Normally I’m sad to see May go, but all I can say to the May we’ve had this year is “good riddance.” Not that I expect anything to change or improve in June—I’m pretty sure our trajectory is purely downward at this point in our nation’s history—but at least a new month can bring with it the promise (maybe the lie?) of new hope.
Before we look at the games coming up in June, though, let’s take one final look back at the games that did their best to make May tolerable. Only three games really earn a spot here, but two of them are genuinely great works that beautifully pull off more than most games attempt. And the third is just some dumb, brutal, frequently idiotic fun. Here are the best new games of May 2020.
If Found isn’t a happy story. It’s an honest one. There’s a good chance you will cry, perhaps more than once, but there are also moments of joy, love and triumph. Despite the artistry of its presentation, and despite a recurring sci-fi metaphor that adds a bit of depth to the story but never quite fully connects, this is a low-key, modest, human affair. Its observations about family and relationships are touching, grounded and real, avoiding melodrama or outsized pronouncements about human nature. Much of it is universal, sure, but the focus remains on Kasio and how her merely being who she is can disrupt her relationships with her family and the world around her. It’s a character study of a specific person in a specific time and place, but whose pains and struggle ring true throughout the ages.
For me, If Found was instantly transfixing. From the start—when it seems like it’ll be the first visual novel to finally tackle the cosmic conspiracy theory surrounding Nibiru, the so-called Planet X, the “dark star” of the Grateful Dead—I was locked into its churning sea of colors and the peaceful process of gliding my mouse back and forth. Those sci-fi trappings aren’t quite misdirection—they eventually wind up impacting the main plot—but they’re more metaphor than anything else, a dreamlike imagining of a black hole in space to reflect the inexorable pull and turmoil of Kasio’s life back on earth. The intellectual and stylistic hook of that opening cedes to something deeper, more powerful and emotional once the game focuses on Kasio and her life. I wound my way through it in two sessions in the same night, sifting through the life of this stranger, a life almost nothing like my own and yet with a few striking parallels. To paraphrase one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, it moved me.
It bridges the gaps between a handful of different mediums and artistic disciplines to create a sad, poignant, ultimately uplifting tale. It’s a short story told through words, music, pictures both static and moving, and through the direct action of its audience, who can only engage with it in a manner that comments on and reinforces some of the game’s central themes. It’s a smart way to use the language and expectations of games to tell a story that’s as beautiful and delicate, as powerful and painful, as life itself.
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.
I’ve never had to wrestle with a controller as strenuously as I do in Maneater. Sharks might be efficient killing machines, but trying to play as one can be hell on your hands and your DualShock. Every time I try to munch on an alligator or mako I have to beat my controller into submission, pounding on the shoulder trigger to take a bite, and then immediately smashing the right joystick to flip around and keep my prey in sight. When we’re evenly matched, these little duels can go on for minutes; when I’m trying to eat up a beast that’s bigger or stronger than me, I have to resort to guerrilla tactics, ambushing them from out of the seaweed, and regularly making short tactical retreats to swallow down some grouper or catfish to regain strength. Maneater reinforces the life-and-death struggle of these undersea squabbles by making me really feel them. These shark fights are the best thing about this weird, ambitious, and inconsistent game, which can veer from disappointing to exciting within seconds.
Maneater isn’t just concerned about life in the water. Port Clovis, the fictional coastal city it’s set in, is developed through the frequent narration of Chris Parnell, of Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and Rick and Morty fame. It’s a cartoon stereotype of a sprawling Southern city, a New Orleans or Houston where class divisions are stark, everybody’s selfish and thoughtless, and concern for the environment is nonexistent. This cynical humor recalls the noxious attitude of the Grand Theft Auto games, although it’s not nearly as oppressive and all-encompassing here. Some of it’s legitimately funny, no doubt in part to Parnell’s delivery—he’s always excelled as the sober, serious authority figure who confidently announces complete nonsense. Some of his lines repeat too often (although nowhere near as bad as that sea bass joke in Animal Crossing: New Horizons), and many of the jokes are total groaners or tedious stabs at South Park-style satire, but Parnell adds a vital bit of charm to the game. And although it’s never subtle, and rests too much on hillbilly and redneck cliches, Maneater saves more than enough of its all-purpose scorn for the wealthy parts of Port Clovis and its wide expanses of golf courses, McMansions, and private boat docks.
Despite that hint of class consciousness, don’t expect any thoughtful analysis of politics here, or any discussion of the environmental crisis, animal rights, or urban planning, beyond cynical jokes. There’s a framing technique based around a TV reality show about shark hunting, and it tries to add a bit of emotional depth to its star (who’s also the shark’s main rival), but otherwise Maneater wants to keep it light. It wants to be able to mock anything that gets in its way without having to really think about any of the issues it touches or the underlying causes beneath them—to make fun of the world it’s created without acknowledging how it connects to the real world. It doesn’t assume any responsibility for itself beyond entertaining its audience. In other words, it’s a videogame, for better or worse.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.