Another Year Goes By

2019 was the worst year for gaming, except all the years preceding it

It has become a hallowed tradition among writers, especially in the videogame space, to claim that *current year* is the best/worst ever for the industry. Like most traditions, its absolute rubbish. The truth is, 2019 was an interesting year for gaming, where small and medium studios released (or patched) great games while large publishers pushed out garbage or participated in outright political repression.

To sum up the year would have to contend with both halves. It would have to list all the good, great and important games that came out this year, and all the myriad of controversies and scandals that threatened to drown them in press coverage. 2019 really felt at times like a twisted example of Newton’s Third Law of Motion; for every good game released, there must be an equal and opposite controversy (more than one to my horror).

This is why I decided in my first year end’s summation to start with the bad then work towards the good. Listing all the scandals and controversies of 2019 that I could recall, then addressing the games that I actually liked. I won’t be banging on a lot on each subject, as chances are I already wrote about it extensively. That said, I won’t be listing either controversies or games in order of importance since I don’t really believe in numerical rankings. The lists are organized in order or recollection. Thus the more important things might be listed first. That said I will be cheating a tad and keeping my GOTY (Game Of The Year) pick for last. Enjoy (I doubt it)!

2019’s Controversies

Activision-Blizzard Silences a Hearthstone Player to Aid Chinese Repression of Hong Kong

Oh boy, straight out of the bat and I am already going in heavy. Yes, you read this right. On the 7th of October, Activision-Blizzard banned Hong Kong player Blitzchung from Hearthstone, alongside the two commentators in the tournament he won, for speaking up for the people of Hong Kong fighting government repression.

There is no way to spin it, even though Activision-Blizzard tried hard. The reality was that the company was cooperating with the authoritarian regime of Xi “Winnie the Pooh” Jinping in the oppression of the people of Hong Kong fighting for democracy. This was beyond disgusting considering that originally the company even withheld the rightful prize money Blitzchung won in the tournament.

Of course, Activison-Blizzard tried hard to make us forget about the situation, announcing Diablo IV (already known a year before) and Overwatch 2 (who really clamored for that!?) to try and divert attention while issuing a non apology for their reaction to a “tough e-sports moment”. As though Blitzchung uttered some racial slur instead of showing support for basic human rights.

If anyone needed more proof to the amorality of large corporations, the entire affair offered it in spades. Let me remind you that Activision-Blizzard could life the ban at any time, instead of just tepidly reducing it. The fact that they are not doing it is their active participation in, and support of, the repression of the people of Hong Kong. It is absolutely abhorrent.

Anyone supporting Activision-Blizzard by buying their products at this point is, by definition, supporting this cold calculus that prefers the Chinese market share over basic human rights. Suffice to say it prompted me to delete my account, a decision I don’t regret for a moment.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing Activision-Blizzard was up to this year: Laying off 800 staffers and developers earlier in the year even though the company posted record profits. Tried to monetize its games to a ridiculous degree in particular its Call of Duty franchise. Lost its partnership with Bungie and the Destiny franchise (to be fair, not a huge loss but a sign that Bungie doesn’t see any benefit in associating with the publisher) and its top executives used tax refund stock buybacks (the company doesn’t even pay taxes!) to sell their shares and make millions off what amounts to insider trading. What can you say but… nauseating, yeah, I think that sums it up quite nicely.

Anthem and BioWare Are Dumpster Fires

Can anyone recall that Anthem came out this year? Anyone? Yes, it surprised me as well that Anthem was, indeed, launched this year. Released in February (though in the most confusing staggered release that has to be seen to be believed), the game proved to be a mess from start to finish. A boring slug of repetitive missions, broken AI and generic story that somehow made Destiny at launch look better in comparison. The only interesting thing about the game proved to be the expose Jason Schreier of Kotaku broke regarding the behind the scenes development of the game.

