Cha's Game of the Year 2017: The Norwood Suite
The Norwood Suite has the advantage of being recently released and fresh in my mind, but I’ve been in love with this universe since Off-Peak so it felt like coming home. Well okay, not my home. More like visiting the home of a musical, wordplay-loving friend who is much cooler than I am. They are saddled with labels like ‘weird’ or ‘surreal’, but to me these games seem heartfelt, and never weird for weird’s sake.
Games about exploring physical space, like Gone Home, have helped inspire a focus on objects and possessions. There’s something compelling about simply being able to open cupboards and see what’s inside. In The Norwood Suite, every object practically hums with potential meaning. A thousand questions just about why someone has a grappling hook and a cheese wheel in their car boot, or why there are so many skulls all over the place.
A game space doesn’t need to be practical, as we usually understand it. The objects can reflect whatever seems meaningful or beautiful. Everything becomes art. And that’s before getting to the amount of art and music packed into the world as more conventional decoration.
I like to contrast The Norwood Suite with Tale of Tales’ Sunset, which also makes a lot out of aesthetics, music and literature. Both games feel like curated spaces. But Sunset is heavily cerebral, full of carefully researched and thought out details. It wants to reflect a specific time, place and set of tastes. The Norwood Suite feels more intuitive, personal and chaotic. It’s happy to mix eras and styles into something new. Somehow, it holds together as a coherent world, but one less tethered to reality.
To me The Norwood Suite is ultimately a game about artist authenticity, and symbols becoming much larger than reality. There’s a timely aspect to thinking about the moments when our heroes collapse; their images just empty shells falling away. But even here there’s beauty. Though it might be inappropriate to admit it, art endures even when you heart is breaking.
It’s been a good year for games about death, so I’ll start with the two stand-outs there.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Edith Finch is a fairytale, where houses can be built with nonsensical, gravity-defying configurations, and people’s lives become storybook tales with grisly endings.
It’s no small feat to make a game about dead children that doesn’t feel like a downer. However, the game does have the unfortunate downside of too much handholding and pushiness to advance the story. You made a cool house full of stuff, let me look at it if I want, okay?
It’s more style than substance to me, but that style’s worth it.
I appreciate Dujanah’s claymation plus VHS-glitch visuals. It’s not exactly friendly, but not entirely unwelcoming either. Dujanah’s self-aware and willing to go deep. There’s a bit of a talking-heads vibe, full of monologues on existence, but it manages to avoid becoming tiresome. I can’t quite say the same for the arcade section, which bores me. The minigames at least had some thematic relevance, which is more than I can say for a lot of arcade minigames.
There’s a lot going on in Dujanah, with many fragments to untangle. It’s too much for a few minute write up in a throwaway GOTY post. But I’ll mention one small, easily overlooked moment.
A woman launches into a long speech about love and the skill involved in loving. She admires and aspires to the skill of loving well. Dujanah herself can only respond with a mundane comment about violins, which is barely relevant. Violin playing was only mentioned as a useful comparison – something widely recognised as a skill that takes time and effort to master, and that love is like that too. But Dujanah was possibly uncomfortable with the substance of the discussion, or else violins were the only part she was able to latch onto. Maybe she was too preoccupied with her own concerns or just wasn’t in the same place at that moment. It felt achingly familiar.
I can’t say the same for the core of the game, thankfully. I’ve been blessedly sheltered from deep pain and loss in my own life. But that's part of why a game like this feels worth it.
The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker
I am all about cheesy FMV games, and their mini-resurgence gives me a tingle of pure joy, which is difficult to justify or explain. Don’t try looking to Doctor Dekker for any reasonable depictions of mental illness or treatment. It’s pure nonsense and I’m the world’s worst therapist.
The closest comparison to Doctor Dekker is Her Story, in the sense of having to come up with the right keywords to uncover more information. Combined with the extra-campy acting style also seen in games like Contradition or classic 90s FMV.
Doctor Dekker is unusually challenging for a game of this type. I jumped straight into expert mode, where hints are forbidden. It can be like hitting my head against a brick wall, but I love it.
How many days of my life have I spent trying to improve on Zachtronics puzzle solutions? Probably a question best left unanswered. Opus Magnum is unlikely to beat Infinifactory on my favourites list but I’m enjoying trying to warp my brain into a hex grid.