Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Adri and Joe Play the Hugos: Best Video Game

: If there is one category I’ve appreciated the extra time before the voting deadline for, it’s Best Video Game. This is a new category for the Hugo Awards, a special one time only trial to see how it works and maybe it’ll come back on a more permanent basis later, and I’m pretty happy with it. Participation wise, it received comparable nominating votes as the fan and editing categories and we’ll get into it, but it’s a really nice cross section of gaming in 2020.

There is a nice mix of major AAA big budget titles like Last of Us Part 2, Final Fantasy VII Remake, smaller games like Spiritfarer and Hades, one of the biggest hits of the year in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and a what the hell is this browser game in Blaseball.

It works for me, but it also works for me because this year I have access to all of the platforms the games were released on. I have a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo Switch (and an internet browser, naturally). I am a console gamer, primarily.

But, if Chicon brings the category back next year and, say, Ratchet and Clank: A Rift Apart is a finalist, that’s a game I won’t be able to play because I don’t have a Playstation 5 and I don’t think my family is planning to buy one for at least another year (and that ignores the general console scarcity of the PS5 and the new Xbox due to chip shortages). So it’s an interesting category as a concept. It’s also a category with a higher barrier to entry as some of these are $60 games and not everyone is going to be up for buying multiple big budget games just to vote for the award - assuming they have the console in the first place.

Adri: Agreed - I bought a second-hand Playstation 4 specifically so I could play everything in this category. At the same time, though, I think it’s unfair to highlight financial barriers to entry in this category as being much greater than others: we talked about the price points for novellas, for example, and the number of works in Best Series makes that an expensive category to vote in as well. The voter packet does offset some of those costs, as do libraries (I remember the days when you could rent video games from a physical shop, the same as you could rent movies!), but there are alternative ways to access video game stories as well, notably through free streams and Let’s Plays.

With that said, I think we should come out and say that neither of us has played everything in this category. For my part, I have had to recuse myself from Animal Crossing: New Horizons (with apologies to all my friends who love it!) because I struggle with the addictive elements of certain video games, and I know that the second I pick that one up, I will disappear into a hole for three months and forget all my actual responsibilities. That might have worked if I’d invested when the game first came out, with all the pandemic awfulness making it easier to want to fall into a hole and the social aspect of the game making it a bit less isolating to do so. But I dedicated 2020 to Fire Emblem and then to Hades, and I missed the Animal Crossing hype train, and now I don’t have the time in my adult life to step into something that I know is going to hook me in a not entirely healthy way.

So, I’ve chosen not to experience that thing - and I want to give a PSA that DNF’ing, or DNP’ing, or deciding against anything in the Hugo voting list for any reason is actually OK! The Hugo awards work because a critical mass of voters put in a good faith effort to engage with everything in a particular category, but if something is triggering or difficult to get hold of or just not working out, then it’s entirely possible to decide you can still make a good critical judgement and proceed accordingly. So that’s what I’m doing with video game: I know what Animal Crossing is about, I’ve watched bits of people playing and seen my friends get super excited, and I’m basing my judgement of it on that.

Joe: It’s true. I’ve played two hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and I do plan to try it some more but right now I’m not sure it’s the game for me. I’ll actually talk about it more when we talk about Spiritfarer, because there is a slight connection to those two games in how I think about them and how I interact with them.

The other game I have not played is The Last of Us: Part II. I thought the original game was spectacular and heartbreaking and amazing, but for various reasons I didn’t get a copy of Part II until late this year and I’m almost finished with Final Fantasy 7 Remake and I’m just not going to get to The Last of Us: Part II before the voting deadline closes (and frankly, I’m super excited to start Tales of Arise when I finish up Remake) I know you’ve played it, so maybe that’s as good of a place for you to start this off.

: Yeah, so. This shooty-survival action adventure horror game is not my usual thing, and in order to play The Last of Us: Part II, I first decided to play The Last of Us. In that game you play as Joel, a grizzled old mercenary-type charged with taking Ellie, a *special* teenage girl, from your home of Boston to safety among a failing rebel group. Oh, and there’s been an ongoing zombie apocalypse for the past 20 years, except the zombies are a kind of terrifying cordyceps mutation and the game does some really interesting things with how that might work (even if they have to leave “they want to bite you” in there, because… zombies).