I recommend reading the expose which I shall link here. That said, for those already familiar with it, BioWare proved to be a mess of a development studio, with no real leadership or vision while exploiting its developers. Developers were worked to the bone, many suffering mental breakdowns and counted as “stress casualties”, a military term for soldiers suffering mental trauma! Worst yet, it appears that this wasn’t new, in fact, it was part of the “BioWare magic”, a term that now induces nausea for me.

All of this led me to re-evaluate BioWare’s entire gaming catalogue, for the worse, knowing what I do now. That said, it didn’t help Anthem one bit and the game seems to be dying quietly, which for once, I approve. Electronic Arts would do well to shut down the development studio and fire everyone in management, which I suspect it will do if the latest Dragon Age installment would prove to be a commercial flop (or not meeting “expectations” no matter how absurd they are). At this point in time I am actually rooting for BioWare’s failure considering the harm and abuse it heaped upon its employees.

Fallout 76

I am so tired of Fallout 76. I hadn’t bought it. I hadn’t played it. Yet every month I must be reminded of its continued, sinful existence due to the controversies it manufactures. I am oh so tired of even thinking about it. This attempt at a “Live Service” game from Bethesda was so ill conceived that the gall the company had to actually sell it makes my blood boil.

I am not going to start rattling off each and every controversy it generated. If I did, if I even tried, I am sure I would fill an entire novel worth of pages. There is just so many and it is all so exhausting. I don’t want to. I won’t in fact. Regardless, Fallout 76 would not stop generating headlines throughout 2019. In fact, just a few days before writing this summation it once again dominated the gaming news cycle with a new hacking controversy.

If Bethesda had any sense it would kill the game already instead of allowing it to shamble on. It won’t, though, because it can still make money off of it, and that is the honest truth. So long as its worth it, Fallout 76 will continue to exist and Todd Howard will keep showing his face in public, the lying git. God, can it be midnight already so I can down this entire champagne bottle?

Lootboxes and Battle Passes

One of the positive developments of 2019 had been the increased crackdown on lootboxes. Countries and politicians had enough of the filth of gambling in games and finally started pushing back with bans, inquires and legislation. Though its still far from being completely removed from gaming, large publishers do seem to have taken note and started shifting away from the gross business model of taking advantage of children and addicts.

That said, the new model of battle passes is coming to dominate the scene and is almost as atrocious as lootboxes. Using similar psychological manipulation, the battle pass tries to get players to invest time and, more importantly, money in “Live Service” games, shackling them to a single product. My encounter with the first battle pass in Apex Legends was quite the learning experience.

Suffice to say, battle passes are “optional” in the same way that grinding in most MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online) is optional, i.e. not at all. They are designed to entice and entrap players with the promises of unique cosmetics and unlocks, as well as offering experience boosts. At the same time the game puts speed bumps and artificial ceilings on earned experience points so as to not allow players to complete a pass quickly, thus dictating the completion rate.

I was completely frustrated by this system. I felt both the pressure and stress it created and it managed to sour my opinion of Apex Legends, a game I love everything about except this insidious battle pass malarkey. It managed to burn me out of the game to such an extant I can’t play it as religiously as I used to anymore. Its that bad.

If this is the future large publishers envision for gaming, than I made the right call abandoning them altogether. Independent and medium sized developers have managed to fill the void the so called “AAA” games have left quite nicely. In fact, its those developers that have pushed the envelope and created some of the best games this year. If it were not for Apex Legends, I wouldn’t have actually played a single “AAA” game this year and I don’t feel bad about it.

Battle passes are just the most recent poison large publishers are trying to push down our throats to maximize their revenue and am certain plenty more games are going to be ruined by their inclusion, and many gamers hurt by their psychological manipulations. Frankly, I have no idea what to do to combat it besides what I’ve done recently and that is to simply walk away from “AAA” titles. Only time will tell if a better solution exists.

Google Stadia

When writing the initial draft for this post I completely forgotten Google Stadia. Yes, I could not recall that this year, Google once again launched a failed product that hadn’t been well thought out or developed. Google Stadia was a disaster through and through, bringing lag into single player games, which I guess could be counted as an achievement of sorts.

It was obvious the system hadn’t gone through proper testing and is years ahead of its time. As it stands, the current internet infrastructure in most of the developed world cannot support the service and it was made painfully apparent from launch. However, I will give Google credit for inventing new ways to screw gamers. Games already don’t have physical copies, making their ownership by gamers doubtful. Now with Stadia, companies in the future could finalize their vision of controlling consumer access to games and nickel and diming them for basic access to their gaming library, thus maximizing profits further.

It is a hellish, dystopian glimpse of the future of gaming, and one which will come to fruition once the technology to support it becomes more widespread. Just wait a few years. When you will be billed for every minute of Call of Duty or Battlefield you play, you would have Google to thank for pioneering this expansion of the rentier economy into our gaming world.

2019’s games

Finally we’ve made it through the worst of 2019 and into the best of it. After slugging it through controversy after controversy we can at least take solace in the few good games that the year produced. Again, as stated before, the listing is made in order of recollection rather than importance except the GOTY which I saved for last. This is because I don’t believe in numerical rankings. Please enjoy, you’ve earned it.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Yes, I am well aware that this game launched in 2018. However, with bug fixes and additional content, it became playable in 2019 so as far as I am concerned it counts! Regardless, you can read my review of the game here. That said, it was great to once again experience an epic fantasy game that hit all the right notes, alongside great writing and characters. That said I do want to emphasize the word “epic”, as in both in size and length. You really need a lot of time to experience the full story of Pathfinder: Kingmaker so take that in mind when purchasing a copy.

Sunless Skies

A sequel to Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies takes the great atmosphere and cosmic horror aspects of the original and transplants them into space. Everything is bigger, better and greater. It improves on the faults of the original and though it still has a few issues carried over from its predecessor, is an overall great game. I will review it in the future though I still need to finish the main story. Suffice to say, a gem you shouldn’t miss.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2

Talking about sequels, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 was a game I dreaded playing. So good was its predecessor that I feared the sequel might not live up to the standards it set. I was (mostly) wrong and am glad for it. I had a lot of fun with this sequel, which like Sunless Skies, remembered that game sequels are about adding, improving and fixing things that didn’t work in the original game rather than cutting content and copy pasting. You can read my review of it here. Cadia still stands!

Grim Dawn

I don’t have much experience with ARPG (Action Role Playing Games) and Grim Dawn has been my first foray into them. That said, I’ve been enjoying the game’s mechanics, atmosphere, setting and writing. So far, I actually managed to advance quite further along and if it weren’t for a nice deal on Monster Hunter World, I might have finished it by now. Sadly though, I still have plenty to do in the game before I could give it a fair and comprehensive review. That said, I have enjoyed my time with it so far and hopefully will get to review it in the coming year.

Apex Legends

Yes, I still love Apex Legends. It is my favorite team based battle royale game and the only one in the genre I can stomach. I love its characters, its mechanics and its aesthetics. I abhor its battle pass which made me stop playing the game for long periods of time, burned out from the psychological pressure. It was also the only game from a large publisher that I played all year and only because it was free-to-play (though I did waste money on the first season pass). You can read my first impression here, but I still stand behind most of it. That said, I am weary of it thanks to the battle pass system.

GOTY: Pathologic 2

It had to be Pathologic 2. It just couldn’t have been any other game. The third sequel on this list, Pathologic 2 is to gaming what Shakespeare is to theater and the English language. It is one of the most thoughtful games ever created which explores many aspects, not just of human society and philosophy, but of gaming as well. When both the game and meta narratives are woven together so expertly, you know you are dealing with a masterpiece.

I don’t think there is a more important game to close this decade of gaming with than Pathologic 2. It is also a remake, so if you, like me, couldn’t get over the frustrating mechanics of the original, Pathologic 2 got you covered, allowing you to “enjoy” the story. I put quotation marks around the word enjoy because I am not sure if its fair to say that I drew something so simple as enjoyment from it.

