected, perhaps even romantically, with people.
Genesis Noir (Mac, Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox)