Most big-ticket videogames are a pretty straighforward proposition. Hulking space marines turn wave on wave of tentacled nasties into green drizzle; big-boobed ninja women batter the spit out of kickboxing polar bears; gasoline-drinking mutants drive across post-apocalyptic wasteland paying little or no attention to the Highway Code. Punch, kick, shoot, explode. Bliss but just sometimes, the old brain cells look to see a little action too.
Think, perhaps, of games like Portal and Portal 2 which remade the first-person shooter as a bloodless puzzle game with a witty story. Or the fiendishly tricky alchemy simulator Opus Magnum. Or the soothing Monument Valley games, which see the player navigating a series of Escher-like structures using the logic of optical illusion. Or Frostpunk – a resource-management game that sees you trying to build a city in an arctic wasteland, and stirs in an unsettling dose of moral compromise: are we going to give those bodies a decent burial to keep morale up; or pack them in ice in case we need to eat them later?
Already, 2020 looks to see the release of a number of chewier games for the thoughtful gamer. One of the biggest releases of the year will undoubtedly be Cyperpunk 2077 –the new project from CD Projekt Red, who made the magnificent Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. They’ve traded in swords and dragons for a William Gibson influenced future California — and as well as offering the chance for hi-tech bloodletting, the game can be completed without taking a single life. Already, it’s festooned with awards and not just because it contains actual Keanu Reeves. Well, I’m excited.
Another big release is Gods and Monsters from the makers of Assassin’s Creed. It promises to be a puzzle-stuffed open-world adventure set in the world of Greek myth, with lushly painterly visuals and an emphasis on exploration and lateral thinking rather than simply hurling thunderbolts; touches, some are saying, of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m thinking well, hoping this will be a bit like God Of War with a postgraduate degree.
Most videogames aren’t exactly rocket science but Kerbal Space Program actually was. The player had to build rockets and send them into orbit and beyond, and in doing so deal with all sorts of issues involving orbital physics in the hopes of keeping their crews of little green astronauts alive. Kerbal Space Program 2 is due out this year and gives the skilled player the chance to go to infinity and beyond or to get a calculation out and cause tragic suborbital explosion after tragic suborbital explosion. The closest you’ll get to being in NASA in the 60s.
Many of the more thoughtful videogames – remember Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max Hit The Road? – come in the form of point-and-click graphic adventures, where puzzle solving and narrative come to the fore. This year will see a full release of the much-admired Kentucky Route Zero – a surreal and atmospheric adventure game centring on a truck driver’s journey down the titular spectral road. The developers have cited Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor and David Lynch as inspirations. And another independent game, Studio Fizbin’s Minute of Islands, is a playable cartoon set in a cute but peculiar archipelago filled with mysterious neglected tech that the player must repair and use.
And if that sounds too much like a definite objective, how about Sable, which is more like an open-world exploration game with anime-style graphics? Its emphasis is on picking up stories and absorbing an alien culture as your character roams through the desert, rather than completing linked objectives like a string of sausages. It promises to be highly replayable.
I also have high hopes for 12 Minutes – an adventure game that promises to play like a turbocharged Groundhog Day, as the player replays the same 12 minutes over and over again in the hopes of changing the outcome. And, no, he’s not making a cup of tea and settling down to watch telly: that 12 minutes sees his wife announce she’s pregnant, the police showing up and violence being done. As TS Eliot said: “If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.”
Then, of course, there’s what sometimes used to be called sneak-em-ups: games where stealth is prioritised over shooting and brains over firepower. There are hopes, though no release date is yet announced, that the long awaited Shadows of Doubt will slip into the schedules this year. Described by its developers as “a detective stealth game somewhere between Deus Ex and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective”, it offers players wanting to unleash their inner Philip Marlowe a huge procedurally generated city in which to snoop about picking locks and rifling through filing cabinets. Basically, it’s going to be noir for nosey parkers and I’m totally here for it.
Finally, there’s Spiritfarer, which is unimprovably described by its development team as “a cosy management game about dying”. You, yes, you are ferryman to the dead. Build a customised Charon-style ferry, make friends with the spirits of the deceased…and ferry them to their eternal rest. Much more satisfying and civilised, surely, than Gears of War.