It’s grim, and both games do everything they can to make you really feel the misery, rubbing your face in the destruction of human society and the awfulness of what many people have to do to survive. When Joel and Ellie find their way to safety at the end of the first game, it’s very precarious and hard won, and it comes at the expense of a really bad choice that Joel makes at the end of the game. After a lot of misgivings, I came out of the first game exhausted, but feeling like I’d really played something special.

That feeling lasted perhaps a quarter of the way into The Last of Us Part II, a game which puts Ellie in the driving seat along with new… well, let’s call her a rival… Abby. Ellie is, for reasons I won’t explicitly state, on a very focused revenge mission in this game, along with her girlfriend Dina (hurrah for queer representation in murder-vendettas), and we play through most of her increasingly brutal actions before switching to Abby, and a different take on some of the same overall dynamics that were playing out while Ellie was murdering. Like the first game, The Last of Us: Part II is packed full of pain, brutality and fear, and it heightens all of those feelings by making the player fight through action scenes where one wrong move, or bad shot, could mean a swift end for your hopelessly outnumbered character. Unlike the first game, there’s also this overwhelming sense of inevitabile doom (especially in Abby’s story), and the lack of player agency - you are effectively just piloting Ellie and Abby through their journeys and their murders, not contributing to the game’s story - makes that feel particularly frustrating. It’s grimdark misery in a dystopian zombie future video game, and if this was a book we wouldn’t feel it was doing anything interesting or new just by taking “people sure can suck and make bad choices!” to gruesome, unpleasant extremes.

In fact, that’s something I noticed overall in this ballot. Among the story driven games, there’s nothing here that gives the player agency over creating a different story from branching paths. I only felt it as a shortcoming for The Last of Us: Part II, but it’s a shame we’re not doing this category in a year with a juicy Bioware-type RPG, or with representation from other games with more malleable narrative experiences.

: I haven’t played all that many branching narrative games (Heavy Rain, some Telltales, I’m sure others) - but that *feels* like something that pops up in more open world RPGs and that generally hasn’t been my thing. We can digress for exceptions, but I’m going to move on to the other game that is significantly story driven, which is Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

Not to point too fine a point on the title of the game but this is, in fact, a remake of the original Final Fantasy VII originally released in 1997 for the Playstation and eventually ported to a bunch of other platforms with some upgraded features.

Final Fantasy 7 was a phenomenon. I’ve played the series from the very first iteration on the NES: Final Fantasy, and it had long been a favorite series. Final There had been rumors and fans begging Square to remake Final Fantasy 7 and this isn’t a Remaster, this is a from the ground up remake. It’s a different battle system, the story has been significantly fleshed out - as in, the ground Remake covers in 40+ hours is really only the first 5-7 hours of the original game. It’s the Midgar section and that’s it.

The thing is, despite my nostalgia for a game that I maxed out all my stats, got a gold chocobo, defeated all the weapons, spammed Knights of the Round, and got Aerith’s Level 4 Limit Break for reasons - I was not all that interested in playing Remake despite the positive reviews. It was too different.

In the end, that works for me. It’s more on the rails than my nostalgia remembers and it’s way more fluffed out than the original which was really thin on telling the story. Remake gets into these side characters in Midgar and makes you care. There is some extra fluff and it did feel like I was running around a lot more than I needed to, but Remake is not nearly as padded as I thought it was going to be. They’re just telling, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

And it’s fun! I didn’t expect that, somehow. Remake isn’t the same game. It plays differently, it feels different, Cloud talks, but - at least for me - it taps that nostalgia without wallowing in it and it’s incredibly successful. Remake is like Final Fantasy 7 fanfiction that keeps the biggest story beats but tells all the stories that original game couldn’t be bothered to tell.

Adri: I know you’re not quite at the end of the Remake yet, so you haven’t experienced all of the ways it engages with its source material - things get quite weird and meta, and I for one am absolutely here for it.

Joe: I’m right at the end of Chapter 14, so after I finish up a couple of last side quests I’m in for the final push. I’m very curious in what way Remake is going to wrap up the story because despite being so abbreviated it almost feels like there is both too much and not enough time for what is left, but maybe it’s not. Either way, I’ve been seeped in Final Fantasy 7 for, well, almost twenty five years now.

