So, here are my frivolous judgments about unforgettable (strictly unranked) playful experiences...
Mini Motorways by Dinosaur Polo Club (Wellington, New Zealand)
The game's message is that no matter how hard you try, failure is inevitable because traffic is unsolvable. The more and bigger roads you build, the more cars appear, making the situation increasingly chaotic (economists call this phenomenon induced demand, which basically means that boosting the supply of something - for example, highways - makes people want that thing even more. The Curry Brother's latest management game proves that private transportation is part of the problem, not the solution. The shortest path between point A and point B is not necessarily a straight line made of lovely pastel asphalt, but a train or a subway*. Alas, Mini Motorways is the ultimate neoliberal nightmare: "freedom" to drive leads inevitably to hell. The sad truth is the game seduces you into building roads to nowhere - from home to factory (or shopping center) and back. Congestion, chaos, and vehicular madness are not collateral effects of driving: they constitute its very essence.
- for the record, I also fail consistently at Mini Metro.
What the Golf? by Triband (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Whimsical games are the perfect antidote to testosterone-filled mainstream hyper-macho games that take themselves way too seriously. What The Golf? is a flawless physics-based golf games with a twist. It's as simple as Justin Smith's Desert Golfing, but with the added value of anything-goes histrionics. Triband (Tim Garbus, Peter Bruun, and Rune K, Drewsen) took a highly inefficient, frankly idiotic "sport" and made it fun: not an easy feat. Don't get me wrong: What The Golf? goes beyond a mere mockery of golf: its target is video game conventions, expectations, and gratifications. By doing that, it takes you to a place where preexisting categories no longer apply. It's a sequence of irresistible hole-in-one-liners, a constellation of gags on par with the wildest cartoons available on Adult Swim.
Untitled Goose Game by House House (Melbourne, Australia)
A brilliant minimalist puzzle game by Nico Disseldorp, Jacob Strasser, Stuart Gillespie-Cook, and Michael McMaster aka House House that began with the most convincing game design document ever concocted, and eventually became a darling of the Left, Untitled Goose Game ratifies the status of Melbourne as the indie game capital of the world for a variety of reasons including substantial government funding (as Mariana Mazzucato reminds us, most of the greatest technology created in the past fifty years was not the byproduct of some messianic, visionary, mostly-male, mostly-white entrepreneur, but the result of governmental subsidies and investments). The game's simple goal - make life hard for everybody and spoil their day, for the sake of it - has become a manifesto. When times demand it, acting as a troublemaker can be the only rational choice.
Bad North: Jotunn Edition by Plausible Concept (Malmö, Sweden)
No man is an island, but - with the right tools and clever strategy - a small army could conquer (or defend) an entire archipelago. In this beautifully designed game, the player must protect procedurally-generated islands from bloodthirsty Viking invaders. The situation gets increasingly dire, but the pace is slow, almost contemplative. A pastel palette and soothing soundtrack make the experience pleasurable, instantly addictive. There's nothing like rotating the view and zooming in and out your rock as the enemy inexorably approaches. Bad North captures the quintessence of the strategy game genre while redefining most of its conventions, like the slo-mo as you move your squads around the map. And it's charmingly violent. Kudos to Oskar Stålberg, Richard Meredith and Martin Kvale.
My Friend Pedro by DeadToast Entertainment (Malmö, Sweden)
For many, the cultural highlight of 2019 was Maurizio Cattelan's latest prank. I also like bananas, but my favorite was not stuck on a wall with scotch tape. On the contrary, Pedro (that's the name of the talking fruit) kept me company for days as I toasted an endless amount of faceless thugs in this masterfully designed side scroller where the protagonist must make his way through various buildings or construction sites of the grim urban underworld. Like Super Hot, Victor Agren's My Friend Pedro uses the act of shooting in the most creative way possible: bullet time action with acrobatic performance coupled with irresistible beats create one sensational sequence after another. It's also the game that best exemplifies the notion of flow. Blood, bullets, and bananas like it's raining.
Kind Words (lo fi beats to write to) by PopCannibal (Boston, Massachusetts)
Ziba Scott and Luigi Gualtieri's sweet non-game is about connecting with strangers through the medium of writing. As you sit in your tiny bedroom, lonely and blue, you start reading letters from people unknown to you and writing your own, awaiting for a response. The former activity is like being a fly on the wall in a psychotherapy session. The latter feels like sending a message in a bottle... Meanwhile, lo-fi chill beats composed by Clark Aboud keep you company. Sharing personal thoughts and feelings via anonymous epistolary exchanges was a huge gamble considering the pervasiveness of hatred, cynicism, and nihilism online. And yet, Kind Words miraculously works. You may indeed receive some kind of advice, encouragement or just a virtual pat on the back, not to mention some cool stickers and toys to decorate your room. While the aforementioned Goose can exemplify a player's mischievous part, Ella the Female Mail Deer represents a more vulnerable, sensitive part of yourself. Unlike social media where every "conversation" quickly degenerates into smack talk, public shaming, and harassment or online forums filled with nolifers spending their days insulting people they never met, PopCannibal's game offers a shimmer of hope about human communication. It may not seem much, but in 2019, is as good as it gets.