Let’s make something clear from the start: I’m committed to the name “Backloggies.” Visually, there’s too many consonants. Sonorously, it’s challenging material. But it’s what I’m going with. Backloggies. Just listen to that sing!
Yes, I’m doing a game of the year list, but in the spirit of Backlog, I’m not going to limit it to games that came out this past year, but instead to games I completed in 2022. I’m also not going to give them numerical rankings, because I’m anticapitalist, okay? Okay, fine, for a list that’s potentially putting the likes of Horizon Forbidden West up against Universal Paperclips, it’s more that a ranking system doesn’t make any sense here. Instead, I’m just going to pick five of my favorite experiences from the last year and make a brief pitch for why you should put these games on your own backlog, if you haven’t already.
So, without further ado, I present:
Brandon Walsh, in addition to being a Valued Platinum Contributor to Backlog, is a good friend. I say this because it is true, but also because he patiently shepherded me through Returnal via its co-op mode, despite my near constant protestations as to the difficulty of the game and, at one point, my loudly proclaiming “I hate this” in the middle of a boss fight. As evidenced by his brilliant Backlog on the game, Brandon thought very highly of Returnal and was eager for someone to share in his joy. Unfortunately for him, I am a cantankerous man in his early thirties with a poor ability to play bullet hell games. After a few marathon sessions over the course of a few weeks, he’d showed me most of what the game had to offer, the two of us blasting aliens in an endless loop, together. If you really want to test a friendship, I can’t recommend Returnal enough. If you have a friend who will let you loudly proclaim your anger at the size, velocity, and cruelty of a cloud of laser balls, cling close to them.1
If you’ll permit a little insider baseball, I started Backlog for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I find that writing about the things I enjoy sharpens my enjoyment of them. The more I think about the things I love, the dearer they become to me. Secondly, though, as an avid reader of Polygon since its launch in 2012, I really wanted to write a review for them. That opportunity came about in the funniest way possible when the most unhinged Backlog I ever wrote got a bite from their reviews editor, resulting in a better version of the same idea running on the site.2 So, perhaps my choice to include Ultra Deluxe here is being clouded a bit by that experience, but I don’t think so. I had never played the original The Stanley Parable, which meant that I was an ideal candidate for Ultra Deluxe. Without spoiling too much, Ultra Deluxe functions as an expansion to the first game, where, once you’ve completed the original (included in Ultra Deluxe), the game begins to actively comment on reviews of The Stanley Parable within the game itself. You can feel the influence of criticism on many sequels (see: my upcoming Backlog on God of War Ragnarök), but only in Ultra Deluxe will you stand before an actual review of an actual game in the game that it is reviewing. Your taste for meta jokes will hugely impact your appreciation of it, but I cannot recommend Ultra Deluxe enough for people who, like myself, spend a lot of time not only playing games, but reading about them.
I absolutely adore Chicory: A Colorful Tale. A lot of games have been doing the whole “gentle dialogue from sensitive folks” thing lately, but Chicory does it best, to my tastes. Playing the game felt like talking to a series of people who were really going through it, but more importantly, who were in various stages of addressing the things in their life they want to change. The game is funny without losing its sincerity, which, in games (or really in any art form), is a very hard line to toe. Basically whenever any of my friends ask me for an indie recommendation these days, I start with Chicory and move on from there. Great writing + a riff on Zelda + an examination of anxiety and art = a combination that’s always going to win me over.
A browser game with no graphics that starts with you making a single paperclip and ends with the death of the known universe? Yes, thank you, I will be recommending that to everyone in an obnoxious and breathless way. I can acknowledge that Universal Paperclips might not be for everyone, but what I love about it is its ability to convey meaning via player action. This is what games do best, at the end of the day. If fiction is felt sentence-by-sentence by the reader, then games are felt action-by-action by the player. Interaction is intrinsic to the medium, which makes it the perfect place to develop theme. The dullness of Universal Paperclips builds toward a horrific conclusion. It is an absurdist narrative grappling with the banality of evil, something you don’t often get to say about a game. And did I mention it’s free?
I mean, it wasn’t not going to show up on this list. Listen, I get it. We all love Elden Ring. It’s winning all the awards. The moment the inevitable DLC drops, I will join you all in neglecting my family and friends to return to the Lands Between. Elden Ring is the logical evolution of what FromSoftware has been pursuing for years with the Soulsborne formula, a generous open world experience that does not sacrifice challenge for approachability. What I love most about Elden Ring is how patient it is in revealing its scope. In a world where games feel the need to market themselves by the size of their map or the number of hours you can expect to put into them, Elden Ring caught the entire gaming world by surprise with, of all things, an entire underground region it purposefully obscures from the player. People will talk about this reveal for ages, what it felt like to first descend into the Siofra River and realize that, whatever you thought Elden Ring was, it was more than that. Elden Ring bulldozed its way through my critical mind and into that childlike sense of wonder that brought us all to gaming in the first place. If an experience like that isn’t worth putting on your backlog, I don’t know what is.
With that, I want to wish you all happy holidays and happy gaming. As ever, I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to read Backlog. Without you, this newsletter wouldn’t happen. If you feel so inclined, I’d appreciate you all sharing Backlog with a friend. Otherwise, I hope you all stay healthy and happy. Here’s to a fantastic 2023 for all of us, in the games we play and in the lives we live.
See you all in January.