Adri: Final Fantasy has never really been part of my gaming landscape, and I was too young for Final Fantasy 7 when it first came out (my half formed child brain struggled with the tactical elements of Pokemon Red, which came out a year later, so I wouldn’t have stood a chance). By the time I did get to it, some time in the mid-2000s, it was too late for the graphics not to look terrible, and I’d already been spoiled on the game’s most pivotal plot moment (which most people know by now, but if you don’t then you’re not going to learn it here). I did play most of it, and I sure did breed some of those Chocobos too, but I never got around to finishing it or watching or playing any of the spinoff stuff.

Imagine my delight, then, when Final Fantasy 7 Remake managed to both hit nostalgia buttons I didn’t even realise I had (mostly score-related: this game’s music is extraordinary) and to make me properly, fully, fall in love with its main characters and their troubles. Watching your party of adventurers, Cloud, Tifa, Aerith and Barrett, explore the city of Midgar and all its facets, I finally feel like I got the experience that so many people had with the first game. It didn’t hurt that both Tifa (protagonist’s childhood friend) and Aerith (local florist) flirt with Cloud and each other constantly and adorably, and this game really dials the romantic playfulness up in other areas too, although I have mixed feelings about the weird brothel town that still ends up in here.

Most of all, Remake finally got me to grasp what an enormous disaster Cloud Strife is from the outset, beyond the very thin facade of “hardboiled sword boy”. Cloud goes through a lot in the plot of Final Fantasy 7, and through the original game we discover that he’s really midway through his journey, and that the journey isn’t what we might have expected. The Remake only covers the start of the original game, so there’s a lot more to uncover here, and a lot left unexplained in this instalment. There’s definitely pacing issues, and some really weirdly conceived sequences, but overall this game really engaged me in all the right ways.

I want to jump to talking about the ballot’s indie choices next - and specifically to the other sword-wielding disaster boy, Zagreus, protagonist of Hades. I love Supergiant Games as a developer, especially their previous game Pyre, so I had high hopes for this game, even though I held off playing until right at the tail end of early access. Imagine how impressed I was when it blew even though high expectations out of the water, and then imagine my delight when it set off what felt like several months of everyone playing Hades together! This was such a great experience of a game for lots of people, and it’s also a perfect fit for a Hugo award in video games, because I can’t think of many games that put as much thought into their storytelling as this one.

: I really like the narrative in Hades - it’s probably the one roguelike or roguelite game (a style where the levels are different each time you play and you will die and start over again and again) where the style truly fits the theme of the game You’re trying to escape the underworld and each time you fail you’re right back where you started, but a little bit stronger and you know just a bit more of the story.

I don’t like the style as a matter of gaming preference, but this is a very well done and engaging game. I put in a reasonable amount of hours and plan to play more at some various point when I’m done with at least four other games on my Switch, but it’s a smooth game with solid action / battle controls. I know part of the point of the game is incremental progress and incremental story reveal and sometimes progress is some runs being noticeably worse than the one you just did because that’s just how it shakes out, but I do tend to appreciate more consistent progression.

On the other hand, I just read about God Mode and I think I need to turn that on to better enjoy the game for what it is.

Adri: I am a huge advocate for using easier difficulties to make games more enjoyable, and I took advantage of God Mode in Hades and easy difficulty in The Last of Us to smooth out my learning curve, because I’m a simple minded player who likes hitting things very hard and gameplay that requires significant sneaking or dodging takes a while to penetrate my thick skull. For Hades, God Mode was probably the difference between giving up and putting the game away, and persevering, figuring shit out, and then going on to sink 200 hours with increasingly challenging runs.

And, look, in a category where I can (and intend to) gush for ages about the majority of entries, Hades is one of the most impressive games I’ve ever played. It’s a story that works perfectly with the Roguelike mechanic, setting you up for run after run and building failure into the process. Your character Zagreus is one of the Gods of the Underworld, so going home means checking in with family and friends - even if things are strained at first, what with your decision to leave - maybe switching up your weapons or getting a new ability, and then diving back in to see more of your family (the Olympian Gods) on your way out. As the game progresses, you have the opportunity to deepen those relationships, learning more about your place in the underworld (including why Zagreus took the decision to leave in the first place) and the consequences of escape. The payoff of a first successful run is immense, kicking the storytelling onto another level, and it stays good for a super long time, letting you keep building relationships and finding out new things about characters long after most games would have gone into “you saw it all, but sure, keep playing as long as you like!” mode.