Its a game that is hard to explain, a game that should be experienced by all and you too can read my attempt to review it on the site here. Better yet, just watch MandaloreGaming’s review (of the original and the remake) or Hbomberguy’s two hour thesis, both of which I’ll link below.

MandaloreGaming’s excellent review of the sequel

hbomberguy’s great disseration of the two Pathologic games

With this, 2019 and the 2010s are done and good riddance I say. Now brace as 2020 rolls in and new games are released, followed closely by new controversies and scandals. See you in the trenches!

Words Matter

*unrelated photograph of Gearbox Software’s CEO, proven liar and alleged pedophile Randy Pitchford


The gaming media has a credibility problem called game developers

There hasn’t been a week since the launch of Fallout 76 in which Bethesda didn’t somehow manage to humiliate itself. Time after time the developer\publisher was found to be either; lying to customers, overreacting and hurting loyal fans, allowing others to swindle said fans with terrible products or just being overly incompetent to a farcical degree. It has gotten so bad that I hardly want to click on any news story or video with the word Bethesda in its title.

Yet, as the slew of bad news and burnt bridges continues to spew from Bethesda’s headquarters, one word has been repeatedly used to describe this ongoing trainwreck: misled. I see it pop up again and again to describe the debacles surrounding Fallout 76. From the limited game editions canvas bags, the actual game features to other marketing ploys such as the Nuka Cola rum bottles that turned out to be just cheap plastic casings for an industrial waste cleansing solution, or so I’ve been told they taste like. The word doesn’t seem able to leave headlines and video titles even though I think it is high time it should be replaced by a different word: lie.

Because this is what Bethesda ultimately did. It lied to consumers. It lied to its fans. Its representatives such as Todd “It just works” Howard stood in front of crowds and simply lied to the faces of gamers worldwide. They lied and lied and lied again and all the gaming media had to offer in return is to label it all as “misleading”. Now, words have meaning. Misled is a very soft word in comparison to lied. It gives a wiggle room in terms of intent. It gives the impression that it was erroneous rather than nefarious. In a way it exonerates the accused of malicious intent. And it is absolutely used erroneously by reporters and writers in relation to the whole situation.

After all, Bethesda had been caught lying not once or twice, but pretty much on a weekly basis since the launch of Fallout 76. Not calling it lies at this point looks like dereliction of duty from the gaming media. That said, I can understand why the gaming media is afraid to bust out the “lie” word. First and foremost, it opens them to libel lawsuits. Though at this point the only court Bethesda could win a libel lawsuit in would be in opposite land, the fact remains that lawyering up is expensive not to mention intimidating. No one wants to get sued, not least gaming sites and YouTube content creators who don’t generate the amount of cash needed to keep a fancy lawyer on retainer.

However, there is also another reason why these people are reluctant to name the problem child and it is the fact the entire gaming industry is built on lies. Jim Sterling made a good video highlighting this, calling it the business of lies, and he is not wrong. In his 20 minute video, Jim Sterling was able to highlight just a few examples from a few years prior to the video’s release, and since then more have been shamelessly uttered by executives and game directors. Lie after lie, all provable, all documented, all ignored or given different labels so as not to offend the people in the industry.

I can understand why, after all, the people lying are the people signing on access to exclusives, press passes and review copies. If these people are made to feel uncomfortable or get called out for their lies, of course the ones feeling the repercussions would be the reporters, not the game developers and suits in management. In the vicious and savage place that is the internet, a loss of access can cost a media outlet its advantage. Many consumers want launch day reviews and recommendations. Sites blacklisted will not be able to supply those reviews and subsequently lose readers, which in turn means a loss of revenue. A site may survive one or two blacklists, but when most of the major publishers decide not to work with a site, that can spell its doom.

Thus the media sites publish the lies and give their enthusiastic impressions to all the fancy trailers and pretty but vacuous cinematics. They’ll disregard years and years of lying, act all surprised when a publisher messes up a launch and publish the corporate response which could be literally copy and pasted from all the previous incidents. Even when they would rebuke these people, they’ll soften the blow using comfy words like “mislead” rather the obvious “lie” even though they have proof. It’s predictable as it is maddening to see.