On top of having a story tailor-made for the iterative roguelike mechanic, Hades manages to take several Greek tragedies and other bittersweet myths - Achilles, Orpehus and Eurydice, Sisyphus, even the Minotaur and Theseus - and use the fact that the game is set in the underworld to tell what is effectively fix-it fic about characters whose primary stories, for thousands of years, have been to suffer and fail. In presenting a scenario where those stories can continue, without undermining the tragedy of the original canon, Hades puts all its storytelling energy into this core theme that things can change, that no tragedy is forever, and that hard situations are worth fighting to overcome even when it feels like we’re doomed to repeat the same things all over again. It’s smart, and it’s kind, and I wish I could erase it from my mind and experience it all over again.

: Well, now I want to get back into Hades. You’ve sold me, especially with making the game a bit easier with God Mode. But, before I can do that, I need to finish playing Spiritfarer on the Switch. I’m just about to the end with only a couple of spirits to go.

Spiritfarer is an absolutely lovely and beautiful game where you play as Stella, a young woman chosen to take over from Charon as the titular “Spiritfarer”, the ferryman bringing souls from the world of the living to the afterworld. The game is cute and warm and occasionally sad. I had strong feelings when it was time to bring several characters to the Everdoor and for those characters to move on. I didn’t expect that. Spiritfarer is such a gradual and gentle game and, especially at first, it seems so slight and then the game stabs you right in the heart when you’re not expecting to feel things like that.

Spiritfarer does take a bit of time to get going and to figure out the rhythm of the game, but it is a beautiful journey and I really love it.

Adri: Spiritfarer is another game that takes a particular mechanic (progressive resource gathering and crafting) and uses it to craft a story that wouldn’t work without it. It also works with the concepts of death and dying in ways that are really unusual for a video game, and I loved its combination of cheerful aesthetic and quirky characters while appreciating that it doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of the human experience, instead letting its main character show compassion and patience even with the most difficult people. Also, you don’t mention it above but all of the spirits are represented by cute anthropomorphic animals, and you can hug them all! You can also hug your cat. This is important.

That said, what I don’t like about Spiritfarer for this category - where we are judging games on their content up to the end of 2020 - is that the game alone doesn’t give you the complete story. There are flashes of Stella’s life and the people in it beyond this quirky afterlife, but we don’t see the full story in the way that we do in the game’s 2021 DLC, or the artbook. Obviously, we’re about to get onto Blaseball where the surrounding art and community is basically the whole nomination, but Blaseball is pretty upfront about being… whatever it is. When I discovered that Spiritfarer wasn’t being deliberately ambiguous about its characters and setting, and that I just had to spend more money or wait for DLC to explain the rest to me, that soured my feelings on the game just a tiny bit. (But the DLC is free and the first one is very cute! I’m waiting for both the second and third to be released before diving in again.)

Joe: Since I haven’t quite completed the main story of Spiritfarer, I would not have known that, but that’s interesting that it isn’t Stella’s full story. Of course, I’m not sure how much of Stella’s story has been as important as the reveals and the connections of Alice, Atul, and Astrid, to name three spirits whose names begin with an A. Maybe I’m just not curious enough, but I haven’t been nearly as concerned about who Stella is than I have in connecting with most of the characters. I’m pretty much ignoring Bruce and Mickey right now.

Up until you saying that the game isn’t quite the full game, I wasn’t too concerned with how the story was being told because I figured that was the way the story was being told. And with that said, I’m still okay with that, even if there is more story in the DLC.

You brought up Blaseball so do you want to get into it?

: Well, I don’t think I can give a better description of Blaseball than in my first column, Blaseball Mondays, from a couple of weeks ago: “a text-based baseball game simulator that, through various weird game mechanisms and its overarching cosmic horror narrative, has risen to become much, much more. Blaseball games unfold as strings of text, with sets of whimsically named players on a weird, punny team (we've got the Hades Tigers, the Kansas City Breath Mints and the Canada Moist Talkers, among many others) playing against each other, but beyond those mechanics lie narratives created by both the developers and the players, as players vote to control their teams and the rules of the league, and the creatures in power respond accordingly.”

That makes it very different to any of the other games here, an experience which qualifies as a “video game” on a pretty small element of its mechanics

Joe: I’ve….played it.

I think if Blaseball was a thing when I was twelve, I would have absolutely loved it. That’s not to say that this is inherently for kids but the weird strategy and story of Blaseball would have fit the sort of lonely obsession I would have eaten up as a teenager.

But, I played Blaseball and because I haven’t figured out how to invest my time and mental energy, I have not been able to pick up the story between the seams. It doesn’t amount to anything, though when you did a Blaseball writeup and I’ve seen other people talk about it - Blaseball sounds super cool. Trying to actually engage with it and play with it? It’s a mess.

Adri: It’s funny you say that it could have become a lonely obsession. It’s certainly possible to follow Blaseball as an individual, and the convoluted plot of the main seasons, in particular, make it quite hard to explain to someone who isn’t actively following. But it’s also an activity with a big community around it, most notably the official Discord and its many unofficial side servers. There’s a “Society for Internet Blaseball Research”, which gathers the stats nerds among the nerds to provide statistics on the players and the economy; an actual punk band called The Garages, names after the Seattle Garages team; a Blaseball news site which provides rankings every season (i.e. week); and tons of artists, writers and general enthusiasts. It transforms Blaseball from numbers on a screen to a living, growing work, and that’s why a Baseball simulator has made it to the Hugo ballot.

There’s two sides to a work like this being nominated. The good side is that Blaseball brings this special video game category a step closer to the spirit of the permanent proposal, developed by Ira Alexandre, for a “Best Game or Interactive Experience” category. Blaseball is pretty light on “video game” elements, but it’s undoubtedly an interactive experience, even when the fan creations are taken out of the equation. The Game Band, Blaseball’s creators, build ways for fans to engage in Blaseball and then respond to that engagement by making things weirder and scarier and driving the plot along, and it’s an extraordinary undertaking.

The flipside is that Blaseball the interactive experience of 2020 can’t really be experienced by anyone who wasn’t there (which includes me). Sure, there’s plenty of mechanical explanations to go through, and art and media to consume, but what did it feel like to go through the Grand Unslam, or the necromancy of Jaylen Hotdogfingers, or the epic takedown of the peanut god? We’ll never quite know, and that makes it harder to rank Blaseball against the other games here.

Joe: And - even though Blaseball is an ongoing thing and there is new Blaseball in 2021 that was, I think, a similar experience to 2020 and then the temporary reboot that you’re working through in your columns that is a new / expanded thing - I don’t think I’d want to see Blaseball on the ballot again because I’m not sure I’d say it would be a substantially new thing in 2021.

But - that just about wraps up another category. I’m not sure what next year’s Worldcon is planning regarding maybe adding Best Video Game as another one-off category while it continues to be investigated and discussed by the business meeting (I’m not sure how close we are to a vote on a permanent category), but I really like this year’s line up and I think it shows some of the breadth and strength of what a Best Video Game category can be and how it can represent a wider range of gaming. I have ideas for what I would nominate next year if the category makes a comeback, but I’ll hold off on that until there is a second year for this category.

The top of my ballot is fairly well locked in. I’m all in on Spiritfarer and Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I really appreciate the storytelling in both games, which is important, but more important is that both games are just straight up fun to play in very different ways. Now that I know about God Mode and can gradually make my character even stronger through additional runs so I can get deeper into the game and deeper into the storytelling, we’ll see how that changes my opinions on Hades as my frustrations lessen.

I imagine that Hades is right near the top of the your ballot, but in a strong year, what does the top of your ballot look like?

Adri: I admit to being less up to date on the permanent voting than I should be (the proposal was on the Business Meeting Agenda in 2019 and was referred back for further study), but I’m so, so happy that DisCon used their prerogative to make this year’s special award happen.and this is a wonderful ballot that shows just what a games category can bring to the Hugos in general. As you surmise, Hades is far and away the standout in a strong lineup for me, but my second and third places aren’t as clear cut. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Spiritfarer and Blaseball are all fantastic experiences and each bring very different things to the table. In the end, I think it will be the first two that get my second and third votes, but… Blaseball! It’s hard.

And that’s it for video game, as we count down to the last few days of voting!

Joe: Next up will be a conversation about the finalists for Best Related Work - which will be a different sort of chat because Adri was a part of ConZealand Fringe and is a well deserved finalist in that category. As such, we will not be running that category discussion until after Hugo voting closes, both because it probably won’t be complete but also because we would like to avoid a potential conflict (and conflict of interest) in having that chat while voting is still open. But - there’s some really great stuff in Related Work and we hope you all vote for whatever you like best.