Of course, there is another reason for the shoddy journalism on display. Like myself, most people writing in the gaming space are not professionals. They are enthusiasts who got into gaming media following their passion. As Jim Sterling himself pointed out, there are very few real journalists in the field of gaming media and it sure as hell shows. Thus it is not hard to see how many writers get bedazzled by the treatment, the access to the people that pretty much made the games they grew up on. Without the proper training or background, these writers simply succumb to the charm and the VIP treatment.

There is also another side to it. People in the game media often work with developers and public relations personal. These are the people they are in constant contact with. Whether it is for interviews, game conventions or events, the two sides often interact with each other. Thus it is no surprise that developers and media people develop friendships and relationships. It is after all, human nature. While it is always nice to see people get along, the downside of such connections is reporters are less willing to challenge or pressure their friends. Too many times reporters would softball questions, be unwilling to challenge developers or just won’t call out blatant lies and bad behavior.

If the above makes you think that perhaps this is why the gaming media often takes the side of publishers and developers, its because it does. I still remember when Geoff Keighley disrespected Angry Joe in the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, a show that basically functions as one huge commercial. Now, Angry Joe was a young upper comer, still wet behind his ears. However the way Geoff pretty much humiliated him spoke volumes. The fact that Geoff is also a friend of Hideo Kojima and often helped him in his stupid pranks only further sheds a light on how many of the so-called “professionals” in the field view themselves: on the side of the developers. After all, these are the people they often work with, depend on, and develop friendships with.

This was on full display when Jason Schreier, a somewhat respectable game journalist, pretty much went to war with YouTube to justify microtransactions in AAA games. Even though microtransactions and loot boxes are exploitative, have been proven to be so and have poisoned much of the mainstream gaming landscape. To attempt and justify such a measure, after it was proven time and again to be harmful to consumers, exploitative of children and hurtful to the quality of the games themselves (see Middle Earth: Shadow of War) shows exactly who Jason Schreier stands with, and it is not his readership.

Last, but not least, there is also fear. The fear that clouds the gaming media is not just the fear of publisher retaliation which I already covered, but something much more stupid and horrible – the fans. Every time the gaming media actually tried to act more aggressive towards bad actors, the fanboys reared their ugly heads and attacked the reporters. To fanboys, their lives are intricately connected to the products they consume. They will defend these products, and those who produce\manage it, to the death because their entire worth as human beings rides on the perception of the product. It would be sad if they weren’t such a toxic, frothing mad population that sends death and rape threats against reporters who dare state the truth. I wouldn’t want to find myself in their crosshairs, a target for constant, unhinged harassment. Why would any sane reporter would either?

All of this contributes to the erosion of trust. It fuels reader backlash and further poisons the well. After all, what gamers need, what consumers should have is strong advocacy. That is the role of the media – to inform them and amplify their voice. It means researching, it means questioning every corporate message and public relations statement. It also means to frame things correctly. If unable to use the word “lie” outright, then at least remind the readers of the long string of disasters a company such as Bethesda had (my, Bethesda really can’t catch a break these days). George Lakoff put it best when he created the concept of the “truth sandwich”. If media must repeat a lie, it should do so by starting and ending with the truth to nullify the impact of said lie.

Gaming media needs to have a reckoning with itself. For a brief moment, I thought that was what GamerGate would force. Sadly I was mistaken as the conversation was hijacked by political agendas. Yet in its heart, the argument about ethics and disclosure remained. If the gaming media could remember that it serves gamers, not companies, and start acting accordingly we’d all gain for it. That is because there is a little secret that publishers and developers don’t want the media to know: they need the media. Without gaming sites and reviewers, there won’t be hype. Without gaming media to print the lies, no one will buy them. If gaming media stops reporting on a company, that company will die.

For once, game journalists and writers, game sites and YouTubers should look into their mirrors. They should meet the gaze of their reflections, look deep into them and decide who exactly do they serve: game companies, or gamers?